Huddled Arabs in the Americas: Stacy Fahrenthold on Syrian & Lebanese Migrants in Argentina, Brazil & the US

There was a moment in World War I when a diplomat was at loggerheads with Germany. When war news caught up with migrants coming from belligerent countries to the Americas, German authorities wanted this anti-German Francophile diplomat to sever contact with France and remain complicit with his anti-French German-allied government. Rather than shutting up as told, however, he spoke up and out. His name was Emin Arslan, a name known for better or worse as the Ottoman general consul in Argentina.

In April 1915 in Buenos Aires, Arslan spoke to an anxious Lebanese-Palestinian-Syrian crowd, then representing half a million Ottoman emigrants. Germany had dragged them into “the abyss” of war, he exclaimed. Yet that “savage” country would not subjugate his fellow citizens – or himself.

At a historic crossroads where nation, migration, and narration meet, Ottoman peoples in the Americas have not escaped scholarly attention. Through the works of Isa Blumi, Sarah Gualtieri, and Dalia Abdelhady, these people have entered a diasporic box wherein they negotiate old identities, acquire new hierarchies, or adopt cosmopolitan values. Whether in Ottoman, ethnic, or migration studies, much of what’s available has charted ethno-scapes by way of navigating some well-trodden path.

Given the breadth and depth of approach and research, Stacy Fahrenthold’s book, Between the Ottomans and the Entente, is worth the attention of general readers. From a panorama of huddled Arabs in the Americas, it captures a special drama of Syrian and Lebanese emigrants who drove their ideas back home at a time when their homeland transitioned from the Ottoman imperial regime to the European mandate rule. This book is likewise worthy of scholarly attention because it connects an island of authentic “movable texts” with domestic archival sources.

Fahrenthold tells an untold story of global migrants from Middle Eastern roots to their grassroots mobilization in reaction to changing circumstances in the Middle East. Chapter 1 introduces a network of publishers who delivered homeland politics and a sense of belonging to the Syrian diaspora. This chapter threads competing views into a coherent tale, while structuring the essentially dense and dull topic of print media into a clear and sharp narrative that revolves around real characters. It is an original and thought-provoking chapter.

Homeland politics is not a one-way street. Its representation in the Americas ricocheted and cross-pollinated political discourse in the Middle East. After a coup-forced regime change in July 1908, the Young Turks in Istanbul had rushed to grip the Arab diaspora with hopes to swap their trust with liberty. Chapter 2 presents the course of events around this time by focusing on the response of Syrian migrants to the agenda of the regime. Paradoxically an earlier idealism, preached as a gospel of freedom, gave way to a post-coup pessimism because the Young Turks proved to be more royalist than the sultan. By explaining the ripple effects of political alignments from Istanbul to Buenos Aires, Manhattan, Paris, and Sao Paulo, this chapter reveals that Syrian Americans formed new identities and political allegiances, all the while gauging what belligerent countries could do for and would do to Syria at the end of the day.

A wartime state of emergency calls for physical dedication besides humanitarian support and political conversation. Disillusioned with Ottoman performance, Syrian migrants sought ways to dismantle the ancien régime. Chapter 3 illustrates this objective in the context of these Syrian men who, drafted by state-sanctioned recruiters imagining a sovereign homeland, joined the Entente ranks and fought along European frontlines. Thanks to their tempting rhetoric, recruiting agents claimed a key role in debating and shaping post-war Syria just as they had routed men through enlistment centers in the Americas to battlegrounds in the Western front. The irony here is that the veterans moved forward with their lives, no longer defending a nationalist rhetoric that once placed them in a life-or-death situation. This chapter affords a balanced view of the forest and trees: the future of Syria as imagined and being made on one side, and on the other a humanized history of patriotism unfolding in recruitment agencies like the Lebanon League of Progress, and the French irregular corps, wherein Gabriel Ilyas Ward and another 10,000 Syrian men lined up against brutality, starvation, and the Turkish yoke.

Chapter 4 begins where the war ends. At the center of the story is New Syrians, a globally organized elite league of migrant activists who lobbied against restoring Syria as a European mandate. As stakeholders in a Wilsonian moment, they considered the peace talks marred by colonial interests and an active US engagement as a viable alternative. It is striking that Abraham Rihbany and other activists welcomed the United States as a big brother who could help make Syria “a free and enlightened nation.” This was a case against colonialism in favor of American expansionism. The ensuing anti-colonial protest belied the French authorities’ claim to be collectively supported by the Arab diaspora. Through an intricate turn of events, the chapter further explains that the Syrian emigrants objected to the French mandate established in their homeland and yet had to work with them in order to get there.

In remapping a new order, wars create conflictive identities and hostile borders. In a post-Ottoman world marked by a U.S. travel ban in force at that time, many hapless Ottomans wanted to travel and return to their homeland. Chapter 5 digs deep into official exemptions given to Syrians so long as they held a French colonial passport. It reveals that this type of a passport, granted exclusively to war prisoners and refugees as a document of safe conduct, offered French authorities a paralegal opportunity for counting Syrian migrants as their subjects. What’s also interesting is that this passport, practically the only way out for many others, offered human traffickers a lucrative opportunity for smuggling out the otherwise immovable Ottoman emigrants.

Citizenship issues continued through the French mandate in Greater Lebanon. This is the topic of the last chapter in which censuses and colonial policies, designed to create Christian-majority demographics, characterized migrants in the Americas in black and white terms as good and bad subjects. By detailing the collective efforts of official and patriarchal agents through the 1920s, this chapter shows that emigrant citizens not only felt alienated and stranded as a target of stringent vetting. Ultimately, the decade-long process and experience divided their communitas along the mandate’s political lines as well as denied them entry visas in the consulate’s crowded lines.

Writing from an intersection of nation, migration, and narration, Stacy Fahrenthold delivers an important and timely corrective to what we know about the huddled Arabs in the Americas and what we know about Syrian-American encounters with Ottoman-French regimes at home. This book as well is striking for its global strokes in a sea of documents across archival regimes. It is impressive for its fine details, whether painting an image of women up on a Brooklyn factory’s second floor, the mysteriously disappearing witnesses on sight, or a French consulate spy shadowing an anti-German diplomat-turned traitor named Emin Arslan. The author wishes to remain virtually humble but her work deserves the attention of readers and scholars as richly as it has deserved winning the field’s prestigious award called the Khayrallah Prize.

Emrah Sahin is a transnational historian focusing on how political forces relate to social exchanges taking place within and beyond national borders. Exploring why Muslims treat non-Muslims the way they do, his first project resulted in a recent book titled Faithful Encounters: Authorities and American Missionaries in the Ottoman Empire. He is currently working on globally-oriented Muslim views of ethnicity, equality, and morality. This project includes a localizing narrative of ongoing debates over secularism, and a critical study of six travelers who told the Islamic world about Europe and America. Professor Sahin is a senior lecturer at the University of Florida, where he is teaching global studies, religious violence, Islam, Europe, US in the Middle East, Mediterranean world, world cities, Muslim migrations, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire.