Arab Americans

views updated May 08 2018


by Nabeel Abraham


Arab Americans trace their ancestral roots to several Arab countries. Lebanon is the homeland of a majority of Arab Americans, followed by Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. The Arab world consists of 21 countries that span from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.


Ethnic Arabs inhabited the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring areas. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century A.D. and its phenomenal expansion over parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, Arabic culture and language spread to the newly conquered peoples. Over time the Arab identity lost its purely ethnic roots as millions in the Middle East and North Africa adopted the Arabic language and integrated Arab culture with that of their own.


Today, the term Arab is a cultural, linguistic, and to some extent, political designation. It embraces numerous national and regional groups as well as many non-Muslim religious minorities. Arab Christians, particularly in the countries of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan) constitute roughly ten percent of the population. In Lebanon, Christians of various sects approach just under half of the population, while in Egypt, Christians comprise between ten and 15 percent of the population.


According to the 1990 census, there were 870,000 persons in the United States who identified themselves as ethnically Arab or who emigrated from one of the 21 countries that constitute the contemporary Arab world. Previous estimates by scholars and Arab American community organizations placed the number of Arab Americans at between one and three million. The discrepancy is partly due to the standardization of Arabs in the United States, leading many to conceal their ethnic affiliation. The traditional suspicion of Middle Easterners toward government authorities seeking information of a personal nature compounds this problem. These two factors, along with standard problems in collecting census data, probably explain the discrepancy between the estimates of scholars and the actual census count. Considering these factors, a revised estimate likely would place the number of Arab Americans in the range of one to two million.

The 1990 census indicates that most Arab Americans are U.S. citizens (82 percent) even though only 63 percent were born in the United States. Arab Americans are geographically concentrated in a handful of cities and states. According to an essay in American Demographics by Samia ElBadry, over two-thirds of Arab Americans live in ten states while just three metropolitan areas (Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles-Long Beach) account for over one-third of the population.

Arab immigrants represent a tiny fraction of the overall migration to the United States, constituting less than three percent of the total. In her study of the census data, El-Badry found that more than 27,000 people from Arab countries immigrated to the United States in 1992, 68 percent more than those who arrived ten years earlier, not including Palestinians from Israel or Israeli-occupied territory. Approximately 20 percent of the 78,400 Arab immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1990 and 1992 were Lebanese. The remainder were from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The figures for Sudan and Yemen, though small in comparison, indicated rapid growth from these politically unstable countries.


Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived in the United States in three major waves. The first wave between the late 1800s and World War I consisted mainly of immigrants from Greater Syria, an Arab province of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. Following the breakup of the Empire, the province was partitioned into the separate political entities of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan. The vast majority of immigrants in this wave were members of Christian minorities. Although some writers claim that these immigrants left their native countries for religious or political reasons, the evidence suggests that they were drawn to the United States and other countries by economic opportunity.

Of the approximately 60,000 Arabs who emigrated to the United States between 1899 and 1910, approximately half were illiterate, and 68 percent were single males. The early immigrants were mostly unskilled single men who had left their families behind. Like many economically motivated immigrants during this period, Arabs left with the intention of earning money and returning home to live out the remainder of their lives in relative prosperity.

The major exception to this pattern was a small group of Arab writers, poets, and artists who took up residence in major urban centers such as New York and Boston. The most famous of the group was Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), author of The Prophet and numerous other works. Curiously, this literary circle, which came to be known as the Pen League (al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya ) had a negligible influence on the early Arab American communities in the United States. The Pen League's greatest impact was on arts and letters in Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries.

Early immigrants settled in the urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest, in states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. By 1940, a fifth of the estimated 350,000 Arabs resided in three citiesNew York, Boston, and Detroit. In these urban areas, the immigrants clustered in ethnic neighborhoods. Although many found work in the industrial factories and textile mills that propelled the U.S. economy in the first half of the twentieth century, some also chose the life of itinerant salesmen, peddling dry goods and other sundry items across the American heartland. Others homesteaded on the Great Plains and in rural areas of the South.

Very few Arabic-speaking immigrants made their way across the Atlantic during the interwar period marked by the Great Depression and anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigration resumed, however, after the close of World War II, especially from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. Unlike the earlier influx, this second wave included many more Muslims. It also included refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 Palestine War that culminated in the establishment of Israel. This period also witnessed the arrival of many Arabic-speaking professionals and university students who often chose to remain in the United States after completion of their training. Immigrants of the second wave tended to settle where jobs were available. Those with few skills drifted to the established Arab communities in the industrial towns of the East coast and Midwest, while those with professional skills ventured to the new suburbs around the major industrial cities or to rural towns.

In the mid-1960s, a third wave of Arab immigration began which continues to the present. According to El-Badry, more than 75 percent of foreign-born Arab Americans identified in the 1990 census immigrated after 1964, while 44 percent immigrated between 1975 and 1980. This influx resulted in part from the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which abolished the quota system and its bias against non-European immigration.

The third wave included many professionals, entrepreneurs, and unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. These immigrants often fled political instability and wars engulfing their home countries. They included Lebanese Shiites from southern Lebanon, Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Iraqis of all political persuasions. But many professionals from these and other countries like Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, and unskilled workers from Yemen also emigrated in search of better economic opportunities. Had conditions been more hospitable in their home countries, it is doubtful that many of these immigrants would have left their native countries.


Relations with the host society have been mixed. Early immigrants went largely unnoticed by the general population. They tended to settle in economically vibrant areas, which drew similar immigrants. Those who opted to homestead in the Midwest or farm in the South also blended into their surroundings. This same pattern carried over after the Second World War to the second wave of Arab immigration.

Relations, however, soured for members of the third wave and for native-born Arab Americans after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This situation worsened after the Arab oil embargo and the quadrupling of world oil prices that followed in the wake of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Arabs and Muslims were vilified as bloodthirsty terrorists, greedy oil sheiks, and religious fanatics by the mass media, politicians, and political commentators. With the fall of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran (a large, non-Arab country) in 1979 came another oil shortage and price shock that further exacerbated anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the United States.

For the better part of the 1980s, Arab Americans lived in an increasing state of apprehension as the Reagan Administration waged a war on international terrorism, and tensions ensued from the two U.S. attacks against Libya and U.S. involvement in Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion of that country. The hijacking of an American passenger plane in Europe en route to Lebanon triggered a backlash against Arab Americans, Muslims, and Middle Easterners in the United States. After another hijacking in 1985, on the morning of Friday, October 11, a bomb went off at the Los Angeles office of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), killing the organization's regional director, 41-year-old Alex Odeh. The previous day Odeh had appeared on a local television news program, where he opined that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader, Yasir Arafat, were not behind the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner in the Mediterranean. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) strongly hinted that the Jewish Defense League (JDL), or a similar Jewish extremist group, was behind the bombing and considered Odeh's murder the top terrorist act of 1985. The murder of Alex Odeh was clearly political and continues to be highly significant for Arab Americans.

The mid-1980s were the peak of anti-Arab hate crimes. In comparison, the Gulf crisis of 1991-1992 was relatively less lethal. Although there were many reports of assaults against Arab Americans, few incidents resulted in serious injuries and no one was killed. No Arab or Islamic community organizations were bombed, though many received threats and an incendiary device that apparently failed to explode was discovered at the American Muslim Council in San Diego. A few incidents during this period can be traced to the assassination in November 1990 of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the former leader of the Jewish Defense League. His murder triggered a rash of death threats and harassment against prominent Arab Americans.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have also violated the civil liberties of Arab Americans. Beginning in the 1960s, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and other federal and local law enforcement agencies began surveillance of Arab student and community activities. The surveillance, code-named Operation Boulder, was the result of an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon. The special measures included entry restrictions on foreign nationals, surveillance, information gathering on political activities and organizations, and even restrictions on Arab access to permanent resident status. Ostensibly the measures were designed to prevent Arab terrorists from operating in the country. This argument rang hollow as there had been no instances of Arab terrorism in the United States until that time. In fact, no incidents occurred for the next 25 years until the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by Arab Muslim immigrants. Ironically, much of the FBI surveillance and questioning focused on constitutionally guaranteed activities involving the exercise of free speech and association.

On the morning of January 26, 1987, scores of INS, FBI, and police agents raided several houses in Los Angeles, arresting six Palestinians and the Kenyan wife of one of the arrested men. Several days later another Palestinian was arrested while sitting for an exam at a local community college. The eight were held in detention for nearly three weeks. The arrests reportedly were the culmination of a three-year-long FBI probe into the activities of Arab American activists. The L.A. Eight, as they came to be known, were originally charged under a little-used section of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. This law allowed the government to deport aliens who "knowingly circulate, distribute, print or display" material that advocates the over-throw of the U.S. government or who advocate or teach the "doctrines of world communism." In court, attorneys for the government could produce nothing incriminating except magazines and other printed literature linking the defendants to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a nationalist guerilla group with Marxist overtones. Unable to make the subversion charge stick, the government moved to deport six of the Arab Americans on visa technicalities and tried to invoke other clauses of the McCarran-Walter Act. These attempts were thrown out of court as unconstitutional.

