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After a century, US Arabs look for pieces of past

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm •  Published: December 29, 2012

To know more, he said, enhances his "sense of self-worth."

How can details like these disappear so soon? A relative's reluctance to reminisce is a common obstacle for the family historian, and Akmon said his grandfather didn't talk a lot about his past.

It's a challenge in his day job as well. "Trying to do research on Arab-Americans in the early ... 20th century is very difficult," he says. "It's so underdocumented."

That's an underlying theme of the 1985 book, "Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience," by Alixa Naff. It draws on dozens of interviews with pioneer immigrants and their descendants from more than 25 communities, including my uncle — a son of Hussien Karoub who followed him into ministry.

You come away with one overarching feeling: The ancestry quest of Arab-Americans is common to all immigrants, be they Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews or others. It is the story of most everyone in America.

Yet Syrians are one of the least studied of America's ethnic groups — partly because they were smaller in number and the formal Arabic language was not widely understood by Western students and scholars before World War II. But Naff says the blame also falls upon Arab immigrants, who "neglected to study themselves."

"The history of their American experience was, by comparison, too insignificant and too fleeting to warrant recording," she wrote.

So, what filled the cultural void? American myth and history. "Lacking ancestral legends and heroes that had an organic relevance to their lives, they adopted American legends as their own — presidents, cowboys, athletes and men like Charles Lindbergh," Naff wrote.

Maybe the Titanic — itself no slouch as an American history tale — looms so large in my grandfather's legend because the sea at that time of its fateful passage was filled with Middle Easterners seeking a new life, including on the "unsinkable" ship itself. There, 154 of the Titanic's passengers were Arabic; 29 survived.

Those who did included 24-year-old Catherine Joseph, who was sailing steerage with her children, 6-year-old Michael and 2-year-old Anna. The passenger record indicates her husband, Peter, sent them back to Lebanon a few months earlier to save money, but called them back to Detroit.

We know these facts about the Joseph family because of "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," which spent several recent months at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, the capital of Arab-America. Visitors learned about passengers and their fates on special tickets handed out at the exhibition's entrance.

It didn't take years for the tales of those on the Titanic to be told. Arabic-language newspapers from New York's Little Syria played a particularly aggressive role in helping to identify victims and provide support to families and survivors — something it was uniquely equipped to do.

"The entire Syrian community of New York identified with the difficulties of those who had left their homeland seeking a better future in a new land," Leila Salloum Elias wrote in 2005 in an essay that laid the groundwork for a new book, "The Dream and the Nightmare: The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic."

"They were reminded of their own journey across ocean and sea," she wrote. "The Syrian community considered the ship's Syrian passengers as part of it."

What kind of impression did that leave on my Jiddo? I wonder if he was there to see newspapers report, connect and advocate on behalf of those on the ship, and if those efforts helped him decide to launch his own newspaper a few years later in Detroit.

No doubt he was lured like many other immigrants by the promise of Ford's "five bucks a day" to make Model Ts. But he saw another, less material motive: Muslims making Michigan their home would need a spiritual leader. He could put his Islamic studies to work to help build an American community.

More help in my quest comes from the National Archives, the main repository for pieces of the American story. Naturalization records contain details about where and when an immigrant came to the United States — and my grandfather's record is among them, at the Archives' Chicago branch. It teases me even more.

He listed himself as a sewing machine operator. He had a scar on his left palm. His signature — in a sturdy, stylish penmanship for a man who wasn't raised reading or writing English — attests that he is neither polygamist nor anarchist.

I press on. Genealogy specialist Constance Potter runs a general search on several conceivable spellings for Hussien Karoub. As far as the archive is concerned, no record exists of my grandfather's 1912 arrival.

That's unsurprising. Many ports of entry were overflowing with huddled masses. Immigrants' names were taken verbally, so there's no guarantee that our best guesses on spelling match the elusive record. And until 1935, there was no National Archives.

"There were all these years when things could disappear," Potter says.

While she admires my pursuit and recognizes my disappointment, Potter consoles me with an existential parting shot about who we are as Americans.

"Everyone's ancestor was somewhere on July 4, 1776," she says. "Whether signing the Declaration of Independence or somewhere in Syria, they were there."


Every quest, particularly when it comes to your own history, eventually arrives at a crossroads with some version of the same question: What is the point?

Why struggle to pin down my grandfather's details, to separate truth from tall tales? Surely it's not to feel more American. The day my family moved from becoming to belonging has long since passed.

Does my faltering attempt to retrace his journey make any difference? After all, he made it. He became one of the United States' first imams, opened the nation's first free-standing mosque and started a newspaper, the American-Arab Message, for a community that would become one of the largest outside the Middle East.

Hussien Karoub had seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood. He died at 79 in 1973. I was only 4 then, but I remember a warm, gentle man. My strongest memory is looking up to see him smile at me as I tore through his house with joyful abandon. Yet his legacy lives on through his descendants, including doctors, musicians, teachers, business owners as well as a lawyer, lawmaker and a journalist. And veterans of foreign wars.

We are Muslim, Christian, and other — a fitting multireligious legacy for a man who was both praised and criticized for embracing other faiths and not seeing his own as monolithic.

A century on, we are Arab-Americans, though we have become less Arab and more American. Yet there's a pull to learn a little more about the front end of the hyphen. Maybe the urge is strongest when you feel fully connected, when reaching to the past runs no risk of giving up the present. But as the generations pass, the yesterdays become more remote. The trail fades.

It doesn't surprise Elias that my family's lore includes a Titanic tale. She once interviewed a man whose grandfather asserted that as many as 15 people from her Syrian village perished when the great ship went down. No record supports that fact, but Elias later learned where the story came from.

"If someone left a village, let's say in March 1912, to go to 'Amreeka' and they were never heard from again," Elias says, "it was just assumed they were on the Titanic."

Speaking to so many descendants of Titanic survivors and victims, Elias realized the value of trying to know her own story: "Do you know how many said, 'I wish I had asked more questions'?"

I can't ask Jiddo any more questions about his path to America. The Titanic tale? It probably wasn't true, but no matter. I can continue chipping away at the myths, the facts and the blanks, knowing that his trip was the catalyst for my family's larger one — our evolution from being a "them" to an "us."

In fact, as I look back at his journey through the prism of my place in this country, I spot something new, something I didn't quite expect: The immigrant Hussien Karoub, it seems, was about as "us" as you can be.


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