Part V: The Immigration

Chapter 12: The Arab-Americans in Cleveland, Ohio

In attempting to trace the history of the Arab-Americans in Cleveland, one fact is sadly apparent — that the early Arab settlers and their first generation children were living their history, not writing or documenting it. Because they were busy with the priorities of making a living, getting an education, and preserving their traditions and customs within the limited boundaries of the ethnic group, much of the history of the first years unfortunately has died with the people who made it.

Life for the Arab immigrant no matter where he settled, was a traumatically different experience from his life back home. From an agrarian society where often land was registered in the names of two or three men who were leaders of the entire community, and where the family was subordinate to the father, the new immigrants were thrust into an industrialized community where everyone worked, and where the community leadership did not control the economics of the individual family.

Arab women in America found that their domestic skills could be put to use not only for the requirements of the family, but also to add to the family’s income. They were accustomed to sewing for their husbands and children; now they could sew for “rich” ladies and supplement their husband’s earnings.

The children went out and got odd jobs, peddled small goods or hawked newspapers. When husband and wife went into a small business there were grandparents or an old aunt at home to care for the children. These patterns were similar in most of the cities in which immigrants found themselves. However, if they went to the mill towns of Massachusetts or Rhode Island, the rubber city of Akron, Ohio or the infant automotive centers in Detroit or Cleveland, they did not always continue to work in the mills and the factories or on the railroad arteries carrying industry in and out of the cities. By inclination, the Arab tends toward self-employment and a desire to be his own boss. So it was in Cleveland.

Immigration into Cleveland is believed to have begun in the 1870’s, coinciding with that of the Lithuanians, but no documentation has been found to indicate whether many of the first immigrants remained in the city, made their way to other American towns, or having made some money, returned home to Syria. The greatest likelihood is that these newcomers were itinerant salesmen, peddling their Holy Land olivewood crosses and rosaries and mother of pearl artifacts and shrines. Those who came later, in the 1890’s, put down the roots which would establish the present Cleveland Arab-American community.

From about 1890, the immigration of Syrians into Cleveland escalated until it peaked around 1910. Many of these immigrants were from the agricultural villages and towns surrounding the cities of Beirut and Damascus, the majority coming from the rich and fertile Bekaa Valley of the Lebanon, the ancient Coele-Syria. Most came from the towns of Zahle and Aiteneet, while some came from northern Lebanon, from Aramoon and Kuba.

There were no olive or fig, orange or lemon groves in Cleveland, and the apple, peach and grape industries accepted little help from immigrants, so the industrious Syrian-Lebanese set about to establish themselves in whatever trades they might find. Some went to work in the steel mills, and others in the new automotive factories. They went on road building jobs and worked for sewer contractors. Some found jobs in carpentry and the housing trades. They began as unskilled laborers, but as the years progressed, they established their own contracting businesses, and their own building and real estate companies.

From their day laborers’ wages they opened grocery stores, fruit and vegetable stands in the West Side and Central Markets, restaurants and diners, and some dry goods stores. Out of these grew wholesale houses jobbing tobaccos, candy, paper products, appliances and gift items; large first class restaurants serving downtown and suburban clienteles; super-markets, automobile agencies, and specialty shops.

Some of the women, particularly those from families settling in the Haymarket District, took their handmade laces and tatting, their embroideries and finely sewn aprons, dresses, and baby clothes, and, with their children at their side, went to such parishes as Old Stone Presbyterian to sell their crafts to more affluent and longer established Americans.

Most of the early settlers lived in the Haymarket District on Woodland, Orange, Carnegie and Webster Avenues, Bolivar Road, Eagle Street and the areas between East 9th and East 22nd Streets. There were also large settlements on Cleveland’s near West Side in the old Ohio City, and on West 14th Street from the Central Viaduct to Clark Avenue.

Downtown on the East Side, the children were enrolled at Eagle and Brownell schools, and at St. John’s Cathedral school, and, on the West Side, most went to St. Patrick, St. Mary, West Commerce and Lincoln schools.

