In the historical iconography of New York, few places capture the imagination more than Ellis Island, the gateway to America and the first port of call for millions of immigrants arriving on the shores of the New World from 1892 to 1954. Mentions of Ellis Island bring to mind images of rows upon rows of people, waiting to be processed; of dreams made and hopes shattered as, one by one, people were either turned away or allowed in to pursue their very own version of the American Dream.
But what happened to those immigrants once they had cleared the arrivals procedure and left to fend for themselves on the streets of New York? What kinds of alliances were made, communities built, lives re-made in the patchwork of districts that made up the city? Despite the almost mythological status of America as the quintessential nation of immigrants, little is really known about the individuals, families and communities that arrived on its shores and who helped build the country into a global superpower. But more than this, in today’s contemporary world, where international relations is increasingly framed through the prism of the “War on Terror” and where the figure of the Arab refugee has caused mass global hysteria, there is a severe lack of contextualisation when it comes to dealing with the history of migration – and specifically Arab migration – in the West.
It is this background of ignorance and prejudice that makes books such as Linda Jacob’s Strangers in the West stand out. A meticulous and descriptive account of New York’s Syrian colony during the period of 1880 to 1900, the book draws on archival and personal material to deliver a nuanced and compelling portrait of the individual stories of America’s first Arab immigrants. Jacobs, herself the granddaughter of two Syrian emigrants from the different parts of what is now Lebanon, blends family history with historical data to explore the various lives and stories of Syrians arriving in the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
“I’d grown up with all of these stories about my family,” Jacobs tells me when me meet during a business trip to London. “I decided it was my job to find the name of every single person who ever lived in the colony.”
The “colony” she speaks of is an area of downtown Manhattan “bounded by West Street and the Hudson river on the West, Greenwich Street on the East and Battery Place on the South” that housed an estimated 1,800 individuals and that came to be known as the Syrian quarter. Originally intended as a first port of call for new Syrian migrants arriving in the city, the colony quickly developed into a community of its own, with a number of Syrian-run businesses being set up and religious and social networks established. “The conditions were horrible,” says Jacobs, “many people lived in overcrowded tenements, sharing toilet and washing facilities and often sleeping a dozen to a room.” But many were able to improve their circumstances over time, setting up businesses or peddling wares on the street in order to earn enough to support themselves and their families.
Strangers in the West is indeed a labour of love, and Jacobs passion for her subject shines through the page, as does her commendable attention to detail – a quality that is perhaps to be expected of someone who originally trained as an archaeologist excavating ancient treasures from layers of mud and sand. Now, it is the facts that Jacobs endeavours to uncover, ever fascinated by her topic and of the living history of New York city.
“I wanted the book to be a sort of ethnography of the Syrian colony,” she says. “I was interested in the physical make-up of the colony, where and how people lived.”
The first documented Syrian emigrant family came to New York in 1878. At the time, Syria was still Greater Syria, part of the Ottoman Empire and an area of land that encompassed modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Jordan and Palestine. During the period of Jacobs’s interest, however, the vast majority of those making the journey to America were Arab Christians from what is now Lebanon. Indeed, New York’s Syrian colony remained exclusively Christian until the twentieth century.
“There were a number of Western missionaries active in Syria during that period,” explains Jacobs. “The Maronites were mostly associated with the French and the Orthodox were mostly associated with the US and Britain. They learnt English and were taught about the glories of America, so it was only natural that a number of them wanted to seek a new life for themselves across the Atlantic.”
The confessional denomination of the Syrian emigrants of the time, says Jacobs, meant that America was much more likely to accept them as new citizens (an eerie parallel with recent suggestions that America should only take in Christian Syrian refugees fleeing the current conflict). Many Christians claimed to be fleeing persecution by the Ottomans but more often than not their reason for coming to America was mostly economic, to build a better life for themselves.
Nevertheless, “people didn’t tend to see them as a threat,” says Jacobs. “They were seen as more exotic. Yes, they were called ‘dirty’ and ‘beggars’ but it wasn’t systematic racism such as that against African-Americans or even Arabs now.”
It is an interesting point, and one that brings into sharp relief the vicissitudes of racism and neo-imperialism that colour America’s attitudes to Arab and Syrian migrants today, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the declaration of the “War on Terror”. Jacobs says that she herself, with her blue eyes, light complexion and American accent, has never been subjected to any discrimination, but that she knows friends who have been threatened, attacked and even driven out of their homes by hostile neighbours simply for “looking Arab”. In today’s world of lines in the sand and hysterical media rhetoric about “Arabs” and “human swarms”, reflecting on the past is more important than ever; and that is exactly what Strangers in the West gives us: a window into a past world that can help us see our present more clearly.