The Arab Americans: A History

Gregory Orfalea, New York: Olive Branch Press, 2006. 500 pages.

Since 9/11, Arab Americans have been the subject of much discussion in both popular and scholarly forums. Books on the suddenly visible Arab-American community have been published recently or are forthcoming, and courses dealing with Arab Americans are gradually entering university curricula. This interest is cross-disciplinary, having become evident in numerous humanities and social science fields. 

Yet this interest is bound largely to the political marketplace of ideas, for an emergent Arab-American studies existed well before 9/11 and had been on the brink of increased visibility on the eve of 9/11. It took 9/11, however, for this body of scholarship to generate broad attention. In addition, 9/11 altered the trajectories that had already been established, though not as dramatically as an unaffiliated observer might believe. Gregory Orfalea was among the group of scholars and artists who were assessing Arab America before 9/11 through his work as a writer and editor. Orfalea continues his contribution to that project with his latest book, The Arab Americans: A History, a voluminous text that mixes exposition, commentary, and analysis.

The author’s cross-disciplinary book will be of interest to students and scholars in the humanities and the social sciences, for it contains elements of historiography, sociology, literary criticism, memoir, and anthropology. The introduction and first chapter recount a trip he took as a young man in 1972 with his jaddu (grandfather) to Arbeen, Syria, his grandfather’s hometown. Subsequent chapters explore a number of sociocultural and political issues of interest to the Arab-American community, including the politics of the Arab world, activism (historical and contemporary) in Arab America, the relationship between Arab Americans and the American government at both the local and federal levels, religious traditions in Arab America, and the instability and diversity of Arab-American identity.

This breadth of analysis is one of the book’s strengths. Other strengths include Orfalea’s personal knowledge of many of the issues and histories he examines, his humanization through engaging profiles of individuals subsisting within a widely stereotyped community, and his condemnation of draconian legislation targeted at Arab Americans and rationalized by an Arab presence in the United States. At the start of the preface, he suggests that “the past two decades are the most political, by far, in the Arab-American community’s history, and a literary renaissance, if not naissance, is unfurling by the day” (p. vii). The Arab Americans maps out this political trajectory in great detail, paying attention to sociocultural phenomena and also wisely moving beyond the political to assess the artistry of Arab America, particularly in the genre of literature. I use wisely to describe this move because Orfalea makes certain his readers understand that reducing Arab Americans to political metonymy or to imply that they have no form of agency beyond grievance or protest is a serious disservice. To comprehend Arab America fully and accurately is to acknowledge a complex positioning on the American landscape. The Arab Americans provides that sort of acknowledgment.

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