From the beginning, the parents, like the East European immigrants, recognized that there was only one direct route for their children out of the factories, fruit stands, confectioneries and peddling itineraries in which they, themselves, earned their livings. This was the path of education denied to the parents by the circumstances of government and class in the mother country. Since education was now open to their children in an American system which enforced learning, the children would one day be the doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, and govern-ment leaders which their forbears could never have hoped to become. In the 1890’s, gaslight illuminated the little copy books the children studied by, and some of them managed to get through a few grades of elementary school before they had to go to work, or, as in the case of many of the girls, to be married at the age of fourteen or fifteen. These were, for the most part, not the American born generation, but those children who had accompanied their parents on the long hard voyage to America.

After the 1900’s, when the American-born generation was enrolled in the schools, more and more young people continued from elementary education to commercial training in two-year high schools, to college preparatory courses in the private schools, and on to all the colleges and the universities for advanced degrees.

It was not easy. Economic circumstances did not change rapidly for the first families. Gradually, through struggle, failure and success, the long-sought ambitions were realized. This philosophy was handed down to the younger generations.

Those early settlers, like the immigrants from other countries, were a generation of Titans. They were “stronger than ten” in their physical prowess and durability. The women endured hardships, embarrassment, and humiliation with a good will. Both men and women made friends of their skeptical and often inconsiderate neighbors. They rose, step by step, to positions of acceptance, trust, and respect in the community.

These people were themselves trusting and faithful. Their word was their bond. Their basic values were simple, honest, and unaffected. An eight-hour day was a foreign concept to them. They worked in their businesses from dawn to late night and taught their children that hard work was a proper way of life.

Life centered around the home and the church, and all its special events — births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals — took place within those sheltering walls. On Bolivar Road, phonographs playing Arabic records sounded throughout the street, and the people took part in the simple pastimes of their own Mediterranean cultures. The men, Greeks and Syrian-Lebanese, sat on stools and soda fountain chairs on the sidewalks in front of their stores and engaged in friendly if somewhat volatile matches in the “Towlee,” that ancient game of backgammon which enjoys rediscovered popularity today. The boards were exquisitely inlaid with mother of pearl on fine woods. Immigrant craftsmen took pride in producing each piece more elegant than the previous one. Card games were popular.

These included Basra, a form of casino, and, in later years, Whist. The children could spend an entire Saturday afternoon in the movie houses for five or ten cents. In the evenings, families visited each other’s houses for card parties, or to exchange the old country news coming from New York in one of the Arabic language newspapers, to read letters from the village back home, or just to sit in parlors before a stove in winter, reminescing about life in the village or discussing plans for new partnerships or ventures in this new land.

On summer evenings everyone came out to sit on the sidewalks, to call to each other over tenement balconies, to rock on a porch or front stoop, sip lemonade flavored with mazzaher, an orange flower water, and to nibble at Kahik, Sambousek, or Mamouhl, Arabic pastries. They could be equally delighted with the new tastes of pretzels or good American sugar cookies.\

A new arrival from the old country meant days of reunion and celebration, everyone coming to greet him and make him welcome. If the arrival was a young man cousin or young girl cousin, the visitors came with a speculative eye that here might be a suitable match for a son or daughter.

Sometimes there were tears. An old grandfather, having stayed a few years, would be leaving America to spend his last moments on his own bit of land, anxious to be buried in the mother soil. When someone, young or old, made plans to return to the old country, the farewell was one of terrible grief. This was a funereal moment, for a return almost certainly meant a parting forever from the loved ones in this land. The tears and farewells were loud and agonized, and songs of lament would be heard along the street and from the balconies. Because transportation was not a matter of a few hours and money was not gotten easily, most of those early arrivals had come to spend the rest of their lives in the new country, and those who returned, returned forever. How many a small grandchild, sensing that this parting would be forever, ran screaming and wailing down the street, tugging and pulling at the suitcase and carpet bag, pleading with Jidouh, Grandpapa, not to go but to stay, to stay? How many a grandfather tore the sob from his throat in that last embrace?

