Embracing Inbetweenness

By Michael Najjar

Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora
By Sarah M. A. Gualtieri
University of California Press, 2009

Arab Americans have always occupied an interstitial space within U.S. racial classification, often ruled as “honorary whites” or “not quite white.” This liminality is at the heart of Sarah M. A. Gualtieri’s book “Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora.” Gualtieri posits that “questions about race were central to the construction of Syrian ethnicity in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.” Chronicling the period from the late 1880s to the end of World War II, Gualtieri studies the “tensions in the history of Syrian experiences of race” and the ways in which Syrian immigrants vigorously battled for their “white” status in U.S. courts. As her comprehensive study shows, this status was granted more often to Christians than Muslims, yet another example of the confusions regarding race and religion. Gualtieri researches diaries, newspapers, oral histories, letters, and travel accounts as an “excavation of the principal sites of Syrian ethnicization” during the first wave of Arab immigration to the United States.

Rather than rely on a traditional enumeration of historical facts, the author reexamines previously held notions regarding concepts such as Phoenicianism, which she regards as “an important ideological tool in the construction of a specifically ‘Lebanese’ (as opposed to Syrian) nationality.” Her analysis of the period correctly concludes that Syrian emigration was due primarily to the changing economic conditions in Syria at the time, and not to flight from the Ottoman regime, the 1860 civil war. Nor was it an expression of a migratory trait handed down by the ancient Phoenicians. She also addresses the thorny issues of gender, sexuality, and marriage practices of the period; demonstrating how these were intricately tied to the incorporation of Syria into a capitalist economy, thus causing profound changes in the sexual division of labor.

The most harrowing chapter recounts the 1929 lynching of Syrian American grocer Niqula Rumi following the police killing of his wife, Famia, in Lake City, Florida. This tragedy is one of the most appalling, and least-chronicled, incidents in Arab-American history. Gualtieri’s reconstruction of the events, and the aftermath that haunts their descendants to this day, is disturbing proof that racism, extralegal violence, and white supremacy have been a part of the Arab-American experience from the beginning. Gualtieri reasons that “understanding the link between the racialization of Syrians and blacks helps explain why a common pattern among Syrians was to reaffirm and invest in whiteness.” 

The epilogue, “Becoming Arab American,” examines post-World War II Arab-American history and how issues surrounding Palestinian rights led to the creation of multiple activist groups that affiliated themselves with Arabic-speaking peoples across lines of nationality. Gualtieri credits Arab-American coalition building, feminism, and the ongoing struggle for representation within the U.S. Census as elements of Arab-American collective subjectivity. Ultimately, she concludes, Arab Americans have decided to “embrace their inbetweenness rather than to resist it.” Her meticulous research and expansive purview make this one of the most important additions to the Arab American studies canon to date.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid