By : Stacy D. Fahrenthold and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)
Between the 1870s and the 1930s, an estimated half million people departed the Ottoman eastern Mediterranean for points abroad. Part of a larger pattern of migration from the Ottoman Empire, numerous Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian communities established themselves before the First World War, principally in the Americas (with the largest communities in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States) but also in West Africa, Europe, and the Philippines. A growing body of scholarship documents the formation, societies, and politics of the Arabic-speaking mahjar (diaspora), working across Middle Eastern, US/Latin American, and global scales to reconstruct the dense commercial, intellectual, and affective ties which held this geography together. This reading list considers the genealogy of this migration subfield, and considers recent works on migration from the Mashriq (the eastern Mediterranean lands under Ottoman sovereignty) to the mahjar, from the late nineteenth century through the interwar period. As a body of scholarship, mahjar studies pursues connection, and thus owes considerable intellectual debts to the larger fields of Arab American studies, Muslim American studies, Latin American studies, and migration history.
Some common methodological challenges and opportunities appear among the works below. Many of them express commitment to writing migration histories from the perspectives and records of migrant communities, as opposed to from the archives of the regulatory state. This commitment arises from the need to challenge to certain “migration myths” that flow from the archives of colonial powers, international legal bodies, or diplomatic authorities tasked with policing migration. Thus, one of this subfield’s core strengths has been to reveal the investments that states make in marginalizing histories of mobility. In our contemporary moment, the rights and agency of migrants from the Middle East are again being represented as a problem in political discourse. Accessing the historiography of mahjar studies reminds students that migration is neither a crisis nor an invasion; state-drive narratives depicting it as such can be challenged through good social history, but only if we seek to write from the perspectives of migrants, refugees, workers, and nomads themselves.
Emerging from the tradition of U.S. immigration history, these works detail the early Arab American communities in the United States. As important “firsts” for the mahjar studies field, these books expand scholarly notions of what constitutes “the archive”; lend nuance to previously-held conclusions about the community’s origins; and break through the neat linearity of the “coming to America” immigration story. All three books led to the foundation of new archival collections, making them compelling starting points for students and scholars.
Alixa Naff, Becoming American: the Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993).
Among early monographs in Arab American studies, Naff’s Becoming American stands out for its unique methodology. Writing from an immigration history perspective, Becoming American built from available archives, family papers, and notably, from a collection of oral histories Naff conducted in 1962. The book delivers a linear history of the early Arab settlements in the United States, moving through a now-familiar progression: arrival, pack peddling, Americanization, and subsequent economic mobility. As the title suggests, the book’s arc mirrors the model minority narrative. Naff’s reliance on oral history lends it this “peddlers-to-proprietors” framing, one now contested by historians. Nevertheless, in her embrace of material beyond the archive and powerful synthetic skills, historians owe an enormous intellectual debt to her work. Naff’s oral histories are now housed at the Smithsonian Institution, and the interview notes have been digitized by the Arab American National Museum. Becoming American continues to be a useful primer in Arab American history.
Evelyn Shakir, Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States (Westport: Praeger, 1997).
Among Shakir’s books in Arab American culture, Bint Arab stands out as the first in women’s and gender studies. Whereas Naff focused primarily on New York, Shakir examines New England, and on the changing lifeways of two generations of Arab American women: the migrant generation, comprised of Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian textile workers and pack peddlers, and the second generation born in America. Shakir was an early critic of certain mythologies that abounded in popular memory; specifically, she revealed a mahjar driven by proletarian rhythms, where women worked outside the home and where pack peddling—though celebrated—was never the only game in town. Shakir shaped her book around the papers of her mother, Hannah Sabbagh Shakir, founder of Boston’s Syrian Ladies Aid Society, materials now housed by the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and the Arab American National Museum.