Often letters from the village or town brought news of an illness or death in the family and everyone would be sick with anxiety and grief, for this marked another parting and loss, the beloved face and voice to be seen and heard no more, and “here we are thousands of miles across the sea, without a last glance, without a last word.”

Rite of Initiation

For the Arab Christians of the early immigrations, a baptism was not a simple ritual at the holy water font. A new life had been given to a whole people. God had smiled on the family. The baptism of the infant was a festive occasion planned with great attention. Who would be the Godfather and Godmother? Why, of course, the grandfather on the father’s side, or perhaps the grandmother on the mother’s side. Or an old, favored aunt. Sometimes, following a more modern idea that the godparents should be young enough to raise the child if need be, the sponsors would be the bridesmaid (from the parents’ wedding of eleven months or a year before) and the best man, whose obligation it had been to help arrange the same wedding and the feast.

The godmother would provide the finest gown, soft white linen, lawn and lace, with many fine tucks on its three to four foot train, ribboned, lace-drawn, trimmed with silk rosettes; this must be the most magnificent dress that this special little boy or little girl could be given. The bonnet would be soft wool in the winter, fine linen in the summer, and it, too, would be lace-and-ribbon-trimmed. The delicate wool coat would have a madeira-embroidered capelet. There would be new undergarments and stockings, and soft little booties or shoes.

These garments would be carried by the godmother to the family’s house where all the relatives would be waiting. Now the child, in everyday clothes and wrapped in warm blankets would be carried by the godfather to the waiting carriage, or often the entire entourage would walk down the street to the church, godfather and baby at the head of the parade, with all the relatives and all their children hurrying happily behind.

There would first be Mass at the church, and the priest would announce that this was the occasion of the baptism of this particular family’s child. His sermon would include some laudatory remarks about the virtues of the young parents, their family’s respectful place in the community, and abundant good wishes for this child’s future.

The Mass in the liturgy of the Eastern rite would be long — an hour and a half or more, a long time for an infant of three to six months who waited fretfully for his baptism. The older children would stir restlessly, but ever mindful of the stern glance of father or uncle.

After Mass, most of the parishioners would remain in their places, for the baptism was a community affair, and these people would later attend the dinner and party at the parents’ home.

“Now let us bring this infant before the Lord,” The godfather would carry the baby to a towel-draped table near the Holy Water Font and everyone would crowd as closely as possible to this little tableau as the grandmother/godmother, imposing and proud in her added authority, would commence to undress the baby, layer by layer down to his soft, warm olive skin. Perhaps this task would be performed by the former-bridesmaid/godmother, not yet married, conscious of all eyes upon her, especially those of eligible and handsome male cousins and friends. Flushed and rosy with this special honor, her coat removed to reveal the silk shirtwaist and new plum velvet skirt, she would begin the ritual of cleansing this little creature of God.

Delicately and gracefully she would unbutton the cuffs of her silk shirtwaist, bought with great selectivity for this occasion. Then up would go the sleeves to her elbow, the young godmother not unaware that her arms were rounded and smooth, and her elbows dimpled. With strong and supple fingers, relishing the sighs of approval around her, the happy godmother would complete the undressing of the infant. Taking fresh white soap and a new cloth, she would lather the infant in the presence of the company and his tearfully happy parents, wipe him off and gently pat him dry, and then lovingly touching a kiss upon his forehead, lay him in the arms of the priest.

Now, the little babe of the Lord, was immersed in the Holy Font, cleansed from the sins of the world, annointed with oil, and given salt to taste, and the tears were gently wiped from his eyes. Holy words were spoken over him, he was wrapped in a soft warm towel, and given again to the pretty young godmother, praying over the baby for a husband and child of her own.


Baptism of Bruce Salem Bird, son of Naef (Frank) and Anne Shibley Bird -- Msgr. Malatios Mufleh officiating. March 7, 1948.
Baptism of Bruce Salem Bird, son of Naef (Frank) and Anne Shibley Bird — Msgr. Malatios Mufleh officiating. March 7, 1948.


