On January 24, 2018, the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at NC State hosted Dr. Linda K. Jacobs who shared her current research with a packed room of eager audience members. Her presentation, “Creating Illusions: Arabs in America’s Fairs, 1876-1896,” discussed the role of Syrian* performers, merchants, and travelers at world’s fairs in the late nineteenth-century. After her talk, Dr. Jacobs agreed to answer some of our questions.
Interview conducted by Marilyn McHugh, PhD student in Public History at NC State University.
You’re trained as an archaeologist. How did you come to research Syrian participation in world’s fairs? Was this an area you’ve always been interested in or did this stem from your work in Strangers in the West?
I had written a memoir about my archaeological work in Iran and it brought up many questions about my family (that is Lebanese-American) that I could not answer. I began to do some genealogical work about the family and discovered that nothing had been written about the Syrian Colony in New York in the nineteenth century—the “Mother Colony” of the entire Syrian diaspora in the U.S—where all my grandparents lived. So I decided to research the topic and it resulted in my book, Strangers in the West (KalimahPress 2015). Archaeological and historical research are not all that different!
During your presentation you showed numerous images. You shared maps, images of the event and fair workers, and photographs of artifacts in the Smithsonian collections. Is there a particular type of source you found most compelling or helpful for your research?
I looked at everything online and traveled to the places that have collections that haven’t been digitized. That included the Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution. They hold a series of photos of the Arbeely family, none of which had ever been published, as well as two photos of Fares Ferzan modelling the coat he sold to the Smithsonian in the 1880s. And of course the coat is still in their collection. I also spent time in the Chicago History Museum looking at their (fragmentary) files on the Chicago Fair.
Do you imagine conducting any further research on the topic of Syrian participation in world’s fairs or turning this research into another book?
I don’t know…there’s so much interest in the research I’m doing now, which will be a book about EVERY Syrian colony in the U.S. in the nineteenth century.
You mentioned that Syrians participated in eighteen world’s fairs between the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Was there any particular fair where you found unexpected evidence or sources? Did you enjoy researching any specific fair more than others?
The Louisville Fair in 1885 and the earlier New Orleans fair, both of which had Syrian merchants, have never really been researched. Much more needs to be done.
Throughout your presentation you wove in the stories and travels of several key individuals and families like Fares A. Ferzan and the Arbeeleys. To uncover Syrian participation in fairs, did you follow these specific families and individuals through time or did you start by looking into specific fairs for evidence of Syrian involvement?
Both of these individuals, as well as others, like John Abdelnour, had their roots in New York, which is how I discovered them to begin with. Their participation in these fairs was the way they jump-started their businesses and they may be credited with starting the fad of Syrians selling Turkish goods (these goods had been sold by others before the Syrians arrived).
You argue that participation in these world’s fairs was crucial for Syrian assimilation and acceptance into American society. What other factors would you identify in this process?
I don’t want to overemphasize their assimilation in American society. Their descendants pride themselves on this part of their experience, but their descendants are those who stayed and “made it.” There were many who could not or would not assimilate. But the fairs were only one factor that allowed Syrian merchants to expand and refine their stock to meet market demands.There were many other factors in assimilating, such as their knowledge of English (some came with English, others acquired it here), western education (in mission schools or at Syrian Protestant College–now the American University of Beirut—or in American universities after they arrived), and their scattering to remote parts of the country (i.e., the number of immigrants in America, any cultural or social aspects that make their assimilation easier than other immigrant groups at the time, or time period of migration).
During the Q&A section after your presentation, audience members asked a number of thoughtful questions about racial hierarchies, performativity, and the consumer leisure economy. What other questions did this research project open up for you? Do you have any lingering, unanswered questions that you’d like to follow up on with later research?
There is a lot more to find out. I’m especially interested in how the Syrian communities regarded their compatriots who were performers, lecturers, entertainers, and belly dancers. Were they accepted as simply another occupation or were they disdained?
Many of our students are beginning their careers and developing their own long-term research projects. What advice would you give them?
Never give up! Keep digging!
*The word Syrian refers refers to the people and region we know today as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel. For more, see this blog post by NC State’s Dr. Akram Khater.