By Yvonne Nassar Saloom and I. Bruce Turner
Their bodies gnarled by time immemorial, the ancient cedars of Lebanon are that nation’s emblem. They reach skyward with verdant branches and deep into the earth with strong roots. Ever upward and onward, too, have reached the branches and roots of this land’s people in search of wisdom,
Present-day Lebanon, bordered by Syria to the north and east and by Israel to the south, has been referred to at various times in history as Mount Lebanon, the Levant, and the Near East, among other designations. Its location at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea made it a crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and thus also a point of intersection of many cultural influences over the centuries. Home to the ancient Phoenicians renowned as seafaring merchants, the region was successively conquered or occupied by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks. In modem times, France also played a significant role in Lebanon, particularly after 1860. The region has undergone countless alternating periods of conflict, peace, prosperity, and destruction, as well as ethnic and cultural assimilation, throughout its long and turbulent history1.
Emigration from Lebanon to the Americas began in the latter part of the nineteenth century and reached a peak in the decade preceding the First World War. One of the primary motivations for this first wave of Lebanese emigrants was the desire for better economic opportunities. There is evidence that people from the district of Zahle, in central Lebanon, exhibited goods from their homeland at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. They were participants in the Turkish exhibit and were later referred to by American writers as “traders from Jerusalem.” Although there is no clear proof of cause and effect, it is possible that these traders, having had a glimpse of the economic opportunities available in the United States, carried very favorable reports back to their fellow townsmen on their return. A significant number of early Lebanese immigrants to the U.S. came from the town of Zahle and its environs.2 A similar group of traders may have been present at the Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans during 1884/85.
Individual motives for emigration are now shrouded in time, but it is clear that the early Lebanese emigrants created the impetus for a chain migration which unfolded during the ensuing decades. Stories of economic success told by early returning emigrants, and the accompanying tangible evidence, inspired others to make the journey to the United States as well. Other identifiable factors which contributed to the early wave of Lebanese emigration include population pressures in the homeland; the decline of the silk industry, on which entire villages had depended for their livelihood; the repressive political environment; after 1908, the desire of Christian males to avoid conscription into the Ottoman Turkish army; and, indirectly, desires for a better life which may have been instilled in people who attended schools in Lebanon operated by American Protestant missionaries.3 Although figures vary widely, one estimate is that by 1924, approximately 123,000 people had entered the United States from the region of Lebanon and Syria.
Other major waves of emigration from the region took place after 1948 and again after 1967, caused in large part by the upheavals surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unlike those in the first wave, the later emigrants were predominantly Muslims. Many were
A primary cause for the uncertain and often confusing U. S. immigration statistics concerning people from Lebanon, both in the early days and in recent times, is the complex political history of the region and the evolution of different nationality designations over time. When emigration to America began in the late nineteenth century, Lebanon was not a country. It was an administrative district historically attached to the Syrian province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The term “Lebanese” as a designation of nationality did not come into use until much later. Before 1899, people from this region who entered the U.S. were classified in immigration records as having come from “Turkey in Asia” and were grouped together with Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and others coming from areas under Ottoman jurisdiction. In 1899 the Immi-gration Service began classifying them as “Syrians,” with no attempt made to dis-tinguish between those from Syria proper and those from Lebanon.6 The designation “Lebanese” gained political legitimacy as a national identity in the 1920s, after the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist and the territory of Greater Lebanon was created as a French Mandate under post-World War I arrangements of the League of Nations. This appellation, however, was not universally accepted until both Lebanon and Syria achieved full independence in 1946.17 Terminology continued to be a problem with the post-World War II immigrants, in that records do not consistently differentiate between Lebanese nationals and Palestinians or other Arabs entering the U.S. with Lebanese passports or giving Lebanon as the country of their last residence.8
It is estimated that up to 1940, approximately eighty percent of the Arabic-speaking immigrants who entered the U.S. came from the area which is present-day Lebanon.9 For the purposes of this article, therefore, Arabic-speaking immigrants prior to World War II and their descendants will be referred to as Lebanese or Lebanese American. Other groups will be referred to by national origin or religious sect. It must nevertheless be borne in mind that even among those who shared a common language (Arabic) and a common cultural heritage, there continue to be differing perceptions of that heritage. And while many of the early Lebanese immigrants called themselves Syrians, more often than not they tended to identify themselves not with a nationality label, but in terms of their village or town of origin and their religious affiliation.10
The vast majority of Lebanese immigrants to the U.S. prior to World War II were Christian. Christians constituted a minority within the Ottoman Empire, of which the early immigrants were subjects. In addition, the area of Mount Lebanon had historically been a place of refuge for oppressed groups during periods of religious conflict. It has been estimated that over ninety percent of the Lebanese Christians who emigrated belonged to one of three Eastern-rite churches. There were the Maronites, who for centuries had been in union with the Roman Catholic Church; the Eastern (or “Greek”) Orthodox, also known as Syrian Orthodox; and the Melkites or Byzantine-rite Catholics, also called “Greek Catholics.”11 Most of the early Lebanese immigrants who settled in Louisiana are believed to have been Maronites. Because there were too few to warrant the establishment of separate congregations, they were served by traveling Maronite priests. Many also were absorbed into local Catholic churches. It is unknown whether any Lebanese Jews migrated to Louisiana. As stated earlier, most of the post-World War II immigrants from Lebanon have been Arab Muslims.
