For Arab American Heritage Month, MEPC is exploring the history, culture, and contributions of the Arab diaspora across the United States. Professor Edward Curtis IV is William and Gail M. Plater Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. His publications include The Practice of Islam in America and Muslims in America: A Short History. In addition, Professor Curtis founded the Arab Indianapolis project that calls attention to the stories, sites, and culinary traditions—past and present—of Arab Americans in the Midwest. MEPC’s Director of External Affairs Gavin Moulton catches up with Professor Curtis virtually.
1. How did you become interested in Arab American history?
I can't remember when I wasn't interested in Arab American history. When I was seven or eight, my Syrian Lebanese grandmother moved into my hometown of Mount Vernon, Illinois, and she raised me as a proud Arab American. Part of that identity was always telling the stories of our people, both in the United States and also in the Middle East. One of the family stories that got passed on to me was that I was the descendant of Ernest Hamwi, who invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 St Louis World's Fair. I've done a lot of research on my connection and I actually can't find a link in the official documents, but I grew up thinking that I was indeed the great-great grandson of the inventor of the ice cream cone. This is a great immigrant story that oriented me in time and space and linked me back to my ancestors. It was a source of pride, but more than that, it was a way of saying that the past matters to who we are today. For me, Arab American history was always a way of celebrating Arab people in a place where my brown skin, the food that I ate, and the history that I carried were seen as outsider or foreign. Rather than just seeing myself as an isolated young boy in rural Southern Illinois, I saw myself as part of a greater community. My own professional work on Arab American history partly reflects that. My devotion to celebrating our community in the United States is not simply a way to notice that it was there, but also as a way to see our worth in places where we were sometimes stigmatized or dehumanized.
2. Could you tell us more about your work on the Arab Indianapolis project?
Arab Indianapolis is a storytelling platform that seeks to recover the contributions of Arabic-speaking people to the city of Indianapolis and central Indiana from the 1800s until today. There are many books and articles about Arab Americans in various cities across the country, but there is very little scholarship and popular writing about Arab Americans in Indianapolis. What I have discovered is that Indianapolis actually played a key role in the formation of Arab American organizing in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It's been eye-opening and I hope it will be useful to the entire Arab American community. Here at home, Arab Indianapolis is as much about partnering with local Arab Americans—both Christians and Muslims—who trace their ancestors all the way back to the 19th century, as it is with recently arrived immigrants, many displaced by the Iraq War or Syrian Civil War. What I want to do with the storytelling platform is to link these communities to one another, or try to encourage that. I also want help those communities tell their own story. We have many ways of telling our story:there is the website; next year we're going to have a beautiful book of photographs coming out from Belt Publishing; I'm currently working on a full-length documentary for public television about Arab Indianapolis; and the Indianapolis Public Library is working with local Arab Americans (and historically Arab American congregations and communities) to create a special collection. Several community supporters of Arab Indianapolis have also partnered with the public library to introduce and purchase more books about this history. The other essential part of Arab Indianapolis is that I have involved several undergraduate student researchers. This enables me to support their training in local history and connect my students to the city’s Arab American communities. The project is a little more than a year old and has been a deeply meaningful and soul-satisfying project. Learn more here.
3. What does it mean to engage in community-centered historical practice?
I’m lucky to work at a place that greatly values community-engaged research; it's not seen as a sideshow and can be the basis for our tenure and promotion. This is very important because many universities do not value this work as much as we do. So, first of all it's really important to have institutional support for community-engaged research.
Secondly, doing community-engaged research means listening carefully and balancing one's own sense of how best to pursue research questions with the desires and the hopes of your community partners. Sometimes, I set aside any historiographical questions that are emerging out of the scholarship so that I can engage my partners and explore the questions that interest them. What this means is that my work doesn't just talk to other scholars. I discovered many members of the community really wanted a book about Arab Indianapolis, but not just want a scholarly book full of footnotes. They pointed to other examples illustrated with photographs, and I said great, why not just do a coffee table book? This will reach a lot of people, and we can share this with people who are not Arab Americans as a kind of invitation to learn about us and our community. That's an example of where my own agenda emerged from partnership with the community.
4. Any advice for students studying local history?
I couldn't do what I do without the work of local historians. They have been gathering documents and telling stories for decades. Sometimes the best stories to be found are unpublished manuscripts sitting in a public library. They may not be peer-reviewed but they open up questions and introduce you to characters you might otherwise not know. Take the work of local historians seriously and don't just look at peer-reviewed articles. Consider what's been done locally and become involved with your local archivists. Connect with historical societies and public librarians. Various organizations have their own archives or community centers. Take full advantage of the incredible digitization of local newspapers, insurance maps, and city directories (most of which are available for free online from the Library of Congress and other places). Keyword searches allow you to find needles in haystacks that were just too big before. By searching digitized local history resources and then asking community partners about the stories that we discover, we can share more stories that have perhaps been forgotten.
