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A Community of Many Worlds:
Arab Americans in New York City

Selma Jerro and her children, 1925
courtesy of Janie Sayour Gosen.

The Name of My Spirit
- Suheir Hammad, 1995

Over 160,000 New Yorkers today trace their roots to the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa. They represent more than a dozen nationalities and three major religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. They range from long-term settlers to the most recent arrivals, and are found in all walks of life, from corner grocers and taxi drivers to medical doctors and Wall Street bankers.

What does it mean to be "Arab American" in New York? In this exhibition, we use Arab American in its broadest sense, to refer to people who share the heritage of a common language -- Arabic. They also share cultural traditions that go back many centuries, including food, music, decorative art, and family values. Like all other immigrants and their descendants, they have worked to balance their heritage with their new identities as New Yorkers.

 

Glorious New York Smiles At Me
- Nasib Arida, 1946

Syrian Immigrants at Ellis Island, ca. 1906.
Courtesy of Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Immigrants from the Arab world have arrived in New York City in two distinct waves: the first, from the late nineteenth century to 1924; the second, from 1965 continuing to the present. The first-wave arrivals came primarily from the Ottoman area of Greater Syria (later Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel). Those in the second wave, arriving in increasing numbers after 1965, came as citizens of sovereign nations, mainly Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. While those in the first wave were predominantly Christian, a sizable proportion of the second-wave immigrants are Muslim.

Coffee pot and tray on stand.
Wooden stand, brass tray, brass coffeepot, 1960s,
courtesy of Souhad Rafey.
Glass cups and copper and brass cup holders, 1980s,
courtesy of Marguerite Lavin.
Photograph by Helga Photo Studio.


Arab hospitality is legendary and the welcoming of guests an important family value and source of pride. With the first sip of coffee, conversation and socializing begin.

Traditionally, a strong family has been the core unit of Arab society. Early immigrants reinforced family bonds in New York by living close to each other and struggling to maintain ties with home countries. More affordable air travel, telephones, and e-mail have made it easier for more recent immigrants to keep in constant touch even with relatives across the ocean. Thus, the youngest Arab New Yorkers are able to benefit from both cultures in ways that earlier generations could not.


There Was a Place for Religion Here

- Ahmed Zaki Abu-Shady, 1949

Children carrying icons, St. Mary's Orthodox Church, Brooklyn, 2001
photograph by Mel Rosenthal.

From their earliest settlement, the majority of New Yorkers from Arab counties have been Christian. After 1965, Muslims began to arrive in large numbers. Over one hundred mosques in the City now serve Muslims from Arab and other countries, but Arabs of the Muslim faith are still outnumbered by Christian Arabs. Jews from Syria, especially Aleppo, were part of the early immigration and established communities, as have Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, and other Arab countries. Religious identity has been as significant as nationality in shaping the borders of New York's Arab communities.

 

An Arab Would Write a Poem
-Phili Hitti (paraphrased), 1924

Kahlil Gibran, ca. 1921.
Courtesy of Kahlil and Jean Gibran

Literature and music, essential elements of Arab life and culture, have flowered in New York's Arab-American communities. In the early days of settlement, the City was home to dozens of Arabic-language newspapers and magazines. They played an important role in assimilating the newcomers and promoting the work of the immigrant writers, most notably artist and poet Kahlil Gibran. The Syrian community in New York City maintained Arab musical traditions and served for more than half a century as a distribution point for both imported and domestic records. Today, writers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers, young and old, have contributed to a revival of Arab New York cultural life that saw its greatest expression in Mahrajan al-Fan (Festival of the Arts) in the 1990s.

In the Womb of Commerce
- anonymous poet, ca, 1905
Jerro Bros. Shoes, 1940s.
Courtesy of Virginia Jerro Gerbino
Photograph by Helga Photo Studios

Immigrants from Aleppo, Syria, the Jerro brothers of Brooklyn manufactured shoes for the major department stores in New York.

Contributors to This New Civilization
-Kahlil Gibran, 1926

Debbie Almontaser with photograph of son Yousif, who was called to duty with the National Guard on September 11, 2001, and remained at Ground Zero until December 31.
Photograph by Mel Rosenthal.

The majority of Arab New Yorkers have avoided involvement in City politics, forming immigrant aid and cultural organizations rather than political clubhouses. Always keenly interested in the events in their home countries, they have been deeply affected by the often tumultuous politics of the Middle East. In the early twentieth century, they fought the racism that denied them American citizenship. In contemporary times, they have struggled against a newer, more insidious stereotyping that paints them with the terrorist brush. Arab New Yorkers were doubly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. As they mourned the unspeakable tragedy, they suffered from a backlash of ignorance that unjustly blamed them for it.

 

To see a gallery of images submitted by Arab New Yorkers after the exhibition opened Click Here.

 

For more information on Arab New Yorkers, visit the Museum of the City of New York exhibition A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans In New York City open from March 2 - September 11, 2002, or look for the publication A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans In New York City due in bookstores in June 2002 (pre-order forms available from the Museum Shop).
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