After a century, U.S. Arabs look for pieces of past

By Jeff Karoub

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Tossing and shivering below deck, Hussien Karoub felt ill. In the cold, crowded conditions, sleep came seldom. When it did, it didn't last long: The cries of children and the moans of those even sicker than he was made certain of that.

It was approaching midnight somewhere in the North Atlantic, aboard a vessel carrying the 18-year-old Syrian and many fellow immigrants toward, they hoped, a better life. If nothing else, he knew it had to beat this arduous monthlong odyssey in steerage, enduring conditions that were, in every sense, below those in first and second class.

It would be days before details trickled down about the doomed ship a couple hundred miles away. Above, in his vessel's radio room, came the first distress call from the foundering RMS Titanic: "Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We struck an iceberg. Sinking."

A couple weeks later, Hussien Karoub arrived in the United States even more anonymously than he otherwise might have. Public attention was elsewhere, focused on the Titanic and its tragic end.

That is the story of my grandfather's voyage to America. Or, more likely, it isn't. And that's part of the point.


I am a third-generation Arab-American, and I am on a journey to learn more about the journey of my "jiddo," the Arabic word for grandfather. I am sorting through family stories, passed down, that have a way of changing in the retelling. Folk tales are compelling, but I am trying to anchor my story to facts before the channels to history close entirely, in hopes they might offer insight about how I got here.

My quest mirrors those of so many Arab-Americans. They're looking back and trying to unearth their stories, separating myth from truth and -- just as important -- hoping to show their neighbors that, in the story of America, they are not a "them" but an "us."

Maybe the Titanic tale is true. It's remotely possible, since Hussien Karoub came to the United States in the same year, 1912. My family hasn't confirmed that through records, but by anecdotes like a radio interview from the early 1960s, when he said he came to Detroit in 1915 to make cars after spending three years making hats in Danbury, Conn.

For many Arabs, a version of the story is true. U.S.-bound Middle Easterners were on the Titanic and other ships traversing the Atlantic. In lower Manhattan, an already thriving Syrian community awaited and would be instrumental in identifying and memorializing the dead and helping survivors meet the new world.

"I always tell people who ask that Jiddo's ship crossed paths with the Titanic on the way over from Syria," my cousin Carl, the family's historian, tells me. "The wake from the Titanic nearly capsized his tiny ferry and he cursed the Titanic."

He has no proof, of course. In only a century, the truth blurs in a genealogical game of telephone. Yet why not hitch our tale to that of a great American epic? It's not that big of a stretch. Americans -- most Americans, even -- have done that since the very beginning.

But I want more than stories.


"Who's 'Aszim'?" the voice over the phone asks me. It's Diane Hassan, a researcher from the Danbury Museum & Historical Society. Hassan finds a record saying Aszim was born in Danbury in 1913, which brings us closer to confirming the timeframe of my grandfather's arrival in Danbury. This was my father's first cousin, known to my family by his American name, Jimmy. He was the son of Mohammed, my grandfather's brother.

I've sought Hassan's help because I've hit a brick wall. Ellis Island, the entry point for millions of immigrants, contains records of my grandfather coming in 1920 aboard the Kroonland with his wife, Miriam, and their young son Allie. That was Hussien Karoub's second U.S. arrival, but there is no record in Ellis Island's archive of his inaugural voyage as a single man some eight years earlier.

A short boat ride away, they're asking the same kinds of questions on a much larger scale. A group of New Yorkers have worked with curators from the Arab American National Museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn on a new traveling exhibit that documents what had been one of the earliest settlements of Arabs in America.

It's not lost on them that the Little Syria neighborhood in lower Manhattan would become the site of the World Trade Center -- the towers whose destruction a decade ago put many of Middle Eastern descent under intense scrutiny and suspicion.

For so many decades, the self-appointed "us" of America had names for the not-quite-white, not-quite-black, not-quite-sure group of "them" arriving from the Middle East: "Orientals," "Ali Baba," and later, "towelheads."

The increasingly malignant stereotype of Arab and Muslims as terrorists appeared in the 1960s with the Arab-Israeli war but hit warp speed after 9/11. It came in actions -- anti-Islamic hate crime cases reported to the FBI spiked after the terrorist attacks -- but it came more commonly, casually and sometimes just as cruelly in words:

"Go home."

