Lebanese Americans

views updated May 29 2018


by Paula Hajar and J. Sydney Jones


The earliest immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean were generally lumped together under the common rubric of Syrian-Lebanese, and it is consequently difficult to separate the number of ethnic Lebanese immigrants from ethnic Syrian immigrants. Neither of these countries came into being as nation-states until the mid-twentieth century; thus records and statistics for both groups are generally combined for early immigration patterns. Such difficulties with early immigration records are further exacerbated because of religious affiliation, both Muslim as well as myriad Christian denominations, which cut across national and ethnic lines in the region.

Early Lebanese settlers in America came mostly from Beirut, Mount Hermon, and surrounding regions of present-day Lebanon, a nation located at the extreme eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Syria forms Lebanon's northern and eastern borders. Israel lies directly south of Lebanon, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Lebanon's land mass is 4,015 square miles (10,400 square kilometers), and its population is estimated at between 3 and 3.5 million. The capital, Beirut, was often referred to as the "Paris of the Middle East." Beirut was also considered the commercial center of the Middle East before the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. Lebanon is named for the major mountain range that runs north to south through the middle of the country. The Cedars of Lebanon, famous since Biblical times, are now protected in a few mountain groves. Arabic is the official language of the country, and is even spoken by the minority population of Lebanese Jews. The Armenian population speaks mostly Armenian or Turkish, while Assyrians speak Syriac. French and English are also widely spoken. A land of varied terrain, Lebanon encompasses coastline, mountain, and fertile growing regions such as the Bekáa Valley, which is a primary cereal-producing region. The population of the country is made up of ethnic groups from every Middle Eastern country, which is reflective of Lebanon's long history.

In Lebanon, there is no religious majority. Both Muslims and Christians have many sectarian subdivisions, 17 in all. Among the Muslim population, the Shi'a are the most numerous with about 35 percent, the Sunni number around 23 percent, and the Druze comprise 6 percent. Christians, who account for under two-fifths of the total Lebanese population, include the Maronites (the most numerous and the most powerful) at 22 percent, the Eastern Orthodox at 10 percent; Melkites (Greek Catholics) and Armenians, each at 6 percent, and Protestants at 2.5 percent. Through Lebanon's unwritten National Pact of 1943, political power was apportioned between Christians and Muslims. Originally, the ratio was six to five, Christian to Muslim. Since 1992, power has been shared equally by both groups. Various government offices are still reserved for specific sects: the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim; the president is always a Maronite, and the speaker of the house is always a Shiite. Throughout its history, there have been movements within Lebanon to "deconfessionalize"to create a one-person, one-vote system instead of apportioning representation and political offices by religious affiliation. These efforts are ongoing at the end of the twentieth century.


From 1516 until 1916, when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by the victors of World War I, the area that is now Lebanon was part of the Ottoman province of Greater Syria. At the time of the first immigration wave to the West, Lebanon was not yet a sovereign nation; Because the Ottomans administered their subject peoples according to their religious affiliation, early immigrants from Greater Syria identified with their religious sect rather than any nationality. A sense of national identity did not begin to form among the Greater Syrians until the 1920s, when Lebanon became a separate French protectorate. This identity strengthened in the 1940s, when Lebanon gained independence.

As a witness to the rise and fall of the Mesopotamian, Hittite, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek empires, Lebanon has a distinct history. In the second and early first millennium B.C., the Canaanites, who became known as Phoenicians, were the first inhabitants of Lebanon. Famous as sailors and traders, the Phoenicians lived along the Lebanese coast in the port cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Biblos. They also founded colonies in North Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean. A succession of peoples, including Persians, Greeks, and Romans, challenged Phoenician power. With the rise of Islam in the East, the population adopted Arabic culture but also maintained its multi-religious character as the mountains of Lebanon became a haven for various religious sects. After the Ottoman Empire gained general control of the area in 1516, Lebanon continued to maintain a feudal system of rule by local chieftains. After 1860, the year many Christians were massacred by the Druze in Lebanon and Damascus, the French, who had economic and strategic interests in Lebanon since the Crusades, created a protectorate. During the next 50 years, the people of Lebanon became increasingly interested in Western culture, independence from the Ottomans, and a revival of the Arabic language.


With the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, England and France divided the area into English and French protectorates. England assumed control of what became Palestine and Jordan, and France took over what became Syria and Lebanon. At this time, France divided Mount Lebanon from Syria and, adding the coastal area, created an entity called "The State of Greater Lebanon." In 1926 the Republics of Lebanon and Syria were created, but it was not until 1941 that each gained full independence, and the last French troops did not depart until 1946.

After gaining independence from the French in 1943, Lebanon became known as the "Switzerland of the Middle East." However, its delicate political and demographic equilibrium was shattered in 1975 when civil war erupted. The political inequities that had existed within Lebanon for decades were exacerbated by severe economic divisions, the resistance of those in power to addressing the needs of the poor, and the weakness of the public sector. For 16 years, Lebanon was torn apart by fighting between Christians and Muslims. Although a tentative peace agreement in 1991 ended the war, many problems remain. Several thousand Syrian troops, who entered Lebanon during the civil war, remain in the country. Relations with Israel have long been contentious and border skirmishes are fought periodically between the two nations. Israel also occupies areas of southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Lebanon is striving to reconstruct itself physically, economically, and politically.


Immigrants from the region of the former Greater Syria account for close to two-thirds of the estimated 2.5 million people in the United States who are of Arabic descent. Christian Lebanese were the first Arabic-speaking people to come to the Americas in large numbers. Their earliest immigration to the United States began in the late 1870s, peaked in 1914 at 9,023, dropped to a few hundred a year during World War I, and rose again during the early

"W herever they went, Lebanese carried with them their derbakke, as small drum held under the arm and played with the finger tips. To the beat of the derbakke and the music from their voices, they danced traditional circle and handkerchief dances."

Saud Joseph, Where the Twain Shall Meet-Lebanese in Cortland County, (New York Folklore Quarterly, v. XX, no. 3, September, 1964).

1920s, fluctuating between 1,600 and 5,000. Later, with the passage of the Immigration Quota Act (19291965), it dropped to a few hundred a year. When the second wave of Arab immigration to the United States began in the late 1960s, the descendants of the early Lebanese immigrants were in their third generation and had almost completely assimilated into mainstream America. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Arabic-speaking population of the United States began to grow again, and Lebanese Americans assumed a higher ethnic profile.

