Interior of al-Hoda press offices in New York City published in The Noble Sentiments. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Newspapers and journals were the nucleus of a burgeoning cultural life in Arab America that vitally shaped early communities.
Articles, advertisements, serialized novels, and editorials gave substance and voice to immigrant lives, even as they helped guide them through the process of understanding and integrating into their new homes. Immigrants encountered arguments about religion and the clergy, and pondered questions about gender roles, social etiquette, and racial identity. Newspapers engaged in debates about citizenship and ethnicity, love and marriage in the “modern” world, and child rearing and education. Readers were exposed to news from the Middle East and global events, scanned reports of crime and punishment, and followed the visits of compatriots from neighboring towns and across the world. Newspapers also provided the first venue for immigrant writers to experiment with the Arabic language and mould it to fit novel realities encountered in their new surroundings.
These stories and debates linked immigrants to an imagined community of “Syrian Americans” in the United States, while keeping them tied to their homelands in the Middle East and other mahjari communities across the world.
The Arabic Press has helped plant the love of America in the hearts of millions of peoples speaking the common Arabic language.
Salloum Mokarzel, publisher of The Syrian World, and brother to Naoum, publisher of al-Hoda, c. 1940. Mokarzel Family Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Kawkab Amirka, 15 April 1892. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
In 1892, Kawkab Amrika was the first Arabic newspaper to appear in North America, published by Ibrahim and Najeeb Arbeely. By 1900, half a dozen papers, including Naoum Mokarzel’s al-Hoda and Najeeb Diab’s Mira’at al-Gharb, two of the most widely circulated Arabic newspapers, were printed in cities throughout the United States.
In 1910, and in response to growing need, Salloum Mokarzel patented the first Arabic linotype machine in New York City, which fostered an explosion of presses and publications publishing in the Arabic language well into the 1930s. Outside New York’s printing hub, newspapers emerged across the US including Detroit’s al-Ettehad (The Union), Oklahoma City’s The Syrian Light, Minneapolis’ al-Omma (The Nation), and Houston’s The Syrian Spotlight.
The scope of this publishing effervescence is remarkable: A community that did not exceed 140,000 Arab Americans in 1930 sustained over 81 publications, the equivalent of one newspaper or journal for every 1,800 immigrants. By comparison, in the U.S. in 1930 there was one publication for every 50,000 Americans.
Religion was one of the most hotly debated topics in the Arabic press. Secularists, like al-Hoda editor Naoum Mokarzel, argued against the prevailing dominance of religious institutions, which in their view had unmerited power borne out of widespread ignorance amongst the believers, and perpetuated by corrupt clerics. These nahda (Arab Renaissance) intellectuals argued that this tyranny can only be overthrown with knowledge and education that would bring about enlightenment and progress. Ameen Rihani gave voice to this sentiment in a book he serialized in al-Hoda: “Ah, our respected priest! You live a life based on lies, a life whose rules are malicious, and its outcome is tyranny and oppression of those beneath you.” Other newspapers, like al-Bashir, defended clergy and the church by accusing editors like Mokarzel, and authors like Rihani, of being Freemasons, agnostics, and even atheists.
Al-Hoda, July 13, 1903. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
No less acrimonious than religion was the topic of women, and their roles and lives in the mahjar. Newspaper pages were replete with essays that argued vociferously for giving women more rights and freedom and, in opposition, for maintaining the “traditional” ways of the old country.
Authors like Elias Nassif Elias contended that women’s work tarnished the honor of the “Syrians.” In a 1903 essay he wrote: “Oh, you dear Syrians who claim honor…is it honorable to send your women to meander and encounter...insults.” More liberal elements within the immigrant community rejected this criticism. Afifa Karam, one of the earliest and most prolific women writers in the mahjar, wrote: “you ascribe licentiousness, depravity and immorality only to [women workers], but you are wrong because an immoral woman is not constrained from committing ugliness simply because she is living in palaces, or because she is imprisoned there.”
Al-Hoda, July 14, 1903
Response by Afifa Karam to an essay about honor and Arab women. Al-Hoda, May 9, 1903. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
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Early Arabic typewriter used by publishers of “The Message.” Development of the Arabic typewriter required innovative technology. While Latin alphabet machines only use 52 glyphs, Arabic machines needed to account for over 600 glyphs requiring new mechanisms and manipulation of the characters. Courtesy of The Arab American National Museum.
