Academic journal article MELUS

From Nostalgia to Critique: An Overview of Arab American Literature

Academic journal article MELUS

From Nostalgia to Critique: An Overview of Arab American Literature

Article excerpt

One major purpose of this special issue of MELUS is to introduce scholars, critics, teachers, and students of ethnic literary works to an understudied and undervalued area of ethnic literature. This essay provides an overview of the history of Arab American literature, with particular attention to the history of Arab immigration. In addition to introducing readers to the major figures and major themes in the literature, it also points to the future by considering unresolved questions and unexplored subjects.

Arab American literature mirrors the patterns of Arab American history, which scholars have traditionally divided into three phases, based on the three distinct waves of Arab immigrants who came to the US. (1) The first wave (1880-1924) of immigrants was made up of Greek Orthodox, Maronite, and Melchite Christians from Mount Lebanon and the surrounding Syrian and Palestinian provinces. For the first several years, immigration documents identified these Christians as Turks because they were subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The immigrants, however, despised their repressive Ottoman overseers and preferred to identify themselves as Syrians. Unskilled and often illiterate, many of these early Christian Arabs found work as itinerant peddlers, fanning across the country, and often spending months on the road. It was a lifestyle which accelerated assimilation because it provided ample opportunities to learn English and mix with the local populace. Later, the Syrians settled in widely dispersed communities across the country, where many opened retail shops. Generally hardworking and law abiding, the immigrants enthusiastically embraced American values.

Immigration from Greater Syria came to a halt during World War I, when famine and war ravaged the homeland. Although immigration resumed after the war, it came to a virtual standstill when harsh quotas were imposed on Syrians and other unwelcome ethnic groups in 1924. With immigration slowed to a trickle of approximately one hundred people a year, the population of the once vibrant, scattered community was not replenished. Despite the publication in the United States of numerous Arabic-language newspapers, the Syrians were increasingly cut off from events in their country of origin. As Alixa Naff notes, many Syrian Americans were largely unconscious of the nationalist aspirations in their homeland that led to the formation of the new Lebanese state in 1947 (16).

The second wave of immigration began in the decade following World War II. Unlike the first wave, which was predominantly Christian, the new wave contained a significant number of Muslims. This second wave of immigrants consisted of educated, skilled professionals, who were more likely to be familiar with the nationalist ideologies that permeated the Arab world. Unlike the Syrian Christians, they staunchly identified themselves as Arabs. Included in this group were a number of Palestinian refugees who had been rendered stateless as a result of the catastrophic 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

The third major wave of immigration, which began in 1967 and continues to this day, accelerated the trends of the post-World War II immigration period. In 1965, new liberalized immigration laws abolished the long-standing quota system. As a result, large numbers of West Bank Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims from Southern Lebanon fled to America after the 1967 war with Israel and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s produced a further flood of refugees. Imbued with anti-colonial sentiment and Arab nationalist ideas, this new group was highly politicized. For the first time, Arab American organizations were formed to defend the Arab point of view and to combat negative stereotypes of Arabs in the popular press. Newly sensitized to their ethnic identity by worldwide political events, the descendants of first- and second-wave immigrants joined their newly arrived countrymen in support of Arab concerns. …

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