The early Lebanese immigrants were mostly young unmarried men, though this profile soon changed.12Initially, a large number of them made their living in this country as peddlers. This occupation offered immediate earnings; required minimal training, capital, or language skills; and allowed them to operate on their own terms. These early Lebanese peddlers went door to door on foot selling religious items such as rosaries and crosses, as well as other goods, including notions, fabrics, clothing, toiletries, linens, laces, and jewelry. Those who continued in the trade and acquired wagons or buggies and later automobiles added larger items such as rugs to their wares. Peddling provided the early Lebanese immigrants with a close-up introduction to American life, and for most it served as a stepping stone to economic success and middle-class status. When they settled in towns and cities, many opened family businesses such as dry goods stores and grocery stores. Others established import, wholesale, and manufacturing businesses which initially supplied the peddlers.13
The Lebanese stood out from other immigrant groups from the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East with respect to the economic role played by women. As early as 1910, the numbers of Lebanese immigrant women entering the U.S. were proportionally higher than those of women from comparable ethnic groups. Breaking with tradition, Lebanese women began coming to the United States before 1900 and worked as peddlers alongside the men. Because the early peddlers catered primarily to the women of the households they called on, Lebanese women proved to be very successful in the trade. The presence of increasing numbers of these Lebanese women in the U.S. had several other consequences as well. Lebanese immigration became a more family-centered and permanent phenomenon, and the economic involvement of first-generation Lebanese American women in the family businesses which were established helped them to be gradually freed from some remaining Old World traditions.14
The geographic distribution of first-wave Lebanese immigrants within the United States resulted in large part from the networks and sub-networks created by the early peddlers and their suppliers. The most important entry point and hub was New York City. From there the peddlers fanned out throughout the U.S., joining relatives, friends, or fellow villagers who had arrived earlier. Small groups of Lebanese families typically settled in areas where the peddlers had found economic opportunities, usually around cities and towns on the edges of agricultural areas and along railroad lines. Most settled in the East and Midwest, but others could be found throughout the South, as well as along the West Coast. The widely scattered groups of Lebanese were linked by ties of kinship, religious affiliation, and villages of origin in Lebanon. One sub-network of Orthodox settlers in Mississippi which included groups in Vicksburg, Port Gibson, and Natchez is known to have kinship and village ties to Lebanese in other railroad and river towns in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Most of the people in these communities can trace their ancestry to early peddlers who originally came from seven contiguous villages in the Kura district of Mount Lebanon.
The question of why early Lebanese immigrants settled in Louisiana does not have a certain answer; it is likely there are several answers. It seems fairly certain, however, that the peddling trade played its part in bringing them here, as was the case in other parts of the country. Some are said to have walked to Louisiana from New York, following railroad lines and roads while peddling along the way.16 Very little documentation has been collected about the Lebanese who settled in Louisiana; family stories and memories handed down to succeeding generations provide pieces of the historical puzzle.17 Maronite Lebanese are said to have been attracted to Louisiana partly because of the age-old amitie traditionelle (traditional friendship) between Maronites of Mount Lebanon and the French, which began at the time of the Crusades and continued during the centuries of Ottoman rule and through the French Mandate period in Lebanon following World War I. Many of the Maronite Lebanese spoke French in addition to Arabic. The affinity to Francophone culture which helped this first wave of Lebanese immigrants adjust easily to South Louisiana has been preserved among the succeeding generations as well. Descendants of early Louisiana Lebanese pioneers have not preserved the Arabic language, except terms for basic foods and certain idiomatic colloquial expressions, but many continue to speak French.
Many of the early Lebanese immigrants arrived in Louisiana by way of New York, Canada, Mexico, and South America or entered through New Orleans, having bought package fares on French or American shipping lines. Some of the villages and towns in Lebanon and Syria from which they came were Beir-al-Qamar, Dahr Safra, Hereische, Zhorgta, and Beirut. Because these early Lebanese immigrants put down roots in many Louisiana communities, their descendants, some with non-Lebanese surnames changed as a result of intermarriage with members of other ethnic groups, can probably be found in almost every city, town, and farm community in the state.