Many factors spurred large-scale Lebanese immigration to America in the late nineteenth century. For instance, many emigrants were inspired by tales of American freedom and equality that were told by American missionaries (doctors and teachers). Also, the world fairs that took place in Philadelphia (1876), Chicago (1893), and St. Louis (1904) exposed participating Greater Syrians to Americans and American society. For the majority of Lebanese emigrants, the determining factors were economic ambition and family competition. For many Lebanese families, having a son or daughter in America became a visible mark of status. Young men were the first to emigrate, followed by young women and later wives and entire families. Some villages lost their most talented young people. Between the late 1870s and World War I (1914-1918), Lebanon lost over one quarter of its population to emigration. During World War I, it lost about another fifth to famine. Immigrants abroad played a major role in the country's postwar reconstruction and subsequent independence.

The 1975-1991 civil war sparked a new wave of emigration from Lebanon. Many Lebanese went to Europe. Those who came to the United States reinvigorated Lebanese American ethnic life. Most of the new immigrants were better educated and were more conscious of their Arab identity than their predecessors. Many Lebanese Americans who are Muslims devoutly maintain their Islamic traditions and are cautious about assimilating fully into American culture.


Lebanese Americans have settled all over the United States. Peddlers who traveled to New England and upstate New York communities, as well as those in the Midwest and the West, often stayed on and opened general stores. Lebanese developed important communities in Utica, New York; Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield, Massachusetts; Fall River, Rhode Island; and Danbury, Connecticut. They also settled in New Orleans, Louisiana; Jacksonville, Florida; Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan; and Toledo, Ohio. Some of the largest concentrations of Lebanese Americans are found in the Northeast and Midwest. Detroit has one of the largest Lebanese American communities in the country, and there are new communities in Los Angeles and Houston.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The first Lebanese who came to America were considered exotictheir baggy pants (shirwal ) and fezzes made them stand out even among other immigrants. Later, when enclave living and the ubiquitous peddler made immigrants from Greater Syria a visible presence, attitudes toward them darkened. During a Senate debate on immigration quotas in 1929, Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania referred to Syrian-Lebanese as the "trash of the Mediterranean." Working as peddlers allowed Lebanese immigrants to meet regularly with other Americans, and helped them to quickly absorb the English language and American culture. Service in the American armed forces during World Wars I and II also hastened the assimilation of Lebanese Americans. Many Lebanese American women worked in war-related industries during World War II, which hastened their assimilation into American culture. By the end of World War II, it was not uncommon for Lebanese American women to work outside the home or family business. Lebanese Americans worked hard to assimilate rapidly into mainstream American society. Many Anglicized their names, joined Western churches, and focused their energies on becoming financially successful.

In the late 1990s, Lebanese Americans faced many of the same problems as other Arab Americans. They have often been the victims of negative stereotyping, especially in films, theater, books, and cartoons. Lebanese Americans have also experienced anti-Arab sentiments in American politics. Because the United States has strong ties with Israel, Arab Americans have often felt that American politicians have little interest in understanding Arab hostility toward Israel. During the 1980s, some political candidates rejected financial support from Arab Americans in order not to appear unsympathetic toward Israel.


Lebanese Americans are a deeply religious people. In Lebanese culture, age is greatly respected, and respect for parents is extremely valued. Family is at the core of Lebanese social identity and loyalty to family has traditionally superseded all other allegiances. Each person is expected to protect the family's honor. In Lebanese culture, roles are often defined by gender, and this social definition anchors both men and women in their respective roles. Women are to be protected by other family members. Men are the undisputed heads of families, and take the concerns of other members into consideration. In Lebanese American families, the welfare of the group is considered more important than the needs of the individual. Lebanese Americans are known for their elaborate and warm hospitality, and it is considered rude not to offer food and drink to a guest.

Americanization, with its emphasis on youth, personal achievement, individualism, and independence, has eroded some of these traditional beliefs and practices. The Arab respect for age, though still stronger in comparison to the larger society, has decreased. Though the family is highly valued among Lebanese Americans, the belief in family honor has lessened, in part because families are not longer living together in close circles. Family roles are less gender-defined in the United States. Hospitality has also changed: doors are locked, schedules are tight, and people are preoccupied with their own personal concerns. New immigrants who come expecting the kind of help from settled relatives that they themselves would have offered back in the village are often sorely disappointed; they soon discover that they are expected, like everyone else in America, to make it on their own.


Some common Lebanese dishes are described in this section, and it should be noted that the seasoning used in Lebanese cuisine is always subtle. Kibbee is ground lamb meat mixed with bulgur wheat and eaten either baked or raw. Yellow and green squash, called koosa, are hollowed out, stuffed with rice and ground lamb meat, and cooked in a tomato sauce. The insides of the squash are often fried in olive oil as a separate dish. The ground lamb and rice stuffing mixture (mahshee ) is sometimes wrapped in grape leaves (wara' 'anab ) and served with yogurt, or in cabbage leaves (malfoof ) and served with lemon juice. Sfeeha are small, open square pies of ground lamb meat and pine nuts, sometimes made with a thin tomato sauce.

Lebanese food is widely available in gourmet food shops and health food restaurants. Pita bread, hummus (chickpea dip), baba ghanouj (eggplant dip), and tabbouleh ( a salad of parsley and bulgur or cracked wheat), have become mainstays on health food menus. Lebanese Americans also eat fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, yogurt and yogurt cheese (labnee ), pickles, hot peppers, olives, and pistachio nuts. One of the most popular Lebanese desserts is baqlawa, which is filo dough laced with sugar syrup and wrapped around finely chopped walnuts. The national alcoholic beverage of Lebanon is 'arak, which is a liqueur flavored with aniseed.


Western dress is the norm in Lebanon and among most Lebanese Americans. Religiously observant Muslim women wear the hijab, a long-sleeved coat or dress, and a scarf (often white) that completely covers the hair. Young girls and married women can decide whether or not to wear the hijab.

Traditional Lebanese clothing is worn only by performers at ethnic dance festivals. Men wear the shirwal (baggy black pants that fit at the shin), high black boots, white blousy shirts, dark vests, and a fez. Women wear long dresses with embroidered bodices and side panels, and tall hats with long white veils.