The L.A. Eight's ordeal continued into 1994, as the government insisted on deporting them even though it failed to produce any evidence that the defendants had done anything illegal. Many civil libertarians who rallied to their defense feared the arrests were a blatant attempt by the government to chill the political activities of Arab Americans and others who opposed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Their concern was heightened when a copy of a secret INS plan was obtained by the Los Angeles Times shortly after the arrests occurred. The plan revealed the existence of an interagency contingency plan to apprehend, detain, and deport large numbers of Arab and Iranian students, permanent residents, and American citizens, in the event the President declared a state of emergency. According to the plan, a target group of less than 10,000 persons was scheduled for detention and deportation.

In 1997, the Clinton administration continued the detention of the L.A. Eight. Instead of holding the detainees under the anti-communism statute, though, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to continue the detention under a new anti-terrorism law. In February 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the L.A. Eight was not entitled to immediate judicial review of their case. The Clinton administration continued the detention of the L.A. Eight. Instead of holding the detainees under the anti-communism statute, though, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to continue the detention under a new anti-terrorism law. In February of 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the L.A. Eight was not entitled to immediate judicial review of their case.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Early Arab immigrants assimilated easily into American society facilitated by the fact that the majority were Christian. Aside from barely discernable Arabic names beneath anglicized surnames and a preference for some Old World dishes, they retained few traces of their ethnic roots. Many were successful, some achieving celebrity status.

At the turn of the century when the first wave immigrated, the Arab world still languished under Ottoman Turkish rule, then four centuries old. Arab and regional national consciousness was still nascent. By the time the second wave immigrants arrived in mid-century, the Arab world was in the process of shaking off the European colonial rule that had carved up much of the Middle East after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In the 1950s and 1960s the Arab countries resonated with nationalist ideologies, and the Arab world was filled with promise and hope, especially regarding the question of Palestine and Arab national unitytwo of the burning issues of the day. These ideological currents profoundly influenced many second-wave immigrants. The second wave of Arab immigrants was able to assimilate into mainstream society without much resistance. This wave tended to retain some distinctive features of its ethnic past because many of the newcomers were Muslim, contributing to the retention of a distinct cultural identity. The establishment of cultural clubs, political committees, and Arabic language schools helped maintain a cultural identity and a political awareness among many new arrivals and their children.

Arriving in the 1970s and 1980s, the third wave of Arab immigrants encountered a negative reception from the host society. Instead of assimilating, these new immigrants often opted to remain on the outskirts of society, even while adopting many American cultural mores. The third wave has been the driving force behind the recent upsurge in the establishment of Muslim schools, mosques, charities, and Arabic language classes.

Collectively many Arab Americans have experienced cultural marginalization. Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners generally have been vilified in the news media, in Hollywood productions, in pulp novels, and in political discourse. Arab Americans cope with their marginality in one of three different ways: denying their ethnic identity; withdrawing into an ethnic enclave; or engaging mainstream society through information campaigns aimed at the news media, book publishers, politicians, and schools. The theme of these campaigns centers on the inherent unfairness of, and pitfalls in, stereotyping Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners. In 1999, the cable television network TNT announced that it would never again show movies that blatantly bash Arabs and Arab Americans. Such films included Shadow Warriors 2: Assault on Death Mountain and Thunder in Paradise.

The types of Arab Americans who choose to deny their ethnic background cover the spectrum: recent arrivals, assimilated immigrants, and native-born. Among the American-born, denial takes the form of a complete break with one's ethnicity in favor of wholesale adoption of American culture. Others, particularly immigrants, tend to stress their distinctiveness from Arab and Islamic culture, as when Iraqi Christians stress their Chaldean identity as opposed to their Iraqi affiliation.

Arab Americans who opt to withdraw into an ethnic enclave tend to be recent immigrants. Running the gamut from unskilled workers to middle-class professionals, this group prefers to live in ethnic neighborhoods, or close to other members of the same group in the suburbs. They believe that their ethnic culture and religious traditions are alien to American culture, and hence need to minimize assimilation. Cultural marginalization is the price of living in American society.

Those who advocate engaging society head-on seek to win societal acceptance of Arab Americans as an integral part of America's cultural plurality. The integrationists adopt several strategies. Some stress the common bonds between Arab or Islamic values and American values, emphasizing strong family ties. They also focus on the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. Others seek to confront anti-Arab stereotyping and racism by emphasizing that they are Americans who happen to be of Arab ancestry. Along with well-assimilated, native-born Arab Americans, this group also consists of foreign-born professionals who wish to maintain their ethnic identity free from stigmatization by the wider culture.

Foremost among the key issues facing the Arab American community is dealing with the rising numbers of new immigrants. The current stream of Arab immigrants is expected to increase as political instability and civil conflict within various Arab countries grows.


Customs center on hospitality around food, socializing with family and friends, and a preference to reside close to relatives. Arab Americans generally harbor negative attitudes toward dating and premarital sex, especially for females. Educational achievement and economic advancement are viewed positively, as are the maintenance of strong family ties and the preservation of female chastity and fidelity. Arab American beliefs about the United States are extremely positive, particularly regarding the availability of economic opportunities and political freedoms. Socially, however, Arab Americans feel that American society is highly violent, rather promiscuous, too lenient toward offenders, and somewhat lax on family values.

A common American stereotype about Arabs emphasizes that they are by definition Muslims and therefore are bloodthirsty, fanatical, and anti-Western. Another misconception is that Iranians are Arabs, when most Iranians are Persians who speak Farsi, an Indo-European language, which uses Arabic script. Arabic, on the other hand, belongs to the Semitic language family. Other misconceptions and stereotypes include: Arabs are desert nomads; however, only two percent of contemporary Arab society is nomadic; and, Arabs oppress women. While formal laws protecting women's equality are fewer in Arab countries than the United States, the prevalence of rape and physical abuse of women in the Arab world appears to be lower than in American society.

Stereotypes of Arab culture and society abound in Western literary works, scholarly research, and in the news and entertainment media. Typical of the fiction genre is Leon Uris's celebrated novel Exodus (1958), in which the Arab country of Palestine is repeatedly depicted as a "fruitless, listless, dying land." Arabs opposed to the creation of the State of Israel are described as the "dregs of humanity, thieves, murderers, highway robbers, dope runners and white slavers." More generally, Arabs are "dirty," "crafty," and "corrupt." Uris amplified these characterizations in his 1985 work, The Haj. These and other examples are examined in Janice J. Terry's Mistaken Identity: Arab Stereotypes in Popular Writing (1985). A study of the cultural antecedents of Arab and Muslim stereotyping in Western culture is found in Edward W. Said's highly acclaimed work, Orientalism (1978). News media coverage is critiqued in Said's Covering Islam (1981); television portrayals of Arabs are examined in Jack Shaheen's The TV Arab (1984).


The most pronounced dietary injunction followed by Arab Muslims is the religious prohibition on the consumption of pork. Many Arab Christians also disdain the consumption of pork, but for cultural reasons. Muslims are required to consume meat that is ritually slaughtered (halal ). In response to the growing demand for halal meats, many enterprising Arab American grocers have in recent years set up halal meat markets.

Arab Americans have a distinctive cuisine centered on lamb, rice, bread, and highly seasoned dishes. The Middle Eastern diet consists of many ingredients not found in the average American kitchen, such as chick peas, lentils, fava beans, ground sesame seed oil, olive oil, olives, feta cheese, dates, and figs. Many Arab dishes, like stuffed zucchini or green peppers and stuffed grape or cabbage leaves, are highly labor-intensive.


Virtually no items of traditional clothing are worn by Arab Americans. The exception is the tendency of some immigrant women, particularly those from peasant stock, who wear traditional dress. Among the most dramatic are the colorfully embroidered dresses worn by some Palestinian women in certain neighborhoods of Detroit and Dearborn. More common are the plain-colored head scarfs worn by many Lebanese and other Arab Muslim females. Some Arab and other Muslim women occasionally don long, shapeless dresses, commonly called Islamic dresses, in addition to the head scarf.

Men rarely wear traditional garb in public. At some traditional wedding parties individuals might don an Arab burnoose. Many foreign-born men of all ages are fond of carrying worry beads, which they unconsciously run through their fingers while engaging in conversation or while walking.


The Arabic language retains a classical literary form which is employed on formal occasions (oratory, speeches, and university lectures) and in most forms of writing, some novels and plays excepted. Everyday speech is the province of the many and varied regional and local dialects. It is these dialects and, in the case of highly assimilated Arab Americans, their remnants, that a visitor among Arab Americans is likely to encounter.

Each national group (Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni, etc.) has its particular dialect, and within each group regional and local subdialects are found. For the most part, speakers of different dialects can make themselves understood to speakers of other dialects. This is especially true when closely related dialects (Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian) are involved, and less so among geographically distant dialects. The great exception is the Egyptian dialect which is familiar to most speakers of Arabic because of the widespread influence of the Egyptian movie and recording industries, and the dominant cultural role Egypt has traditionally played in the Middle East.