According to Alma and Jeanette Moses of Leesville, who have done extensive research on the families of the seventy persons who came to Louisiana in the 1880s from the village of Dahr Safra, twelve hundred Lebanese pioneers in all eventually came here from that village. The Moses sisters have completed their family history of Joseph “Joe” Tamer Moses, Sr. (Yusf Tamer Abrusley), who settled in Leesville, and in the Shreveport area, they completed the Mack Joseph Beassie (Youssef Bayassi) family history. They report that surnames of some of the Lebanese who settled in or near Alexandria, Lake Charles, and Natchitoches were (using their spelling) Abraham, Ashy, Bouz, Deumite, Gormanous, Khoury, La-Hood, Mahfouz/Mahfoud, Michael, Nasif, Salim, and Torbey (Thomas). Families originating in villages surrounding Dahr Safra include: Ackal, Caesar, Dow, Karam, Mitchell, Mowad, Naomi/Naum, and Stoma. The Moses sisters report that approximately eighty Lebanese families migrated to Lafayette during the same period. Donald J. Hebert’s work, Immigration Files of Southwest Louisiana, 1840-1929; Naturalization Records (Mire, LA, 1990), indicates that twenty-three of those came between 1885 and 1890. Some names in the Lafayette area were Abboud, Achery, Amuny, Antone/Antoine/Anthony, Azar, Boustany, Bowab, Careh/Karr ê Cooly, Elias, Fa-Kouri, Fanis, Gabriel, Haik/Hayek, Hane/Hanes/Hannie, Helou, Kannon/Kanaan, Kantar/Kattar, Jamail, Mahtook, Mansur, Moosa, Nacol, Nahas, Nasser, Petro, Reggie, Roslan/Reslan, Sadi, Saloom/SaUum-El-Kik, Saout/Sar-hout, Sliman/Seleyman, and Zwan. The Moseses are preparing an outline listing original Lebanese immigrants to all major Louisiana cities, as well as their first-generation progeny.18
Other Louisiana towns in which early Lebanese immigrants settled were New Orleans (the main port of entry), Many, Baton Rouge, White Castle, Donaldsonville, Plaquemine, Bogalusa, Opelousas, Crowley, New Iberia, and DeRidder. These were main railroad depots from which the early peddlers traveled. Family surnames of original Lebanese immigrants who settled in these towns include Abdalla, Abdella, Bitar, Chehardy, DeBakey, Dominque, Faour, Ferris, Francise, George, Gani, John, Joseph, and Raphael.
As reported by the Beatrous family chronicler in an unsigned, unpublished manuscript supplied to the authors by Melvena Dahduh Francise of White Castle, the early Lebanese who settled in Donaldsonville and Ascension Parish probably entered through New Orleans before the turn of the century. Established residents were not receptive at first and dubbed them “Syrians” until they realized that the newcomers shared the same religion as the majority of the town’s population. These early arrivals were mainly silk farmers in their homeland, but soon they all became peddlers, then dry goods merchants and grocers. They chose Donaldsonville because it was a trading center amid large agricultural complexes along the Mississippi River and Bayou La-fourche. The peddlers with their many wares were quickly welcomed on plantations and farms in the surrounding countryside. The first lesson these Lebanese immigrants learned was not the language of their adopted country, but the money and its denominations. By displaying coins and currency to indicate sale prices, they used money to surmount any language barrier. From these humble beginnings, Lebanese immigrants in Donaldsonville became successful businessmen.