Different sects within Lebanon celebrate different religious holidays. Christians celebrate the feast days of saints, as well as Easter and Christmas. Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The Orthodox Easter must also come after Passover, and thus Western Easter often falls on a different Sunday than Orthodox Easter. Muslims celebrate three major holidays: Ramadan (the 30-day period of daytime fasting); 'Eid al Fitr, a five-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan; and 'Eid al-Adha, the "Feast of the Sacrifice," which commemorates Abraham's agreement with God that he would sacrifice his son Ishmael. Lebanon's National Independence Day, which is celebrated on November 22, receives little attention from Lebanese Americans.


Except for higher-than-average incidences of anemia and lactose intolerance, Lebanese have no incidence of medical disease specific to them as a group. As a rule, they support the conventional medical establishment.


Most Lebanese speak Arabic. Arabic is a poetic language, and poets are prized in Arab culture. In its first 50 years in America, the Lebanese American community enjoyed a golden age of letters, with the literature of such New York experimental poets as Khalil Gibran, Ameen Rihany, and Elia Abu-Madey casting their influence on literary circles of the Middle East. However, in their desire to embrace American culture, many Lebanese Americans did little to teach their American-born children to read Arabic. Immigration quota restrictions accelerated the problem. Without a continuous influx of new readership, once-flourishing Arab American newspapers and journals experienced a steep decline. Christian churches streamlined their Arabic services, and changed many of them to English. Newly arrived Lebanese immigrants to the United States, however, have reinvigorated Arabic language usage within the community. Many Arabic churches now have bilingual announcements, bulletins, and sermons, and the business signs in Arab commercial neighborhoods are often painted prominently in Arabic. In particular, Lebanese Muslim immigrants have contributed to the increase in Arabic usage and have developed Arabic-language classes for children.


Greetings in Arabic are elaborate, and there is usually a response and counter-response to every one. Ahlein "Welcome"; or the longer Ahlan wa Sahlan "You are with your people and in a level place"(a greeting appropriate at the door or when being introduced to someone for the first time); the more casual Marhaba "Hello," responded to with Marhabteen "Two hellos"; to which the response is Maraahib "A bunch of hellos." Similarly, the response to the morning greeting, Sabaah al-kheir "The morning is good," is Sabaah an-noor "The morning is light." The evening greeting and response are Masa al-kheir and Masa n-noor. Leave-takings are extremely elaborate: the person leaving says Bkhatrak to a woman, Khatrik and to a group, Khatirkum, which translates as "By your leave." The response is Ma'a salaame "With safety," or "Go in peace"; to which the counter-response is Allay salmak, or Allay salmik to a female, and Allay salimkum to a group"May God keep you safe." The holiday greeting is 'Eid Mubarak "Holiday blessings"; and Kull sane w'inte saalim "Every year and you are safe." Sahteen is the Arabic toast"May your good health be twofold." Arabic is filled with references to God. For example, the most common response to Keif haalak? "How are you?" is Nushkar Allah "(We) Thank God." Often heard after a statement of intention are the words In sha Allah "If God wills it." Such phrases imply the belief in human impotence to control the affairs of the world.

Family and Community Dynamics

Traditionally, Lebanese families and extended families operate as a unit, relying on each other implicitly in social, financial, and business affairs. The father is the decision maker, and the mother his close advisor. Her domain is the daily life of the children and all that happens within the home; The man's domain is strictly outside the home. The firstborn son plays a special role in the family, for he brings his bride to live with his parents, raises his family in his parents' household, and cares for them in their old age.

As Lebanese American families have adopted the American pattern of nuclear families, the dividing line between gender roles has blurred. Fathers spend more time with their small children, and mothers frequently represent the families in public, for example, at school meetings. Independent households are now the norm, and daughters no longer become part of their marital families. Consequently, sisters share responsibility with their brothers for aging parents.


Because marriage was traditionally an opportunity for a family to strengthen its prestige and economic situation, marriages in Lebanon were often arranged. This custom is still practiced among some conservative Lebanese Americans. To arrange a marriage, parents and other relatives seek out mates for their children. They set up a chaperoned meeting, which allows the prospective couple to get acquainted. Courtship is conducted under the watchful eye of family members and always carries with it a sense of responsibility and purpose. Casual dating is frowned upon by more conservative Lebanese Americans because it can jeopardize the reputations of the couple and families involved. Among assimilated Lebanese Americans, however, dating is the usual form of courtship.

The majority of early Lebanese American immigrants married within their ethnic and religious groups. Many men returned to Lebanon to find a bride, particularly in the years when single men outnumbered single women in the immigrant community. Most of the first American-born generation of Lebanese Americans also married within the community.

Divorce among Lebanese Americans is less common in arranged marriages than in marriages based on love. The basis of the arranged marriage is a contract of shared responsibility and self-sacrifice. There is no expectation that the needs of the individual will be satisfied in the marriage. The purpose of such marriages is to build a family. In fact, divorce on the grounds of personal unhappiness is frowned upon. Since divorce has traditionally been viewed as a source of family shame, families often become involved in solving marital problems.

Lebanese American families often indulge babies and younger children. Boys are coddled, but are expected to be strong and independent. Girls are restrained, taught to work within existing social schemes, and trained to be dependable as well as interdependent. As they mature, girls assume many household responsibilities. They often take charge of the younger siblings or, if the mother is absent, the entire household.


By the time they began immigrating to the United States, the immigrants from Greater Syria had attended British, French, Russian, and American schools in their homeland for half a century or longer. These foreign schools had also stimulated the establishment of local government schools, and many of these schools encouraged the education of girls. When they arrived in the United States, the Lebanese adapted to the American school system and culture. Their attitudes paralleled the evolution of the attitudes of other Americans toward education. By the third generation, the education of girls was considered equal in importance to that of boys. The generation of Lebanese Americans born after World War II attended college at the same rate as the rest of the nation's youth, studying business, medicine, law, pharmacy, computer science, and engineering. Because the vast majority of third-generation Lebanese Americans are middle class, they enjoy a higher educational level than Americans on average.

Many Catholic Lebanese children receive their education at Catholic schools. Muslim Lebanese immigrants to the United States occasionally send their children to Catholic schools, where there is more discipline and emphasis on respect for authority. Many Muslim immigrants have set up Islamic schools, some as supplements to their children's education, and a few as full-day parochial schools that teach Arabic language, history, and culture in addition to basic subjects.


