The Power of Small Stories: a Syrian Abroad in World War I

Syrian migrants at New York City wharf, c. 1920. Source: Source: Sallum Mukarzil, Tarikh al-Tijara al-Suriyya fi-l-Muhajara al-Amrikiyya (New York: al-Matbaʿa al-Suriyya al-Amrikiyya, 1921), 104.

Small stories have enjoyed a recent renaissance in Middle East history, and this is especially the case for new historical writings on World War I. Owing to the translation of previously unpublished diaries and a new commitment to examining the war through the prism of individual experience, these histories serve a meaningful counterpoint to the structural, top-down analyses of global conflict which previously defined the subfield. Microhistorical inquiries reveal the war as sociocultural trauma, but they also have the power to upend the powerful “master narratives of nationalist ideologies and the state.”[i] World War I shattered the social order in Syria, atomizing Arab communities confronted with devastating famine, epidemic, military occupation, and displacement. All of this produced highly localized expressions of trauma that historians explore through personal correspondence, diaries, oral histories, material culture, and artistic production.[ii] A looped amalgam of very small stories best captures the totality of the Great War.

The First World War also prompted a half million Syrian emigrants living abroad to build durable new ties across their communities to meet the humanitarian crises confronting their Ottoman homeland. Across Egypt, Europe, and the Americas, the Arab diaspora (al-mahjar in Arabic) then represented twenty percent of Syrians worldwide.[iii] Campaigns for humanitarian relief prompted Syrians in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States to form closely-knit networks across oceans, channeling cash remittances, propaganda, political ideas, and even migrants between the mahjar and Mashriq.[iv]

Though transnational in scope, the activists’ social geography — their “world” — was simultaneously quite small, linking several dozen men working across the Atlantic seaboard. Capturing their history demands that historians synthesize microhistorical methods with a transnational scope. This endeavor is worthwhile because the resulting microhistories knit together narratives typically perceived as distinct by the “walled world” approach of area studies. A more authentic reconstruction of the war’s many facets as experienced in the Syrian diaspora — race in Arab America, mobilization on the American homefront, homeland relief, and Wilsonian politics — inflected the lives of individuals not as distinct stories but as an organic whole.

This piece takes as its informant a single Syrian migrant named Jurj Ilyas Khayrallah. His story defies the area studies expectation that Syrian, Syrian-American, and U.S. histories belong in three distinct bins. Khayrallah left Beirut for New York in 1913, where he worked as a shoe leather cutter in the factories between New York and New England. Khayrallah carried an Ottoman passport (the mürûr tezkeresi) but appealed for U.S. citizenship in February 1914, just months before the outbreak of World War I.[v]

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war that October complicated Khayrallah’s legal standing considerably. His “first papers” of petition for citizenship got tied up in court, where a series of immigration cases drew increasingly narrow racial definitions of eligibility, limiting Syrian access. Sarah Gualtieri points to the landmark appellate case of George Dow, a Syrian immigrant denied access to U.S. citizenship because of his racial composition. Dow’s case was heard just four days after Khayrallah filed his paperwork. The timing of their petitions was not coincidental: the Syrian American Association (SAA) of New York sponsored both men’s citizenship claims as well as dozens of others, eager to establish legal precedents for Syrian access to citizenship. George Dow is remembered because his case succeeded in establishing Syrian whiteness, but he was one man in a deep bench of SAA-sponsored petitioners pressing whiteness claims. Khayrallah was another.[vi]

The success of Dow’s appeal meant that Jurj Khayrallah would be allowed to naturalize after completing a mandatory five-year residency period in the United States. But while he waited, he would remain legally an Ottoman subject, bound by both Ottoman and U.S. laws in a moment of mounting political tension. Khayrallah spent his time cutting leathers in a Boston factory but was confronted with mounting wartime restrictions imposed on all Ottoman immigrants. Like many Syrians, he watched in horror as events unfolded at home: deportation and repression of dissidents, public execution of Arabist leaders, the emptying of villages caused in a horrific famine which, all told, killed 18 percent of Mount Lebanon and western Syria’s population by war’s end. In the diaspora, Syrian clubs stepped up civilian relief efforts, working with American aid committees, the American Red Cross, and others, but they also began to discuss collaborating with the Entente Powers to liberate Syria from Ottoman rule.

