In the years my grandparents lived in their rambling, Spanish-style house in Southern California, they kept a Koran and a prayer rug in their bedroom hidden behind an ornate armchair. The chair, from Damascus, stood in one corner, grandly unused, its cushions upholstered in silk and the walnut frame set with mother-of-pearl. I never saw my grandparents use the Koran or the prayer rug. By the time I was born, they had fallen away from their practice of Islam.
My grandparents were Sunni, but after decades in the United States they’d become secular Muslims, with an identity lodged in the language, culture, attitudes, and customs they brought when they immigrated. After Islam, what remained was this: the Arabic spoken between my grandparents and their four sons; the meals we ate; the house with its Persian rugs and heavy Moorish Revival furniture; the letters scattered across bureaus and side tables, pages sent from Damascus and Beirut with their lines of Arabic script, and photographs of relatives I never met, at the beach, in a garden, or at home posed around a damask chair not unlike the ones in my grandparents’ house.
Sofa and photographs in the author's grandparents' home, 2003.
My paternal grandfather, Muneer Alwan, first came to New York from Syria in 1911, and with his four younger brothers, Faris, Saide, Fouad, and Mahmoud, launched a successful Atlantic Avenue bakery. The business quickly made a name for itself as a purveyor of confections, and for decades garnered regular coverage in the local press. In the square pink boxes shipped across the US, Cairo, London, and Paris, there was baklava, pistachio birds’ nests, Turkish delight. In summer, the shop sold exceptional ice cream made from pistachio, melon, or rose petals.
In the summer of 1921, my grandfather went back to Damascus to marry, and that fall, returned to New York with my grandmother, Fausya Zemberekçi, a new bride with waist-length chestnut hair and a Circassian complexion—fair and gray-eyed. She’d come from what was then Constantinople, fifteen years old, and on the subsequent honeymoon in Paris, impulsively had her hair chopped into a Western bob. At the time, she spoke only Turkish and the French she’d been tutored in at home. My grandfather taught her his dialect of Levantine Arabic and enrolled her in English classes at a Brooklyn adult school. They had four sons, the eldest my father, and raised their family in the close-knit community of Arab émigrés in Brooklyn.
The author's grandmother, Fausya Alwan, posing in her wedding dress, 1921.
Occasionally my father and his brothers talked about the shop and the days in Brooklyn. The bakery was the center of their family life, a place the boys went after school or on weekends, and where each eventually learned some aspect of the business—baking bread, making pastry, the exacting methods of candy-making. Behind the shop in the bakery’s kitchen, there was a table used expressly for rolling out pastry dough by means of a wooden dowel whose length matched the width of the work surface. In the light cast from an overhead window, my grandfather worked the dough to a legendary thinness, rolled until it draped over the table’s edges like a bolt of cloth.
At its peak, the business was run by all five brothers. My grandmother never worked there, but she did stop in each day on the way to Fulton Street for spending money. If my grandfather hesitated to open the register for her, the story went, his brothers persuaded him otherwise. Dressed in a hat and a Persian lamb coat, she’d lunch at the counter in Abraham & Straus, content to people-watch and be admired for her clothes and jewelry. Shopping was her escape, a pursuit that countered homesickness, disappointment, and the unrelenting boisterousness of having four sons.
Years later, in California, my grandmother forgot her native Turkish, but she always remembered the days in Brooklyn. And when she reminisced, it wasn’t about the Beyoglu district in the Constantinople of her youth, but of Fulton Street—its shops and clamoring streets that were so unlike the quiet, unpeopled sidewalks in her adopted corner of Los Angeles.
The family bakery in Brooklyn
With each leg of my grandparents’ journey—from Damascus and Istanbul to New York and finally Los Angeles—the markers of their previous lives fell away: my grandmother’s first language, the Koran, the prayer rug, the community of Arab émigrés in Brooklyn. Though certain customs remained: Neither of my grandparents ever learned to drive, and they always spoke Arabic at home. They preferred my grandfather’s Syrian cooking to what they called American food, and didn’t cotton to eating in restaurants or taking vacations. In Los Angeles, they were content to live apart from the mainstream, within the bounds of home, family, and the community of Armenian and Lebanese immigrants who, like my grandparents, found California’s weather and geography agreeably familiar.
In the assimilation that took place between the first and second generation, the tensions between the old and new were constant. When my father came of age, he didn’t care to be matched with the young women my grandmother called Syrian girls. His brothers felt the same, and the result was four intercultural marriages, each a hybrid but uniform in its shedding of Arab identity and customs. None of the grandchildren in the third generation were taught to speak Arabic. Nothing of the religious or cultural identity was passed down. This, more than anything, brought about the break with our history: the missing knowledge of our ethnocultural past. Without it, there was only the sense of our difference, one that was at once deeply rooted and unfamiliar.
Family portrait of the author's father, Muneef Alwan (age 4), and his parents, 1926.
