Charlotte Karem Albrecht, Possible Histories: Arab Americans and the Queer Ecology of Peddling (University of California Press, 2023).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Charlotte Karem Albrecht (CKA): I wrote Possible Histories for two interrelated reasons. First, I wanted to understand the paradox at the heart of how early Arab American history has been narrated, particularly in community narratives and some early Arab American studies scholarship. These narratives assert that Syrian Americans’ work as peddlers was the key to their ability to “integrate” into American society. (Here and throughout the book, I use “Syrian” to refer to Arab migrants from the Ottoman province of bilad al-sham.) On the contrary, however, an abundance of archival materials shows that peddlers, like other transient laborers, were associated with sexual non-normativity more broadly and queerness in particular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So how did the queer figure of the peddler become reclaimed as one of respectability in Arab American communities and scholarship? And what was the relationship between this queerness and assertions of Syrian “whiteness” by some Syrian Americans?

Second, I wanted to see sexuality employed as a central analytic in scholarship on Arab Americans and I was intrigued by the challenge of how to proceed when you seem to find no ostensibly queer subjects in Arab American community archives. I set out to write an interdisciplinary historicist exploration of early Arab American peddling work. I focus on the labor and representations of Syrian American peddlers and other Syrians involved in the peddling economy. I argue that the racial liminality that Syrian Americans experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century hinged on a complex and fluid entanglement of both Syrian and American sexual norms.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

CKA: Possible Histories examines the discursive and material history of what I call the queer ecology of the Syrian peddling economy. The site of the book is Syrian American peddling labor and its reverberations in American culture from the 1870s through the 1950s. The queer ecology of peddling is a descriptor that names the peddling economy as broader and more interconnected than has traditionally been defined. It expands our understanding of peddling labor to those who enabled it as a profitable and sustainable profession. This includes those who operated boarding houses, made items for peddlers to sell, and took care of children and elders when peddlers were away. These laborers were largely women, as were a number of peddlers themselves. The queer ecology of peddling is also a conceptual framework, specifically a queer analytic, that allows me to address the sexual, racial, and gendered implications of the Syrian peddling economy and in the production of knowledge about the Arab American past. This conceptual framework attends to the contingent and curated nature of historical narratives. It asks, in other words, what was possible in these histories and what has been occluded from them.

The subject of this book is also the archival collections that have documented this history. In particular, I engage with the published scholarship and archival collection of the late Arab American historian Alixa Naff, whose impact on our understanding of this history—both in constructing a narrative about peddling and in leaving future generations a wealth of archival materials—is unparalleled. As I depend on this scholarly legacy, I simultaneously contend with the normativizing implications of her curatorial choices, in both the community-based scholarship she produced and the community-based archive she constructed. I work closely with Naff’s oral histories conducted with first- and second-generation Syrian Americans and the family photographs of these interlocutors. In addition to Naff’s body of work and her archive, I also look at national and local American news media; census materials; short stories, poems, plays, and the musical Oklahoma!; American social work case files; and Syrian American periodicals. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

CKA: This book began as my dissertation at the University of Minnesota in the Feminist Studies doctoral program. It is part of my ongoing preoccupation with race, sexuality, gender, and class in histories of Arab American life that originally stemmed from what I thought of as a non-scholarly interest in my own family history. It is the culmination of over fifteen years of research investigating the entanglements of sexuality with white supremacy in the early Syrian American diaspora. It is also the result of a long-standing interest I have with research methods and knowledge production. I am especially interested in how scholars of histories of gender, sexuality, and race (particularly those who study the legacies of structural violence) think capaciously about practices of documentation and archiving and the effects of these practices on the histories that we write today.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CKA: My hope is that this book will reach scholars in Middle East studies, queer and women’s and gender studies, and American ethnic studies, broadly. I also hope that a wider public audience with interests in US immigration history, Arab American communities, and stories of family history will find this text to be accessible and interesting.

Perhaps it can be a catalyst for more open and fearless conversations about sexuality, gender, and race in Arab American communities. One of my favorite things that has resulted from this book being published is receiving messages from other Arab Americans who have heard about my work and find connection to the layers of family history and narratives regarding race, class, sexuality, and gender in our communities. People have shared some wild stories and quite complex family dynamics with me, and I appreciate these gifts. It confirms my suspicions that these issues are widespread, but largely unacknowledged, across generations of the Arab diaspora.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CKA: My next project extends my thinking on early Arab immigrants’ navigation of white supremacist, gendered, and sexual disciplinary power in diaspora and considers the history of Arab relationships to native sovereignty and settler colonialism in the United States. I am in the very beginning stages of this project which seeks to historicize the varied and sometimes contradictory roles of Arab Americans in the US settler colonial project through examining representation, political advocacy work, and land-based practices. There is really exciting work in Arab American studies that advances critiques of settler colonialism through studying modern colonial practices of Israel and the United States. There is less work that looks at Arab diasporic relationships to North American settler colonialism, as well as in historical context. I do want to shout out Rana Razek’s insightful research that is paving the way in this area.

