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Arab Angelenos

Mural depicting the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. Zoot Suit Riots photo by Gareth Simpson

May 7 2020

Posted In:

Dialogue, Students

Routes to the Southland


Last fall, I returned from a trip to an academic conference, landing at the busy Los Angeles International airport. Like thousands of other travelers, I made my way to the ride-share pick up area to meet my driver. He greeted me amicably and we chatted about the new, much flaunted but much criticized, traffic arrangements at the airport. I asked him who was still taking taxis, since Uber and Lyft seemed to have solidified the hold on the ride-share market. He replied without pausing: Middle Easterners. He explained to me that because of their limited English skills, their desire to “stick together,” and their inclination to pay for services with cash, they dominated the ranks of both drivers and passengers. While his tone was not overtly hostile, I recognized immediately the insidiousness of this purported explanation. He had casually grouped Middle Easterners separately , apart  from other kinds of people, and ascribed to them traits that signaled their unassimilability and perpetual foreignness. I had seen this kind of slippage at work so many times before whereby Middle Eastern, and Arab immigrants in particular, were not considered capable of being American. They are, to use the words of anthropologist Suad Joseph, subject to “the hyphen that never ends.”1

This process of othering pervades not only daily interactions like my drive from the airport, but also academic cultures and institutions. California historiography, for example, has little to say about Arabs in the state, while ethnic studies scholarship tends to view them as recent immigrants. Neither can account for the deeply-rooted presence of Arabs in Southern California or for their vibrant civic life – a vibrancy captured in a 1940 Los Angeles Times article that described an outdoor festival, or mahrajan, as “the biggest event of the year for the more than 15,000 members of the Southland’s Syrian colony.”2

Arab Routes » redresses these absences and charts the complex patterns of movement, multiple homes, and expansive family networks that are central motifs in the history of the Arab communities in Southern California. Long overlooked in the study of Arab migrations, Los Angeles and its environs are the ideal location to trace these histories. Ethnically diverse, economically dynamic, and connected to the Pacific and to Latin America, the city attracted thousands of Syrian migrants in the first half of the 20th century. Today, it has the largest population of Middle Eastern origin and descent in the United States. Arab Routes places their stories at the center of a larger narrative about the mutability of the concept of home, the attachment to multiple national identities, and the impermanence of settlement.

It argues that Arabic-speaking migrants in Southern California provide a crucial window into understanding migration as a hemispheric process that was sustained by physical and emotional crossing of nation-state boundaries and the fashioning of inter-American identities.

Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrian California
Telling the story of how Syrians helped forge a global Los Angeles, Arab Routes » counters a long-held stereotype of Arabs as outsiders and underscores their longstanding place in American culture and in interethnic coalitions, past and presen
When I began the research for Arab Routes, I thought it would be a small-scale project restricted to the greater Los Angeles area. My oral histories with Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian families, however, soon made clear the need to expand my framework. In one interview, for example, Vera Tamoush described how her Lebanese father spoke Spanish to the young woman who worked as a “mother’s helper” in their Boyle Heights home in east Los Angeles. When I remarked on Vera’s father’s ability to speak Spanish, she replied “Oh yes, he was Mexican!” He had in fact lived and worked for several years in Mexico before coming to Los Angeles – a trajectory that characterized the migration of many other Syrian Californians. The “Mexicanness” of their histories became a central thread in the narrative arc of the book. I use the concept of Arab Latinidad to demonstrate how Mexican migration to Los Angeles was Arabized in significant ways, as well as to delineate the cross-ethnic solidarities that emerged between Mexican Americans and Arab Americans in civic and associational life. One chapter, for example, explores Syrian participation in the defense of Mexican American youth who were charged, on weak circumstantial evidence, with the murder of twenty-one year-old José Díaz who was killed after a fight broke out near a popular Los Angeles meeting spot called Sleepy Lagoon. The case fueled tensions that erupted in the infamous Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. By focusing on the role that Syrian American defense attorney, George Shibley, played in the trial, and later acquittal, of the accused, the chapter probes issues of international solidarity that arose from the case. It also brings an Arab American archive to bear on the history of mid-20th century California social movements, revealing their Middle Eastern resonances.

Telling the story of how Syrians helped forge a global and multi-ethnic Los Angeles, Arab Routes counters a long-held stereotype of Arabs as outsiders and underscores their longstanding place in American culture and in interethnic coalitions, past and present. The book contributes to the dismantling of stereotypes held by people like the driver who picked me up at LAX. and building, in their place, representations of Arabs whose labor, culture and activism are rooted in California’s history—and are forging its future.

Start reading Arab Routes »


1. Suad Joseph, “Against the Grain of the Nation – The Arab-“ in Arabs in America: Building a New Future, ed. Michael Suleiman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 268.

2. As quoted in Sarah Gualtieri, Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrian California (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Sarah M. A. Gualtieri is Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, History, and Middle East Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (2009).