Arab people have been coming to the United States since before there was a United States: Many arrived as enslaved captives and some even fought in the Revolutionary War. Between 1880 and the Immigration Act of 1924, a large population from the nations of the Ottoman Empire (which stretched from Europe to Asia and included many modern Arab countries) established longstanding communities across the country. More recent immigration includes Arabic speakers from all corners of the Middle East and Africa.
The United States is now home to more than 3.5 million Arab-Americans, representing a rich diversity of cultures, religions, traditions, languages, and experiences. For many years, the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded projects on Arab-American culture, including reading programs and seminars, exhibitions and scholarship, films and, recently, an opera. Here are some highlights of NEH-supported projects on Arab-American heritage.
Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrian California
Sarah Gualtieri of the University Southern California received an NEH fellowship to work on her book examining Syrian migration to Southern California between 1880 and 1945, using archival work and oral histories conducted in California, Syria, Lebanon, and Mexico. Published by Stanford University Press in 2019, Arab Routes was the winner of the 2020 Alixa Naff Prize in Migration Studies.
Arab American National Museum
Since its founding in 2005, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has received NEH funding, including an NEH CARES grant in 2020 to make its educational resources available online. NEH funding has helped the museum to tell Arab-American stories through the voices and experiences of Arab Americans themselves.
American Muslims: A History Revealed
Filmmakers Collaborative, Inc., was recently awarded a $300,000 NEH grant to produce a series of six short films about the history of Muslims in the United States. These 10-minute films will highlight the histories of America’s Muslim population, which today includes more than three million people, representing almost every ethnicity, country, and Islamic school of thought. Watch a trailer of American Muslims, which features the story of Bilali Muhammad, an enslaved West African on a plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia, in the early 19th century, who wrote the first known Islamic text created in the United States.
Center for Arab American Studies at University of Michigan-Dearborn
University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Center for Arab American Studies was awarded a $100,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support student research on and community engagement with Arab Americans.
Syrian Working Class
University of California, Davis, historian Stacy Fahrenthold—author of an award-winning book on the activism of Arab immigrants during World War I—has received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to write Working Class Cosmopolitans: Syrian Textile Workers in the Arab Atlantic, 1890–1934. The book will examine the development of the Syrian working-class identity in the textile centers of Lowell, Lawrence, and Boston, Massachusetts, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the late 19th century.
Arab American Seminar
With NEH support, the University of Michigan-Dearborn created an Arab-American history and culture seminar and internship program, focused on public humanities, for first-year undergraduates. Participating students engaged with Arab communities in and around Detroit, organized a public symposium with leading scholars, conducted research and contributed to archival collections, exhibitions, websites, and other public venues.
Contemporary Arab-American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging
Carol Fadda-Conrey of Syracuse University received an NEH summer stipend to research and write her book, published by New York University Press, examining literary and cultural texts by Arab-American writers from 1990 onward and how their depictions of Arab homelands, whether actual or imagined, play a role in shaping Arab-American identity.
Antiochian Heritage Museum and Library
The Antiochian Heritage Museum and Library in Pennsylvania received an NEH grant to ensure the long-term preservation of its collections of early Arabic books, records, and correspondence, documenting the artistic, literary, spiritual and cultural heritage of Syria, Lebanon, the Holy Land, and the Arab-American experience. Highlights of this collection include books and periodicals in Arabic published in the U.S. by authors of the 20th-century Arabic literary movement, and handwritten letters between renowned Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran and Metropolitan Antony Bashir, then archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States who translated Gibran’s writings, including his most famous work, The Prophet, into Arabic.
Muslim Journeys Bookshelf
In 2013, NEH offered curated sets of 25 books and 3 films on Arab and Islamic culture to 953 libraries and 36 state humanities councils. Through this bookshelf, website, and other resources, these organizations produced reading and discussion groups, public outreach, and other programming for their communities that continue to resonate today.
Muslim American History Summer Seminar
Between 2015 and 2019, Indiana University held four three-week summer seminars for school teachers on Muslim-American history and contemporary life.
Prince Among Slaves
A 2005 grant from NEH supported the film Prince Among Slaves, which tells the story of Abdul Rahman bin Ibrahima Sori, an African prince who was captured in battle in 1787, sold into slavery, shipped to Mississippi, and, 40 years later, was freed and went back to Africa. The film aired on PBS in 2008 and was the centerpiece for a subsequent NEH-supported discussion series across the country. It won Best Documentary Award at the 2007 American Black Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Islam and the U.S. on BackStory
In 2015, the BackStory podcast hosted by historians Brian Balogh, Peter Onuf, and Ed Ayers delved into the long history of America’s relationship with Islam, from the Barbary Wars of the early nineteenth century to the clash between American-born Muslims and more recent immigrants from the Middle East. BackStory, supported by NEH and Virginia Humanities, was a weekly in-depth look at history that aired from 2007 to 2020.
Common Heritage in Ohio
Bowling Green State University in Ohio received a 2019 NEH Common Heritage preservation grant to hold a digitization event and produce programs focused on the history of northwest Ohio’s longstanding Muslim community. One of the partners is the Islamic Center for Greater Toledo, which was founded in 1954 and represents the first community to build a mosque in Ohio. With donor permission, scanned materials will be featured in a digital exhibit and made available in the Digital Public Library of America.
An NEH grant to the University of Minnesota’s Immigrant Stories project helps first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees create digital stories about their experiences—short personal videos with imagery, text, music, and audio—that are preserved and made available through the IHRC Archives, the Minnesota Digital Library, and the Digital Public Library of America. To date there are more than 250 stories from 50 different communities, including the substantial Somali refugee population in the state.
EDSITEment, NEH’s educational portal, has resources for teachers and students to integrate Arab and Muslim history into classroom lessons. In Where I Come From, students can research their heritage beyond a family tree and travel through cyberspace to find out what’s happening in their ancestral homelands today. In Teaching the Middle East, educators find resources and lesson plans to help understand how religion and history have shaped the Middle East and how this history relates to other historic events and our world today.