Women have always been the heart of the Lebanese family. Although men have the final say in family decisions, the opinions of women are also valued. Husbands depend on their wives to maintain the household and raise the children. Many Lebanese American women also work outside the home. They often play key roles in running family businesses, and often take over if their husband dies or becomes incapacitated. As Lebanese American men have become more active in public life, women have begun to follow suit. Donna Shalala, a Lebanese American woman, was the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and president of Hunter College in New York City, before becoming President Clinton's secretary of health, education and welfare.


Just as each family must take care of its own, each religious community traditionally takes care of its members. Lebanese Muslims are required to give 2.5 percent of their income, a tithe called zakkat to the needy within the community. Philanthropic efforts within the Lebanese American community also cut across religious lines. One is Save Lebanon, an organization formed in 1982 to bring Lebanese children injured during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, to the United States for medical treatment. More prominent is the Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Established in 1962, it is funded by an organization called Aiding Leukemia-Stricken American Children, American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, and individual donations. Founded by entertainer Danny Thomas (19141991), a Lebanese American, ALSAC and St. Jude's have assumed the leading position in the field of research and treatment of childhood leukemia.


For centuries, religious affiliation in Greater Syria was tantamount to membership in a small nation, or at least a political party. The millet system, which the Ottomans used to divide people into political entities according to religion, gave religion social and political meaning. The millet system also served to create a sense of boundaries among differing sects that went beyond doctrinal disputes. Because brides often converted to the faith of their husbands, all of the major religions within Lebanon competed for converts to their faith. Interfaith marriage was considered taboo.

Although Lebanese Americans include Christians and Muslims, Christians are in the majority. Many Lebanese Jews and a smaller number of Druze are also a part of the Lebanese American community. The vast majority of Lebanese Christians in America belong to one of three Eastern-rite Christian churches: the Maronite, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Melkite/Greek Catholic. Orthodox and Melkite liturgies are in Arabic and Greek; Maronite liturgy is in Arabic and Aramaic. In the United States, all three are sung partly in English.

The differences among these churches are jurisdictional rather than dogmatic. In particular, they differ on the question of the infallibility of the pope in matters of faith. Since its beginnings in the fourth century, the Maronite Church has been steadfast in its allegiance to Rome and the West, and resistant to the Arabic identity embraced by the Eastern Orthodox and Melkite/Greek Catholic churches.

All three churches administer confirmation at Baptism, and use bread soaked in wine for the Eucharist. The marriage ceremony in each rite contains similar components: the blessing of the rings, the crowning of the bride and groom as queen and king, and the sharing of bread and winethe couple's first meal together. In the Orthodox and Melkite churches, the bride and groom walk around the altar as a symbol of their first journey together as a couple.

Orthodox priests can marry, but those who do cannot climb the clerical hierarchy. While Melkite and Maronite Catholic priests in the Middle East are encouraged by their own Eastern canon law to marry, they are forbidden to by Western canon. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, Eastern-rite churches have icons rather than statuary.

Most Lebanese American Muslims arrived after 1965. Generally, Muslims pray five times a day and attend Friday prayers. When no mosque is available, they rent rooms in commercial and business districts where they can go for midday prayers. These small prayer places are called masjids. Muslims are supposed to fast during the daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. Many, including young school-children, do keep the fast.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Upon their arrival in the United States, many Lebanese engaged in peddling. These peddlers carved out routes from New England through the West. Many developed a regular clientele, and eventually opened their own general stores. Some of those who stayed in the city developed their small dry goods businesses into import/export empires. By 1910, there were a handful of Lebanese American millionaires. Other early immigrants were factory workers, particularly those that settled in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, where many Lebanese worked in the auto industry.

The occupational profile of Lebanese Americans is very broad, although they are still disproportionately concentrated in retail occupations. Lebanese Americans tend to be self-employed and enter managerial and professional positions at a higher rate than Americans as a whole. Lebanese Americans are well represented in medicine, law, banking, engineering, and computer science.

Politics and Government

Lebanese American political involvement has revolved around American policies in the Middle East, particularly those relating to Israel. Through the Eastern Federation of Syrian-Lebanese Organizations, which was established in 1932, Lebanese Americans quietly protested the 1948 partitioning of Palestine. Following the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Lebanese Americans began to work with other Arabs to form organizations that promoted their common interests.

Members of the Association of Arab American University Graduates, which was established in 1967, focused on educating the American public about the ArabIsraeli conflict. Five years later, the National Association of Arab Americans was created to lobby the American Congress and White House administrations on Middle Eastern issues. In 1980, former senator James Abourezk established the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to combat defamation of Arab Americans in the media. As conditions in the Middle East continued to worsen during the 1980s Lebanese Americans, along with other Arab Americans, became the targets of government surveillance and civil rights infringements. When the United States bombed Libya in 1986, for example, it was revealed that the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) had a list of thousands of Arab (including Lebanese) and Iranian students, permanent residents, and even U.S. citizens, for possible detention in internment camps in the United States.

From 1985 to 1987 it was illegal for Americans to visit Lebanon. The travel ban was allowed to expire in 1997 with assurances from the Lebanese government of cooperation on anti-terrorism measures and security. Among the Arab American organizations who lobbied was the American Task Force for Lebanon. This group of prominent Lebanese Americans meets regularly with congressmen and administration officials to advise them on American support for the reconstruction of Lebanon, and the normalization of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and the United States.

Lebanese Americans have traditionally supported the Republican party due, in part, to its support of business interests. Lebanese Americans have also been influenced by the Arab American Institute (AAI). The AAI, which was founded in 1985, is designed to foster Arab American participation in American politics, support candidates who champion Arab American causes, and encourage Arab Americans to run for public office. During the 1988 presidential election, the AAI had gathered more than 300 Arab Americans to serve as delegates to the national Democratic convention. At the 1988 Democratic Convention, Lebanese Americans successfully introduced platforms that supported Palestinian statehood and the restoration of Lebanon as a sovereign state. This convention also marked the first time that an Arab American, served as co-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee.

Individual and Group Contributions


Casey Kasem, (1933 ) is America's most famous disc jockey and originator of radio show American Top 40, the host of American Top 10, and the principal voice-over for NBC-TV.


Norma Kamali (1945 ) and Joseph Abboud (1950 ) are prominent New York fashion designers. J. M. Haggar (18921987) founded a major manufacturer of men's slacks; and Mansour Farah (18951937) established Farah Brothers, a large competitive pants manufacturer.


Jamie Farr (1934 ) played Corporal Klinger for 11 years on the popular television series M*A*S*H ; actor-singer-comedian Danny Thomas (19141991) starred in the popular 1950s television situation comedy Make Room For Daddy ; his daughter Marlo Thomas (1943 ) is an Emmy Awardwinning actress who starred in the 1960s television situation comedy That Girl ; his son Tony Thomas (1948 ) is a television and film producer who has won many Emmys for his work on Golden Girls and other television series; Tony Shalhoub starred in the television show Wings ; Vic Tayback (19301990) played Mel in Alice ; Kristy McNichol (1962 ) was one of the co-stars of Empty Nest ; Kathy Najimy (1957 ) was a co-star of the film Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg; guitarist and musician Frank Zappa (19401993) was a legend in the rock world; and Callie Khoury (1957 ) was the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for Thelma and Louise.


Career diplomat Philip Habib (19201992) helped negotiate an end to the Vietnam War and the Israeli war in Lebanon in 1982; Senator James Abourezk (1931 ) from South Dakota was the first Lebanese American to serve in the U.S. Senate (19741980), and he founded the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; Nick Rahal (1949 ) has served as a U.S. congressman from West Virginia since 1976; Donna Shalala (1941 ) was the president of New York City's Hunter College and serves as the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Clinton administration; George Mitchell (1933 ), was a Senator from Maine who served as the Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995.


William Blatty (1928 ) is the author of the book and screenplay The Exorcist. Vance Bourjaily (1922 ) is the author of Confessions of a Spent Youth, and The Man Who Knew Kennedy. Khalil Gibran (18831931), poet and artist, is the author of The Prophet, perhaps the best-selling volume, after the Bible, of all time; Gibran's exhortation "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" in his "Letter to Syrian Youth" was quoted in John F. Kennedy's inaugural address and remains the most-quoted sentence of any inaugural address in American history. American-born poets who are descendants of the Greater Syrian diaspora include D. H. Milhelm (1926 ), Sam Hazo (1928 ), Joseph Awad (1929 ), Sam Hamod (1936 ), Lawrence Joseph (1948 ), Gregory Orfalea (1949 ), and Elmaz Abinader (1954 ). Journalist Helen Thomas (1920 ) has been the UPI White House correspondent for half a century and opens and closes every White House press conference.


Paul Anka (1941 ) wrote and recorded popular hit songs beginning in the 1950s, including "Diana," "She's a Lady,"and "My Way." Rosalind Elias (1931 ) is a soprano with the New York City Metropolitan Opera; Elie Chaib (1950 ) is a 20-year veteran dancer with the Paul Taylor Company.


Ralph Nader (1934 ) is one of America's most prominent consumer advocates. He is the author of Unsafe at Any Speed and founder and head of Public Citizen, an organization that has spawned a number of other citizen action groups such as Congress Watch and the Tax Reform Research Group. Najeeb Halaby (1915 ) is the former head of the Federal Aviation Agency and was head of Pan-American Airlines. Candy Lightner (1946 ) is the founder of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Christa McAuliffe (19481986) was the teacher aboard the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger. Paul Orfalea (1946 ) founded Kinko's, the world's largest international chain of copying and business service stores.


Heart surgeon Michael DeBakey (1908 ) invented the heart pump and pioneered the bypass operation in the United States. Harvard University professor Elias J. Corey, (1928 ) won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1990. The St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, founded by Danny Thomas, is the leader in the field of research and treatment of childhood leukemia.


Race-car driver Bobby Rahall won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986; the late Joe Robbie (19161990) was owner of the Miami Dolphins.



Jusoor ( Bridges ).

An Arabic/English quarterly periodical that publishes poetry and essays on politics and the arts.

Address: P.O. Box 34163, Bethesda, MD 20817.

Telephone: (301) 869-5853.

Lebanon Report .

A monthly magazine that describes political events in Lebanon in great detail.

Contact: Michael Bacos Young, Editor.

Address: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Box 1377, Highland Park, New Jersey 08904.

Telephone: (908) 220-0885.

News Circle.

A socially oriented magazine published in English that reports on the activities of West Coast Arabs.

Contact: Joseph Haiek, Publisher.

Address: P.O. Box 3684, Glendale, CA 91201-0684.


Arab Network of America.

Every city with any concentration of Arabic-speaking people, including Lebanese, has at least one or two hours of radio programming a week. The Arab Network is a national Arabic-language radio network whose programs are broadcast in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Contact: Bruce Finland, CEO.

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

Telephone: (703) 823-8364.


Arab Network of America (ANA).

Contact: Bruce Finland, CEO.

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

Telephone: (703) 823-8364.

TACArabic Channel.

Contact: Jamil Tawfiq, Director.

Address: P.O. Box 936, New York, NY, 10005.

Telephone: (212) 425-8822.

Organizations and Associations

American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

The largest grassroots Arab American organization; combats stereotyping and defamation in the media and in other venues of public life, including politics.

Address: 4201 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC 20008.

Telephone: (202) 244-2990.

American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL).

Lobbies Congress and various administrations on issues related to Lebanon and its reconstruction.

Contact: George Cody, Executive Director.

Address: 2213 M Street, N.W., Third Floor, Washington, DC 20037.

Telephone: (202) 223-1399.

Arab American Institute (AAI).

Fosters participation of Arab Americans in the political process at all levels.

Contact: James Zogby, Executive Director.

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

Telephone: (202) 429-9210.

Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG).

Publishes monographs and books on Arab interests; holds symposia and conferences on current Middle East issues.

Contact: Ziad Asali, President.

Address: P.O. Box 408, Normal, IL, 61761-0408.

Telephone: (309) 452-6588.

National Association of Arab Americans.

Lobbies Congress and current administrations on Arab interests.

Contact: Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director.

Address: 1212 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005.

Telephone: (202) 842-1840.

Museums and Research Centers

Communities and churches have begun to archive some of the memorabilia of the Arab American experience. The following two centers are of national importance.

Faris and Yamna Naff Family Arab American Collection Archives Center, National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC Contains artifacts, books, personal documents, photographs, oral histories, and doctoral dissertations pertaining to the Arab American immigrant experience, beginning with the earliest wave of immigrants.

Contact: Alixa Naff.

Telephone: (202) 357-3270.

Near Eastern American Collection, Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota.

Contains the Philip Hitti archives.

Contact: Rudoph Vecoli.

Address: 826 Berry Street, St. Paul, MN 55114.

Telephone: (612) 627-4208.

