Chicago's Arab American Community: An Introduction
and, a look at the Arab Presence at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

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Chicago's Arabic Quarter

Chicago's Arabic Quarter was located at 18th and Michigan Ave, and it was taking form just after the turn of the Century. In fact, 18th and Michigan is sometimes referred to as the "Plymouth Rock" of the Chicago Arab American community.

It continued to serve as the arrival point for new Arab and Muslim immigrants through the mid-1940s. In the 1940s, it was centered around the Mecca Restaurant, 1806 S. Michigan Ave., where Arabian food specialties were served and Arab merchants would congregate and share stories and find comfort.

In their book Chicago Confidential (1950, Crown Publishers, New York, p.p. 71), authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer included a small section called "Sons of the Prophet" to introduce their readers to this Middle East section of the city. Their writing is typical of the racism that was ascribed to Arab American immigrants.

Lait and Mortimer wrote:

You won't find any camels at 18th and Michigan. Chicago's small Arabic quarter is surrounded by Automobile Row. If you can digest such, there are several native restaurants serving Near Eastern delicacies which you are supposed to eat with your hands. Arabs sell tapestry and rugs, wholesale and retail. Many merchants who say they are Arabs (because business is business) are not. You will find no orgies out of the Arabian Nights here. Chicago's Arabs don't keep harems and if they did you wouldn't care to look twice at their women. They wouldn't be to your taste. The chief past time is drinking thick, black coffee and playing cards.

Entering "The Door of God"
yatlah al-Bab al-Allah

By 1910, three pockets of Syrian Arabs were living in Chicago, with the center recognized as being in the area of 18th and Michigan Avenue. Although the early Arab settlers found homes throughout Chicago, it was perceived by many that a large concentration existed at this location. More than likely, it had to do with the few restaurants in Chicago that offered Arab food, which were located there in the area of 18th and Michigan Avenue.

In 1911, The Survey Journal, in its four part series on Syrians in America, estimated that there were 1,200 "Syrians" living in Chicago, compared to 6,000 in New York, and only 56 in Duluth, Minnesota. There were 15 Arab owned stores in Chicago, it reported. The largest American Muslim community in the United States, at that time, was located in Providence, R.I. There were some 150 Muslim residents, not all Arab, though.

Louise Seymour Houghton wrote for The Survey: "In Chicago, there are also 3 colonies resembling those of New York in gradation of living, though not in size. The poorest is housed in an uncomfortable region near the railroad tracks, evidently chosen from consideration of rent. This was formerly one of the most disreputable quarters of the city, and it still has the reputation among those who are ignorant that the entrance of Syrians, killing off the saloon trade, has driven away the disreputable inhabitants. (This was the case in 1909. The property has recently been bought by the railroad and the Syrians who lived there were removed to better parts of the city.) The other colonies, like those of New York, are better standing in proportion as they are farther from the center." (Houghton, Louise Seymour, "Syrians in the United States," The Survey, Vol. 26, No. 14, pp 492. July 1, 1911.)

Arab merchants still had to learn the customs, and they learned quickly that they had to satisfy the demands of the local politicians.

"We had to go there for our permits to peddle merchandise from our suitcases," recalled Hassan Haleem, the patriarch of a large family of Muslim Palestinians who immigrated to this country at the turn of the century and who also helped other Arabs as they immigrated to Chicago.

"We would meet with the aldermen, there, 'Bathhouse' John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. We had to pay them the registration fee, and a small fee for them, personally. Then, we could peddle our wares on the street. The permit would be fixed to the suitcase."

The Arab peddler was an extension of the Arab merchant in the great souqs (open air markets) of the Middle East. The peddlers who came to America saw their profession as demanding as the work they left behind, except they found more opportunity here, and less back home.

Because it was strenuous work and required long hours of walking carrying a heavy suitcase of merchandise, usually bed spreads, shirts, combs, and brushes, the early Arab peddlers referred to their work as "knocking on (or opening) the door of God" (yatlah al-Bab al-Allah, in Arabic).

Lebanese Christians Begin Immigration

Many of the early Christian Arab immigrants to America were, initially, Lebanese, who fled persecution in their homelands . They came to America in the middle of the 19th Century. At that time, a great massacre of Christians by Muslims in 1860 resulted in the total destruction of the Lebanese Christian village of Zahlah, only one of the occasional skirmishes between the two religious groups that occurred. Some 22,000 Christian Arabs were massacred in that conflict with the larger Muslim Druze community. Some believe that the Ottoman Turks were involved in inciting this conflict.

Many of the Christian Lebanese fled to other Arab countries, like Damascus in Syria. Having settled in new areas, they were more than likely to continue their flight with many arriving on the shores of the United States. By the end of the 19th Century, many did.

Generally, Muslims and Christians have maintained excellent relations and conflicts like the Zahlah massacre in Lebanon were rare, although destructive. Nonetheless, this event did spark the first major wave of Arabs to come to America and Chicago.

The early Syrian-Lebanese community settled near 18th Street and Michigan Avenue, where almost all Arab Americans to Chicago arrived. These nearly all Christian Arabs (Maronite by faith) used an apartment that they rented at the time to conduct their church services. It was located on Canal Street near Harrison Street.

These Christian Syrians did not have a priest of their own. They would invite Arab priests passing through Chicago to offer the religious services. Finally, in 1905, they found a priest who offered services fulltime from the basement of a local church on Canal Street.

From 18th Street and Michigan Avenue, these Syrian-Lebanese immigrants earned money through door-to-door peddling and purchased homes just west of the city's downtown area, in a "neighborhood" called "Little Zahlah." "Little Zahlah" was located between Roosevelt Road on the north, 16th Street on the south, California Avenue on the east and Kedzie Avenue on the west. It is the second largest concentration of Arab Americans outside of 18th and Michigan Avenue.

A Christian Arab Church, St. John the Baptist Melkite Church, was established at 1343 S. Washtenaw Avenue on June 24, 1910 with the blessing of the Archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese. Before the church was purchased, Rev. Msg. S. Roumie, the Syrian Priest who held services at the downtown offices on Canal Street, became the new church's pastor.

These Syrian-Lebanese settlers also established a Syrian Club. The Maronites broke away and established their own church in 1956 called Our Lady of Lebanon. It was located in Chicago at Midway and Parkside but was later moved west to the suburb of Hillside in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Members of the Lebanese community established the Phoenician Club in 1971. Our Lady of Lebanon moved to Elmhurst while a new church was built and opened recently at 950 Grace Street in Lombard, Illinois. The church Pastor Alfred Badawi (who succeeded Father Victor Kayrous and previous to him Father John Naffah) said they have more than 700 Maronite Catholic Families in the parish today.

THE PHOENICIAN CLUB

The Syrian club of Chicago was established in 1918.  In 1948 the name was changed to the Syrian Lebanese Club due to the Independence of Lebanon. In 1970 the name was changed again to the Phoenician Club of Chicago which it is today.  Members claim it is the oldest Syrian Lebanese Club of record in the United States. Membership was open to all Arabs including Jordanians and Palestinians who did join.

The Phoenician Club of Chicago is a non sectarian, not for profit, non political, and philanthropic organization to help our community both  locally and overseas.  The Phoenician Club of Chicago was the forerunner with Danny Thomas in starting ALSAC (American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities) which started St. Jude's Research Medical facility in Memphis Tennessee. The Phoenician Club of Chicago is also affiliated with is the Midwest Federation of American Syrian Lebanese Clubs. 

Palestinians and Jordanians Follow

The majority of Arabs living in Chicago are of Palestinian and Jordanian origins. There are two "streams" of migration originating from 18th and Michigan Ave, one heading Northwest and the other Southwest.

The Palestinians came predominantly from two villages in Palestine called "Beitunia," and "Ramallah." These twin cities are located next to each other in the West Bank just north of Jerusalem. Beitunia is the Muslim village and Ramallah is the Christian village. Today, many of these religious distinctions have changed considerably, especially in Ramallah which today has a large Muslim population.

Today, Beitunia Muslims constitute the largest community of Arabs in Chicago. The Beitunia Palestinians began arriving in Chicago around 1910.

The first members of the Ramallah Palestine community began arriving in Chicago in 1920, according to research conducted by doctoral student Ali Zaghal (see below).

This resulted in a geographical division of these two large Arab groups, with the Muslim Palestinians from Beitunia settling on Chicago's South and Southwest Side, and the Christian Palestinians from Ramallah settling on the city's North and Northwest Side.

The Beitunia Palestinians settled near the Syrians at 18th and Michigan, conducting religious services in a nearby building's basement. Later, they began their migration south and southwest to an area near 45th and South Ashland Avenue. There was a restaurant near there called the Shahrazad Restaurant. In fact, it was common for an affluent businessman to lead the migration by opening restaurants in newer areas. These restaurants became the magnets for later immigrants.