Go home. It's as perplexing as it is offensive, especially to those whose American story stretches back a century. Where exactly is home for someone who was born in the U.S.? Or came here seeking a better life -- and succeeded? Or fled tyranny for opportunity? In times of crisis, the public forgets how long Arab and Muslims have been in the U.S. or what they've contributed.

So, in the face of foes and a forgetful public, it is left to Arabs themselves to remember and remind others of where they've been. That presents difficulties -- not only with facts that were never committed to paper but also with facts that bump into something equally potent: family consensus.

I've known since I was little that my grandfather made up his birthdate. Why? Because the village where he was born didn't keep records. His gravestone lists his birth year as 1893; his petition to become a U.S. citizen, filed in 1919, says he was born on Dec. 20, 1892.

That led me to another surprise: learning he registered for the World War I draft in 1917, a full decade before being declared a citizen. The document shows his birthplace as the "Syrian Arab Republic" and his occupation as "grinding for Ford Motor Co." The registration also details back problems, which likely kept him from being drafted. His address is on the same street in the Detroit enclave where, just four years later, he would lead what was likely the first mosque in the United States.

In Danbury, a whole section of town is referred to as "Little Lebanon," where immigrants like my grandfather came to work in fur and hat factories. One Arab immigrant whose time there wasn't lost to history was William Buzaid, who opened a fur-cutting factory in 1910.

Hassan is working with the city's Lebanese American Club to learn more about the paths of its forebears. She welcomes my call for help in finding facts to fill my story, knowing it could in turn help Danbury and Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and many other places where Arab-Americans traveled through or put down roots during the Great Migration of 1880-1924. The peak for those coming from what then was known as "Greater Syria" was from 1910 to 1914.

Even after trying several variations of Karoub -- Kharoub, Karoob, Karub, Karroubi -- I came up empty. Maybe, Hassan suggests, he was among those who came through Baltimore or Boston. Maybe even Canada. Maybe he didn't enter at Ellis Island at all.

Maybe. A word I can't seem to escape.


Devon Akmon also wants to fill in some ancestral blanks. He lacks even more basic facts than I do. He knows this much: He's half-Lebanese, like me, and his family came from northern Lebanon. But who came to the U.S., and when?

"This is the hard part. This is what we don't know," said Akmon, now deputy director of the Arab American National Museum. "They first came to Kentucky. That's the story I want to figure out. ... It's family history. Knowing your family's story only back a generation -- it seems so mysterious."

To know more, he said, enhances his "sense of self-worth."

How can details like these disappear so soon? A relative's reluctance to reminisce is a common obstacle for the family historian, and Akmon said his grandfather didn't talk a lot about his past.

It's a challenge in his day job as well. "Trying to do research on Arab-Americans in the early ... 20th century is very difficult," he says. "It's so underdocumented."

That's an underlying theme of the 1985 book, "Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience," by Alixa Naff. It draws on dozens of interviews with pioneer immigrants and their descendants from more than 25 communities, including my uncle -- a son of Hussien Karoub who followed him into ministry.

You come away with one overarching feeling: The ancestry quest of Arab-Americans is common to all immigrants, be they Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews or others. It is the story of most everyone in America.

Yet Syrians are one of the least studied of America's ethnic groups -- partly because they were smaller in number and the formal Arabic language was not widely understood by Western students and scholars before World War II. But Naff says the blame also falls upon Arab immigrants, who "neglected to study themselves."

"The history of their American experience was, by comparison, too insignificant and too fleeting to warrant recording," she wrote.

So, what filled the cultural void? American myth and history. "Lacking ancestral legends and heroes that had an organic relevance to their lives, they adopted American legends as their own -- presidents, cowboys, athletes and men like Charles Lindbergh," Naff wrote.

Maybe the Titanic -- itself no slouch as an American history tale -- looms so large in my grandfather's legend because the sea at that time of its fateful passage was filled with Middle Easterners seeking a new life, including on the "unsinkable" ship itself. There, 154 of the Titanic's passengers were Arabic; 29 survived.

Those who did included 24-year-old Catherine Joseph, who was sailing steerage with her children, 6-year-old Michael and 2-year-old Anna. The passenger record indicates her husband, Peter, sent them back to Lebanon a few months earlier to save money, but called them back to Detroit.

We know these facts about the Joseph family because of "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," which spent several recent months at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, the capital of Arab-America. Visitors learned about passengers and their fates on special tickets handed out at the exhibition's entrance.