Sources for Additional Study

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

Helou, Anissa. Lebanese Cuisine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Hoogland, Eric. Crossing the Water. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Kayal, Philip, and Joseph Kayal. The Syrian Lebanese in America: A Study in Religion and Assimilation. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Immigration, edited by Nadim Shehadi and Albert Hourani. London: Centre for Lebanese Studies in association with I. B. Taurus, 1992.

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

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

Taking Root, Bearing Fruit, Volume 1, edited by James Zogby; Volume 2, edited by Eric Hooglund. Washington, DC: ADC Research Institute, 1984; 1985.

Wakin, Edward. The Syrians and the Lebanese in America. Chicago: Claretian Publishers, 1974.

Walbridge, Linda S. Without Forgetting the Imam: Lebanese Shi'ism in an American Community. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Zogby, John. Arab America Today: A Demographic Profile of Arab Americans. Washington, DC: Arab American Institute, 1990.

Lebanese Americans

views updated May 21 2018

Lebanese Americans

For more information on Lebanese history and culture, seeVol. 3: Lebanese.


A few Lebanese pioneers immigrated to America in the mid-1800s, but the first real wave of Lebanese immigration did not begin until the late 1870s. Overcrowding and a shortage of tillable land in what was then called Mount Lebanon led to poverty for many of its citizens. The only other economic opportunities available in Mount Lebanon at that time were in the small silk industry, which was failing due to competition from Japan and China, and in wine production, which was severely curtailed by a grapevine disease in the 1870s.

First-wave Lebanese immigrants to the United States were mostly young men hoping to earn enough money in America to return to Lebanon and establish themselves in better circumstances there. The majority were Christian because they had been exposed to Western culture through Christian missionaries and schools and felt an affinity with the Christian West. Muslims, on the other hand, were drawn to Muslim countries in West Africa. There were no mosques in America in the 19th century. Although the great majority of early Lebanese immigrants to the United States had been farmers in Lebanon, very few took up farming in America. Young single men looking for fast cash were not interested in settling down to a long-term project like developing a farm. Neither were they interested in the industrial jobs that many other immigrants turned to, such as mining or working in steel mills or factories. Instead, they became traders, peddling their wares from door to door, at first on foot until they could afford a horse and cart. Over 90% of early Lebanese immigrants traded for at least a short time after arriving in the United States.

Huge Lebanese American trading networks soon developed. Central suppliers established themselves in various areas of the country, such as Fort Wayne, Indiana. Wholesalers in New York City would purchase large shipments of goods from Lebanon then send them on to the central suppliers. The suppliers would then distribute the goods to individual peddlers to be sold door-to-door. Wholesalers and suppliers sometimes helped Lebanese immigrants pay for their passage to America and find housing once they arrived. The wholesalers and suppliers were generally honest in their dealings with new immigrants, and the immigrants were grateful for the ready employment the traders offered in return.

At first, most of the goods sold through the Lebanese American trading network were religious or handcrafted items from the Holy Land, which were very popular in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Later, Lebanese American peddlers expanded their wares to include typical household items, such as pots and pans, shoelaces, kitchen knives, etc. These types of supplies were particularly welcome in rural areas where they could otherwise be obtained only by traveling a long distance to the nearest town. Some peddlers became so successful that they eventually settled down and set up permanent shops.

Lebanese immigration to America increased steadily until it became a flood in 1908, when Ottoman rulers in Lebanon became exceptionally oppressive, and the military draft was expanded to include Christians. In 1900, some 2,900 Lebanese immigrated to the United States. By 1910, the number had jumped to 6,300. As Lebanon became embroiled in the international conflicts leading to World War I (1914–18), more Lebanese fled to America. Over 9,000 Lebanese came to the United States in both 1913 and 1914.

Once war was declared in 1914, borders were essentially closed and Lebanese immigration to the United States virtually ceased. At the end of the war in 1918, however, Lebanese immediately began leaving again for America. By 1922, the number of Lebanese immigrants to the United States had reached 5,100, but this second wave of Lebanese immigration was short-lived. Swarms of immigrants from all over the world, combined with dwindling opportunities as America reached its western shore, led the United States to place stringent restrictions on immigration in 1924, reducing the flow of Lebanese (and others) to a mere trickle. For the next two decades, few Lebanese entered the United States. Those that did were mostly family members of Lebanese already living in America.

The end of World War II (1939–45) brought a third wave of Lebanese immigration to the United States which lasted from about 1950 to the mid-1970s. These third-wave immigrants were quite different from their predecessors, however. Rather than young men looking for quick cash, third-wave Lebanese immigrants tended to be students and young professionals seeking educational and professional advancement.

The most recent wave of Lebanese immigration to the United States began in 1975 when Lebanon exploded in civil war. Many of these latest immigrants are well-educated professionals with the financial resources to leave their homes. They wished to escape the war-torn environment in Lebanon, both for their own welfare and their children's. Lebanese Americans continue to send money and other goods to support family and friends who remain in Lebanon, as did the very first Lebanese immigrants to the United States. Today, Lebanese Americans are beginning to band together to add their political support as well.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 440,279 Americans claimed Lebanese ancestry (about 0.2% of the total U.S. population). From the beginning, Lebanese immigrants settled all across the United States. By 1919, a Lebanese American family could be found in almost every town with a population of more than 5,000. Today, Lebanese Americans remain dispersed throughout the country. The top five states in terms of numbers of Lebanese Americans are Michigan (54,363; also the most Lebanese state in terms of percentage of population), California (53,286), Massachusetts (32,072; second-most Lebanese state by percentage), New York (31,083), and Florida (30,115). Other states with sizeable Lebanese American populations include Ohio (27,361), Texas (23,652), and Pennsylvania (19,889).

In order to blend in with mainstream American society, many Lebanese Americans anglicized their names. Some translated the meaning of their names into English: Haddad became Smith; Ashshi became Cook; Yusuf became Joseph. Others simply found English names with similar sounds: Sawaya became Sawyer; Tuma became Thomas; and Jirjus became George. More recent Lebanese immigrants to America tend to keep their Arabic names, now that mainstream U.S. society is more open to multiculturalism.

Muslim Lebanese Americans have always been more likely than Christian Lebanese Americans to retain their Arabic names. Muslims are also more likely to live together in tightly knit communities centered around a mosque. When Henry Ford announced liberal hiring policies and good wages at his automobile manufacturing plant in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1920s, many Muslim Lebanese immigrants took jobs in the Ford plant and settled in Detroit and nearby Dearborn, Michigan. Both communities continue to thrive today.