The term Arab American was coined in the 1960s as a rejection of the racial classification of White, the only category available to people like my relatives on naturalization and census forms. According to Arabs in America , a historical resource of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the racial classification for Arab Americans has long been ambiguous, the legacy of a past in which immigrants from Greater Syria, the Arab province of the Ottoman empire, initially classified as Turks, and so grouped with Asians under the category of “ Oriental. ” For this early wave of Arab immigrants, the misclassification was not only inaccurate, but linked them with the anti-Asian immigration laws in effect at that time.
After the First World War, immigrants arriving from the newly partitioned countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and later, Palestine, chose White over Asian on their immigration papers. Identifying as white was a way to thwart the bias of anti-immigrant sentiment that had expanded to many Middle Eastern countries. In 1911, when my grandfather first immigrated, and in 1921, when my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island, the classification of white might have been seen as a necessity for being successful in the US. The classification enabled citizenship, but also acceptance and inclusion. It may also have enabled them to buy the family home in Los Angeles.
In 1949, the year before he retired, my grandfather took a train to California, where he’d heard from friends that Los Angeles, with its fruit trees, flowers, and backdrop of mountains, was “just like Damascus.” A Lebanese friend in real estate had a listing, a house with a private garden, Palladian windows, and plenty of room for the family. At the time, the Federal Housing Authority’s discriminatory laws were still in force, and the Spanish-style house my grandfather immediately loved would not have been exempt. Contemporary maps of the redlined districts show the house was located in an A zone, or what the FHA designated as an uppermost grade of housing level security, where non-whites were denied homeownership through discriminatory lending practices. Having lived for decades in an established immigrant community in Brooklyn, my grandparents likely didn’t encounter bias or a great deal of anti-Arab sentiment, but in Los Angeles, my grandfather, a businessman who kept up with civic affairs, may have known that being seen as non-white could be an obstacle to home ownership.
Suppressing certain traits and customs enabled first-wave immigrants like my grandparents to assimilate, and when necessary, gain acceptance in white circles. My grandfather, with his imposing stature, tweed suits, and sun-browned scalp projected authority and business acumen, while my grandmother, with her careful grooming and gold jewelry and French airs conveyed a certain urbanity. These traits may well have aided them when they moved to Los Angeles, but they always preferred the like-minded community of immigrants they found there. These were similarly business-driven first-generation families, merchants and manufacturers who held onto to certain customs. Like my grandparents, they entertained in formal living rooms with tea and cake, and as guests, always dressed for the occasion and were sure to arrive with a sack in hand of fruit picked that morning.
The author's grandmother, Fausya Alwan (age 80), at her home in Los Angeles.
Our family spent over five decades in the house in Los Angeles, a life built around the rhythms of cooking, housekeeping, and gardening. Mornings, my grandfather would dress as he had in Brooklyn—starched white shirt, flannel trousers, wing tips, cardigan sweater—and make his way down the winding driveway to retrieve the Los Angeles Times for the daily stock reports. Mornings were for baking and cooking the evening meal, which was always done by lunch in order to spend the afternoon in the garden. As a child, I was terrifically bored on those afternoons, when little occurred but contemplating the garden along with snippets of conversation and occasional fruit eating. Years later, an apricot tree sprouted in the backyard, the result of my grandmother eating apricots and tossing the pits into the flower bed.
The house and its garden was all my grandparents seemed to need. Even when their sons left home and the days were gone when my uncles and their friends emptied my grandfather’s pantry, consuming elliptical loaves of bread and fat braids of fresh cheese, the pattern of life in the rambling house was the same.
In the years I spent with my grandparents, no one ever said the word Arab . It didn’t matter that the furniture was Moorish Revival, or that the floors were laid with Persian rugs, or that the only picture on the wall in the living room was a sepia plate of my grandfather (framed by embroidery work of flowers and leaves and stitched by my grandmother on the occasion of their engagement).
Whatever we were—and certainly we were different—each time I stepped foot into the cloistered, carpeted, impermeable bastion my grandparents built, the puzzle of the unspoken world and my own culturally mixed place within it presented itself anew. Each year, I felt the difference more sharply—though it was not the kind of sharpness that made details more clear, but the kind that exists at arm’s length, at once engrained and unexplained.
I think of my mother’s parents, Jewish New Yorkers whose ancestors were swept by the diaspora from Russia to the Pale of Settlement, west to Eastern Europe and New York’s Lower East Side. In my maternal grandparents’ house, the word Jewish was constantly spoken. There was no question we were Jews, and my mixed heritage never prevented my Jewish grandfather from encouraging my sister and I to classify ourselves as Jewish. He urged us to study Judaism, to go to Israel, live on a kibbutz, marry a Jewish boy. Our mother was Jewish, after all , so Jewishness was our right in regard to its culture—our food, our thinking, ourselves.