Akram Fouad Khater, Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
In a historiography that was, to that point, focused on primarily on immigrant acculturation, Inventing Home was the first to examine continued connections with the homeland. In this seminal study of class formation in Lebanon and its diasporas, Khater tracks circular migration out from/back to Mount Lebanon, and argues that the emergence of a transnational middle class shaped modern Lebanon in the early 20th century. He assesses the cultural impacts of Lebanese repatriation in the interwar years, revealing how diasporic values “came home” with returning emigrants: transformations in gender norms, family values, and (memorably) the emergence of a favorite red-tiled architecture. Women sit at the fore of Khater’s study, and the work is popular in undergraduate classrooms in Middle Eastern social history because it joins mobility, class, and gender into a compelling analytic unity. Khater now directs a fully-digital archive on the Lebanese mahjar, the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies.
Race and Ethnicity
Ethnic studies and critical race theory have shaped another cohort of scholars in U.S. and Latin American studies to analyze how hegemonic ideas about race were constructed around, legislated on, and contested by Middle Eastern immigrants in the Atlantic world. Read together, these works reveal the racialization of Arabic-speaking immigrant communities across the western hemisphere, as well as the remarkable degree to which these communities were linked to one another across the hemisphere.
John Tofik Karam, Another Arabesque: Syrian-Lebanese Ethnicity in Neoliberal Brazil (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007).
Karam’s book is a dual pursuit, both an economic history of Syrian and Lebanese entrepreneurs in 20th century Brazil and a study of ethnicization. Though he is focused primarily on Brazil’s neoliberal period after the 1970s, Karam’s book is an important contribution to early mahjar studies for several reasons. He tracks the genealogy of ethnic identities that Arabic-speaking Ottomans (or “turcos”) embraced in the interwar period, responding not merely to geopolitical changes in the post-Ottoman Middle East but to Brazilian racial sensibilities and shifting perceptions of social class. Ethnicization can become an economic strategy in the same way it contributes to homeland politics, and Karam argues that Syrian and Lebanese entrepreneurs created diasporic economies around homeland tourism, cuisine, and transforming ethnic cultures into a market niche.
Sarah M.A. Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
Gualtieri’s work tells the story of how the Syrians “became white” in the eyes of U.S. law, and then critiques what whiteness meant for Middle Eastern immigrants in the United States. Starting with the arrival of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians in the late 19th century, she queries the relationship between migrant ethnicization and the racially restrictive legal regimes that confronted Arab Americans in the early twentieth century. This book employs legal history and critical race theory to the racial prerequisite cases, which rendered “Syrians” white and thus eligible for U.S. citizenship. Later in the book, Gualtieri lays out the problems with courtroom whiteness; the racial discrimination and violence Arab Americans suffered in their shops and in the streets contrasted sharply with legal benefits they received in immigration courts. Student seeking a deeper history of Syrian immigration, race, and Islamophobia in 20th century America will find a solid foundation in that vein here.
Hani Bawardi, The Making of Arab Americans: From Syrian Nationalism to U.S. Citizenship (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).
Bawardi’s work builds from a remarkable collection of club records from several Arab American political organizations from the First World War through Cold War. In turn, he examines the organizational histories of the Free Syria Society, the New Syria Party; the Arab National League; and the Institute of Arab American Affairs in exceptional detail, folding them each into a history of Arab American political action in the United States. The bid for political and legal inclusion in America was closely tied to political activism engaging the interwar Middle East, and one of Bawardi’s goals in this work is to reveal how deeply these goals were unified in the early Arab American context. In addition to this research, the author has amassed a collection of family papers and society archives, which are housed at the University of Michigan, Flint.
The relationship of diasporas to empires (Ottoman, European, American) has become another significant research theme in mahjar studies. These titles share a focus on the relationship between the French Mandate and Syrian and Lebanese migrants abroad, fraying the edges of the historiography on the colonial period and demanding attention to the repercussions of migration beyond the interwar Middle East.
Andrew Arsan, Interlopers of Empire: the Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
The most comprehensive history of Lebanese migration to French West Africa, Arsan’s objective is to confront a pervasive stereotype about Lebanese migrants in this space: that their experience was reducible to the colonial middlemen who were variously resented, instrumentalized, or loved in a world defined firstly by the binaries of colonial society. Building from archives in Dakar and Paris, the book rounds out the lives of Lebanese merchants through a compelling, affective microhistory. It recontextualizes the concept of the liminal intermediary, not as a pure agent of empire but as a flexible source of identity employed in pursuit of a livelihood defined first by deft movement across the borders between homeland and diaspora.
