History 3: Arab Americans in California

In Castro Valley, California, we meet Elias Lammam, a master accordionist specializing in Arabic classical music. Originally from Lebanon, Elias came to the U.S. in 1999 to pursue his musical career. Unlike other stories in which we meet accordion players whose primary audience shares the same ethnic heritage with them, Lammam and his music have attracted a large number of non-Lebanese/non-Arab Americans as both listeners and students.

California has the largest number of Arab Americans in the U.S. (estimated 715,000), most of whom are concentrated in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Among them, Lammam’s home country Lebanon has sent the largest number of immigrants to California, followed by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.

Broadly speaking, there are three phases of immigration from the Arab world (referring to Arabic-speaking states, territories and populations in North Africa, Western Asia and elsewhere) to the United States.

The First Wave, 1880-1940s

Among the first wave of Arab immigrants to the U.S., the majority were Christian, and were farmers, merchants, artisans, or skilled laborers by profession. Most of them were from the Levant (Syria, near Mount Lebanon). Little is known about what triggered the first migration in the late 1870s. Some might have attempted to escape from the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s oppression of Christian Arabs; some might have come and stayed after visiting the United States for international exhibitions and world fairs; and some might have been introduced to the idea by nineteenth-century missionary activity. During the period of railroad building, some Syrian merchants followed the railroads and eventually made it to California by the 1880s. Soon, farmers from Syria and Lebanon were migrating for agricultural opportunities, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Second Wave, 1945-mid1960s

After World War II, revolutions and wars in the Arab world led to an increasing number of political exiles from Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine who sought to escape from political upheavals. Furthermore, what is notable in the Arab migration compared to the migration histories we have seen in other stories on our show is that many were well-educated elites who sought career opportunities in the US. This second wave of over 300,000 Arabs was predominantly Muslim.

The Third Wave, 1965-present

The most recent wave represents the largest immigration from the Arab world. Since 1967, economic policies and wars have encouraged a cross-section of Arabs to emigrate. The war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1991 forced many Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon to escape to the US. In addition, graduate-level educational opportunities available in the US provided one of the incentives for many young educated Arabs to emigrate. This wave of Arab immigrants included professionals and entrepreneurs of all kinds, seeking economic opportunities. Elias Lammam in our story, who had a good music education and a career in scoring TV commercials and films, can be considered as part of this latest wave of Arab immigrants coming to the US for professional opportunities.

Accordion in the Middle East
The accordion found its way to the Middle East via Egypt in the 1930s, and reached its peak of popularity in the late 1950s. Egypt was the center of the recording industry in the Middle East, and as various accordion recordings became popular in Egypt, it set the trend to elsewhere in the region. There are many contested stories about how the accordion came to the Middle East — but one is that the accordion became popular during the Tango craze that swept Europe in the 1930′s. (Although tango uses the bandoneón, an instrument related to the accordion that developed in Argentina and Urugay), the accordion was a popular substitute in Europe. At this time, the sound of the accordion was the sound of Europe in the Middle East.

Quickly, Egyptian accordion players and composers embraced the accordion and incorporated it into various musical styles, from urban folk music of the Egyptian Beladi people to Arabic classical (or “art”) ensembles. Among the most famous accordion players are Hassan-Abu-El Saud, Farouk Salama, Moustafa Hamido, Sheik Taha (photo), and Farouk Mohamed Hassan. The accordion remains a popular instrument at festive events such as weddings and in night clubs and hotels throughout Cairo today.

In the process of adapting the accordion into Arabic music, the accordion had to be modified, and advanced playing techniques had to be developed in order to accommodate pitches that don’t exist in the Western tonal system. These pitches are called microtones, or in some cases “quarter tones.” Players have to open up the instrument and file the reeds to change the pitches, and use the bellows in specific ways to control the pitch selection or sometimes even “bend” the pitches. You can hear more about that in our story.

References/suggested readings:
The Arab American Institute: http://www.aaiusa.org/pages/demographics/

Brooks, Iris. 2003. “Accordion ABC’s: Arab and Baltic Communities” in Planet Squeezebox linernotes: 45-46.

Gualtieri Sarah. 2001. “Becoming ‘White’: Race, Religion and the Foundations of Syrian/Lebanese Ethnicity in the United States.” In Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 20 no. 4: 29-58

Kayyali, Randa A. 2006. The Arab Americans. Westport, Conneticut: Greenwood Press.

Marschner, Janice. 2003. California’s Arab Americans. Sacramento: Coleman Ranch Press

Naber, Nadine. 2000. “Ambiguous Insiders: an investigation of Arab American invisibility.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 23 no. 1: 37 — 61