As affirming as that was, my bicultural experience was one of divisions and cultural tensions, the result of my parents’ mixed marriage that ultimately couldn’t surmount the obstacles. Thinking of those differences now, I understand better how meaningful it is for a young person to hear one’s identity spoken aloud, and yet for me, that never quite helped. As positive as my Jewish heritage is, it’s my Arab identity that pulls at me, as though the invisibility is an unfinished narrative with missing chapters and details that keep the story from being fully known.
The Zemberekçi family, photographed in Constantinople, 1919.
In the week after the 2016 presidential election, the FBI released a report on Hate Crime Statistics in the US that showed incidents of harassment, intimidation, and assault on Muslims increased by 67 percent between 2015 and 2014. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number exceeds that of 2001, when attacks on the US by Al Qaeda resulted in the highest recorded, 481 hate crimes. The surge took place during the run-up to the primaries and surged again after Election Day. The Southern Poverty Law Center also reported that as of November 11, over two hundred incidents of intimidation and harassment were committed. These include confrontations, vandalism, and epithets directed at individuals, many of which included references to the Trump campaign. The most frequent incidents reported were characterized as anti-African American, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim.
For years there was silence around my family’s larger story, an absence of facts and details that might have illuminated the thoughts and feelings my grandparents had about their Arab past and American present. Though it’s also true that as a teenager, I found not knowing a kind of relief. As a family outsider who couldn’t speak Arabic and had only the vaguest sense of history, not knowing exempted me from having to explain a confusing and foreign-seeming part of my heritage to others. Now, as the nationalist rhetoric against Muslim and Arab immigrants increases, I have a different view on the invisibility that was passed to me by my grandparents.
In the wake of the 2016 election, the family history of invisibility takes on new meaning as people with our same ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage are targeted based on their affiliations. To date, the rhetoric around Muslim registration centers on immigrants from countries termed high-risk. Yet this targeting, which blurs the distinction between enemy and ethnic identity, has troubling historical parallels to Executive Order 9066, when racial targeting during the Second World War led to authorized deportation of Japanese Americans to incarceration camps—families consisting of both the immigrant generation and the second American-born generation. Invisibility feels impossible now, when the president-elect has promised to ban Muslim immigration and talks of reinstating the post-9/11 registry of Muslims. It’s impossible when the president-elect has promised to search out people in their communities, to insure they’ll be “signed up in different places,” a euphemism for a registration system that will discriminate on the basis of nationality and religion.
When I think of the family legacy that included silence as a way to belong, I see it against those individuals targeted for registration despite their legal entitlement to protection by the Constitution. Today, I wonder if my Arab surname, even two generations out, could be seen as an identifiable threat.
Passport photo of the author's father, Muneef Alwan, and his parents, 1928.
Even though my grandparents chose not to pass along traits of Arab identity, as my grandmother aged, in her encroaching dementia the past became more vivid and crucial to her and she disclosed events and feelings that had previously gone unspoken. She described the dismay she had as a girl at the news of her arranged marriage, and the disappointment in middle age of moving to Los Angeles—to the house she’d always wanted but, adjacent to the mountains on a quiet residential street—the isolation made her long for Brooklyn. Her story as I gleaned it was one of a repeated breach between the known and unknown worlds, a separation from people and things she knew that cycled over the course of her life. A conflict of near and far, known and unknown, remembered and forgotten.
Part of that separation, I see now, is her view of me not as Arab, but American. To my grandmother, I was what she called an American girl—my first language is English, and being born in the States, I have an independence my foremothers never knew. Along with that, I have another privilege: I was born at a time that made me witness to two distinct eras. I was a bridge between the world my grandparents came from and the one they gave to their descendants. I know something of how it was for my grandparents, Muneer and Fausya Alwan, to live a cloistered and intentionally invisible life. For new Muslim and Arab immigrants to the United States, that privilege of invisibility is a thing of the past and may never return.
The author's grandparents in the garden of their Los Angeles home, 1950.
In 2004, my grandmother died at age ninety-eight, and the house in Los Angeles was sold. When the rooms were cleared out, the Koran and prayer rug went to one of my uncles. I have one of the upholstered chairs, though its silk had gone tattered long before, and the mother-of-pearl marquetry turned brittle and chipped. The house had been in the family more than fifty years, but the life there had vanished long before the sale, the result of s cattered relations and bonds that didn’t hold. Yet vestiges remain in the third generation—in our names, in our features and olive skin, and in a family history that grows dimmer by the year.
Who’s to say—had the family heritage been passed on differently, the ties might be stronger now. But when I think of my Arab identity, I see it as through a glass, a world without explanation, where the viewer is left to draw conclusions based not on what she is told, but only on those things she can see. If my grandparents and many others in that first wave of immigrants had chosen to pass along all those traits and markers of identity, their culture might be better understood in this political moment. Maybe, now, the naming and sharing of our history can help bring about a better understanding of who we truly are, and exactly what is behind the designation of Arab in America.