Camila Pastor, The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs Under the French Mandate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).
Pastor works from French colonial archives and historical ethnography to examine how French colonial control over Syria and Lebanon impacted Middle Eastern communities in interwar Mexico. The book is an intimate look at how Syrian and Lebanese migrant communities in Mexico navigated the shift from Ottoman to French rule, specifically tracking how ideas about race, class, and transnational patronage impacted individual families. Pastor argues, for instance, that elite Syrian migrants obtained a status as French proteges following the Mexican Revolution, which marked them as a privileged class with a claim in contradistinction to poor Syrian immigrants, who were instead targeted for immigration restriction. Pastor deftly navigates the history of how Maronites, Arabs, and Sephardic Jews found space for themselves within the changing legal categories of the French Mandate, revealing a mahjari cosmopolitanism borne of pragmatic necessity.
Reem Bailony, “From Mandate Borders to the Diaspora: Rashaya’s Transnational Suffering and the Making of Lebanon in 1925,” Arab Studies Journal 16, no. 2 (2018), 34-57.
Bailony’s work on the great Syrian Revolt challenges scholars to think more deeply about how diasporic circuits of exchange, travel, and fundraising impacted anticolonial movements in the Middle East. In this article, she argues that Rashaya’s 1925 destruction by French troops set off a wave of suffering and grievance petitions by Lebanese living abroad. The Rashaya incident was interesting in the ways it negated the construction of borders that was at the core of the French Mandate’s project. Not only did Syrian rebels make lie of the new border imposed between Greater Lebanon and Syria, but the wave of recriminations France faced after its bombardment revealed that Rashaya was a thoroughly transnationalized town with the ability to call the mahjar to its rescue.
New work on transnational politics in Middle Eastern diasporas builds from the archival footprints of migrant associations, activist networks, and the mahjari periodical press in the 20th century. Writing from a social historical frame, these studies use networks to reclaim migrant histories from state-centrism and the limitations of the area studies approach.
Steven Hyland, More Argentine than You: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants in Argentina (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017).
An exemplary work of transnational history, Hyland’s book develops the social history of Syrian immigration to Argentina, focusing especially the northwestern province of Tucumán. Using the press, the records of entities like the Syrian-Lebanese Society, and documents left by consular staff, merchants, and workers, Hyland examines the process of community formation, all the while questioning the suspiciously neat categories of nationalist markers. He argues that migration, mobility, and the identity negotiations that accompany them occurred at every stage of transit. This is not a one-off “coming to America” history: Hyland frontally demonstrates how ongoing regional migrations (within the Middle East and also between Tucumán and the Argentinian capital) drove the economic fortunes and political opportunities of a generation of Syrian-Lebanese migrants who never stopped moving.
Stacy D. Fahrenthold, Between the Ottomans and the Entente: the First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
The First World War complicated the political realities of Syrian and Lebanese living abroad. Having left the empire for Brazil, Argentina, and the United States as Ottoman subjects, the war prompted the question: to whom did the Syrian mahjar belong? This book examines the activism of Syrian and Lebanese societies operating across the Americas from the Young Turk Revolution through the early French Mandate. It uncovers clandestine politics, espionage, and the emergence of social movements that sought to reinvest the diaspora into the post-Ottoman Middle East. The book builds largely from the informal archives, records, and correspondence of migrant activists who operated largely beyond the oversight of the state. It critiques the production of certain myths driven within the colonial record, and ultimately demonstrates that French Mandate policies toward this diaspora betrayed a desire to partition Mashriq from mahjar.
Lily Pearl Balloffet, “From the Pampa to the Mashriq: Arab-Argentine Philanthropy Networks,” Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies 4, no. 1 (2017), 4-28.
