Sameer Abraham and Nabil Abraham, eds., Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1983).
The scores of Arab-American communities dispersed throughout the continental US were originally established between 1890 and 1915 by the 100,000-plus Arabs who immigrated to the US from what was then the Ottoman province of Syria (present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel-Palestine). The Arab immigrants were overwhelmingly peasants from the Christian villages of Mount Lebanon, although some Druze and Muslim peasants also came. They were mostly illiterate and had no skills appropriate for an urban, industrial society, yet they settled in the cities and towns, became shopkeepers and factory workers, and insisted that their children born in the US get good educations. For 50 years these communities did not receive any significant new immigration from Arab countries, until the relaxation of restrictions on non-European immigration in 1965 allowed for a new wave of Arab immigration. Many of the new immigrants were attracted to those communities which were well- established. Detroit rapidly emerged as the center of Arab ethnic culture. By 1980, 200,000 Arab-Americans were estimated to be living in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Arabs in the New World focuses upon the Arab-American communities of the Detroit area. Four very general essays provide some basic background about Arab immigration to the US, followed by five case studies about Detroit. Sameer Abraham presents an overview of the socioeconomic diversity of the community—Lebanese (both Christian and Muslim), Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqi Chaldeans, and smaller groups of Egyptians and Syrians. Arabs are dispersed in the suburbs and concentrated in several different ethnic neighborhoods. The most important Arab center is the ghetto-like area known as the Southend, within the city of Dearborn and adjacent to Detroit proper. Sameer Abraham’s study of this neighborhood, in collaboration with Nabil Abraham and Barbara Aswad, found that the Southend’s population is 80 percent Arab, mostly Muslim, and predominantly working class. Indeed, the working class characteristics of the neighborhood have become more pronounced in recent decades, in contrast to Dearborn itself, which is a solid middle and upper class community. The depressed state of the automobile industry which provides most of the Arab laborers with employment has had a negative impact on the community and presumedly will impede any prospects for future upward mobility.
Nabil Abraham’s essay on Detroit’s Yemeni workers is one of the most interesting in the book. In both the Gulf and in Detroit the Yemenis perceive themselves as working temporarily away from their families and homes. Both the Gulf and Detroit workers send substantial remittances back to the Yemens. In the case of Detroit, these remittances average nearly one million dollars per month. In order to send this money to their families, the Yemeni workers live very spartan lives and save as much as 70 percent of their wages.
Mary Sengstock studied the Chaldean Christians from Iraq, about 20,000 of whom live in Detroit. A classic Middle Eastern petty bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, they operate as many as 1,000 small grocery stores in Detroit and adjacent suburbs. All family members generally are involved in managing the stores. The predominant ideology places high value on being successful in business, with low esteem for higher education and professional occupations.
Arabs in the New World contains some valuable information on the socioeconomic status of Arab-Americans in Detroit, and provides insight on how and why Arab-Americans respond to major political developments in the Arab Middle East. Above all, it presents important research data about an ethnic minority in the US which has been scarcely studied.