The Beitunia Palestinian Arabs continued their migration southwest in later years, establishing a new colony between Western Avenue and Kedzie Avenue around 63rd Street in the 1970s. By the 1990s, these same families moved further Southwest in Oak Lawn, Burbank and also Orland Park. An Arab community center was established at 55th and Fairfield. It was closed and another opened up on 63rd Street near Kedzie.

Today, the largest concentration of Palestinian Arabs are located between Oak Lawn and Orland Park in the city's Southwest Suburbs.

The first Muslim church or Mosque was founded in the Spring of 1956 and it created somewhat of a sensation resulting in the following newspaper article in the Chicago Tribune.


Moslems Buy Building for Use as Mosque

The Mosque Foundation of Chicago has purchased a home of its own which will be the first mosque in Chicago, according to Hassan Haleem, secretary-treasurer of the foundation.

He said the building, a former church at 6500 [South] Stewart Ave., was purchased from the South Side association for $100,000 … [The Mosque will service] many families from Arabian countries, the majority from Palestine, during the last few years. The society was formed two years ago by 10 or 15 families.

Haleem said there were about 100 Islamic families on the south and southwest side, including more than 200 children. Most of them live between 63rd and 79th Streets, and Stony Island and Halsted Street.

Islamic Creed
"To continue their customs, to follow and practice their religion, and to instill these habits together with the Arabic language in the minds of their children, they felt a great need for forming a society," Haleem said. Society President is Abdallah Shoukry.

Their religion has this creed:
"There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his Messenger."

(Chicago Tribune, 1956)


Later, the Mosque Foundation, which Haleem and others founded, established several temporary religious and Muslim education centers that later resulted in the construction of Chicago's first ever Arab and Muslim Mosque in Bridgeview. (The story is detailed in the background piece on Sheikh Khalil Zayid, included in my manuscript booklet and to be published later.)

The Christian Ramallah Palestinians, along with several Christian Jordanian families, established a church too. Initially, St. George Orthodox Church held their services at the Phoenician Club clubhouse in Chicago at Laramie and Washington. By 1970, the St. George Orthodox Church at 1125 N. Humphrey in Oak Park, was drawing parishioners from as far away as Indiana.

In the late 1980s, the church relocated to 1220 S. 60th Court in Cicero, Illinois and its name was changed to St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. It is important to remember that while churches and mosques became the center of community activity for various Arab groups, they did not serve specific groups exclusively. St. George Church, for example, attracted not only Ramallah Palestinian Christians, but also Christians from other denominations and Arab countries or Palestinian cities. The church service is conducted in the Arabic language.

The Jordanian population of Chicago originated from three cities in Jordan. They are Madaba, Salt and El-Fuheis. Originally, they settled around Logan Square on the city's Northwest Side, among the Ramallah Palestinians. A center of Jordanian activity was the St. Charles Restaurant at Montrose Avenue and Lincoln Avenue, which was owned by a Jordanian Christian from Madaba. The restaurant was opened sometime in the 1950s. Today there is a large Jordanian presence in the Southwest Suburbs, too.

Chicago Arab Population Growth

Three studies of Chicago's Arab American communities were conducted by doctorate students in Chicago. The first was completed in 1950 and 1952 by Abdul Jalil al-Tahir, and the second by Ali Zaghel in 1976 at Northwestern University.

Because Arab Americans are not included as a minority designation in the US Census documents, and because so few studies existed outside of the Arab American community, these two documents present the most accurate glimpse into the lives of Arab Americans during those periods. Both authors also document some history and folklore.

It's also important to note that prior to 1897, immigrants from the Middle East were classified as "Turks" or as "Turkish." That year, immigration officials started to differentiate between Turks and "Syrians." This made it more difficult to track pre-1900 Arab settlement, especially in Chicago.

A more updated look at Chicago's Arab American population was completed by the Arab American Action Network in 1998 called "Meeting Community Needs, Building on Community Strengths," and was based on research by AAAN Research Director Louise Cainkar. This focussed on the city's deteriorating Arab neighborhood along 63rd Street.

According to Zaghel, in 1976, the Arab population of Chicago was approximately only 15,000 total, broken up as follows:

Palestinians:

Palestinian Christians,
(By 1965, Ramallah Palestinians numbered about 250)

Palestinian Muslims,
(By 1965, Beitunia Palestinians totaled more than 1,800, the largest group in Chicago, growing to 4,500 in 1976, the time of the Zaghal study.)