The presence of the new wave of Arabic-speaking immigrants over the past few decades has helped to revive heritage consciousness and pride among the American-born descendants of the first-wave Lebanese immigrants.19 The most recognizable and popular tradition that has survived assimilation is Lebanese cuisine, occasionally somewhat erroneously referred to in conversation or advertising as “Arabic,” “Syrian,” or “Middle Eastern” cooking. Many Lebanese dishes have been assimilated without regard to origin into American cuisine, especially the cuisine influenced by other Mediterranean cooking. Many foods now enjoyed in Acadiana and throughout the state were introduced locally by pioneer Lebanese housewives and have been perpetuated in their descendants’ kitchens and cook-books, such as that of Bootsie John Landry of Lafayette. All wives in Lebanese families, no matter their own heritage, become well-known for their preparation of these dishes. Some of these Lebanese dishes (in phonetic spelling) are pita and zahtar (thyme-sumac-sesame mixture) pocket breads, now authentically made in many bakeries; kibbe (Lebanon’s national dish made with bulghur wheat, ground beef, lamb or, on rare occasions, fish) and hashwi (a filling of minced onions, chopped meat, and pine nuts); tabouli (mixed salad of bulghur, tomatoes, green herbs, and shallots) and fatoosh (the original Caesar’s salad); rice dressing made with hashwi or shyriyeh (rice and egg noodles browned in butter), served with baked or broiled lamb or roasted chicken; homemade yogurt and rennet cheeses; meat pies (hashwi-filled pastry) and spinach pies; rice/meat-stuffed grape leaves, cabbage rolls, squash, eggplant, or other cored vegetables; lentils (mjaddarra); tahini (sesame paste) whipped with houmous (garbanzos or chick peas) or babaghanooj (eggplant); charcoaled laham mishwi (shish kabob); and the innumerable pastries such as mehli (baklava) and kahkalhawa (cakes of “air”). Many of these dishes are served in Louisiana homes and restaurants daily, especially throughout the Acadian French/ Southwestern Louisiana area, and in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This time-honored Lebanese fare is served and enjoyed not only at dinner and cocktail parties, but is also found at corporate and organizational receptions and banquets.
Another ancient custom that has survived Americanization is the debke, a Lebanese circle folk dance primarily enjoyed at weddings and other receptions called hqflis(dances), sahrias (social gatherings or cocktail parties), and mahrajans (outdoor picnics; the term now refers to large cultural conventions). The debke is an ancient symbolic grapevine dance, no longer as prevalent in Lebanon as Westernized ballroom dancing and other modern dances. Also surviving are the ancient, mournfully melodic romantic ballads, sung by baritones using many trills and long-sustained high notes which evoke appreciative bravos from listeners. The music is played on distinctive Lebanese instruments: the oud, a round-backed stringed lute played with a pick; the derbukld, a bongo-like hand drum played between the knees; the flute; the tambourine; and sometimes the piano. Visitors from the Near East are surprised and charmed to learn that these ancient music forms have survived the centuries and are being enjoyed by Americans.
Neither the early wave of Lebanese immigration to the United States nor the post-World War II migration has been studied extensively by historians or documented well by archivists or librarians. Being among the smaller ethnic groups in the U.S., and having assimilated rapidly and smoothly into American life, the Syrians and Lebanese attracted little attention. Because they became dispersed throughout the country, they were relatively inconspicuous as a group. The early immigrants were mainly intent on economic goals and did not generate much community literature. Those few primary sources which exist are scattered.20 All of this is especially true for Louisiana.
A number of secondary studies concern the immigrant experience of Arabic-speaking people from the Near East in the United States. The scholar whose work serves as a starting point for almost any study on Arabs is Philip K. Hjtti, a longtime professor at Princeton University. His Syrians in America (New York, 1924) is the first scholarly treatment of this subject, covering both historical and sociological perspectives. Other works are listed in the bibliography below. The writings of Alixa Naff are particularly instructive because she offers insights into the experiences of the early Syrian/Lebanese peddlers in the United States and discusses the role of Arab nationalism in relation to the post-World War II migrations and their effect on American-born Lebanese.
Very little has been written on the experience of Near Eastern immigrants in Louisiana. Most of the works listed in the bibliography will have some brief mention of Lebanese or other Arab immigrants in the South. To the extent that these immigrants shared common experiences, one can gain a general understanding of Louisiana developments from these works. There are, however, no monographic studies of these immigrants in Louisiana, nor are there many journal articles. A search of the indexes of the Louisiana Historical Quarterly and Louisiana History and of the Bayou State Periodical Index revealed no entries under “Arab,” “Lebanon/Lebanese,” “Palestine/Palestinian” or “Syria/Syrian.” Because Lebanese immigrants settled in many communities throughout die state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and because university communities, at least, have probably had Arab enclaves since the 1950s, this should be a fruitful area of research. As a journalistic example of the possibilities, the April 13, 1994 issue of the Times of Acadianacontained a story on the Islamic Center and the planned mosque in Lafayette.
One difficulty in undertaking such a study from a historical perspective is the dearth of available primary research material related to the Lebanese in Louisiana. Some important resources which exist outside the state include the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History which has a large collection of secondary and primary sources including numerous oral history tapes gathered under the direction of Alixa Naff. Another resource is the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, whose collections include the papers of Philip K. Hitti.
Most Louisiana libraries that collect local history materials will have some information about Near Eastern immigrants or their descendants in their community. At the least, a vertical file of newspaper clippings will contain information on individual community leaders and any social or civic organizations these immigrants might have formed. Special editions of newspapers observing some community landmark occasion often contain articles on various aspects of its history. During the 1984 celebration of the centennial of Lafayette’s change to its present name, for example, a series of public meetings focusing on various historical topics was held.
