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Arab Roots, American Stories

by Alia Malek

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4165-8972-3
Publisher: Free Press

A Syrian-American civil-rights lawyer and journalist examines the uneasy relationship that many Arab-Americans maintain with their adopted country.

There are about 3.5 million people of Arabic-speaking descent in America, writes Malek. However, “Arabs account for only about 25 percent of Muslims in America, and Arab-American Muslims still account for only about 24 percent of all Americans believed to be of Arab descent.” The author traces personal stories across generations of people who have arrived on American shores. Malek looks specifically at families who represent some fairly typical Arab-American stories, such as the Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinian Christians who made up the first Great Migration starting in 1880. In Birmingham, Ala., these were largely unskilled laborers, like Ed Salem and his family, who found work in the mines, opened grocery stores and shops and were lumped in with other “darkies” (dagos) and similarly discriminated against. When President Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, a new openness allowed entrance to many refugees from the political upheaval in the Middle East, such as Jordanians, Egyptians, Iraqis and Yemenis. Many settled near Detroit, where they anglicized their names and got jobs at the Ford Motor Company. In the late ’60s and ’70s, they also began to grow politicized, as the country reacted to the energy crisis, PLO terrorism and the Iranian revolution. Arab-Americans, regardless of ethnicity, were stereotyped as primitive and evil, and targeted for violence, such as the bombing death of Alex Odeh in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1985. Malek provocatively explores how the Gulf wars negatively affected Arab-Americans and how 9/11 singled out their communities in both a hostile and more inclusive fashion.

A significant, timely contribution to the understanding of the Arab-American story.