5. Which Arab American artists, scholars, or writers inspire you?
For around three years, I've been spending a lot of time reading oral history interviews that were gathered by local historians, but also by Dr. Alixa Naff whose collection is available at the Smithsonian. Some of our best storytelling is available in these oral histories. I also enjoy contemporary Arab American music and art; I love reading novels of people like Diana Abu-Jaber and reading the poetry of Suheir Hammad and Naomi Shihab Nye. And of course, I don't think I would do what I do without the work of Edward Said, who continues to inspire and challenge me. But beyond those of us who have been fortunate enough to be formally published, I truly appreciate people like my grandmother whose lives and stories would be lost in history if it weren't for these oral histories. They paint a picture of how they made a home, especially in my region of the Midwest,how they continued to teach their kids Arabic, the Christian and Muslim congregations that they established, the foods that they adapted and adopted, the mahrajans where they all came together to celebrate and listen to their music and eat our food and find marriage partners for their kids. These stories, for me, are the archive of Arab American culture that speaks most directly to my own experience.
6. What is one fact that everyone should know about Arab Americans?
I think one of the most important things to know is that the first and second generations thought of themselves as fully American and fully Arab. Rather than seeing their Arab and American identities as conflicting, they saw them as complementary. That's important because many of the immigrant stories we tell instead focus on tension between the old world and the new world, between the old ways and the new ways. But if you look at their stories, they were proud of both of those identities and being part of both of these cultures. This gives us a model for how it might be possible to celebrate the multicultural nature of the United States and invites all of us—whether we're Arab or not—to explore the idea that we might be able to love more than one place and more than one people.
7. Do you have a favorite Arab American historical site?
I have a new book coming out called Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest. It depicts a number of historical sites across the Midwest where Arab Americans, most Syrian and Lebanese, made a home. My own favorite historical sites are the places where I can imagine my ancestors—breaking ground on their farms and peddling sweets and scarves on streets from Cairo, Illinois, to Indianapolis, Indiana. I still think of my great grandfather's farm outside of Mounds, Illinois. When he was a young boy, he would sleep on this farm while he was out doing peddling routes and made up his mind that he would earn enough money to purchase the farm. He succeeded and that farm stayed in the family for a long time. It was where he and my great-grandmother built their lives and where my mother spent much of her childhood.
8. Could you tell us more about religious diversity within the Arab American community?
In Africa and Asia, the vast majority of Arabic-speaking people are Muslim. In the United States it's different--it may be that the majority of Arab Americans are Christian. The reason for that is so many people immigrated from what is today Syria and Lebanon, and many of them were Christian. The Christian Arab American community is extremely diverse: in addition to Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics (or Melkites), there are Antiochian Orthodox Christians and other Christian minorities who do not identify as Arabs.
From the earliest days, the Muslim community,which was a minority, included both Sunni and Shia. One of the reasons for that was again was the connection to Syria and Lebanon, regions with large populations of Shia and Sunni Muslims. In addition, there are Druze, a religion which is particular to Syria and Lebanon. It branched off from Islam centuries ago and incorporates some practices that we might identify as having an Islamic origin. But it really has its own sacred texts and rituals. One of the most famous Druze Americans was Casey Kasem, who counted down all the hits on Casey’s Top 40. There are also a small number of Arabic speaking Jews—Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, mostly Mizrahi Jews, who came early on but did not identity as Arab at the time, although they spoke Arabic. One of the community’s most famous representatives is Jerry Seinfeld whose relatives come from Aleppo.
9. In addition to TeachMideast, what resources would you recommend for students and teachers who want to learn more?
If you enjoy learning on the web, there are several free resources on Arab America. There's a site called Arab America, which has helpful news articles and community information. At North Carolina State University there is the Khayrallah Center, which is a wonderful resource for Lebanese American history and culture. You will find great resources at the Arab American National Museum and they have digitized an incredible amount of content. I would also mention again the Alixa Naff collection at the Smithsonian which has many freely available resources through their website. One of the one of the best ways is to look up a Title VI Research Center, which are funded by the government to specialize in a certain region, they almost always have an outreach component and can help to develop curricula for high school teachers.
10. Why is it important to celebrate and study Arab American history to understand and promote a pluralist vision of American society.
Even though Arab Americans constitute a small percentage of the total population, they are absolutely essential for understanding pluralism in the United States. One of the main reasons for that is because of their racial ambiguity. When Arabic-speaking people arrived in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were often understood to be Oriental or Asian. Legally speaking, they were later classified as white, but their whiteness was more or less successful depending on the locality. It was contingent on the racial and ethnic composition of the town and on their ability to amass power and to negotiate and integrate with white mainstream society.
In some cases, Arab Americans have been able to do that, but increasingly after the 1960s and 70s, as the United States came to be in conflict with some Arab-majority countries, their racial status as white people began to be challenged. Not even just at the local level, but at the national level. This became much worse after 9/11, as their rights as citizens were taken away. Racial status in our country is tied to whether or not we are able to exercise our rights as social citizens. In order to understand how important race is and how race works, Arab Americans are a key population. When I’m talking about race here, I’m talking about how white racialism works in the United States. Arab Americans must be put at the center of that story.