The collection is the result of research conducted by Dr. Alixa Naff (1920-2013) relating to the study of the early Arab immigrant experience in the United States from about 1880-World War II. The study began with oral history interviews in 1962 and became a major project in 1980 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It documents the assimilation of Arabic speaking immigrants in the United States.
Scope and Contents:
The collection documents the immigration and assimilation of mostly Christian Syrian-Lebanese who came to America at the turn of the twentieth century. The immigrants were predominately-small land-owning peasants and artisans from the village of Syria and Lebanon. According to Alixa Naff, immigrants knew exactly where they were going to live and what they were going to do once they immigrated to America. They mostly chose to live in cities where earlier immigrants had already created communities. The majority of the immigrants became peddlers. Peddlers carried packs containing scissors, razors, pins, buttons, ribbons, threads, needles, combs, mirrors, soap, voile and muslin, lace and crotchet crafts, perfume, scarves, picture frames, oriental rugs, fine linens, leather goods, pictures of saints, religious notions from the holy land, confections and cakes. Peddling offered the immigrants a source of income and a way to learn the English language, American customs and lifestyles. It often led to ownership of a small dry goods store. More successful businesspersons then went on to own a department store or a chain of stores. For those Syrian/Lebanese who chose not to pursue peddling as a source of income other occupations included farming, work in New England textile mills, Midwestern factories, Pittsburgh and Birmingham steel mills and Detroit's automobile assembly lines.
It was in these Syrian communities created by Arab immigrants that Dr. Naff sought interviews, photographs and personal papers. For Alixa Naff this pioneering generation of people offered a wealth of information on the immigrant experience and the critical role that peddling played. Naff conducted interviews in urban and small town communities with an emphasis on Midwestern states. Her informants included first and second generation Christians, Druze and Muslims. Locations of interviews included Detroit, Michigan because it was an industrial city with a large and stable Syrian population of all faiths. Cedar Rapids, Iowa was smaller, a railroad depot at the turn of the century and home to the earliest Muslim groups. Peoria, Illinois was also a small, railroad depot at the turn of the century and it consisted predominately of the Maronite Sect originally from one village in Mount Lebanon. Spring Valley, Illinois was a small mining town with a Christian community and the remnant of a once flourishing peddling settlement. Their Eastern Rite Syrian Orthodox Church was the only one in Illinois until 1961 and served smaller Syrian groups.
Oral history interviews deal with the sociological factors of the assimilation process. Most tapes have been fully transcribed or abstracted. Information from the interviews are supported with published articles; demographic statistics; articles from the Arab-American press, books, journals and dissertations published in the United States or in Arab countries. Personal papers collected from individuals and families provide evidence of the experiences discussed in the interviews and add a personal touch to the reference materials. While there are a number of original items included among the personal papers, there is a substantial amount of duplicate materials. Naff would often collect the originals make copies and then return the originals to the donors.
Collection is arranged into the eight series created by Alixa Naff.
Series 1, Personal Papers, 1891-2002, undated
Series 2, Photographs, 1890-1996, undated
Series 3, Oral interviews, Abstracts, Transcripts and Supporting Materials, 1962-1995, undated
Series 4, Publications, 1862-2000, undated
Series 5, Subject Files, 1888-2000
Series 6, Project Files, 1977-1995
Series 7, Alixa Naff Personal Papers, 1943-1996, undated
Series 8, Audio Visual Materials, 1908-1994, undated
Biographical / Historical:
The Faris and Yamna Naff Collection is the result of the dedication and research efforts of Dr. Alixa Naff, the daughter of Syrian-Lebanese immigrants. She has spent most of her life documenting the early American experience of the generation of Arabs, mostly Christian, from Syria/Lebanon who came to this country around the turn of the century.
After an administrative career in private industry, Alixa Naff enrolled at the University of California to obtain her B.A. degree. During her senior year, she was required to write a paper for an American history seminar. The topic for the seminar was immigration. Alixa Naff chose Arabs in America as her subject. According to Naff, there was a lack of reference materials relating to her topic. Therefore, she relied mostly on conversations with her parents' friends. Impressed by her work, Alixa Naff's professor offered her a grant to collect Arab folklore.
Alixa Naff conducted her research during the summer of 1962. She interviewed eighty-seven people in sixteen communities across the United States and eastern Canada. All of her informants were at least sixty years old at the time of the interviews and represented the last surviving members of her parents' pioneer immigrant generation. After completing her fieldwork, Naff went on to earn her master's and Ph.D. degrees. She taught on the college level at California State University and the University of Colorado. In 1977, she left teaching citing anti-Arab feelings as the reason for her shift in career paths. Her desire to counter the anti-Arab stereotyping with accurate sources of information created yet another opportunity for her to pursue more research about Arab Americans.
Later in 1977, Alixa Naff served as a consultant on a documentary film relating to Arabs in America. She again realized existed on the subject of the Arab immigrant experience in America. Moreover, much of what she found conflicted with what pioneer informants had told her. Naff was also painfully aware that family members of decreased Arab immigrants often discarded the early artifacts, personal papers, photographs and books brought to America. Shortly after, she began working on a study on the history of Arab immigrants. In 1979, Alixa Naff met Gino Baroni, then undersecretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and founder of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. His center helped her secure funding for her research from the National Endowment for the Humanities and provided an office for her to work. The result of this work was a book entitled Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience published in 1985. Richard Ahlborn, then curator of the Smithsonian's Community Life Division (now its Department of Cultural Affairs), convinced Naff to donate the collection to the Smithsonian in honor of her parents, Faris and Yamna Naff, and their generation of Arabs who immigrated to America.
Alixa Naff died on June 1, 2013 at the age of 93.
Materials at the National Museum of American History
The Division of Home and Community Life (now Division of Cultural and Community Life)holds artifacts related to this collection including. See Accession #: 2007.3245.
Materials at the Smithsonian Institution
Photo Lot 2011-02, Alixa Naff photographs of Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean and audio tapes on Mediterranean folklore, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
The collection is the result of research conducted by Dr. Alixa Naff relating to the study of the early Arab immigrant experience in the United States from about 1880-World War II. The study began with oral history interviews in 1962 and became a major project in 1980 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Collection is open for research.
Researchers must use microfilm copies. Researchers must handle unprotected photographs with gloves. Researchers must use reference copies of audio-visual materials. When no reference copy exists, the Archives Center staff will produce reference copies on an "as needed" basis, as resources allow.
Viewing film portions of collection require special appointment; please inquire with a reference archivist. Do not use when original materials are available on reference video or audio tapes.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.