Syrian-Lebanese, (almost entirely Christian)

Egyptians (Copt Christian and Muslim - They began arriving in Chicago in 1955)

Jordanians (largely Christian)
(They, too, arrived in substantial numbers in 1965)

Iraqis
(They began arriving in 1963)

Yemenis and others (including students)

8,000

(1,500)

 

(6,500)



2,500


2,000

 

750

 

500


1,000

(1965 is an important year because it was at that time that the United States eased its immigration restrictions imposed following the War, in which five of seven preference immigration categories favored qualified relatives of US citizens or permanent residents.)

Today, as a result of increased immigration since 1976, it estimated that the Chicago area's Arab American community actually number around 150,000. I want to stress this is for the entire Chicago Area. (Estimates from the City of Chicago assert more than 250,000 in Chicago alone, but there is no data to back up this claim.) Estimates for the state range between 350,000 and 450,000.

About 55,000 to 80,000 Arab Americans live in the City of Chicago, far below the projections. This community continues to decline as more and more Arab families follow the primary migration in the Southwest Suburbs, with smatterings relocating North and Northwest. There are about 75,000 to 85,000 Arab Americans living in suburban Chicago. The largest concentration of Arabs live in the Southwest Suburbs (55,000-60,000) and the remainder (20,000-25,000) live scattered in the Western and Northwest Suburbs with no real concentration in any one area. Even these numbers are estimates and are based upon numerous interviews with community leaders.

A hardship imposed upon the Arab community is the exaggeration of their numbers. Many politicians and government officials have complained about this discrepancy and its reflection on individuals of responsibility in our community. But, this also is the result of the failure of the US Census takers to correctly identify Arab Americans by race. Most statistics on Arab American immigration is based on immigration entry interviews. Only some Arab Americans list themselves as "Arabs" in the "Other" category when completing census materials.

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1893 Columbian Exposition

One of the first Arabs that many Chicagoans and Americans came to know may have been the make-believe character, Gamal El Din El Yahbi.

El Yahbi was a character created by the sponsors of the 1893 Columbian Exposition to help Americans experience the excitement and culture of the Arab World. El Yahbi "owned" an elegant home that was located in the center of the "Street in Cairo" which was one of the main attractions of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and located at the center of the fair's Midway Plaisance.

Cairo Street, as it was informally called, was a composite of many different images that a visitor might have seen while visiting Cairo, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East. It reflected the lifestyles of the early 17th Century Arabs and was designed by Max Herz, the official government architect for the Khedive of Egypt.

This reconstructed Arab city feature many amazing details, and included a Mosque (a Muslim house of worship) with its massive doors and ornamentation. It was built to the precise dimensions of an existing Mosque in Cairo, the Mosque of Abou Bake Mazhar, minus the towering Minaret where the Muezzin would call the faithful to prayer.

The street itself was lined with other buildings and storefronts with their balconies and ornate facades, portals and mosaic designs, over looking a fountain and open air market filled with tethered camels and donkeys that fairgoers could ride.

Cairo Street also featured the Tomb of Thi, a monument to the 5th Dynasty (3800 BC), the Temple of Luxor of the age of Amenophis III and Rameses II (1800 to 1480 BC), mummies (1700-1710 BC) and the Tomb of the Sacred Bull, built under Ptolemies (260 BC).

The population of "Cairo Street" consisted of 180 "Egyptians, Arabs, Nubians and Sudanese" and the many storied home of Gamal El Din El Yahbi, described as a "Mohammedan of the time," was a highlighted feature.

(The term "Mohammedan" is an antiquated term that is viewed as being derogatory today and is not used.)

There were 61 merchant shops on the street, selling souvenirs. Each day they would offer two performances.

Sword dancers and candle dancers performing the Dans Du Ventre, are accompanied by musicians. There are conjurers, astrologers, fortune tellers, snake charmers and entertainment of all descriptions.

The most popular was "Little Egypt," the nickname of Fahreda Mahzar, who danced the "Hootchie Coochie" dance (or belly dance). She was actually Armenian Arab, and was only one of a dozen dancers who performed under the same stage name at the time. Her dance was performed despite protests from Chicago's Board of Lady Managers. William B. Gray memorialized Cairo Street in his song, She Never Saw the Streets of Cairo, with these the lyrics:

"She never saw the Streets of Cairo, on the Midway she had never strayed;
"She had never seen a Hootchie Coochie, poor little innocent maid."

A pamphlet prepared for fairgoers concluded, "When the Columbian Exposition shall have become a thing of the past and its memories hazy with the flight of time, it there shall be one spot which shall remain brighter than all the rest, that one will be its beautiful Cairo Street, in the Midway Plaisance."

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