It didn't take years for the tales of those on the Titanic to be told. Arabic-language newspapers from New York's Little Syria played a particularly aggressive role in helping to identify victims and provide support to families and survivors -- something it was uniquely equipped to do.

"The entire Syrian community of New York identified with the difficulties of those who had left their homeland seeking a better future in a new land," Leila Salloum Elias wrote in 2005 in an essay that laid the groundwork for a new book, "The Dream and the Nightmare: The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic."

"They were reminded of their own journey across ocean and sea," she wrote. "The Syrian community considered the ship's Syrian passengers as part of it."

What kind of impression did that leave on my Jiddo? I wonder if he was there to see newspapers report, connect and advocate on behalf of those on the ship, and if those efforts helped him decide to launch his own newspaper a few years later in Detroit.

No doubt he was lured like many other immigrants by the promise of Ford's "five bucks a day" to make Model Ts. But he saw another, less material motive: Muslims making Michigan their home would need a spiritual leader. He could put his Islamic studies to work to help build an American community.

More help in my quest comes from the National Archives, the main repository for pieces of the American story. Naturalization records contain details about where and when an immigrant came to the United States -- and my grandfather's record is among them, at the Archives' Chicago branch. It teases me even more.

He listed himself as a sewing machine operator. He had a scar on his left palm. His signature -- in a sturdy, stylish penmanship for a man who wasn't raised reading or writing English -- attests that he is neither polygamist nor anarchist.

I press on. Genealogy specialist Constance Potter runs a general search on several conceivable spellings for Hussien Karoub. As far as the archive is concerned, no record exists of my grandfather's 1912 arrival.

That's unsurprising. Many ports of entry were overflowing with huddled masses. Immigrants' names were taken verbally, so there's no guarantee that our best guesses on spelling match the elusive record. And until 1935, there was no National Archives.

"There were all these years when things could disappear," Potter says.

While she admires my pursuit and recognizes my disappointment, Potter consoles me with an existential parting shot about who we are as Americans.

"Everyone's ancestor was somewhere on July 4, 1776," she says. "Whether signing the Declaration of Independence or somewhere in Syria, they were there."


Every quest, particularly when it comes to your own history, eventually arrives at a crossroads with some version of the same question: What is the point?

Why struggle to pin down my grandfather's details, to separate truth from tall tales? Surely it's not to feel more American. The day my family moved from becoming to belonging has long since passed.

Does my faltering attempt to retrace his journey make any difference? After all, he made it. He became one of the United States' first imams, opened the nation's first free-standing mosque and started a newspaper, the American-Arab Message, for a community that would become one of the largest outside the Middle East.

Hussien Karoub had seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood. He died at 79 in 1973. I was only 4 then, but I remember a warm, gentle man. My strongest memory is looking up to see him smile at me as I tore through his house with joyful abandon. Yet his legacy lives on through his descendants, including doctors, musicians, teachers, business owners as well as a lawyer, lawmaker and a journalist. And veterans of foreign wars.

We are Muslim, Christian, and other -- a fitting multireligious legacy for a man who was both praised and criticized for embracing other faiths and not seeing his own as monolithic.

A century on, we are Arab-Americans, though we have become less Arab and more American. Yet there's a pull to learn a little more about the front end of the hyphen. Maybe the urge is strongest when you feel fully connected, when reaching to the past runs no risk of giving up the present. But as the generations pass, the yesterdays become more remote. The trail fades.

It doesn't surprise Elias that my family's lore includes a Titanic tale. She once interviewed a man whose grandfather asserted that as many as 15 people from her Syrian village perished when the great ship went down. No record supports that fact, but Elias later learned where the story came from.

"If someone left a village, let's say in March 1912, to go to 'Amreeka' and they were never heard from again," Elias says, "it was just assumed they were on the Titanic."

Speaking to so many descendants of Titanic survivors and victims, Elias realized the value of trying to know her own story: "Do you know how many said, 'I wish I had asked more questions'?"

I can't ask Jiddo any more questions about his path to America. The Titanic tale? It probably wasn't true, but no matter. I can continue chipping away at the myths, the facts and the blanks, knowing that his trip was the catalyst for my family's larger one -- our evolution from being a "them" to an "us."

In fact, as I look back at his journey through the prism of my place in this country, I spot something new, something I didn't quite expect: The immigrant Hussien Karoub, it seems, was about as "us" as you can be.

Published: Mon, Dec 31, 2012