Friday, March 4, 2011

Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement

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Go to any library and check out the Middle East Section and you will find that 99 percent of the books stocked are politically focused, usually written by professors for academic audiences. Approaching two centuries of existence in America from the mid-19th Century on, American Arabs have done a poor job of documenting that existence, from their contributions to their experiences. Visit the Ethnic and Cultural sections of libraries and book stores and it is the same thing. As if American Arabs don't exist.

But we do exist.

A few authors have attempted to begin the process of documenting their own experiences. I've done two books, a personal memoir (I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America, renamed Ya Habibi in 2006) and a history of Arabs of Chicagoland (Arabs of Chicagoland). Other authors have detailed the experience of Arabs in Detroit, and Gregory Orfalea has written three on American Arab experiences including my favorite, Arab Americans: A History.

The late professor Michael Suleiman, my friend, did much research on American Arabs also. Yet, these books are few and far between in comparison to the vast library of books by Arabs and on the topic of Arabs and the Middle East.

A publisher once told me when I tried to sell my humor book that there is no market for history of Arabs in America. So publishers are not inclined to publish the stories and tales of American Arabs. One of my all time favorite books that talks about Arab settlement in Chicago is a book not written about the Arabs at all but rather the story of a serial killer who was operating at the time of the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 called Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. In detailing the grisly work of the serial killer, Larson spent many pages discussing the activities of the Arabs who arrived on Chicago's shores in preparation for the World's Fair.

That's' why I am so excited by another entry in to the realm of documenting the American Arab experience, Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement. Although this is not a memoir in the sense of one author's experiences in this country, it is a collection of essays by many authors.

If I have any criticism, is too many of the authors spent their valuable space writing what has already been written, about the Arabic language and about Islam and the Middle East. I'd rather have seen more details about the experiences, trials and tribulations of the Arab families and activists themselves. It's one reason why I have spent so many years in journalism, believing as do mainstream journalists at mainstream publications that a primary role of a good newspaper is to serve as the "newspaper of record."

The American Arab community has no newspaper of record at all, that's why books like Arab Americans in Toledo is so important.

The stories are inspirational and fun to read. In the end, we discover, as we do in all books about the ethnic experience in America that the Arab experience is parallel to the experience of nearly every other ethnic group in America. The experiences are the same and they are different. That's the joy about reading what our ancestors went through in settling in this country, serving as a foundation to not only document their own lives but to also document the circumstances of the nation at a time in which they lived.

The book is edited by Samir Abu-Absi.
298 pages
Available at
Published by the University of Toledo, in Ohio

-- Ray Hanania