Alixa Naff, Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985).
Alixa Naff gives us a rare and detailed look into the virtually unknown and now largely forgotten world of the early Arabic-speaking immigrants who made their way to America in the last decades of the 19th century. They hailed from the Ottoman provinces of Syria and Palestine, but mostly from Mount Lebanon and environs. The majority were Christians (Maronite, Melkite and Orthodox); a significant minority were Muslims and Druze. They called themselves “Syrians.”
Naff has reconstructed this bygone world from scraps of memories culled from extensive oral interviews with some of the old-timers and their descendants. Many of the estimated two to three million Arab Americans who today trace their ethnic lineage back to this period will surely delight in the opportunity Naff provides to retrace the steps of their forefathers. Naff provides intimate glimpses into the often difficult passage from Syria to the Americas, including stopovers in Marseilles and other transit points.
In her central and best chapters, “Pack Peddling” and “On the Road,” Naff takes us through a bygone America as seen by the Syrian peddlers as they trudged along the dusty backroads. But on an analytical level, Naff has chosen to cast her work in a sociological light, and in doing so has detracted from her labors. She has long championed the notion that the early Syrians were predominantly peddlers, and it is not surprising to see her argument reappear in the present work. But it rests more on assertion than on fact. “It was known before embarking on this major project that the majority of early arrivals engaged in peddling,” she writes at the outset (p.l).
There is evidence even in this account that some pre-World War I Syrian immigrants opted for factory jobs, while others chose farming over peddling. Precisely how many is not certain. Naff seems to favor closing the chapter on this issue, though it is far from resolved in my opinion. “The fundamental factor in the assimilation of Syrians in America,” writes Naff, “was pack peddling” (p. 128). Yet a reader interested in following the elaboration of her thesis would be hard pressed to discern precisely how peddling led to assimilation. If anything, Naff tells us toward the end of her work, the assimilation process occurred well after the early Syrians abandoned peddling in favor of other, more sedentary pursuits.
Other immigrant groups of the period also engaged in peddling. “What is unique about the Syrians,” she argues, “was their deep and broad identification with pack peddling, an identification comparable to that of the Yankee peddlers and the itinerant German-Jewish merchants with whom the Syrians felt an affinity” (p. 130). Serious students of immigration to the US will find little that is unique in Naff’s peddlers. The 100,000 or so pre-World War I Syrians were part and parcel of the largest human mass migration in history, when over 15 million people arrived on America’s shores in the brief three-decade span 1881-1910. Naff has missed the opportunity to place the early Syrian immigration in its true historical context.
Becoming American nevertheless deserves to be read and discussed by Arab Americans and others interested in the origins of a major segment of today’s Arab-American community.