Strangers in the West

By Linda K. Jacobs

The never-before-told story of the first Arab immigrants to settle in New York City.

They were peddlers and merchants, midwives and doctors, priests and journalists, belly dancers and impresarios, and between 1880 and 1900 these immigrants built a thriving colony that soon became the cultural and economic center of the Syrian diaspora in America. This is their story.





Praise for Strangers in the West

“Through her rich, thoughtful and painstaking research, Linda Jacobs transfers the reader to a fascinating era of early American immigration, providing us with a valuable insight into the transformation of this poor and crowded ‘Syrian Colony’ into the commercial, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual capital of Arab Americans. Strangers in the West is not only a wonderful contribution to the nascent field of Arab American studies, it is also an extremely enjoyable book to any serious reader.”

Anan Ameri

Founding Director, Arab American National Museum

“Linda Jacobs has written the definitive book on the earliest Arab immigrants to New York. Her meticulous research and flowing narrative provide the most detailed study of this community, and one that will become the standard source of information about it.”

Akram F. Khater

Director, Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, NC State University, and author of "Inventing Home"

“At a time when the issue of immigration is once again a national concern, Jacobs’ fascinating account of this first generation Arab-American community is a welcome reminder of the challenges immigrants face and the wealth of benefits they bring to American society. Engagingly written, this work of historical demography is a superb resource.”

Linda L. Layne

Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, author of "Home and Homeland"

About the Book

“There is no question but that the Syrian tree planted in American soil will grow and flourish and blossom out into as good fruit as that of any other nationality.”

Kawkab America, April 29, 1892

Strangers in the West is the never-before-told story of the Arab immigrants who settled in New York City, beginning in 1880. They came primarily from what was then known as “Greater Syria,” and settled in tenements on the lower west side of Manhattan, founding an Arabic-speaking enclave just south of the future site of the World Trade Center. Arriving in the New World with little more than their resourcefulness and business acumen, these immigrants quickly built a thriving “colony” that was the cultural and economic center of the Syrian diaspora in America.

Strangers In the West is the first and only comprehensive study of America’s most important Syrian colony. Through exhaustive archival and demographic research, Dr. Jacobs has captured the identities of virtually every member of this nineteenth century community. In doing so, she has created an invaluable resource for historians, scholars, and others interested in the history of Arabs in America.

Dr. Jacobs paints a vivid portrait of life in this early immigrant community, and the people who founded it. They were peddlers and merchants, midwives and doctors, priests and journalists, performers and impresarios. They capitalized on the orientalist craze sweeping the United States by opening Turkish smoking parlors, presenting belly dancers on vaudeville stages, and performing across the country in native costume. They learned English, built businesses, and became an important thread in the rich tapestry of the immigrant culture of nineteenth century New York. This is their story.


Images from the Colony

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About the Author

Linda K. Jacobs is a New York-based scholar and author. She holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Archaeology/Anthropology and spent many years working on archaeological excavations and economic development projects in the Middle East. She is the author of Digging In: An American Archaeologist Uncovers the Real Iran (2012) and a series of articles about the nineteenth-century Syrian colony in New York. Dr. Jacobs is committed to promoting Middle Eastern culture and knowledge in the United States, founding KalimahPress in 2011, establishing the Violet Jabara Charitable Trust, and sitting on the boards of the Near East Foundation and the Moise Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. She has also served on the board of the American University of Beirut. All four of her grandparents were members of the New York Syrian Colony

“Once again, Linda Jacobs manages to connect a large historical story with a personal account of family history.  The result is a fascinating look at a differentthough somehow familiarworld.”

Donna Leon

Author of the Guido Brunetti series

More Praise for Strangers in the West

“Anyone interested in the history of immigrant life in New York City ought to own this book. Forgotten today, ‘Little Syria’ was once one of the most famous immigrant enclaves in New York. Jacobs’ exhaustively researched book brings the neighborhood back to life in vivid detail.”

Tyler Anbinder

Professor of History, George Washington University, and author of "City of Dreams."

“Linda Jacobs’ narrative of Syrian immigration to the United States from 1880-1900 is a remarkable study of how a proud people decidedagainst all oddsthey wanted a different way of life for themselves and their children. Her story is an open window into the hardships and struggle a people will tolerate in their yearning for new opportunities.”

George Cody

Former Executive Director, American Task Force for Lebanon

Strangers in the West sheds light on the triumphs and travails of the first Arab community in the United States and rescues this immigrant ‘colony’ from oblivion. Linda Jacobs’ book should be on the ‘must read’ list of any scholar dealing with America’s immigration history in the nineteenth Century.”

Mehrzad Boroujerdi

Chair of Political Science Department, Syracuse University

“Linda Jacobs has produced a valuable study of New York City’s first Arab settlement at the end of the 19th century. Based on intensive scrutiny of the data, Jacobs presents social history of ‘the mother colony’ its establishment, growth, and ultimate declinethat refutes commonly held stereotypes and highlights the success and ingenuity of these early Arab immigrants. It is a long overdue contribution to the burgeoning field of Arab American studies.”

Philip Kayal

Professor of Sociology, Seton Hall University, and author of "The Syrian-Lebanese in America"

“Linda Jacobs’ meticulously researched book tells the story of Syrian immigrants in New York at the turn of the last century, situating this community at the heart of the American immigrant narrative. Within it are valuable lessons about how and why these Arab immigrants came, what they experienced on arrival, and how they were transformed. This story has been repeated in every age for every ethnic immigrant group, which only adds to the important contribution Strangers in the West will make to the field of immigrant studies.”

James Zogby

President, Arab American Institute and author of "Arab Voices"

“Researching her immigrant grandparents, Linda Jacobs was surprised that little was written on the Syrian Colony in late 19th century New York City. Not only did she write a history of these Arab American pioneers, but also painfully, meticulously, and exhaustively built a database that will be a rich resource for future analyses.”

Anny Bakalian

Former Associate Director, Middle Eastern & Middle Eastern American Center, City University of New York


“A most welcome addition to the history of this long-neglected neighborhood.”

Joe Svehlak

President, Friends of the Lower West Side