In this work, Balloffet troubles the pervasive urban/rural divide that continues to shape many histories of the Syrian mahjar. Uncovering the history of women’s private philanthropy in interwar Argentina, she reveals women’s charity work as a critical space of mediation between Syrian communities across Latin America, and between Arab-Argentine and the Argentinian state. This piece focuses in on interwar efforts to raise funds for the Hospital Sirio Libanés, established in 1937. Tracking women’s beneficence work, she illustrates the immense contributions of Syrian women who lived not in the capital, but in remote parts of Argentina. Challenging the urban bias of traditional nodes/networks methodologies, Balloffet breaks entirely new ground for thinking through the transnational politics and practices of migrants living in rural spaces.
Graham Auman Pitts, “The Ecology of Migration: Remittances in World War I Mount Lebanon,” Arab Studies Journal 16, no. 2 (2018), 84-113.
In this article, Pitts tracks changes in remittance patterns from the mahjar to Lebanon during the First World War. Working up from U.S. Department of State records, he argues that remittances to wartime Lebanon served as an economic lifeline for families in Mount Lebanon, and that they are one vector by which historians can assess transnational economies. Closely examining the letters accompanying remittance receipts, Pitts also captures the affective ties between Lebanese struggling with the daily realities of famine at home and their relatives abroad. This article strikes a remarkable balance between arguing for the quantitative impact of cash remittances and revealing the human costs of suffering imposed by geopolitical circumstance, and Pitts ultimately demonstrates how diasporic connectivities could be broken by the cruelest policies governments make: deportation, family separation, and documentary deprivation.
Significant Journals and Edited Collections
Mahjar studies is a highly collaborative research field, with scholars working across Middle Eastern, Latin American, US immigration/ethnic studies, and global frames of analysis. Though many of the books above bridge the scalar constraints of area studies, scholars in this field also connect beyond the monograph. Edited collections and specialty journals play an important role in facilitating interdisciplinary scholarship, offering readers a polyvocal “state of the field,” and suggesting further avenues for research. These works are particularly influential in shaping the mahjar studies field today, and will likely shape the directions that researchers take in the future:
Evelyn Alsultany and Ella Shohat, eds, Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).
Maria del Mar Logroño Narbona, Paulo G. Pinto, and John Tofik Karam, eds, Crescent over Another Horizon: Islam in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Latino USA (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).
Albert H. Hourani and Nadim Shehadi, eds, The Lebanese in the World: a Century of Emigration (London: I.B. Tauris and the Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1993).
Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies. https://lebanesestudies.ojs.chass.ncsu.edu/index.php/mashriq/index
In sum, scholarship on the Arabic-speaking mahjar has managed to disrupt the imposed cantons of the area studies research model, drawing on informal, social-produced texts largely beyond the scope of state archives in pursuit of radical social history. Rather than seeking to “transcend” the state (in the language of 1990s transnationalism), historians of the mahjar have reframed the story of how states police migration, mobility, and the regulation of roving subalterns. Collectively, the above works critique state archives as places where states largely write fictions about themselves; in those narratives, migrants appear as marginal actors by design. The same undercurrent suggests new avenues for research, focusing on mahjari communities that remain underserved by the current literature: Middle Eastern migrants in central America, in rural spaces or hinterlands; the proletarian working classes; or itinerants in borderlands for whom constant passage was a way of life. Perhaps most significantly, emerging work on Muslim mahjari communities promises to lend needed balance to the field, which has until now largely focused on the mahjar’s Christian majority. Mahjar studies is a field consumed by a project to retrieve migrant voices from histories that once silenced them. That said, this historiography has its own silences, too; we have more work to do.
 Excellent works in Ottoman migration history include: Isa Blumi, Ottoman Refugee, 1878-1939 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013); Dawn Chatty, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); David Gutman, The Politics of Armenian Migration to North America, 1885-1915: Sojourners, Smugglers, and Dubious Citizens (New York: Oxford University Press, July 2019); Reşat Kasaba, A Moveable Empire: Ottoman Nomads, Migrants, and Refugees (Seattle, WA, 2009). For a starting point on Ottoman migration to the Americas, see Kemal Karpat, “The Ottoman Emigration to America, 1860-1914,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17, no. 2 (May 1985), 175-209.