After a century, US Arabs look for pieces of past

Saturday - 12/29/2012, 1:28pm EST

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) - Tossing and shivering below deck, Hussien Karoub felt ill. In the cold, crowded conditions, sleep came seldom. When it did, it didn't last long: The cries of children and the moans of those even sicker than he was made certain of that.

It was approaching midnight somewhere in the North Atlantic, aboard a vessel carrying the 18-year-old Syrian and many fellow immigrants toward, they hoped, a better life. If nothing else, he knew it had to beat this arduous monthlong odyssey in steerage, enduring conditions that were, in every sense, below those in first and second class.

It would be days before details trickled down about the doomed ship a couple hundred miles away. Above, in his vessel's radio room, came the first distress call from the foundering RMS Titanic: "Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We struck an iceberg. Sinking."

A couple weeks later, Hussien Karoub arrived in the United States even more anonymously than he otherwise might have. Public attention was elsewhere, focused on the Titanic and its tragic end.

That is the story of my grandfather's voyage to America. Or, more likely, it isn't. And that's part of the point.


I am a third-generation Arab-American, and I am on a journey to learn more about the journey of my "jiddo," the Arabic word for grandfather. I am sorting through family stories, passed down, that have a way of changing in the retelling. Folk tales are compelling, but I am trying to anchor my story to facts before the channels to history close entirely, in hopes they might offer insight about how I got here.

My quest mirrors those of so many Arab-Americans. They're looking back and trying to unearth their stories, separating myth from truth and _ just as important _ hoping to show their neighbors that, in the story of America, they are not a "them" but an "us."

Maybe the Titanic tale is true. It's remotely possible, since Hussien Karoub came to the United States in the same year, 1912. My family hasn't confirmed that through records, but by anecdotes like a radio interview from the early 1960s, when he said he came to Detroit in 1915 to make cars after spending three years making hats in Danbury, Conn.

For many Arabs, a version of the story is true. U.S.-bound Middle Easterners were on the Titanic and other ships traversing the Atlantic. In lower Manhattan, an already thriving Syrian community awaited and would be instrumental in identifying and memorializing the dead and helping survivors meet the new world.

"I always tell people who ask that Jiddo's ship crossed paths with the Titanic on the way over from Syria," my cousin Carl, the family's historian, tells me. "The wake from the Titanic nearly capsized his tiny ferry and he cursed the Titanic."

He has no proof, of course. In only a century, the truth blurs in a genealogical game of telephone. Yet why not hitch our tale to that of a great American epic? It's not that big of a stretch. Americans _ most Americans, even _ have done that since the very beginning.

But I want more than stories.


"Who's `Aszim'?" the voice over the phone asks me. It's Diane Hassan, a researcher from the Danbury Museum & Historical Society. Hassan finds a record saying Aszim was born in Danbury in 1913, which brings us closer to confirming the timeframe of my grandfather's arrival in Danbury. This was my father's first cousin, known to my family by his American name, Jimmy. He was the son of Mohammed, my grandfather's brother.

I've sought Hassan's help because I've hit a brick wall. Ellis Island, the entry point for millions of immigrants, contains records of my grandfather coming in 1920 aboard the Kroonland with his wife, Miriam, and their young son Allie. That was Hussien Karoub's second U.S. arrival, but there is no record in Ellis Island's archive of his inaugural voyage as a single man some eight years earlier.

A short boat ride away, they're asking the same kinds of questions on a much larger scale. A group of New Yorkers have worked with curators from the Arab American National Museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn on a new traveling exhibit that documents what had been one of the earliest settlements of Arabs in America.

It's not lost on them that the Little Syria neighborhood in lower Manhattan would become the site of the World Trade Center _ the towers whose destruction a decade ago put many of Middle Eastern descent under intense scrutiny and suspicion.

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