Now baptized, and in some liturgies confirmed, the child was placed by the priest into the arms of the godmother and the congregation sent up a sigh of accomplishment and gratitude.

Then he was laid upon the table, the small head dried, the wet tendrils of soft dark hair brushed smooth, and a fine cloth patted upon the pink-bloom cheek. Each new piece of clothing was placed upon him, slowly and proudly, the knit band around the belly to protect it from rupture, the undershirt, the new diaper, the long white stockings, the slip, embroidered, lace-trimmed, closed at the shoulder with tiny pearl buttons. Now the splendid dress went over all, and the ruffled bonnet, the beautiful coat, and to add in the cold winter, the cocoon silk shawl, its softness an enveloping cloud.

With each addition, a murmur would go from the assemblage. What finery. What good taste. How well this godmother had fulfilled her holy obligation. What a credit to her family. What a fine catch for someone who will deserve her. And why not my son, or my young cousin, or my brother’s or sister’s son?

Then the holy child, pure in his baptismal innocence was lifted up by the godmother for all the friends to admire. Ah, let him cry; that is a sign of a long and vigorous life. Let the wails pour from this cleansed but tired baby. Good luck that means. Is he quiet? Is he sleepy? Then it is the godmother’s responsibility to pinch him surreptiously. “Now he cries in a loud and angry voice, everyone is satisfied, and I am happy. I have done it all properly and with honor. And yes, this is my godchild, and I will love him well and remember the Meyroun,” — an obligation between the godparent and the godchild, between the godparent and the natural parents that establishes a special relationship between them forever. Through the Meyroun, they are parents together, brothers and sisters together, the child their bond and covenant.

What of the godfather? Indeed, he is not forgotten. It is he, who in lieu of the baptismal garb, makes the gift of money. And, it is he who also observes for the rest of his life the special relationship between himself and the parents, and himself and the child. If bad fortune does prevail and the father becomes ill or dies, it is the godfather who must assume the obligation to care for this child. He and his wife and family must see that the mother of this child, and the other children, is aided, and looked upon as a sister. When the time comes, he must help to educate this child, help him get started in his work. He must even see that he finds a suitable bride, or bridegroom, for a girl is even more to be cherished and protected, since she is more vulnerable.

Unfortunately, the changing patterns of society, the urbanized and industrialized culture under which all suffer a little in this modern age have dimmed the old traditions, but that is the Baptismal obligation among the Arab Christians.

Rite of Marriage

Marriage was forever. The marriage document was signed, sealed, and duly recorded by the priest and by the people. A marriage took months to prepare for and days to celebrate. It was a bond that united not only the couple, but the families, for usually it was the culmination of an arrangement between the families, iniated with meticulous negotiations, all proprieties observed.

The family of the groom would come to the father of the bride to speak for her hand long before the groom was permitted to meet publicly with the girl. Often the marriage itself was preceded by a betrothal ceremony some six months to a year before, in which the young couple would appear before the priest, in the church, in the presence of both families and selected special guests.

Certain formalities would be exchanged between the families, certain promises made by the young man and young woman, and the priest would pray over and bless the engagement ring. Sometimes the young man did not even have the pleasure of slipping the ring on his beloved’s finger. This might be done by the priest or the father of the groom.

The betrothal ceremony gave the young couple the privilege of walking out together, and being seen in public with a chaperone. They could go to some social functions, shop together for their new household, and get to know each other a little better throughout the year of courtship which would prepare them for the marriage that would follow.

A broken engagement was not to be taken lightly. In such a case, this betrothal, blessed by the priest, had been betrayed, and protocol demanded that the priest himself be required to dissolve the arrangement. It was not viewed casually by the group and most often the onus fell upon the young woman and jeopardized her chances for another match.

Was she irresponsible? Was she too proud? Was she extravagant? Never mind that a woman of integrity, realizing that this young man was not her ideal for a lifetime, might insist upon breaking the contract. Never mind. This girl must be extremely difficult to please or to understand, too wilfull, too demanding. Better to look elsewhere.