Besides Christians and Muslims, there is also a small group of Druze Lebanese Americans. Lebanese Druze began immigrating to the United States in the 1830s, and a school for Druze girls was opened in America in 1834. As early as 1907, a group of Druze Lebanese Americans had ventured all the way across America to form a society in Seattle, Washington. There are now an estimated 15,000–20,000 Druze in America.

The family is the central unit of traditional Lebanese society and it remains central to Lebanese Americans. Socializing and visiting with family and friends is also central to Lebanese, both in Lebanon and America. Lebanese American social clubs exist in almost every state in the United States. They host cultural events and festivals where Lebanese Americans can gather and eat, dance, and enjoy one another's company. Young Lebanese Americans sometimes use these events as opportunities to meet potential marriage partners. Another common Lebanese American social event is the mahrajan, a picnic festival with food, music, and dancing. The first American mahrajan was held in 1930 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Today they are held frequently all over the country.

Food is another central element in Lebanese and Lebanese American society. Lebanese cuisine is rich and varied, and some of its most common dishes, such as felafel, kibbe, and tabbouleh, have become favorites among the general American public today. Both Lebanese and non-Lebanese Americans enjoy eating at Lebanese restaurants, which can be found in many U.S. cities.

Lebanese Americans have made many other contributions to American culture besides food. Two Lebanese American men began clothing companies in Texas in the 1920s that have since become international businesses. Mansour Farah founded the Farah men's clothier company in 1920, and J. M. Haggar founded the Haggar men's clothiers in 1926. The Haggar company is now among the world's largest manufacturer of men's pants. The Farah company was sold in 1998 and renamed Sa-vane International. Lebanese Americans who have made contributions to American arts include opera singer Rosalind Elias and popular singers Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Herbert "Tiny Tim" Khaury, Frank Zappa, Tiffany, and Shakira; radio and television personality Casey Kasem; actors Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Jamie Farr, Tony Shalhoub, Vince Vaughn, Kathy Najimy, Salma Hayek, Michael Nouri, and Harold Ramis; woodworker Sam Maloof, whose handcrafted furniture is displayed in national museums and the White House; writers William Blatty, author of The Exorcist, and children's book author Naomi Shihab Nye; and poet Kahlil Gibran.

Many Lebanese Americans have been elected to public office, and others have served in high-ranking public positions. Donna Shalala served as assistant secretary for policy development and research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1977–1980. Shalala then became president of Hunter College in New York City, transforming it from a struggling inner-city college to a well-respected institution. In 1987, Shalala was appointed chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She also served as Secretary of Health and Human Services in President Bill Clinton's administration. Other Lebanese American political figures include George Mitchell, John Sununu, and Spencer Abraham.

Philip Habib was an important U.S. diplomat during years of crisis in the Middle East, and reporter Helen Thomas was a White House correspondent for many years. Retired four-star army general John Abizaid served as the Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2003 until 2007. Consumer activist Ralph Nader repeatedly ran unsuccessfully for U.S. president, and Nader's sister, Laura Nader, is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Lois DeBakey, a professor of scientific communication at Baylor College of Medicine, also has a famous brother, Dr. Michael DeBakey, who pioneered open-heart surgery. In 1970 Paul Orfalea founded the copy company, Kinko's (Orfalea's nickname), which is now a national chain; and John Zogby founded Zogby Polls, now a nationally respected polling group, in 1984.

Noted Lebanese American figures in sports include tennis player Eddie Dibs, football coach Abe Gibron, and football players Gill George and Doug Flutie (winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1984). Naturalist and adventurer Jack Hanna is also of Lebanese descent.

Christian Lebanese Americans have had very few problems since the beginning of their sojourn in the United States. Hard-working and friendly, they fit in well with mainstream American society. Muslim Lebanese Americans have met with more discrimination due to their obviously different religious and cultural customs, including traditional Arab dress. Muslim Lebanese Americans are also much more likely to live in insular communities, socializing only with other Muslim Lebanese Americans. Their social isolation increases other Americans' distrust of them. As tensions and conflicts erupted in the Middle East in the 1970s, anti-Arab sentiment grew in the United States, and Muslim Lebanese Americans came under greater attack. The rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 11 September 2001 crystallized the American fear of Arabs, resulting in a number of hate crimes directed at anyone who "looked Arab." Even third- and fourth-generation Lebanese American Christians were targeted. The anti-Arab backlash after September 11 brought Americans of Arab descent together, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation, although it also spurred some Lebanese Americans to further differentiate themselves from Arab Muslims and emphasize their American and Christian identities, distancing themselves from "Arab" identification.

Another event that served to bring Lebanese Americans together across religious divides was the so-called "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon in 2005. Incited by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese people took to the streets in a largely peaceful revolution, demanding the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and a return to independence. The revolution succeeded in removing Syrian troops, all but those associated with Hezbollah. The continued presence of Hezbollah and its protracted campaign against Israel along Lebanon's southern border has given Lebanese Americans a common cause, with leading organizations focusing much of their attention and resources on supporting the fight for democratic freedom in Lebanon.

Traditional Lebanese culture is patriarchal, relegating women to the role of homemaker. A woman's honor is paramount to traditional Lebanese, propelling them into marriage at an early age to "protect" their virtue. Marriages are arranged, and young girls may be betrothed to men old enough to be their father. In fact, a woman who is not married by the time she reaches her 20s is considered a spinster. Throughout the early years of Lebanese immigration to the United States, men greatly outnumbered women, creating a sense of urgency on the part of the men to find a bride. Girls well below marriageable age were often promised to much older men who would then wait until the girl was old enough to marry, for fear that another man would claim her first otherwise.

After World War I, the ratio shifted to become more equal as Lebanese women chose to travel to the United States in pursuit of opportunities here. And the peddler lifestyle of so many Lebanese Americans was open to women's participation. Women were often better at sales because they were more easily trusted than men and were allowed into homes to sell their wares. Traditional women's crafts were also a good source of extra income. Either the Lebanese American women made them to sell, or they had relatives back in Lebanon make and send the goods to them in the United States for sale. These arrangements often developed into successful import businesses. As women became more involved in the economic fortunes of the family, they grew more independent and the patriarchal rule of the husband and father was gradually eroded. Gender roles continue to become more egalitarian with each passing generation. In the late 1990s, Lebanese American filmmaker Rouane Itani decided to begin an online forum for Arab American women, "Lebanese Women's Awakening," or LEBWA, an Arabic word meaning "lioness." The forum provides a place for Lebanese women around the world to participate in discussions concerning what it means to be Lebanese and female in the 21st century.


