This collection of three videos focuses on the Arab American experience. The first, Looking for Antonio Bishellany, photographed by Jonathan Friedlander, is the opening chapter of the documentary Arabs in America and relates the story of the first Arabic-speaking immigrant who came to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The second, filmed by Erik Friedl, features a reading by author Gregory Orfalea entitled Grandma Nazera about one of the pioneering Syrian female peddler merchants in America. The third, The Last Harvest: The Yemenis of the San Joaquin, set in Delano, California, and produced by Friedl & Friedlander, profiles Mohamed Abdullah who paved the way for Yemenis to immigrate to this bountiful agricultural region over half a century ago.
The official records show that Antonio Bishellany was the first Arab to have migrated to the United States. Antonio was influenced by Protestant missionary activities in his native Lebanon. He came to America to continue his education and put into practice his religious mission and zeal. Sadly, he died within two years of his arrival in 1856 at the age of 29 and was buried at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Greenwood Cemetery is located along the East River, offering stunning vistas of Manhattan’s skyline, including the financial district, Wall Street and the void where the Twin Towers stood before they were destroyed on 9/11. Not too far away was the now defunct quarter known as Little Syria. This is where the first Arab immigrants lived before moving to the Atlantic Avenue neighborhood in Brooklyn and beyond. Many of the first-generation Arab immigrants are buried in this predominantly Christian cemetery. Bishellany's gravestone is one of the oldest, considerably weathered by time and the elements. The English narration and accompanying Arabic voice in this videocast come from a pioneering book on Syrians in America published by the distinguished scholar Philip K. Hitti in 1919. The book recounts the author’s search and elated discovery of Antonio Bishellany’s grave erected more than 150 years ago. The photographs by Jonathan Friedlander, shot in the mid-1970s, preserve Antonio's memory and his mission of conscience.
The setting of this reading by Gregory Orfalea from his memoir Angeleno Days is his mother's home in Tarzana, nestled in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley. The spacious house is decorated with photographs of the Orfalea family and includes the ancestral home in Lebanon along with family photos taken in Los Angeles where the second and third generations settled in the late 1940's. Not seen in the documentary are Greg's mother Rose, his maternal uncle Joe Awad with wife Carmen, all seated around a table with Greg. The videocast consists of two parts. The first is a reading from the chapter in his book dedicated to Greg's grandmother Nazera. At the age of seven in 1893, Nazera Jabaly was transplanted from her hometown of Zahlé to New York City, where she spent her adolescence. Around 1900, she took to the road as a peddler merchant, one of the primary occupations of early Syrians in the United States. Her circuit extended from New York City to Philadelphia to Washington to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, over to Buffalo and then down through Boston before returning to Little Syria to re-stock and begin the cycle anew.
Los Angeles was Nazera's final destination in life. Greg fondly remembers the trimmed hedge of her home. It was "the hedge of a king, and those tall palms on Mansfield swishing and swaying in the breeze were tall men...And they were not in Los Angeles. They were in Syria walking on the road to Zahlé where her husband should have met her. Tall shadows like the ones she followed across the Atlantic for a better life...a sweet brown fruit with a hard, thin nut."
In the second part of Grandma Nazera, Orfalea lovingly extemporizes on his grandmother’s daring, enterprising spirit, both on and off the road. “I still remember her songs…I told her before she died that I wanted her to teach me her songs, even if I didn’t understand them.” “Why, honey?” she had asked. “Because they will make me remember you,” Orfalea responded.
This unique documentary explores the lives and times of Muslim immigrants from Yemen who settled in California's San Joaquin Valley.
Yemeni migrant workers started coming to the United States in the post-1965 era when a new immigration law opened the gates to non-Europeans. The largest numbers reside in Detroit and southern Michigan where they labored in the automobile plants. A smaller group found employment in the steel mills of Lackawanna near Buffalo, New York. Others headed west in search of work in Oakland and San Francisco and in the vineyards, fruit orchards, and asparagus fields of the fertile San Joaquin Valley that spans central California.
Mohamed Abdullah, one of the pioneering Yemeni immigrants, is featured in The Last Harvest. Together with a small group of his fellow countrymen he came to work in the fields in the mid-1950s and became a leading foreman for a prominent company involved in the business of growing and selling table grapes. His wife Irma was by his side through thick and thin as he rose in rank, and both were instrumental in establishing the local, predominantly Yemeni mosque named after Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq, the first Muslim Caliph who lived in the seventh century. In his soft-spoken manner Mohamed recounts how through hard work and perseverance the Yemenis have managed, in the span of just one generation, to establish a chain of family owned and operated groceries and convenience stores throughout the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, and to climb the economic ladder out of the grape fields in pursuit of free enterprise, higher education, and the American dream.
Additional information about the Republic of Yemen, Yemeni Americans, and the Yemenis of the San Joaquin Valley is available in the section Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak.
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