It is interesting to observe that this betrothal ritual, much the same in all Eastern rites although not practiced by later generation Arab-Americans, closely resembled the Islamic ritual which is still universally observed. This is called “Khatibit il Khatabb,” the Writing of the Book, the marriage contract, in which the young woman and young man are considered man and wife, except that their physical union takes place only after the bride leaves her father’s house to enter the groom’s home to live. However, the Muslim young people, too, are accorded in this ceremony the privilege of walking out, going to entertainments together and preparing, during this year of pre-marriage, their trousseau and home. This contract is even more binding upon them than is the Christian betrothal, for a broken contract is considered a divorce, and the young man must pay to the father of the bride the dowry sum agreed upon, so that she will not be forced to remain in her father’s home without means and dignity. In past times, it would have been most unlikely that the girl would get a second offer.

When the wedding date drew near, a wave of excitement rippled through the whole community. Everyone knew nearly everyone else, the friendships carrying over from the days of village life before coming to America. Customs carried over too, and tradition was preserved and continued into the new life.

One of these Middle East customs was “Il Leilat el Ghosal,” when the bride was given a special party by all the girls and women, much like the Spinsters’ night in the American custom. This was a night when the men were excluded, and they might hold a party of their own for the bridegroom.

The feminine contingent would all bustle down the street to the bride’s home, singing that spontaneous chant called the “Zaghloot” which praised the bride’s attributes, and wishing her health, wealth, a happy home, a loving husband, and at least a dozen children, most of them sons. The bride’s mother would meet them at the door with a dignified welcome, and only after all were seated would the bride enter the room, attended by her sisters and radiant in new finery.

There would be much laughter. The older ladies, enjoying the feminine intimacy, would exchange stories about their own weddings and their total ignorance of all things connubial. Each would direct a sly remark toward the bride at which all the others would laugh heartily. The bride would blush and they would all laugh again.

“When my own wedding feast was over,” said one, and “everyone was leaving my husband’s fathers house, I put on my hat and prepared to go back home with my sister. ‘No’ she said to me, ‘you stay here, this is now your home.’ And there I was with a husband I hardly knew. I was tired, and I didn’t know where I was to sleep that night.” Then with a smile grown soft with years of acceptance she said, “I soon found out.”

And from another: “In my day, there was not all this picking and choosing. They just told us who, and that’s who it was. Not everyone was as lucky as you, my girl. Think of this one you’re getting. Already he has a stand in the market, and look at those shoulders, and those eyes a woman could drown in. I tell you if I were younger I would run away from my husband, if your bridegroom had a brother.”

“And what would you do, old grandmother,” laughed another, “hold him in your lap and feed him grapes?”

Before the wedding feast all the women from the bridegroom’s family (for the wedding was given by the man’s side) would spend days preparing great trays of sweets–Bahlawa, Sambousek, Mahmoul, Ghraibeh, rich with butter and syrups, and filled with pistachios, walnuts or dates. There would be mounds of nutmeats, and candies imported from New York — Raha, which was similar to the Greek loukoumi, and apricot squares, sugared and pistachioed. Food for the wedding feast was prepared by the women, and long tables would be set up to hold the chicken and pilaf, stuffed grape leaves, Kousa, (white squashes filled with rice and chopped meat,) and Kibbee — (lamb, pounded and pulverized in a large marble basin, and mixed with bulghur wheat and seasonings.) Vegetables were scrubbed and washed for salata, a salad mixed with lemon and olive oil. Huge round sheets of bread were tossed to paper thinness over the flying arms of the expert women bakers and baked for the feasting only hours before the great moment.

On the morning of the wedding, these same women, who had worked through the night over the stoves and ovens, would dress in their finest clothing. With their husbands and children they would form an entourage to the bride’s house to bring her to the church. Singing with joy, they would come to the bride’s family who would meet them with somewhat less than a show of enthusiasm. It was not proper to demonstrate any overt pleasure over giving up a daughter to another’s household. There would be a cool politeness, which of course the groom’s family understood, since they themselves had to observe the same proprieties when the groom’s sister married.