Videotapes of these meetings provide an important source for historical research. Other cities probably offer similar resources. Large libraries will contain microfilms of government records which would have useful information. Census schedules through 1920, passenger lists for the port of New Orleans, naturalization records, city archives, voter registration files, and other local records would no doubt yield information about early Lebanese immigrants in Louisiana.
Primary sources other than government records do not seem to be readily available. The publications of the Arabic-language press are one research source which is not available in any Louisiana library. Newspapers were started soon after Lebanese/Syrians began immigrating into the U.S. in significant numbers. One of the earliest and most important was At-Hoda, which was published in New York City but contained information about Lebanese immigrants throughout the country.21 Morris Raphael, a second-generation Lebanese-American who cur-rently resides in New Iberia, recalls that his father wrote articles for Al-Hodabefore World War I. The elder Raphael was a peddler in the Vidalia area and later a merchant in Natchez, Mississippi. He wrote articles about his fellow Lebanese and Syrians in the lower Mississippi Valley.22 Perhaps there were other such occasional correspondents in other parts of Louisiana sending information to the paper. The Amistad Research Center is acquiring a copy of The Syrian World for the years 1926-1932. Though not published in Louisiana, this paper might also contain some information about Lebanese immigrants in the state.23
Although immigrants from Lebanon have dwelt in Louisiana for over a century and some members of this ethic group have risen to prominent positions in many facets of state and local community life, no Louisiana library or manuscripts repository reports holding a significant collection of primary research material documenting this group. There seem to be no major holdings of individual or family papers, and no repository reports having records of Syrian/Lebanese or Arab organizations. It is probable that none were organized at the state level, but there are some regionally, such as the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs, which has state affiliates, including one in Louisiana. The Amistad Research Center does have records of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, 1978-88. This group would reflect activities of the Arab American community which evolved in the post-World War II period.24
There is some evidence that private collections of individual and family papers pertaining to early Lebanese immigrants in Louisiana do exist. Morris Raphael’s father wrote an autobiography which is now being translated from Arabic into English by family members.25 Other first-generation immigrants may have prepared similar documents. Lebanese families have always been close-knit, and one might expect that correspondence reflecting these relationships would exist. Language could present a difficulty, however, because the first generation probably wrote in Arabic. The University of Southwestern Louisiana holds a collection of documents and photographs gathered by Evelyn T. Hannie as she was preparing a genealogy of several Lebanese families which settled in the Lafayette area. Other Lebanese families in the state almost certainly retain similar collections which could be acquired by repositories.
Oral history promises to be a useful method of gathering information about this ethnic group, but it has not been utilized extensively. McNeese State University has an oral history interview by Edward Khoury, who worked for the LSU athletic department in the 1930s.26 USL holds copies of several radio interviews of second generation Syrian/Lebanese from the Crowley and Lafayette area, in which the individuals discuss their ethnic heritage, among other topics. No other repository reported holding oral history recordings of Lebanese immigrants or their descendants, but families may have such records. Edmund Reggie, for example, prepared a videotape documentary on the life of his father-in-law, Frem F. Boustany of Lafayette, a prominent businessman and civic leader. This resource is in the possession of the family.27
Although there is no longer a Lebanese or Syrian “community” as the pioneer immigrant generation remembered it, one must nevertheless not overlook the importance of documenting the ethnic heritage of all groups which settled in Louisiana. In the case of the Lebanese, many historic sources have probably been lost already: organizational archives, papers of individuals, files of newspapers. More must be done by Louisiana libraries and archives to collect and to preserve original documentation produced by the immigrants themselves, such as letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, and almanacs, and by the first American-born generation. Greater attention should also be focused on materials in public and church archives. The problems of ethnic classification related to the Lebanese, discussed above, and must be kept in mind by anyone searching for records of any kind where different nationality labels have been applied, often inconsistently.
It is clear that the Syrian/Lebanese and later Arab immigrants to Louisiana are seriously under-documented in the state’s libraries and archives. If the same situation holds for other ethnic groups considered in this theme issue, ethnic documentation might prove to be an area in which cooperative collection development could be fruitfully instituted. Now is the time to collect and to preserve documentation of Louisiana’s Lebanese Americans, as well as of the more recent Arab immigrants in the state. If Louisiana libraries and archives do not take an active interest in developing such documentation, this segment of Louisiana ethnic history may remain largely unwritten in the future, as it has until now. The story of the Lebanese in Louisiana is one which deserves to be written.