Cooper, Marc. "The Big Chill: Fear Still Haunts the Arab and Muslim Communities of Southern California." The Nation, 3 June 2002, 17.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. Not Quite American? The Shaping of Arab and Muslim Identity in the United States. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004.

Harik, Elsa Marston. The Lebanese in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1987.

Lebanese Global Information Center. "Lebanese Americans," http://www.lgic.org/en/lebanese_americans.php (20 April 2008).

Nasr, Najwa S. "Early Lebanese Immigrant Women to the USA." American Studies Today Online, http://www.americansc.org.uk/Online/Lebanese_women.htm (21 April 2008).

U.S. Bureau of the Census. American Factfinder. http://fact-finder.census.gov (19 April 2008).

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

Lebanese Americans

views updated May 14 2018


LEBANESE AMERICANS. Almost 3.2 million people of Arab descent make their home in the United States. Of that number, approximately 56 percent are of Lebanese descent, making them the largest single group of Arab immigrants in the United States. Although relative latecomers to this country, Lebanese Americans have become fully integrated into American society and have made numerous contributions in many fields.

Lebanese Americans can be found throughout the United States, but the largest concentrations are in the Midwest, especially in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Toledo. Detroit is home to more Lebanese Americans—125,000—than any other city in the country. Lebanese American communities are also growing in the South and the West, particularly in Southern California, and a number of communities have emerged in smaller American cities.

Early Immigration

Between 1881 and 1925, approximately 100,000 Lebanese immigrants came to the United States. A small minority compared to other immigrant groups, their departure from Lebanon was significant because their number represented a quarter of the country's population. The majority of the immigrants were Christian Lebanese from the area known as Mount Lebanon.

By 1914, the first wave of Lebanese immigration had peaked. On the eve of World War I (1914–1918), about 9,000 Lebanese made their way to the United States. Difficulties in travel during wartime reduced the number of Lebanese immigrants. By 1921, however, the numbers again rose, with approximately 5,000 Lebanese immigrants coming to the United States. But the new immigration quotas put into place during the 1920s virtually eliminated Lebanese immigration.

Because many of the first Lebanese immigrants hoped to return to their homeland, they turned to a profession that with hard work could yield great profits—peddling. Historians estimate that as many as 90 percent of Lebanese immigrants became peddlers. These peddlers traveled across the country offering a wide variety of wares to people, particularly those who lived in rural communities. The more enterprising earned upwards of $1,000 a year, almost three times the average national income.

One result of the Lebanese peddlers' efforts was the creation of an extensive network that also was beneficial to American export trade. Through their contacts with the many merchants in the Middle East, a variety of goods were sent to the United States. Lebanese peddlers also helped American small businesses by introducing their products to people who otherwise might not know of them. Another effect of the Lebanese peddling was the creation of Lebanese-owned banking and financial institutions, such as the one established by the Faour brothers in Manhattan in 1891.

Other immigrants went to work in the automobile and steel factories of Detroit and other midwestern cities or in the textile and garment industries of New York and New Jersey. Lebanese Americans at work in the garment trade revived the silk industry during the 1920s; by 1924, fifteen Lebanese American silk factories were in operation.

The Second Wave of Immigration

The end of the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 sparked the second wave of Lebanese immigration, when approximately 13,000 Lebanese came to the United States. The number of Lebanese immigrants increased when civil war between Muslims and Christians broke out in 1975. Between 1975 and 2002, some 46,000 Lebanese arrived in the United States.

The second wave of Lebanese immigrants had a greater political awareness than their predecessors, and were especially active in shaping U.S. policy toward Lebanon. The new immigrants also exerted a new interest in, and a revival of, Lebanese customs and culture in the United States.

Lebanese American Culture

One of the most enduring Lebanese contributions to American culture is cuisine. In many large cities there are a number of Lebanese restaurants and bakeries that count many Americans who are not of Lebanese descent among their regular customers.

While many of the first Lebanese to arrive in the United States were Christians, by the late twentieth century a growing number of immigrants were Muslims. Lebanese American Muslims established a number of mosques throughout the country. Two of the more elaborate mosques were located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and another was near the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Lebanese Americans also worked hard to combat negative images of and discrimination against all Arab peoples. In 1980, two Lebanese Americans, former U.S. Senator James Abourezk and professor of political science James Zogby, established the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). By the 2000's the ADC was the largest Arab American organization in the United States.

Prominent Lebanese Americans

Perhaps the most famous Lebanese American is the poet and writer Kahlil Gibran, whose book The Prophet, published in 1923, has provided inspiration for thousands around the world. Although Gibran died in 1931, his fame endures and his writings continue to find an audience.

A number of other Lebanese Americans have made important contributions to American culture, business, and life. They include singer and songwriter Paul Anka, screenwriter Callie Khoury, who won an Oscar for the hit movie Thelma and Louise, actresses Kathy Najimy and Marlo Thomas, and actor, director, and screenwriter Harold Ramis. In politics, Lebanese Americans have occupied offices from the mayor of Waterville, Maine (Ruth Joseph) to the governor of Oregon (Victor Aityes) to the Secretary of Energy (former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham).

John Elway, the former quarterback of the Denver Broncos, the Maloof Brothers, who owned the Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association, Bobby Rahal, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986, and Faud Ruebiz, the former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, are Lebanese Americans. In business, the Lebanese American community has been well represented. Camille Chebeir was president of SEDCO Services, an investment firm owned by the Bin Mahfouz family of Saudi Arabia. Chebeir also served as president of the Arab Bankers Association of North America. Raymond Debbane was president of the Invus Group, a multimillion dollar private equity firm specializing in buyouts and venture capital. Richard Debs is former president of Morgan Stanley International. Ned Mansour was president of Mattel, and Jack Nasser is the former president of the Ford Motor Company.


Abinader, Elmaz. Children of the Roojme: A Family's Journey from Lebanon. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Abraham, Sameer Y., and Nabeel Abraham, eds. Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities. Detroit, Mich.: Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University, 1983.

Kayal, Philip M. The Syrian-Lebanese in America: A Study in Religion and Assimilation. New York: Twayne, 1975.

Meg GreeneMalvasi

See alsoArab Americans .

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