The bride’s mother would weep and the bride’s father would bite his lip as the eldest of the groom’s relatives — his mother, grandmother, aunts, and godmother would troop into the bride’s bedroom, where she waited in her fresh, white beribboned underclothing for the ritual which would follow.

All the men would sit together in the parlor, jovial and brotherly now, while the women crowded close in the bride’s room for the dressing of the bride.

The groom’s mother, grandmother, aunts and godmother would toss flower petals upon her, and sprinkle perfume on her, chanting their happy Zaghloot. All the women would gasp and utter sighs of admiration as each garment was placed upon the bride by the bridegroom’s mother. Over the underclothing, the camisole, then the petticoats, and now, the beautiful white dress. As the dress went over the bride’s head and was smoothed down on her gently by the bridegroom’s mother, the mother of the bride would utter a sigh and shed more tears. This is the little girl I dressed and now another mother takes her from me to her own house. Oh, will she treat her well, this daughter, whom I guarded from the breath of the wind?

The bridegroom’s mother as if reading these thoughts would then glance reproachfully at the bride’s mother, as if to say, “Have I not a daughter of my own, whom I have given to another woman’s house? Have no fear, sister, I will bring no hurt to this girl of yours.” As if to prove it, she would draw proudly from around her own neck a gold chain, to place it around the bride’s throat, a symbol and a promise. The bride’s mother would sigh more peacefully now that all the proprieties had been observed.

At last the moment comes, and the bride is seated, while both mothers fuss importantly with her veil. Finally when it had been adjusted to everyone’s satisfaction, all the women would chant their happy song and bring the bride out before the entire company.

All the women of the families would receive flowers from the bridegroom’s mother, and the men would also choose some for their lapels.

Then the bride, her parents, and attendant would take their places in the hired carriage and start off for the church.

In those days, there was no rehearsal and stylized wedding procession with their tableau of bridesmaids, ring bearers and flower girls. Her white gloved hand gripping a nosegay of white roses, the bride walked into the church with her parents and sponsor where she would meet the groom at the altar.

The wedding was long, for, after the lengthy Mass, the ceremony uniting the young couple might last another hour. The rings were blessed with much chanting, and crowns placed upon the heads of bride and groom, blessed and interchanged three times, as the cantor sang and the priest prayed over them.

The priest would then lead the couple around the altar, and along the aisles of the church, all the while chanting the nuptial liturgy and swinging the thurible vigorously as the sweet and heavy vapors of incense filled the air. They would even march out the door, outside around the church, priest and acolytes, the cantor, the bride and groom, the sponsors and old relatives who felt they had a special role in this wedding.

Expressions of joy were spontaneous and genuine among the early immigrants, their own village habits still strong in them. As the priest completed the ceremony and bent down to congratulate the bride and groom, an exultant Zaghloot would ring out in the little church, easing the solemnity of the long and symbolic ceremony. “Now good,” an old grandfather would be heard to say, “Praise God, we have them married, let’s get on to the feast.”

He would rise up in his pew, giving the signal for all to follow.

The bridal feast was served in the bridegroom’s house by all the women of the family, the old and dignified matrons and every young girl who could carry a platter without spilling its contents.

Group after group of diners sat down and rose up from the table, each in the order of his social position, the bride and groom seated together at the head, the priest at their side, the fathers, grandfathers, elderly uncles and cousins, the mother and grandmother of the bride and a few old friends whom time had given a position of community respect. At the first table, too, would be the adult guests from other cities. A Cleveland wedding could draw company coming on the train and the interurban from every city in Ohio, and even from New York, Detroit and Chicago.

The tables were set and reset until all had been fed, and at last the children were called, their Sunday clothing dusty from play in the street. Fed and given their share of sweets, they then could join the other guests, seated and standing in a great semi-circle around a dais, on which the bride and groom accepted the good wishes of the company.