J: Your book is concerned with the limitations of historical methods for understanding sexuality, especially queerness, in Arab American communities. What do you do to address these limitations?

CKA: Archival collections—particularly those of communities impacted by white supremacy—are shaped by a politics of accommodation and respectability. In order to account for these effects on our knowledge-making practices regarding sexuality and race, I depend on a practice of “historical-grounded imagining” (the term I use to refer to a body of methodological interventions by queer studies, postcolonial studies, and Black studies scholars). Throughout the book, I use this practice to highlight the role of sexuality in the uneven formation of Arab immigrants and Arab Americans as racial subjects and to critically imagine the possible desires, intimacies, and pleasures that Arab Americans have experienced, other than those evidenced by archival records—including those that were not constrained or disciplined by either American white supremacist heteronormativity or Syrian sexual normativity. Like other queer studies scholars, I embrace the unexpected and the accidental in my work, asking what conditions have produced certain archival appearances. When I encounter archival materials, I look for things that are “off,” for moments of hesitation, for things that appear strange. I look for the possibilities of ambiguity, excess, and multiple interpretations in the ways that Arab Americans have been constituted and have constituted themselves. In other words, I intentionally use my own affective responses to archival materials in the research process.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, “Traveler, Peddler, Stranger, Syrian: Queer Provocations and Sexual Threats,” pp. 30-34)

White Americans’ fear of Syrians also contributed to discursive violence against them in the press, often manifesting as alarm about Syrians’ arrival and their work as peddlers. …

As Syrian populations increased in the early twentieth century, local papers sometimes described peddlers as a type of nuisance to white residents and white businesses. For instance, one newspaper printed its own definition of a peddler: “He invades peoples’ homes and persuades them to buy what they do not want.” In Guthrie, Oklahoma, retailers attempted to raise license fees to drive peddlers from town. Indeed, Syrians were frequently mentioned in the press when they were arrested and fined for peddling without a license. The imposition of licensing was one way that small towns attempted to prevent peddlers from competing with local brick-and-mortar businesses. In El Paso, Texas, the local paper aggressively characterized the rise of Syrian business ventures (“Syrians Grabbing the Business of El Paso”). In the Oklahoma Panhandle, newspaper editors plainly told residents not to buy from Syrian peddlers. After speaking with two Syrian peddlers who told them that business had not been good of late, the editors asserted that “our people” had merchants who already served the community well. “Stick to your town and her business people,” they proclaimed; “they are the fellows who stick to you. The others ‘stick it’ to you.”…

These discursive characterizations echo in the recuperative measures taken by early Arab American scholarly and community activist texts. Many of these works noted that peddling was a temporary profession that suited Syrians’ intentions of returning home after earning money rather than remaining in the United States. Narrative maneuvering, however, could transform this fact of convenience into evidence of Syrians’ propensity for and commitment to capitalism. …

Peddling was consequently viewed as the starting point in a trajectory that ended in “success and middle-class status.” Regarding some peddlers’ transition to opening brick-and-mortar businesses with the capital they made in peddling, Naff called these shifts “evolutionary stages” in peddling: “They were no longer the humble pack peddler. They saw themselves and acted as ‘classier salesmen dealing with classier people.’” In a settled business and personal life, one would own a physical storefront, cease the frequent travel that peddling entailed, and engage in marriage and reproduction—all things that were part and parcel of assimilating into white, middle-class Americanness.

These narratives attempted to reposition the peddler as a capitalist at heart: not a threat but rather someone compatible with white American capitalism. …In linking peddling with capitalism and entrepreneurship, these narratives revised the labor of peddling, and the economy that supported it, to be normative in the US context. …

The press’s discursive violence that positioned Syrian peddlers as threatening to white capital also relied on stoking white gendered fears of Syrian sexuality. A lengthy article published in 1898 examined the influx of “undesirable” immigrants coming through Ellis Island. Focusing on Syrians in particular, the author described Syrian peddlers as pests throughout the South and West who were able to skirt immigration laws by “complying with the letter of the law” through their marriage claims. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, the author claimed, each Syrian would find an “immigration husband” or “immigration wife”—that is, another Syrian who would pose as a spouse for legal entry requirements: “A Syrian woman with a child is considered specially valuable as a peddler in the streets of towns. The husband who meets her is not likely to know how old his wife is, when or where she was born, or even her name. . . . But he never fails in demonstrations of family love. He is most passionate in outward devotion to his immigration wife.” An illustration of a tarboush-wearing man embracing a woman who holds a baby accompanied this section of the article, with the reiterating caption “He never fails in demonstrations.” Immigration officials whom the report quoted were convinced that a single Syrian man would pose as a husband for up to five or six women, who were then by law allowed to enter the country. This article implied not only that such Syrians were skirting immigration laws but that Syrian men used this trick also to engage in sexual relations with multiple women simultaneously.

Although fictional representations of such fears focused on the potential seduction of white women by peddlers…news reports focused on the fear that Syrian peddlers would sexually assault white women customers. Several articles specifically highlighted fraught interactions between Syrian peddlers and white women, amplifying white fears of racialized sexual violence. A 1918 article told of a Syrian peddler “prophet” in Washington, DC, who also offered healing services in the form of charms and amulets. Though sensational to a white American clientele, amulets were commonly used by Arab women. Two days before the article’s publication, Waharaud Barakat had come to the home of Estrella Keyes to sell laces and embroidery. After Barakat “hinted at occult powers,” according to the article, Keyes asked him to come back later and then notified the police. Once he returned, the two discussed Keyes’s inability to have children. Barakat then gave her a collection of charms with instructions for their use and promised that they would help her become pregnant. The article called this interaction between Barakat and Keyes a “séance” and reported that he attempted to embrace her after she paid him five dollars for the service. The woman then cried out, and the police, who were hiding in an adjacent room, arrested him. He was charged with “telling fortunes without a license” and with assault. Another article, from 1910, accused a Syrian peddler of setting fire to a woman’s home in Lehi, Utah. The unnamed peddler had previously visited the woman to sell his goods. She accused him of “attacking and assaulting” her. He was arrested and convicted and spent two months in jail. The paper reported that, while incarcerated, he vowed to have his revenge upon his release.

Another report, from New York in 1905, told of the attempted lynching of a Syrian peddler after he was found alone in his tenement room with two young girls. An Irish mother went looking for her eleven-year-old daughter one day when she had not come home after school. After asking others in the neighborhood, she was directed to the room of an older Syrian man. Inside, she found her daughter and another girl, aged nine, alone with the man. Police apprehended him, but the girl’s father attempted to lynch him in the street. As the father tried to rally the crowd of onlookers to assist him, he yelled, “Are ye men or Syrians?” The father’s hypothetical question sutured normative binary gender to sexuality by juxtaposing manhood against the depraved and violent sexuality of Syrians that this story implied. Instead of assisting in the lynching, the mother and other onlookers prevented the father from inflicting any more violence on the Syrian man. This shocking report—reprinted across the country, including in Oklahoma and Arkansas—featured a drawing depicting the lynching scene. Collectively, these reports centered on the fears of white consumers and produced for readers a “pleasurable fiction of threat at any moment, facilitating the performance of a grotesque and melodramatic victimhood.”

One article depicting the racialized and sexualized fear of peddlers perhaps best embodies the racial contradictions Syrians experienced in the United States. In August 1903 nineteen-year-old Rasheed Saliney, a jewelry peddler, was being held in the Greer County jail in Oklahoma for the “attempted assault” of one of his customers: a white woman named Effie Witt. According to census records, Saliney had arrived from Syria only the year prior. Although the alleged assault had taken place in nearby Roger Mills County, Saliney was taken to Greer County because police feared that he would be lynched if he remained where the alleged assault took place. The encounter between Saliney, a Syrian man, and Witt, a white American woman, was a racialized, gendered, and sexualized encounter. The accusation of assault (assumed to be sexual) and the fear of a lynching point to the historical structures that positioned men of color, particularly Black men, as sexually predatory toward white women. Yet the fact that police moved Saliney to another county complicates a simplistic narrative of the Arab immigrant at odds with white American power. This move was a protective measure; in some sense, the local police were aligned with (or at least sympathetic to) Saliney. That he was moved to a county where other Syrians, including relatives, lived meant that he would have recourse to support there, rather than remaining in a place where he may have known no one and had fewer possible allies.

… Each of these press appearances of Syrians highlights the anxieties white settlers had about Syrians’ sexual excess, apparent lack of desire to become US citizens, and transience. In many cases, but not exclusively, these accounts demonstrate the vulnerability of Syrian men as peddlers, in contrast to the threats they were assumed to pose  to white women. By reiterating Syrian men’s removal from Syrian wives through migration and peddling, this discourse was one of “deviant heterosexuality.”