Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 309-10.
My uncles on my mother's side were peddlers. I often wondered how they managed this with no English skills, only a few dependable institutions, and a scattered number of informal commercial ties. From Syria to Seminole finally answers that question. Though a specialist on Arab-Americans, this is the second book I have reviewed on Syrians in the Plains and Southwest, and again I learned a great deal.
Literature on Arab-Americans is divided into two historical periods. Works written before 1975 were about the early, turn of the twentieth-century emigrants from Syria and Lebanon. Later on the field expanded to emigrants from all over the Arab world. The early period dealt mainly with Christian immigrants settling mostly in the Northeast, while recent research generally covers a range of Arab religions, nationalities, and communities throughout the country. This edited and "later footnoted" autobiography highlights from a personal account the distinguishing characteristic of Syrian immigrants, namely their ability to peddle their wares successfully throughout the country until they settled down as merchants, entrepreneurs, and citizens.
While primarily an autobiography of Mohammed Ayrain (who tellingly renamed himself Edward), the book is also a travelogue, a history of sorts of the High Plains, and an ethnography because of J'Nell Pate's wonderful editing. The story of Aryain's trip from Syria, through New York and Pennsylvania, and then to the Great Plains is an important one, not only because of the way it's told, but because it supports the general historical information on why and how the Syrians came here, how they established themselves in business, and finally how they Americanized. While peddling separated them regularly from the daily life of the ethnic community they depended on for support, contacts, merchandise, and advice, it also reinforced bonds and helped them discover America and thus quickly acculturate. Syrian peddlers learned to network with Syrian wholesalers on the East Coast who supplied them with dry goods and other merchandise that Americans had little access to in the interior of the country. And they were successful salesmen. Syrian peddlers made more than three times the income of typical Americans.