Men from the groom’s family gathered before the bridal couple. The leader waved a handkerchief as the group danced the quick and emphatic dabke, the age old folk dance of every festive occasion. They stood before the young people, their hands upon each other’s shoulders and sang extempore, praising the bride’s beauty and virtue, the groom’s nobility and manly attributes, and the parents’ respect among all their friends. Loud and long, in joyous expression, their voices rang out to the street. When all these uncles had been kissed in turn by the bride and groom, the bride’s relatives, not to be outdone, composed even longer songs, more lavish in their praise, their voices rising to echo and mingle with all the memories of the house.

For so many of those people who could not read or write, extempore versing was a preservation of the poetry and music of generations, each adding, improvising and embellishing. As the first untutored generation died away, these verses were lost. The men rhymed their extempore not only at weddings, but on every festive occasion, for they were singers, these men, and poets, and all the human emotions found expression in those strong voices.

The women, too, vied with each other to compose beautiful chants. Rhyming and lilting, laughter and joy were captured on a golden chain of words ending in the pealing, exultant cry of the Zaghloot. “La La La La Lu lu lu l’aishe. To life” they sang, “to life.” An Arab wedding was not just a family event, a community occasion, a weekend of festivities. It was, rather, a command performance. Everyone must sing, everyone must dance.

Before the immigrants learned to sing the American National Anthem, they sang the song of Syrian independence long years before independence became a reality. They sang this song at every wedding, and later generations, who learned not one word of Arabic, can still remember those phrases of patriotism sung out by their grandparents. “Enthee Souria ya biladi,” Thou art Syria, my country. Love songs were sung and ballads from home, and tears of rememberance glistened in the eyes of the guests as they applauded the singer.

The oud, that pear shaped instrument, thrummed its plaintive, yearning notes against homesick hearts, and said to the bride and groom, “Young lovers sing and be happy. Can you know what lies ahead of your feet? Sing and be happy, young lovers, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow will come only too soon.”

Now the derbecki took its turn, this old drum with its stretched goat skin. It was tapped, and knocked upon and slapped with a gentle hand, a light and swift hand. Let it be thumped by fingers that can pull shouts from its throat, and let the young girls dance, their slender arms graceful as the willow in the lake, their feet disciplined in each exquisite turn.

The Family

All life centered around the home. The Arab immigrant home — tenement rooms, or back-of-the-store apartment, small house or large, poor or increasingly affluent — was the heart of all the family activities. Children were born there, the women of the family assisting the doctor.

The kitchen table, and the stove in the parlor, or the balcony porch or front door stoop were the gathering places for family and friends.

When mothers fell ill, the relatives gathered to cook, launder and care for the children. When fathers fell ill, the relatives banded together to see that the family should not want. They paid the rent and bought the family’s food until the father could return to his work.

Old parents, old aunts and uncles, unmarried brothers, sisters or cousins shared the family house. Friends from the family’s village in the old country could always find a welcome and a grubstake.

When the old ones fell ill, they would not go to the hospital, for to go to the hospital meant one was close to death. If one must die, then let it be in his own bed, with his loved ones standing around him, so that he could direct them as to his last wishes and admonish them to be loving and watchful of one another. What they prayed and hoped for often happened. Everyone in the family would come to visit the old one, and respectfully kiss the old hand, receiving the blessing from this beloved grandparent.

Wakes were held in the family house. For three nights, the women would sit up all night in the parlor, saying their goodbyes, and remembering all the days of their youth. They would weep a great deal, and then one, to lighten the grief, would make a little joke, or remember something funny that the departed relative had said or done. All the women would smile self consciously, and conceal their little laughs behind tear soaked handkerchiefs. They sat on straight, hard chairs, prayed a little, talked a little, and dozed a little but there was no thought of going to their own houses and leaving the bereaved alone.

The men, too, sat together, heads bowed, silent and remembering.

Softly, softly, the zaghloot, now chanting the attributes of the beloved lost one, and remembering the happier times in this final farewell, would murmur mournfully through the house, and all, the men and the women, would fall to weeping.


Arab Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

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