Some basic Arabic greetings include: marhaba ("mar-ha-ba")hello, and its response ahlen ("ahlen")welcome (colloquial greetings in Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and Jordanian dialects). Egyptians would say: Azayyak ("az-zay-yak")How are you? and its response quwayyas ("qu-whey-yes") fine. A more formal greeting, readily understood throughout the Arabic-speaking world is: asalaam 'a laykum ("a-sa-lamb ah-laykum")greetings, peace be upon you. The proper response is wa 'a laykum asalaam ("wa-ah-laykum a-sa-lamb")and peace be upon you, too.

Family and Community Dynamics

In Arab society members of two or three generations dwell in a single household or, in wealthier families, in a family compound. This extended household centers around a married man and some of his adult sons and their families. A grandparent may also reside in the household. A variation on this structure is for several brothers and their respective families to reside in a compound with a grandparent and other elderly relatives.

Among Arab Americans, the large extended family constituting a single household is found only among recent immigrants. As families acculturate and assimilate they tend to form nuclear families with, occasionally, the addition of an elderly grandparent, and an unmarried adult child. Among less assimilated families, adult married children set up a household near their parents and married siblings. This arrangement allows the maintenance of extended family networks while enjoying the benefits of living in a nuclear family.


American-style dating is virtually non-existent among all but the most assimilated Arab Americans. Dating conflicts with strict cultural norms about female chastity and its relationship to the honor of the woman and her family. The norm stipulates that a female should be chaste prior to marriage and remain faithful once wed. Similar standards apply to males, but expectations are reduced and the consequences of violations are not as severe. The ethics relating to female chastity cut across social class, religious denomination, and even ethnic lines, as they are found with equal vigor in virtually every Middle Eastern ethnic and national group. Real or alleged violations of the sexual mores by a female damages not only her reputation and diminishes her chances of finding a suitable marriage partner, but also shames her family, especially her male kinsmen.

Among Arab American Muslims a type of dating is allowed after a woman undergoes a ritual engagement. In Islam, the enactment of the marriage contract (kitb al-kitab ) amounts to a trial period in which the couple become acquainted with one another. This period can last months or even a year or more. If successful, the marriage will be consummated after a public ceremony. During this period, the family of an engaged woman will permit her to go out with the fiance but only with a chaperon. The fiance will pay her visits and the couple may be allowed to talk privately together, but this will be the only time they are allowed to be alone until the wedding. It is perfectly acceptable for one or both parties to terminate the engagement at this point rather than face the prospect of an unhappy marriage.

Arab culture prefers endogamous marriages especially between cousins. This preference is, however, not uniform throughout Arab society. It is not strong among some Christian groups like Egypt's Copts, and among certain educated elite. In general, the ideal marriage in Arab society is for a man to marry the daughter of his paternal uncle. The ideal is achieved in only a small percentage of all marriages. Marriages among cousins on either the paternal and maternal side are relatively common. The preference for cousin endogamy is found among immigrant families, but declines among highly assimilated and native-born Arab Americans.

Arranged marriages are common among recent immigrants. Arranged marriages run the gamut from the individual having no voice in the matter and no prior acquaintance with a prospective marriage partner to the family arranging a meeting between their son or daughter and a prospective mate they have selected. In the latter situation, the son or daughter will usually make the final decision. This pattern is prevalent among assimilated immigrant and native-born families, especially if they are educated or have high aspirations for their children. Some working-class immigrant families in Dearborn, Michigan, for example, arrange the marriage of their daughters, who are sometimes legal minors, to men in the home country. This practice seems to be limited to a small minority.

While not all Arab Americans practice cousin endogamy or engage in arranged marriages, most demonstrate a strong preference for religious endogamy in the selection of marriage partners. In this Arab Americans retain a deeply-rooted Middle Eastern bias. Middle Easterners do not approve of inter-religious marriages. However, interdenominational marriages are not uncommon among educated Arab Americans. Arab Americans find it easier to marry a non-Arab of a different religious background than enter into an inter-religious marriage with a fellow Arab American. This is especially true of Arab American men, who unlike women, find it easier to marry an outsider. There is a powerful familial resistance to letting Arab American women marry outside the group. An Arab Muslim woman who was unable to find a mate from within her group, could marry a non-Arab Muslim (e.g., Pakistani, Indian, or Iranian). Arab Christian women facing a similar situation would opt to marry an outsider as long he was Christian.

In selecting a marriage partner, attention is paid to family standing and reputation. Since dating and other forms of mixing are virtually non-existent, there are few opportunities for prospective mates to meet, let alone learn about each other. Thus parents and other interested relatives must rely heavily on community gossip about a prospective suitor or bride. Under such conditions, the family standing of the prospective mate will be of major interest.

The strict segregation of the sexes is inevitably weakening because American society poses many opportunities for unrelated males and females to meet at school or on the job. Consequently, there is a detectable increase in the number of cases of romantic involvement among young Arab Americans in cities where large numbers of Arab Americans reside. But many of these relations are cut short by families because they fail to win their approval.

Divorce, once unheard of in Arab society, is increasingly making a presence among Arab Americans although it is nowhere near the proportions found among mainstream Americans. Recent immigrants appear less likely than assimilated Arab Americans to resolve marital unhappiness through divorce.


Boys and girls are reared differently, though the degree is determined by the level of assimilation. Boys are generally given greater latitude than girls. At the extreme end of the spectrum, girls are expected to marry at a relatively young age and their schooling is not considered as important as that of boys. High school is the upper limit for girls in very traditional immigrant homes, though some post-high school education is expected among educated households. The daughters of professionals are usually encouraged to pursue careers. Middle Eastern families tend to favor boys over girls, and this preference extends to wide segments of the Arab American community. In a few traditional homes, girls are not allowed to ride bicycles or play certain sports, while boys are otherwise indulged. The oldest son usually enjoys a measure of authority over younger siblings, especially his sisters. He is expected to eventually carry the mantle of authority held by the father.


Formal authority lies with the husband/father as it does in Arab society. Women play important roles in socializing children and preserving kinship ties and in maintaining social and religious traditions. The degree of hospitality in the home is held up as a measure of a family's standing among Arabs everywhere, and in this respect Arab Americans are no different. Guests are given a special place at the dinner table where they are feted in a ritual display of hospitality arranged by the women of the household.

Outside the home, the role of Arab American women has fluctuated with the ebb and flow of the immigration tide. As communities become assimilated, women tend to assume leadership roles in community organizations in the mosque or church, or in community-wide endeavors like the organization of parochial schools. With each new influx of immigrants, assimilated women tend to lose ground in those institutions that attract new immigrants (e.g. the mosque). Quickly women who at one time were among the leadership find themselves taking a back seat or even ousted from the institution.


Education is highly valued among wide segments of the community. Affluent households prefer private schools. Working class and middle class members tend to send their children to public schools. A recent trend in some Arab American Muslim communities is the growth of Islamic parochial schools. These schools, favored by recent immigrants of all classes, are still in their infancy.

In her analysis of the 1990 census data, ElBadry found that Arab Americans are generally better educated than the average American. The proportion of those who did not attend college is lower than the national average, while the number of those attaining master's degrees or higher is twice that of the general population. Foreign-born Arab professionals overwhelmingly prefer the fields of engineering, medicine, pharmacy, and the sciences in general. Although native-born Arab Americans can be found working in virtually every field, there is a preference for careers in business, medicine, law, and engineering.

There are few formalized traditions of philanthropy in the community. Arab Muslims, like all Muslims, are enjoined to give a certain percentage of their annual income to charity as a zakat (tithe). But large contributions to community projects are not part of the community's tradition.


The three religious holidays celebrated by Arab American Muslims are also celebrated by Muslims everywhere. They are Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha. Ramadan is a month-long dawn-to-dusk fast that occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is a month of self-discipline as well as spiritual and physical purification. The fast requires complete abstinence from food, drink (including water), tobacco, and sex, from sunrise to sunset during the entire month. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. A cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Eid is a festive and joyous occasion for Muslims everywhere. Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorates the Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to God. According to the Quran, the Muslim holy book which is considered to be the word of God, the Angel Gabriel intervened at the last moment, substituting a lamb in place of Ishmael. The holiday is held in conjunction with the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca, in which increasing numbers of American Muslims are participating.

Some Arab Muslim families celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Muslims recognize Jesus as an important prophet, but do not consider him divine. They use the occasion of Christmas to exchange gifts, and some have adopted the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. Arab American Christians observe major Christian holidays. Followers of Eastern rite churches (Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox) celebrate Christmas on the Epiphany, January 6. Easter is observed on the Sunday after Passover, rather than on the date established by the Roman church. In addition, the Eastern Churches, particularly the Coptic church, mark numerous religious occasions, saints' days, and the like, throughout the year.


Christians still comprise the majority of Arab Americans nationally. The Muslim component is growing fast, however, and in some areas, Muslims constitute an overwhelming majority of Arab Americans. Arab Christians are divided between Eastern rite churches (Orthodox) and the Latin rite (Uniate) churches (Maronites, Melkite, and Chaldean). In the beginning, all Middle Eastern churches followed Eastern rites. Over the centuries, schisms occurred in which the seceders switched allegiance to Rome, forming the Uniate churches. Although the Uniate churches formally submit to the authority of the Roman pope and conform to Latin rites, they continue to maintain their own patriarchs and internal autonomy. Like the Eastern churches, the Uniates also allow priests to marry (though monks and bishops must remain celibate). The Middle East churches retain distinct liturgies, which are recited in ancient Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, or Chaldean depending upon the particular sect.

