Strangers in the West: Book Review

strangers-in-the-westStrangers in the West: The Syrian Colony of New York City, 1880–1990. By Linda K. Jacobs. New York: Kalimah Press, 2015. Pp. xix, 449, with notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 9780983539254.

Linda K. Jacobs is a New York-based scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology. She has worked on both archeological and economic projects in the Middle East. Among her writings is a series of articles about the 19th-century New York Syrian colony. Dr. Jacobs has been active in the promotion of Middle East culture in the United States and founded Kalimah Press in 2015. All four of her grandparents were Syrian immigrants to New York City. This review is based on the final uncorrected proof of the book.

Strangers in the West explores the history of the New York Syrian colony in the late 1800s. Although the colony played an important role in the story of Arab immigration to the United States, no monographs have been entirely devoted to the subject. This data-driven, inductive study focuses on creating a descriptive picture of the Arabic-speaking residents of New York City, particularly the Syrian immigrants of Manhattan, from 1880 to 1900. Jacobs considers the year 1900 to be a symbolic tipping point in the development of the colony, when about a quarter of its members had already shifted to Brooklyn and more immigrants were electing to stay in the United States rather than return to their homelands.

The book consists of fourteen chapters amply illustrated with photographs, maps, and tables. In chapter one, Jacobs discusses her method of reconstructing the original members of the colony. Sources include the 1880 and 1900 censuses, Arabic and American newspapers, passport and naturalization applications, and other relevant records and archives. Gaps and problems with the data are duly noted, such as the missing 1890 census (it was destroyed in a fire), the partially missing 1890 Police Census of Manhattan, variations in the spelling of names, and inaccuracy of dates. Early 20th-century sources are also used to help fill in the gaps. From this data Jacobs has created four spreadsheets, available at Arabs who lived in New York (every identifiable member of the colony), Syrians in the 1890 Police Census, Arabs in the 1900 census, and source data (descriptive data associated with each name).

Chapter two looks at the reasons for emigration, which include religious intolerance in the Ottoman Empire, economic hardship, and the promise of wealth; these issues are further detailed through the history of the Arbeely family, likely the first Syrian family to emigrate to and remain in the United States. Chapter three describes the colony’s neighborhood, which was centered on Lower Washington Street at the tip of Manhattan. The neighborhood was similar to other immigrant neighborhoods in the area, with crowded, unsanitary living conditions in tenements and shops, restaurants, and churches mainly catering to the local community. In chapter four, the characteristics of the Syrian colonists are described: their origins, religion, gender, age, literacy, and appearance. The data is largely based on a 1903 survey which Jacobs considers relevant since most of those surveyed were 19th-century immigrants.

The next five chapters explore the working life of men. The early Arab immigrants capitalized on the popularity of Orientalism at the time by selling Middle Eastern goods and entertainment at a variety of fairs, particularly the 1893 Columbian Exposition. However, the most common way to begin working life in the United States was by peddling, which despite its drawbacks tended to be lucrative, eventually allowing the peddler to open his own shop. Syrian shopkeepers and wholesalers tended to serve other Syrians by selling what they had once peddled, such as dry goods, Oriental goods, and textiles. Syrians were also represented in the service professions, including banking, medicine, law, restaurants, and entertainment. When catering to non-Arabs, Syrians tended to make use of their exotic origins. For educated Syrians, Arabic newspapers and printing shops offered another career avenue; newspapers reached out to the broader Arab-American community and tended to reflect the religious background and political sentiments of their owners.

In chapter ten, the little that is known about women’s lives and professions is described. The most common professions were peddling and sewing/textile work, but a minority engaged in work similar to their male counterparts and like them took advantage of the Orientalist craze. Chapter eleven discusses the colony’s shift to Brooklyn, which began in the early 1890s. The somewhat less crowded and cleaner living conditions meant that at first the wealthier families settled there, then as poorer families moved in, the wealthy transferred to the suburbs.

Chapter twelve looks at the Syrians’ adaptation to the American legal system. While the common belief was that Syrians were law-abiding, there was intermittent intra-Syrian fighting as well as occasional violence with other local immigrant communities. Syrians had no difficulty making use of the legal system to resolve both civil disputes and criminal cases. Chapter thirteen explores the development of civil society within the colony by describing the organizations that existed for the educational, religious, intellectual, and political development of the community. The conflicting forces within the colony are examined in chapter fourteen; these include the dichotomy of wealth and poverty, gender issues, and the conflict over assimilation versus resistance to American culture. Jacobs concludes that while the early immigrants capitalized on their exotic origins to make a living, they largely strove to assimilate, resulting in a rapid dilution of Middle Eastern culture in succeeding generations. This chapter is followed by brief biographical sketches of all the people mentioned in the text.

The wealth of data presented in this book as well as the online spreadsheets will be highly useful for researchers of 19th– and early 20th-century Arab immigration to the United States. Jacobs’ descriptive approach, supplemented with photographs, brings the early New York Syrian colony to life, and the maps and charts help to make sense of the large amount of data. Primary sources are cited in full in footnotes while secondary sources are listed in the substantial bibliography. The index is highly detailed. This book is an enjoyable read in its own right and a valuable addition to any academic or public library.

Denise Soufi
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill