Remembering Michael Suleiman and Evelyn Shakir

Lisa Suhair Majaj

Michael Suleiman and Evelyn Shakir, who passed away within weeks of each other last spring, left behind legacies of dedication and intellectual achievement that will be long remembered. As scholars and writers of distinction, each made a significant impact on the field of Arab-American studies. And each offered inspiring visions of what Arab America has offered and what it might become. 

Born in Tiberias, Palestine in 1934, Michael Suleiman came to the United States following the establishment of Israel. After earning his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin he embarked on an academic path, establishing his career at Kansas State University, where he became University Distinguished Scholar and received the University’s International Educator Award. Among the many other recognitions and honors he received during his lifetime were several National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a number of Fulbright-Hayes fellowships, a Smithsonian Institute Grant, a Ford Faculty Research Grant, and the positions of Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and of Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

A consummate scholar of all things Arab-American, Suleiman is widely acknowledged as one of founding figures of the field of Arab-American studies. As part of his efforts he sought to build a community of scholars, and was known in particular for his mentorship of younger researchers in the field. Himself a meticulous scholar, Suleiman published over 70 journal articles and book chapters on Arab and Arab-American topics. In addition, he authored three books, including “The Arabs in the Mind of America” (1988), and edited four collections of essays, including the landmark volume “Arabs in America: Building a New Future” (1999). In 2004 he published the volume “Arab-Americans: An Annotated Bibliography,” the culmination of 25 years of research – a “labor of love,” as he termed it. This bibliography sought to cover all aspects of Arab-American life, and was intended to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive history of Arab America. It is a great loss that the manuscript in progress based on this research – “Arabs in the United States: a Social and Political History” – remained incomplete at his death. 

Also still in progress at Suleiman’s passing was an edited volume of essays (currently under review for posthumous publication) deriving from the conference on Arab-American Women that he organized at Kansas State University in March 2009. Like so many of his undertakings, this conference stood as a testament not only to Suleiman’s intellectual commitment, professional achievement and inclusive vision, but also to the regard with which he was widely viewed. Speakers praised his intellectual generosity, his passion for mentorship, and his personal warmth. In a description both succinct and representative, Suad Joseph has likewise characterized Suleiman as “an intellectual of the highest rigor, a person of the highest integrity, and a friend of the highest honor.”

Evelyn Shakir’s life drew upon different, but equally significant, facets of Arab-American experience. The grandchild of immigrants from Lebanon, Shakir grew up in the Boston-area Arab-American community of West Roxbury, surrounded by immigrant community life. A literary scholar who received her Ph.D. from Boston University, she taught at various institutions, including Tufts and Northeastern, before making her professional home at Bentley University. As a Senior Fulbright Scholar, she also taught at the Universities of Damascus and of Bahrain, leaving a lasting impression at both institutions. Mary Tabakow comments that “Faculty and students at the University of Bahrain spoke of her [Shakir] with respect and affection; some Bahraini female students I met in 2006 told me, ‘We believe in American Studies because we are reading Professor Shakir’s book.’”

Although her early work focused on the standard literary canon, Shakir made her most significant mark through publications in the fields of Arab-American literary criticism and Arab-American feminism, as well as through her own creative writing. In a series of historically significant and critically nuanced essays, she traced Arab-American literature from the earliest part of the twentieth century to the present, providing a critical lens through which to view this literature and helping to establish the foundation of an Arab-American literary criticism. Meanwhile, her gift for story-telling and her focus on Arab-American women’s issues came together in the 1997 volume “Bint Arab,” one of the first book-length explorations of Arab-American women’s lives. Based on interviews and family stories as well as historical research, this book explored the conflicts and contradictions confronting Arab-American women. Shakir’s portrayal of Arab-American women’s negotiations – which she described as “hearts divided between two urges” – along with her ability to make the historical personal, struck a resonant chord with many readers.  As Pauline Kaldas notes, “Shakir’s ability to combine personal narrative, family history, cultural information and immigration history into one book had a tremendous influence on me as an Arab American and a writer. I saw myself and my own history in her work.”

Shakir’s 2007 volume of short fiction, “Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America,” extended her focus on Arab-American women into the realm of fiction.  The winner of the Arab-American National Book Award for adult fiction, and described by one reviewer as “a gem of a book,” this collection both demonstrated and expanded the range of Shakir’s literary abilities. The book provided space not only for the imaginative exploration of Arab-American women’s lives, but also for the honing of a distinctive Arab-American literary voice one that portrayed Arab-American life with nuance and verve.

Michael Suleiman and Evelyn Shakir will be long and lovingly remembered for their professional achievements as well as their dedication to the betterment of Arab America.  Each contributed significantly to the communities they researched and wrote about, not only through their scholarship and publications but also through the more intangible labor of community building. The spaces they leave behind will be hard to fill. But their legacies will continue to inform Arab-American culture and the field of Arab-American studies for years to come.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 62 (2010)
Copyright (c) 2010 by Al Jadid