Arab Muslims are nominally divided between Sunni and Shiite (Shia ), the two major branches of Islam. The schism dates to an early conflict in Islam over the succession of the Caliphate leaderof the religious community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunni faction won out, eliminating leaders of the opposing faction lead by the Prophet's nephew, Ali, and his sons. Ali's followers came to be known as the Shia the partisans. Over time the Shiites developed some unique theological doctrines and other trappings of a distinct sect, although to Sunnis, the differences appear inconsequential. The majority of Arab American Muslims are Sunni. Arab Shiite Muslims are mostly from Lebanon and Iraq, as well as northern Yemen.

The most significant change Muslims make in adapting Islamic ritual to life in the United States is moving the Friday sabbath prayer to Sunday. For decades, Arab American Muslims have resigned themselves to the fact that, because of job and school obligations, they would not be able to observe Friday communal prayers, or jumaa. Recently, however, growing numbers of worshippers attend jumaa. Arab American Muslims also forego some of the five daily prayers devout Muslims are obligated to perform because of a lack of facilities and support from mainstream institutions. Technically, Muslims can pray at work or school if the employer or school authorities provide a place. Increasing numbers of devout Muslims insist on meeting their ritual obligations while on the job.

Religious disputes tend to be confined largely to competition between groups within the same sect rather than between sects. Thus, for example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large population of Lebanese Shiites, competition is rife among various Shiite mosques and religious centers for followers from the Shiite community. Sunnis in the area generally belong to Sunni congregations, and are not viewed as potential recruits by the Shiites. Similarly, Arab Christian denominations tend to remain insular and eschew open rivalry with other denominations.

Employment and Economic Traditions

In her review of the 1990 census data El-Badry estimated that 60 percent of Arab Americans work as executives, professionals, salespeople, administrative support, or service personnel, compared to 66 percent of the general population. Many Arab Americans are entrepreneurs or self-employed (12 percent versus seven percent of the general population).

Arab Americans are concentrated in sales; one out of five works in the retail sales industry, slightly higher than the U.S. average of 17 percent. Of these, El-Badry observes, 29 percent work in restaurants, from managers to busboys. Another 18 percent work in grocery stores, seven percent in department stores, and six percent in apparel and accessory outlets.

Data on Arab Americans receiving unemployment benefits are nonexistent. However, in the southend neighborhood of Dearborn, where several thousand mostly recent Yemeni and Lebanese immigrants reside, many felt the brunt of the early 1980s economic recession which hit Detroit's automobile industry particularly hard.

Politics and Government

Although politically marginalized, Arab Americans have attempted to gain a voice in U.S. foreign policy since the late 1960s. The first national organization dedicated to such a purpose was the Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc. (AAUG). Founded in the aftermath of the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war, the AAUG sought to educate Americans about the Arab, and especially the Palestinian, side of the conflict. The group continues to serve as an important forum for debating issues of concern to Arab Americans. The early 1970s saw the establishment of the first Arab American organization devoted exclusively to lobbying on foreign policy issues. Named the National Association of Arab Americans, the organization continues to function at present.

After a decade of increasing stereotypes of Arabs in the United States, a group of Arab Americans led by former Senator James Abourezk (1931 ) of South Dakota founded the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 1980. While not a lobby, ADC sensitizes the news media to issues of stereotyping. The organization has had less success with the entertainment media. More recently, the Arab American Institute (AAI) was established to encourage greater participation of Arab Americans in the electoral process as voters, party delegates, or candidates for office.

Arab American influence on local and state government is limited mainly to Dearborn and a few other localities where their numbers are sufficiently large to be felt by the political establishment. Get-out-the-vote campaigns have been moderately successful in this mostly immigrant, working-class community. Participation in unions is limited to the working class segment of the Arab American community. While the history of this participation remains sketchy and incomplete, individual contributions have not escaped notice. As early as 1912 an Arab striker was killed in the famous Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-led strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In the 1930s, another Arab American labor activist, George Addes, played an important role in the left coalition inside the United Auto Workers leadership. In August 1973 Nagi Daifallah, a Yemeni farm worker active in the United Farm Workers Union, was brutally gunned down with another organizer by a county sheriff. At the time, California was emerging as a center for Yemeni immigrant workers. Yemeni and other Arab automobile workers were also active in union activities in the Detroit area in the 1970s. During the October 1973 Arab Israeli War, an estimated 2,000 Arab workers protested the purchase of Israeli government bonds by the United Auto Workers union. Arab auto workers boycotted work on November 28, 1973, forcing the closing of one of two lines at a Chrysler assembly plant.

Individual and Group Contributions

Arab Americans have made important contributions in virtually every field of endeavor, from government to belles lettres.


Among the many Arab American academics, Edward W. Said (1935 ) stands out as a world-class intellectual. Born in Jerusalem, Palestine, and educated at Princeton and Harvard universities, Said has achieved international renown as a scholar in the fields of literary criticism and comparative literature.


In the entertainment field several Arab Americans have achieved celebrity status, including singers Paul Anka (1941 ) and Paula Abdul (1962 ), actors Danny Thomas (1914-1991), Marlo Thomas (1938 ), Vic Tayback (1930-1990), and Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (1939 ). Musicians include "Tiny Tim" (Herbert Khaury; 1922-1996) the ukelele-strumming, falsetto singer; surf guitarist Dick Dale (b. late 1930s); singer Tiffany (Tiffany Renee Darwish; 1972 ); musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993); and G.E. Smith, former guitarist for the Saturday Night Live Band and frequent collaborator with musician Bob Dylan.

Arab Americans abound in the television and film industries. Jamie Farr (1934 ) portrayed cross-dressing Corporal Klinger on the hit television sitcom M*A*S*H*, and Moustapha Akkad produced the blockbuster Halloween thrillers. Khrystyne Haje starred on the television sitcom Head of the Class and was picked as one of the 50 most beautiful persons in the United States by People Magazine. Amy Yasbeck (1962 ) and Tony Shalhoub (1953 ) have become recognizable faces due to their work on the popular television sitcom Wings. On the show, Yasbeck played the lustful, money-hungry Casey Chapel while Shalhoub portrayed Antonio Scarpacci, a lonely taxi driver. Shalhoub has also won acclaim for his roles in such films as Barton Fink, Big Night, A Life Less Ordinary, and Men in Black. No list of Arab American entertainers would be complete without mention of Casey Kasem (1933 ), the popular radio personality who grew up in Detroit. Kathy Najimy (1957 ) is an award-winning comic actor who played a nun in the movie Sister Act. Mario Kassar (1952 ) is the head of Carolco Pictures, which helped make Rocky, Rambo, and the Terminator films.

Arab Americans have developed vibrant art communities. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, the "Electric Arab Orchestra" entertains the city with its exciting blend of Arabian music and rock and roll. In the San Francisco Bay area of California, the Bay Area Arab Film Festival presents an annual review of Arab films. The festival was founded in 1997 by Arab Americans for the purpose of promoting Arab and Arab American cinema.


Joseph Abboud (1950 ) is the winner of several prestigious design awards.


A number of Arab Americans have played prominent roles in government at the federal level. The first Arab American to be elected to the U.S. Senate was James Abourezk (1931 ) of South Dakota. Abourezk earned a reputation as a fighter for Native American and other minority rights while in Congress. Current Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, Democrat from Maine (1933 ) is the offspring of a Lebanese mother and an Irish father. The most prominent Arab American woman in national government is Donna Shalala (1941 ). Prior to her appointment to a cabinet post as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration, Shalala headed the University of Wisconsin. In the preceding administration, another Arab American, John Sununu (1941 ), the son of Lebanese Palestinian immigrants, served as George Bush's White House Chief of Staff. Beyond the official circles of government, consumer advocate Ralph Nader (1934 ) ranks as one of the most prominent Arab Americans in the public eye. His activism has had a lasting impact on national policy.

Still other Arab American politicians include Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham and Representatives Nick Joe Rahall II, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Danner, a Democrat from Kansas. Former politicians include Senator James Abdnor of South Dakota, Representative Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio, Representative George Kasem of California, Representative Abraham Kazen, Jr., of Texas, Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut, and former Governor of Oregon Victor Atiyeh.


In the field of poetry, several Arab Americans have achieved recognition. Sam Hazo (1928 ) is an established American poet, as well as founder of the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh. Palestinian American Naomi Shihab Nye (1952 ), and Lebanese American Lawrence Joseph (1948 ) are also well-known poets. Helen Thomas (1920 ), the White House reporter for United Press International, has covered the presidency since 1961. William Peter Blatty (1928 ) is the author of the novel The Exorcist, and screenwriter Callie Khouri (1957 ) received an Oscar award for Best Original Screenplay in 1990 for Thelma and Louise. Writer and director Tom Shadyac is responsible for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the 1998 remake of The Nutty Professor.

In 1999, USG Publishing announced the creation of a writing contest for Arab Americans. Called "Qalam" (Quest for Arab-American Literature of Accomplishment and Merit), the contest will recognize achievements by Arab Americans in the areas of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. USG Publishing, based in Chicago, Illinois, publishes Arab American books and pamphlets among other materials.


One of the most prominent Arab American scientists is Dr. Farouk El-Baz (1938 ), who works for NASA as a lunar geologist and assisted in planning the Apollo moon landings. Dr. Michael DeBakey (1908 ), the inventor of the heart pump now serves as the Chancellor of Baylor University's College of Medicine. Dr. Elias Corey (1928 ) of Harvard University won the 1990 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. George A. Doumani made discoveries that helped prove the theory of continental drift.


Doug Flutie (1962 ) won the Heisman Trophy and quarterbacked the Toronto Argonauts to a championship in the Canadian Football League. Rony Seikaly (1965 ), born in Lebanon, played center in the National Basketball Association for the New Jersey Nets. Jeff George (1967 ) is a quarterback for the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings.


The Arab American community has traditionally supported a number of local electronic (radio, cable and broadcast TV programs) and print media. The Arab American community is increasingly relying on nationally-produced programming.


There have been only a couple of national, bilingual Arabic-English publications produced in the United States. First published in 1992, Jusoor ("Bridges") is a quarterly, which includes poetry and essays on politics and the arts. In 1996, a periodical called Al-Nashra hit the newstands. Al-Nashra has a web site at Listed below are several national publications of long standing that enjoy wide Arab American readership.


International Arabic newspaper (English and Arabic).

Contact: Raji Daher, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 416, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 972-0460.

Fax: (212) 682-1405.

American-Arab Message.

Religious and political weekly printed in Arabic and English; founded in 1937.

Address: 17514 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48203.

Telephone: (313) 868-2266.

Fax: (313) 868-2267.

Arab Studies Quarterly.

Magazine covering Arab affairs, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.

Contact: William W. Haddad, Editor.

Address: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., 4201 Connecticut Avenue NW, Number 305, Washington, DC 20008.

Telephone: (202) 237-8312.

Fax: (202) 237-8313.

Jusoor: The Arab American Journal of Cultural Exchange.

Contact: Munir Akash, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 34163, Bethesda, Maryland 20827-0163.

Telephone: (301) 263-0289.

Fax: (301) 263-0255.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Link.

Contact: John F. Mahoney, Executive Director.

Address: Americans for Middle East Understanding, Room 241, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 245, New York, New York 10115.

Telephone: (212) 870-2053.

Fax: (212) 870-2050.

E-mail: [email protected].

News Circle/Halqat al-Akhbar.

Monthly periodical that presents issues and news of the Arab American community and the Arab world.

Contact: Joseph Haiek, Editor.

Address: Box 3684, Glendale, California 91201.

Telephone: (818) 545-0333.

Fax: (818) 242-5039.


Arab Network of America (ANA).

A national network that broadcasts Arab language radio and television programming in six metropolitan areas (Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco).

Contact: Eptisam Malloulti, Radio Program Director.

Address: 150 South Gordon Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22304.

Organizations and Associations

American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

Founded in 1980 by former Senator James Abourezk to combat negative and defamatory stereotyping of Arab Americans and their cultural heritage. This is the country's largest grass-roots Arab American organization.

Contact: Hala Maksoud, Ph.D., President.

Address: 4201 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20008.

Telephone: (202) 244-2990.

Fax: (202) 244-3196.

E-mail: [email protected].


American Arabic Association.

Individuals interested in promoting a better understanding among Americans and Arabs through involvement in charitable and humanitarian causes; membership is currently concentrated in the eastern U. S. Supports Palestinian and Lebanese charities that aid orphans, hospitals, and schools. Current activities include: Project Loving Care, for children in Lebanon and Israel; Boys Town, for orphans in Jericho, Jordan. Sponsors seminars and educational and cultural programs; conducts lectures.

Contact: Dr. Said Abu Zahra, President.

Address: c/o Dr. Said Abu Zahra, 29 Mackenzie Lane, Wakefield, Massachusetts 01880.

Arab American Historical Society.

Encourages the preservation of Arab American history, publications, and art. Publishes quarterly Arab American Historian.

Contact: Joseph Haiek, Chair.

Address: P.O. Box 27278, Los Angeles, California 90027.

Fax: (818) 242-5039.

Arab American Institute (AAI).

Dedicated to involving Arab Americans in electoral politics, mobilizing votes and funds behind Arab American candidates at various levels of government. The Institute also encourages Americans to become involved in the Democratic and Republican parties.

Contact: Dr. James Zogby, President.

Address: 918 16th Street, N.W., Suite 601, Washington, D.C. 20006.

Telephone: (202) 429-9210.

Fax: (202) 429-9214.

E-mail: [email protected].

Arab Women's Council (AWC).

Seeks to inform the public on Arab women and their culture.

Contact: Najat Khelil, President.

Address: P.O. Box 5653, Washington, D.C. 20016.

Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc. (AAUG).

The oldest national Arab American organization. Founded in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War to inform Americans of the Arab viewpoint. AAUG's membership consists mostly of academics and other professionals. The organization sponsors intellectual forums and conferences, and publishes books as well as the journal Arab Studies Quarterly.

Contact: Albert Mukhaiber, President.

Address: 2121 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Suite 310, Washington, DC 20007.

Telephone: (202) 337-7717.

Fax: (202) 337-3302.

E-mail: [email protected].

Attiyeh Foundation (AF).

Cultural and educational organization conducting projects about the Middle East. Works to promote awareness of Arab culture and history through people-to-people contact. Publishes Ethnic Heritage in North America.

Contact: Michael Saba, President.

Address: 1731 Wood Mills Drive, Cordova, Tennessee 38018-6131.

Najda: Women Concerned About the Middle East.

Promotes understanding between Americans and Arabs by offering educational programs and audiovisual presentations on Middle Eastern history, art, culture, and current events.

Contact: Paula Rainey, President.

Address: P.O. Box 7152, Berkeley, California 94707.

Telephone: (510) 549-3512.

National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA).

The major Arab American political lobby in Washington devoted to improving U.S.-Arab relations. Like ADC, NAAA also combats negative stereotypes of Arabs.

Contact: Khalil E. Jahshan, Executive Director.

Address: 1212 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 230, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 842-1840.

Fax: (202) 842-1614.

E-mail: [email protected].


Museums and Research Centers

There are two archives devoted to collecting the papers and related memorabilia of Arab Americans. There are no research centers or museums dedicated to Arab Americans.

The Faris and Yamna Naff Family Arab American Collection.

Contact: Alixa Naff.

Address: Archives Center, National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Telephone: (202) 357-3270.

The Near Eastern American Collection.

Contact: Rudolph J. Vecoli, Director.

Address: Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, 826 Berry Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55114.

Telephone: (612) 627-4208.

Sources for Additional Study

Abraham, Nabeel. "Anti-Arab Racism and Violence in the United States," in The Development of Arab-American Identity, edited by Ernest McCarus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

. "The Gulf Crisis and Anti-Arab Racism in America," in Collateral Damage: The 'New World Order' at Home and Abroad, edited by Cynthia Peters. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Arab Americans: Continuity and Change, edited by Baha Abu-Laban and Michael W. Suleiman. Normal, Illinois: Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc., 1989.

Arabic-Speaking Immigrants in the U.S. and Canada: A Bibliographical Guide with Annotation. Edited by Mohammed Sawaie. Lexington, Kentucky: Mazda Publishers, 1985.

Arabs in the New World. Edited by Sameer Y. Abraham and Nabeel Abraham. Detroit: Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University, 1983.

Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940. Edited by Eric J. Hooglund. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

The Development of Arab-American Identity. Edited by Ernest McCarus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

El-Badry, Samia. "The Arab Americans," American Demographics, January 1994, pp. 22-30.

The Immigration History Research Center: A Guide to Collections. Compiled by S. Moody and J. Wurl. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Orfalea, Gregory. Before the Flames. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Shain, Yossi. Arab-Americans in the 1990s: What Next for the Diaspora? Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 1996.

Arab Americans

views updated May 08 2018

Arab Americans

ETHNONYMS: Arab Muslims, Chaldeans, Copts, Druze, Lebanese, Palestinians, Shia, Syrians, Yemenis


Identification. Americans of Arab ancestry are a heterogeneous amalgam of national and religious subgroups. Their link is a common Arab cultural and linguistic heritage, which has profoundly influenced the Middle East for over fourteen centuries. Historically, "Arab" referred exclusively to the Arabic-speaking tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and parts of the Fertile Crescent. Today, the term is understood to be a cultural/linguistic and political designation. It embraces various national, religious, and regional groups that share overlapping histories and national political aspirations, although significant differences and regional loyalties remain strong. No single set of racial or physical traits defines all Arabs. Nor can they be identified with a single religion (Islam), as is often mistakenly done, for not all Arabs are Muslims (about 6 to 10 percent are non-Muslims, mostly Christians and some Jews). In fact, although Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Qur'an (its holy book) was written in Arabic, the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs, but Indonesians, Pakistanis, Asian Indians, and Persians.

