Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

"Someone Will Come along and Write the Next Chapter"; the Importance of Alixa Naff for Arab American Studies

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

"Someone Will Come along and Write the Next Chapter"; the Importance of Alixa Naff for Arab American Studies

Article excerpt

Alixa Naff collected a massive body of information on the Arabic-speaking immigrants driven by a conviction that their stories deserved and needed to be roped into a coherent narrative. The hundreds of interviews she conducted over three decades beginning in the 1960s did not investigate every conceivable facet of the lives. Yet, her first-hand accounts and writings have become part of a stock background on early immigration for two generations of scholars. This short article illustrates how the breadth of information Alixa collected, combined with additional untapped archives-some of which can be hacked thanks to dozens of leads imbedded in Alixa's interviews-will correct the record on major aspects of Arab American life during the first five decades of living in the USA, and may help reshape our understanding of the present.

Armed with a Volkswagen Beetle and awareness of her own place in this country to be rooted in a deeper Arab narrative, she made her way to Michigan in the mid-1970s. Already positioned at the forefront of the scholarship on the Arab immigrants at the time, many of her contacts were members of the Organization of Arab Students and Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG). At the time, George Khouri, one of the original founders of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), helped her settle into his brother's house in Detroit.1 She knew, indeed, participated in the early scholarship on Arab Americans, and understood its genesis to include the need to explain an Arab point of view and a narrative of belonging, in the aftermath of the Arab defeat by Israel in 1967. This goal fell within the perimeters of the AAUG, which came to being as a result of that war. Alixa's peers were the scholars connected in varying degrees with the AAUG, including Ibrahim Abu Lughod, Michael Suleiman, Elaine Hagopian, Janice Terry, Edward Said, Barbara Aswad, Abdo Elkholy, and Hisham Sharabi. Among the many concerns of these scholars were finding a medium for their scholarship, as they contended with an open cultural hostility in the USA toward Arabs and Arab Americans in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. In the process of attempting to explain Arab Americans, they created a basic body of scholarship on the early Arab immigrants' experiences, but they largely left out analysis of their political work and aspirations. Part of Alixa's importance is that she elected to pursue creating a reservoir of primary information that would serve an embryonic scholarship for years to come, that is, to complete the picture on the formative years of the Arab American saga. The scholarship produced by the above pioneers, as did Alixa's, paved the way for studies on the Arabic-speaking communities through the different perspectives of gender, ethnicity, family life, and, less so, literature. Alixa's legacy is unique because she went to pains to create a massive archive, so that she explained, "someone will come along and use it to write the next chapter"2 on the Syrian immigrants' long and varied experiences.

Alixa's firm and uncompromising mentorship became evident in the first substantive conversation I had with her. During the annual meeting of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 1998, she chaired a panel in which I participated. My paper disclosed new information on the political activities of the early Syrian immigrants. The focus of my inquiry was political activities on behalf of Geographic Syria from 1925 to 1927 by immigrant pioneers in Southeast Michigan, in particular, Highland Park, where Alixa and her family lived in the early 1940s. Most of the audience, I recall, took with a grain of salt my conclusions that the early immigrants were in fact politically aware to the point of establishing the New Syria Party (NSP), a formal political organization with chapters across the Americas, and that they actively sought an independent Syria in the face of French and British colonialism. …

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