Most mahjari writers gained entreé to the publishing scene and experimented with emerging literary forms on the pages of Arabic newspapers. Rihani and Afifa Karam regularly wrote for al-Hoda while Jibran published a recurring column in al-Muhajer. Building on established relationships, they published books with the newspaper's parent companies. Al-Hoda Press released all of Karam’s books and Rihani’s first three. Rihani later published Zanbakat al-Ghawr (Lily of the Ghor) with al-Funun. Jibran released his first major publication in pamphlet form with al-Muhajer and his later book, Broken Wings, with Mira’at al-Gharb. Writers founded newspapers to foster moral, political, and ideological views. Karam began two ladies monthly magazines, including Majallat al-Alam al-Jadid al-Nisa’i. Abd Al-Masih Haddad founded al-Sa’ih, Nassib Arida published al-Funun, Mikhail Naimy published al-Ghirbal, and Ilya Abu Madi published as-Sameer.
Newspapers circulated and promoted debates around racial identity, citizenship, and whiteness.
At the turn of the century, mahjari communities struggled to secure American citizenship as nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment increasingly spilled into naturalization courts, whose judges often denied appeals from non-white applicants. Levantine immigrants debated and developed their “white" racial identity through editorial exchanges in Arabic-language papers.
Newspapers published reactions to naturalization cases from across the country (including those of Costa Najour, George Dow, and Mahmoud Salem), printed advertisements that solicited funds for legal assistance in naturalization cases, and generated discussion on he space of racial violence that afflicted the early Arab American community.
The Syrian World, February 1928. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Try your hand at typesetting! Depending on your internet connection, interactive may take a few seconds to load. To scroll past the interactive make sure your mouse is to the side of the image.
Choose your level: Advanced (Arabic letters are reversed as they would have been in a printing press) or Beginner.
Click and drag letter blocks into the corresponding row to recreate the correct phrase.
Stuck? Click “Hint” to get back on track.
Al-Wafa, January 3, 1908. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
From commercial hubs like Cairo, São Paulo, and New York, Arab Americans nurtured diasporic ties through the Arabic press. Journalists traded telegrams with publishers ensuring the broad circulation of stories. Advertisements for international merchandise, travel columns, and world headlines kept readers tied to life beyond their enclaves.
One heated debate that dominated the press concerned competing Syrian, Lebanese, and Arab nationalist ideologies during World War I and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire. Diasporic communities were key constituencies of religious and political factions toiling for control of the Levant. In 1913, al-Dalil expressed a pro-Ottoman stance stating “Turks and Arabs are brothers in nationalism. Their love for their homeland should always lead them to cooperate and unify.”
Meanwhile, Najib Diab, of Mira’at al-Gharb, published sermons from Muslim leaders in Cairo advocating a Syrian Nation and Naoum Mokarzel, publisher of al-Hoda and prominent Maronite Christian, supported Lebanese independence.
Since one third of Syrian immigrants worked in American factories and mills, newspapers addressed their concerns, lambasting class politics, child labor, and dangerous working conditions. In 1912, al-Hoda and Mira’at al-Gharb printed competing views of the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where thousands of mill workers including Arab Americans protested the state’s sudden reduction of their already meager wages. Calling for a return to work, al-Hoda’s editor Naoum Mokarzel wrote an article criticizing their “socialist” activities, suggesting participants cast a negative reflection upon immigrants. In response, Mira’at al-Gharb’s founder Najeeb Diab pledged his support, writing, “cease, oh you charlatan, the workers are men who can defend their rights and they know better than you, and they do not need you to defend them.”
Al-Hoda, January 23, 1912. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
Just as newspapers reported on labor, gender, race, and religion, they also grappled with how the mahjar community should navigate the push and pull of cultural retention and assimilation on their values and identities. With new social reforms permeating diasporic life, immigrants turned to newspapers for advice on family, marriage, women’s employment, parenting, and other social traditions. Explanations and directions were also sought out for social etiquette, grooming, and fashion practices. In response, newspapers published “How To” articles that functioned as “modernization” guides for redefining social interactions in America. Naoum Mokarzel’s article, “Knocking on the Door,” is exemplary of the push to "Americanize," and preached a new individuated approach.
Al-Hoda, March 22, 1899. Newspapers and Journals Collection, Khayrallah Center Archive.
ARAB AMERICAN PRESS