Arab Americans hail from only a handful of the twenty-one countries that compose the modern Arab world: Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. In terms of recency of arrival, Arab Americans fall into three diverse groups: recent arrivals, long-term immigrants, and Native-born descendants of earlier generations of immigrants.

Location. Arab Americans live primarily in cities or adjacent suburbs. Many recent arrivals tend to gravitate to Arab neighborhoods, where ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, clubs, and religious centers are concentrated. These neighborhoods tend to be working class and lower middle class in character. The largest is found in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan; others are located in New York and Chicago. These "Arab Towns" have largely replaced the "Little Syrias" of earlier immigrant generations. The more assimilated long-term immigrants and native-born Arab Americans tend to eschew the ethnic neighborhoods for the middle-class suburbs. The major concentrations of Arab Americans are found in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Houston. Smaller communities are also found throughout the Northeast and Middle West.

Demography. Exact population figures are difficult to ascertain owing to imprecise immigration and census data. Scholars tend to agree on 2 million as the number of persons of Arab ancestry in the United States, with another 80,000 in Canada. In comparison, the population of the Arab world is over 150 million. The largest single concentration of Arabs in North America is in Detroit, which is reputed to have about 250,000 Arabs. Native-born Arab Americans and longestablished immigrants make up the largest share of the Population, which was fairly stable through the mid-1960s. Beginning in the late 1960s, the population in North America witnessed rapid growth owing largely to the influx of tens of thousands of new immigrants.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most assimilated Arab Americans use English as their primary language or only domestic language. Many recent arrivals use Arabic as their primary language, employing English as needed in contacts outside the home and the ethnic community. Arabic speakers converse in the regional dialect of their home village or town. Some Iraqi Chaldeans speak Chaldean (a Semitic language) as their only domestic language; others know only Iraqi Arabic or combine the two languages. Second-generation Arab Americans usually reach adulthood retaining very little of their parents' Native tongue.

History and Cultural Relations

The first Arabic-speaking immigrants in the United States were a handful of nineteenth-century adventurers and sojourners. It was not until the end of the century that significant numbers of Arab immigrants began making their way to the United States. Their numbers were minuscule by the standards of the day, averaging several thousand per year, with the highest recorded number reaching nine thousand in 1913-14. World War I brought immigration to a virtual standstill. In the years immediately following the war, Arab immigration returned to its prewar level only to be restricted again by the legislation of the 1920s.

Many of the early immigrants left homes in Greater Syria, an Arab province of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. In the postwar period, the province was partitioned into separate political entities (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan) under British and French rule. Although the area remains predominantly Arab and Muslim culturally, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish ethnoreligious minorities constitute its cultural mosaic. Many of the early immigrants were drawn from these minorities, especially certain Christian denominations (Maronites, Melkites, and Eastern Orthodox). Others included a small number of Muslims and Druze, as well as smaller numbers of Iraqi Chaldeans and Yemeni Muslims.

In general, the early immigrants were mostly illiterate or semiliterate, unskilled, single males, who emigrated without their families. Of the approximately 60,000 who entered the United States between 1899 and 1910, some 53 percent were illiterate, and 68 percent were single males. A notable exception was a small group of literati (writers, poets, artists, Journalists) who settled in places like New York and Boston. Politically rather than economically motivated, this group spawned an important school of modern Arabic literature. They formed the Pen League (al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya ) under the leadership of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), the celebrated author of The Prophet.

The early immigrants tended to settle in the cities and towns of the Northeast and Midwest, in states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. By 1940 about a fifth of the estimated 350,000 Arabs lived in just three citiesNew York, Boston, and Detroitmostly in Ethnic neighborhoods ("Little Syrias"). Many worked their way across America as peddlers of dry goods and other sundry items, reaching virtually every state of the Union. Some homesteaded on the Great Plains, and others settled in southern rural areas.

A second wave of Arab immigration to the United States occurred after World War II. The influx included many more Muslims than the previous one. It also included refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 Palestine war, as well as professionals and university students who elected to remain Permanently in the United States. These trends accelerated after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a watershed for both the Middle East and Arab immigration to the United States. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a massive influx of Arab Immigrants from Lebanon, Iraq, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Yemen, Egypt, and other Arab countries. Many had been displaced by war and political upheaval.

The early Arab immigrants followed a fairly smooth assimilation into mainstream society. Several generations later their descendants have achieved high social mobility. Some are household names: Danny Thomas, Ralph Nader, Christa McAuliffe, Paul Anka, Casey Kasem, Bobby Rahall, F. Murray Abraham. In comparison, the second-wave Immigrants have had a mixed time of it. Many have prospered economically, especially those in the professions and business. But others, particularly in the period following the June 1967 war, have had to contend with demeaning stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination stemming from the oil crisis, Middle East terrorism, and U.S. involvement in the region. These problems are more pronounced in areas where large numbers of recent arrivals reside.


Arab Americans are highly integrated into the U.S. and Canadian economies. Both immigrant and assimilated Arabs are heavily involved in the retail business trade. In many urban areas, they own and manage grocery stores, supermarkets, candy stores, gasoline stations, and restaurants. Some native-born Arabs own small and medium-sized manufacturing and commercial enterprises; most, however, choose careers in the professions (medicine, law, accounting, engineering, teaching). Many unskilled immigrants, particularly recent arrivals, can be found working in factories or restaurants, but they usually remain in such jobs only until they accumulate sufficient means to enter the retail business world. Although Arabs as a group have not faced economic discrimination, individuals have encountered discrimination in hiring and on the job, mostly in the professions.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage and Family. Arab marriage and kinship practices vary somewhat by religion and recency of arrival, but usually stress lifelong marriages, a preference for religious and ethnic group endogamy, marriage of cousins, extended Families, patrilineal descent, and bifurcate-collateral (descriptive) kinship terminology. Surnames are patrilineal. Data on intermarriage with non-Arabs are virtually nonexistent. Generally, recency of immigration, degree of ethnic group cohesiveness, and religiousness mitigate against interreligious marriages, though marriages across Arab regional and national lines are allowed as long as religious group endogamy is maintained. Arab affiliation is usually traced patrilineally, though women are delegated the responsibility of transmitting ethnic and religious awareness to the children. In many mixed marriages, particularly of Arab men to non-Arab women, the wives often play important roles in promoting Arab cultural heritage within the family and the ethnic community.

Socialization. As with North Americans generally, early socialization takes place in the immediate family. Arab parents are extremely indulgent, though they may resort to physical punishment. Socialization as an Arab takes place in the home, through attendance at "Arabic school" on weekends, and in youth groups at the mosque or church. Weddings, funerals, and other community gatherings offer occasion for further socialization into the ethnic group.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, the primary loyalties and affiliations of Middle Eastern peoples have been to local areas, the village or urban quarter, which were usually homogeneous religious and ethnic units. Not surprisingly, Arabs in America tended to establish ethnically homogeneous church- and mosque-centered communities. In addition, they formed hometown and village clubs and associations. Because immigrants from the same village or town were often scattered in many parts of the United States and elsewhere, these associations often acquired a national or even international scope. Hometown and village affiliations remain strong among recent arrivals and the immigrant population generally, and less so among assimilated Arab Americans.

Political Organization. There is no overarching political structure that groups all Arab Americans. The Christian denominations are separately organized in hierarchical groups that are essentially extensions of churches based in the Middle East. Lacking the hierarchical structure of the Christian churches, local congregations of Muslims are loosely federated with one another according to sect (Sunni, Shia) and to competing Islamic federations in the Middle East.

In the late 1960s Arab Americans began establishing national organizations that transcend religious and hometown/village affiliations. The Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), founded by a group of academics and professionals, was the first such organization. Eventually larger organizations appeared in the 1970s and 1980s (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; National Association of Arab-Americans; American Arab Institute). The impetus behind the emergence of these organizations was the perceived need to present an Arab-American voice on U.S. foreign policy, combat demeaning stereotypes and discrimination, and encourage Arab Americans to become actively involved in the electoral process. Although these groups are highly visible, they represent only a small fraction of the Arab American population.

Social Control and Conflict. Arab Americans generally resolve disputes through the legal system. The population is law-abiding, and contrary to popular images, Arab Americans have not been involved in terrorist activities. Rather, they have been the targets of sporadic intentional violence, including several bombings and arson fires that killed two people and injured nearly a dozen others in the 1980s.


Religious Beliefs and Practices. Islam is the youngest of the monotheistic religions. Established in the seventh century, Islam's central tenet is the oneness of God. Humankind is called on to obey God's law and prepare for the Day of Judgment. Muslims view the Prophet Muhammad as the last in a long succession of prophets going back to Abraham. Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet who possessed miracle-working powers. The Qur'an places emphasis on his virgin birth. Muslims do not, however, recognize the divinity of Christ or accept that he was crucified, claiming instead that God intervened at the last moment. Shia Muslims differ from Sunni (orthodox) Islam over the rightful succession of the Caliphate (leader) of the early Muslim community and over the role and powers of the ulama (religious scholars or clergy). The majority of Arab American Muslims are Sunni; Arab American Shia Muslims are mostly from Lebanon and to a lesser extent from North Yemen and Iraq.

Arab Christians are divided between Eastern rite churches (Syrian Antiochian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic) and Latin rite Uniate churches (Maronite, Melkite, and Chaldean). Originally, all Middle Eastern denominations belonged to churches that followed Eastern rites. The Uniate churches eventually split from the Eastern churches and affiliated with the Latin church in Rome. Although they formally recognize the authority of the Roman pope and conform to Latin rites, the Uniate churches maintain their own patriarchs and internal autonomy. The Middle Eastern churches, Eastern as well as Uniate, allow priests to marry, though not bishops, and maintain their separate liturgies, often in an ancient language (Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, and so on).

Religious Practitioners. Islam lacks a hierarchical church structure. The ulama are essentially teachers or scholars, lacking real authority, though Shia Islam as practiced in non-Arab Iran invests the ulama with special occult powers and authority in social matters. The Middle Eastern churches are structured in rigid hierarchies, and priests often command substantial respect and authority in local affairs.

Ceremonies. Strictly speaking, Islam recognizes only three religious holidays: Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha. Other holidays, like the Prophet's birthday, are celebrated by some communities and not others. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is the time of fasting that precedes Eid al-Fitr. The fast requires complete abstinence from food, drink, tobacco, and sex from sunrise to sunset during the entire month. Eid al-Fitr ("End of the Fast") marks the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha ("Feast of the Sacrifice") commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to God. The holiday at the end of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, falls on a different day each year owing to the differences between the Islamic lunar calendar and the Western solar calendar. The Eastern rite churches differ from the Latin churches on the timing of Easter and Christmas celebrations. Easter is celebrated the Sunday after Passover, and Christmas is celebrated on the Epiphany, which falls on January 6.


Abraham, Sameer Y., and Nabeel Abraham, eds. (1983). Arabs in the New World. Detroit: Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University.

Abu-Laban, Baha (1980). An Olive Branch on the Family Tree: The Arabs in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Abu-Laban, Baha, and Michael W. Suleiman, eds. (1989). Arab Americans: Continuity and Change. Belmont, Mass.: Association of Arab-American University Graduates.

Hooglund, Eric J. (1987). Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Naff, Alixa (1985). Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Orfalea, Gregory (1988). Before the Flames. Austin: University of Texas Press.


Arab Americans

views updated May 17 2018

Arab Americans

For more information on Arab history and culture, seeVol. 1: Algerians, Egyptians, Libyans, Moroccans, Sudanese, Tunisians; and Vol. 3: Alawis, Bahrainis, Bedu, Druze, Emirians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Ma'dan, Maronites, Omanis, Palestinians, Qataris, Saudis, Syrians,, Yazidis, and Yemenis.


The first Arabs to immigrate in large numbers to the United States were Lebanese Christians in the 1880s (see Lebanese Americans ). Lebanese Muslims began to immigrate to America in the early 1900s and were joined by other Arabs, mostly Palestinians. Arab immigration to the United States continued in a steady stream until 1924, when the United States placed severe restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed in from each country. Arab countries were given extremely low quotas; for example, only 100 Syrians were allowed to enter the United States each year. Arab immigrants continued to trickle in to America for the next few decades, but sizeable immigration did not resume until U.S. immigration reforms were introduced in 1965, opening the doors to much greater numbers of Arabs. The humiliating defeat of Arab forces by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 triggered a sharp rise in Arab immigration to the United States. Since 1970, over 10,000 Arabs each year have immigrated to America.

Early Arab immigrants were mostly poor, uneducated farmers hoping to earn money quickly and then return to their homelands. The majority were Christian. Many became traders or peddlers. Others took factory jobs, especially in the Detroit auto industry. Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, continue to lure Arab immigrants today; the Detroit-Dearborn area currently boasts the largest Arab American population in the United States.

Arab immigrants to the United States since World War II (1939–45) differ in a number of ways from those who came before. The majority are Muslim. They are mostly well-educated professionals or students seeking higher education. Whereas earlier Arab immigrants tended to take up the life of the traveling salesperson (both men and women worked as peddlers), newer immigrants are more likely to settle down in large cities and work in their various professions. Lebanese immigrants dominated earlier waves, while recent waves have brought large numbers of Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Jordanians.

When Palestine was partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state in 1947, and the nation of Israel was formed in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes. Many decided to immigrate to the United States, at least temporarily. Civil unrest and a lack of economic opportunities in their former homeland led a great number to decide to stay in America permanently.

The Egyptian Revolution in 1952 drove many wealthy Egyptians out of Egypt when their property was confiscated and their businesses nationalized. As a result, Arab countries suffered a severe "brain drain" with 90,915 Arabs immigrating to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them (90%) professionals. In the past few decades, other Arabs, such as Yemenis, Iraqis, and North Africans, have also immigrated to the United States in search of a better life than that available to them in their conflict-ridden homelands.

Getting an exact count of the Arab American population is impossible for a number of reasons. Immigration records are misleading because early Arab immigrants were often listed as "Turks" (since Lebanon was under the rule of the Ottoman Turkish Empire). More recent immigrants frequently come to the United States from some other country than their home-land, as so many are displaced Palestinian refugees, and they are registered according to their last residence rather than as Palestinians. Some are still listed under vague categories such as "other Asian" or "other African." Self-reported statistics on the U.S. Census are also incomplete because Arab Americans may fear revealing themselves as such due to anti-Arab sentiments in America. Others classify themselves in terms that are difficult to distinguish clearly as Arab.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted 1,189,731 Arab Americans. An acceptable estimate, however, of the true current Arab American population is 3,500,000. Almost half have arrived in the United States since 1990. Arab Americans live all across the United States, though the largest population (over 69,000) is in the New York area. Michigan has the highest percentage (1.2%) of Arab Americans in its state population. About half of the total Arab American population lives in the states of California (190,890), New York (120,370), Michigan (115, 284), Florida (77,461), and New Jersey (71,770). Other states with large numbers of Arab Americans include Ohio (54,014), Massachusetts (52,756), Illinois (52,191), Pennsylvania (48,678), and Virginia (41,230). In proportion to the total state population, Rhode Island (7,012; or 0.7%) has a significant Arab American population as well.

Christian Arab Americans have tended to become Americanized quite quickly. Many early immigrants Americanized their names in order to fit in with mainstream American society. More recent immigrants find less need to change their names in the new atmosphere of multiculturalism in the United States. However, some still use Americanized names in public and reserve their Arabic names for family use. The Arabic language is an integral part of the Islamic religion, so Muslim Arab Americans retain at least some fluency in Arabic, even into the third and fourth generations. The majority, however, are also fluent in English. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, although 70% of Arab Americans spoke a language other than English at home, 65% also spoke English very well. Christian Arab Americans are more likely to lose their fluency in Arabic as soon as the second generation.

Muslim Arabs hesitated to immigrate to the United States in the early years of Arab immigration because America was a Christian nation, by and large. There were no mosques in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although mosques have been built and Muslim communities have developed in several regions of the United States, Muslim Arab Americans still find it difficult at times to follow some of their religious practices, such as praying facing Mecca five times a day or fasting during the month of Ramadan. However, Islam does provide alternate ways of meeting religious obligations, and many Muslim Arab Americans choose to give extra money to charity or spend time educating young Muslims in place of missed prayers or fasting. Second- and later-generation Muslim Arab Americans often leave their parents' religion as they become Americanized and/or marry non-Arabs.

Because Druze religious leaders are not allowed to leave their homeland in the Middle East, Druze Arab Americans have never built a place of worship in the United States. Druze are also very protective of their faith and maintain a high degree of privacy or even secrecy around their religion. Many Druze Arab Americans attend Christian churches instead, as Druze and Christians worship the same God.

Christian, Druze, and Muslim Arab Americans almost never intermarry, nor do Sunni and Shia Muslim Arab Americans or Maronite and Melkite Christian Arab Americans. Arab Americans do intermarry, however, with non-Arabs. Muslim Arab Americans discourage marrying non-Arabs, but some do, especially as later generations become less attached to their religious and cultural traditions.

Intermarriage with non-Arabs creates difficulties for both parties, however, particularly in the area of family relations. The extended Arab family, with its complex and close relationships, is quite foreign to Western Europeans who focus on the nuclear family unit. Non-Arab American spouses can become quite frustrated with the multitude of in-laws who drop in at any time without warning, call at all hours, help themselves to food from the kitchen, etc., all of which are expected in Arab culture. Arab Americans may not understand their non-Arab spouses' frustrations or lack of connection with their own extended families.

Arab culture also has great respect for the elderly, and aged parents and grandparents are always cared for at home. Nursing homes do not exist in Arab countries, and Arab Americans almost never make use of them in the United States. This can be another source of tension between Arab and non-Arab American spouses, as most non-Arab Americans are not used to caring for aging relatives in their homes.

Family and food are central elements of Arab culture, and this remains true for Arab Americans. Both family and food are enjoyed by Arab Americans at picnic festivals known as mahrajan. Arab foods such as hummus, kibbe, fattoush salad, and baklava have become popular in mainstream American society today, thanks to the many Arab Americans who opened Middle Eastern restaurants in cities across the United States.

Arab Americans also place a high value on education. Although the earliest immigrants were mostly uneducated and illiterate, they made sure that their children were given the best education available in America. Many of today's Arab immigrants are students seeking higher education. In 2000 some 85% of Arab Americans over the age of 25 had at least a high school diploma (in contrast to only 80% of the U.S. population as a whole), and 41% (almost double the total U.S. rate of 24%) had a bachelor's degree or higher.

Perhaps most central to an Arab's heart is poetry, and Arab Americans have lost none of their love for this art. Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran became internationally known with the publication of his book of mystical verse, The Prophet. Written in English, The Prophet has since been translated into 20 languages. More than 4 million copies have been sold in the United States alone.

Other Arab Americans who have contributed to American society in the arts include actors Danny and Marlo Thomas, Jamie Farr, Kathy Najimy, Salma Hayek, and Tony Shalhoub; musicians Paul Anka, Sammy Hagar, Frank Zappa, Paula Abdul, Tiffany, and Shakira; and children's book author Naomi Shihab Nye. Among the many Arab American contributors to the world of politics are U.S. senators George Mitchell, John Sununu, and Spencer Abraham; Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services and the first Arab American appointed to a Cabinet post; Helen Thomas, former dean of the White House press corps; consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader; John Zogby, founder of Zogby International polling service; and retired General John Abizaid, commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2003 to 2007. The co-founder of Apple, Inc, Steve Jobs, and the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Candy Lightner, are both Arab Americans. Just one of the numerous Arab American sports figures is Doug Flutie, winner of the 1984 NFL Heisman Trophy.

Because early Arab immigrants to the United States were mostly Christian and tended to scatter across the country in their work as traders, they met with little overt discrimination or prejudice from other Americans. They blended in with Christian mainstream America, and their small, scattered numbers did not pose an economic threat to established communities. Later Muslim Arab immigrants, however, stood out in sharp relief from mainstream America, with their exotic religious and cultural customs. They were also more likely to settle together in Muslim Arab American communities, presenting a more noticeable perceived threat to non-Arab Americans.

Since World War II, anti-Arab sentiment in the United States has been on the rise. The United States has consistently supported Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict that began in 1947, although the United States has also participated in efforts to bring peace to the warring factions. Jewish Americans, whose population is about twice that of Arab Americans, are quite vocal in their support of Israel. Such dissension creates a difficult situation for Arab Americans who are then seen as "the enemy." U.S. politicians hesitate to accept any support from Arab Americans for fear of alienating Jewish American voters.

In general, Arab Americans are stereotyped in mainstream American culture as terrorists and/or greedy oil barons. With the heightening terrorist activity in the Middle East and beyond, the oil embargo of the 1970s and rising oil prices since then, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and the Gulf War of the 1990s, anti-Arab sentiment in the United States steadily increased. The tragic events of 11 September 2001 brought anti-Arab feelings to a head, resulting in many hate crimes as well as legislative reforms and security procedures that single out Arabs for suspicion. Arab Americans are often subject to discrimination, harassment, and even violence.

Arab Americans have formed a number of organizations to address these problems and work towards legal, political, and educational solutions. Jewish American and Arab American groups have joined together to begin establishing better relations between their peoples. Many other individuals and groups throughout America have also initiated efforts to transcend fear and prejudice since 9/11, with varying degrees of success so far.

Although almost two-thirds of Arab Americans are Christian, and many Arab American Muslim women do not wear headscarves or other identifiably "Muslim" clothing, the headscarf in particular has become a focal point of controversy and tension in American and other Western European countries. Muslim Arab American women who choose to wear a headscarf for religious reasons face the prospect of confusion, fear, and discrimination from other Americans. Muslim women are likely to be refused jobs or promotions if they refuse to take off their headscarf, young girls suffer bullying at school, and those electing to travel by air may be subjected to invasive searches simply because they "look like" terrorists. The conflicts between religious freedom and civil liberties versus national security and the promotion of a secular public society in America find a focal point in Arab American women's choice of headgear.


Arab American Institute. "Healing the Nation: The Arab American Experience after 9/11," (16 June 2008).

Ashabranner, Brent. An Ancient Heritage: The Arab-American Minority. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Brittingham, Angela, and G. Patricia de la Cruz. "We the People of Arab Ancestry in the United States: Census 2000 Special Reports," U.S. Census Bureau, (16 June 2008).

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore. Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Mindel, Charles H., Robert W. Habenstein, and Roosevelt Wright, Jr., ed. Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, 3rd ed. New York: Elsevier, 1988.

Naff, Alixa. The Arab Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

Arab Americans

views updated Jun 08 2018


ARAB AMERICANS come from many different nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Unified, to some extent, by common cultural traditions, language, and religion, the Arab American community in the United States includes peoples from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen. Today, Arab Americans live in all fifty states, with the heaviest concentrations in California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. More than half the Arab American population lives in large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Almost half are descended from immigrants who came to the United States between 1880 and 1940. According to 1990 census figures, approximately 940,000 Arab Americans reside in the United States. However studies show that Arab Americans have been significantly undercounted; more recent estimates put their numbers closer to 3.5 million.

Early Settlement and Immigration

The first significant wave of Arab immigration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century with the arrival of Syrians from what was then called Greater Syria. The area, which included the modern countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, as well as the region of Palestine, had been part of the Ottoman Empire. Approximately ninety percent of these new arrivals were Christian; most were farmers seeking better opportunities, while others left to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army. Between 1880 and 1914, approximately 100,000 Syrians came to the United States. Although not all the immigrants were of Syrian or Turkish origin, immigration officials tended to classify them as such.

At first, many intended only to stay in the United States for a short time, but they soon decided to remain permanently, because of better opportunities. Arab Americans were lured by the prospect of making money and being their own boss and many became peddlers. In time,

some took their profits and opened dry goods businesses or other retail establishments. Others found work in the automobile plants in Detroit. Soon "Little Syrias," as they were called, began appearing in many large cities of the United States, each having its own grocery stores, newspapers, churches, and fraternal and religious organizations.

The second wave of immigrants came to the United States in the years following World War II, differing in important ways from those who came earlier. Unlike the previous arrivals who were often uneducated, the newer Arab immigrants were more likely to be professionals with college degrees. One other significant difference was religion. The majority of new Arab immigrants were members of the Islamic faith. Of the Arab Americans who came to the United States after World War II, the Palestinians are by far the largest group.

Many immigrants left to escape the political turmoil that continued to plague much of the Middle East. With the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, thousands of Palestinians departed. The numbers of Arab immigrants to the United States rose again following the Israeli defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967. Besides those fleeing political unrest and war, some Arab immigrants, such as the wealthy Egyptians, whose property and assets the government seized as part of a nationalization of Egyptian businesses, came to the United States in search of better economic and educational opportunities.

Unlike the first wave of Arab immigrants, who often struggled to master a language and new customs, many of this second wave have enjoyed a smoother transition to the American way of life. Many immigrants already spoke English and had skills that broadened their employment opportunities. Others have come on student visas to finish their educations in American colleges and universities. The immigration of educated men and women resulted in a severe "brain drain" in the Arab world, particularly between 1968 and 1971, as educated Arabs, seeing that there were few jobs to be had, elected to stay in the United States.

Culture and Tradition

One outcome of the Arab defeat in 1967 was the growth of Arab nationalism and ethnic pride among Arab Americans. As this consciousness grew, so did the vitality of the Arab American community. As a result, certain institutions such as Arab newspapers and magazines, which had been decreasing in popularity and readership, took on a new vitality. The second wave of immigrants also founded clubs and organizations such as the Association of Arab American University Graduates, formed in 1967, and the Arab American Institute, created in 1985 to influence United States foreign policy toward the Arab world. At the same time, Arab Americans have become more active in local, state, and national affairs.

The second wave of Arab immigration has also spurred other Americans to learn more about Arab culture

and history. College campuses across the country developed programs that included the study of Arab languages, history, art, music, and religion. Among the most pervasive Arab American influences on American culture has been the cuisine. Thirty years ago, many Americans were unfamiliar with even the rudiments of Arab cooking. Today, scores of Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries have exposed many Americans to the multitude of Arab dishes. Perhaps one reason for the recent popularity of Arab food is that it is healthier than many traditional American dishes.

Notable Arab Americans

A number of individual Arab Americans have made important contributions to American culture, science, politics, literature, and sports. Some of the more noteworthy Arab Americans in politics include consumer activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, former senator George Mitchell of Maine, Secretary of Heath and Human Services during the Clinton Administration, Donna Shalala, the former Governor of New Hampshire, John Sununu, and the noted White House reporter for United Press International, Helen Thomas. Frank Zappa, a musician and composer who rose to popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, was of Arab American descent. Other notable Arab Americans include Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher-astronaut who lost her life when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986; NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, who also established the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, an organization dedicated to helping families of autistic children; and Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.


Abraham, Sameer, ed. Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University, 1983.

Ashabranner, Brent. An Ancient Heritage: The Arab-American Minority. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Jaafari, L. "The Brain Drain to the United States: The Migration of Jordanian and Palestinian Professionals and Students." Journal of Palestine Studies 3 (Autumn 1973): 119–131.

McCarus, Ernest N., ed. The Development of Arab American Identity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1985.

Meg GreeneMalvasi

See alsoImmigration .

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