America entered the war in April 1917, and Jurj Khayrallah was one of an estimated ten thousand Syrian migrants given a choice: to naturalize and become a U.S. citizen early in return for military service in the Army. After Dow v. United States, the Syrian American Association shifted its focus from the courts to assisting Syrian migrants enlist in the United States Army, and usually, filing their declarations of intent — the “first papers” of naturalization — along the way.[vii]

Syrian migrants with incomplete naturalization status served in American military, despite concerns raised by Provost Marshall Enoch Crowder about the diplomatic risks associated with deploying foreign nationals in 1917. Syrian American groups played a crucial role in recruiting migrant men, arguing that Syrian military service would sever the migrants’ legal ties to the Ottoman Empire. America’s manpower needs inspired Congress to offer “Syrians and Mount Lebanonites claimed by Turkey as subjects” exemption from all prohibitions facing Ottoman subjects in the U.S., making them eligible for the draft.[viii] Thousands of Syrian migrants, most of them still Ottoman subjects, were inducted by 1918. Syrian migrant soldiers served under the American flag both in France and on the home front. Jurj Khayrallah was among those drafted.[ix]

Though America and the Ottoman Empire were never at war, Istanbul was incensed at the impressment of Arabs and protested the enlistment of all Ottoman subjects as illegal.[x] Washington amended its conscription law in response, granting Ottoman migrants service exemptions through the Spanish Consulate of New York but simultaneously granting enlisted Syrians and Lebanese instantaneous American citizenship under the 9 May Act of 1918. The 9 May Act’s wartime naturalization clause presented a powerful new incentive for Syrian migrants to enlist. The act proved so popular among the Syrian textile workers, leather cutters, and machinists from New England that the Army began to concentrate them in an experimental ethnic legion: the 151st Depot Brigade at Camp Devens, Massachusetts. Jurj Khayrallah became a U.S. citizen not in the courtroom but at Camp Devens, an early beneficiary of the 9 May Act.[xi]

The Massachusetts Syrian Legion represented a momentary break from the Army’s official mistrust of ethnic units like those regularly deployed by France and Great Britain.[xii] Khayrallah met and trained alongside several high-profile Syrian activists there, including Sergeant James Habib ʿAttara (a fellow member of Boston’s Syrian American Club and the company’s commanding officer)[xiii] and Shukri Bakhash (editor of New York’s al-Fatat newspaper and U.S. Army propagandist).[xiv] At its height, the unit numbered a paltry 350 infantrymen and never deployed to France (Syrians in regular Army regiments deployed in large numbers, however).[xv] Instead, the ethnic legion was demobilized; as new American citizens, Jurj Khayrallah and Shukri Bakhash moved to New York City while James ʿAttara stayed in Boston. All three men were among the founders of a new political party in November 1918: the New Syrian National League.

Promoting “Syria for the Syrians, Autonomous and Undivided under American Guardianship,” party chairman Jurj Khayrallah spent most of 1919 organizing partisans in New York City, Boston, Buenos Aires, and Cairo.[xvi] The party merged Wilsonian language regarding national self-determination with the rescue rhetoric common to wartime American discourse about the Near East. Like the many migrant associations petitioning the Paris Peace Conference, the New Syria National League claimed to represent the entire Syrian diaspora in its bid for American reconstruction.[xvii] Khayrallah invoked the service and sacrifice of Syrian migrant soldiers as evidence of his community’s alliance with America: “the United States of America has hitherto assisted Syria and its people…within its borders, with fourteen thousand of them serving under its flag who will form a bond of union between their land of birth and their land of adoption.”[xviii]

Khayrallah’s argued that “the unselfish purposes of the United States in this war, its freedom from entangling alliances, and its noble efforts in protecting the weaker races and nations” would drive President Wilson to support a nation-building project in Syria.[xix] The party appointed Reverend Abraham Rihbany, Attorney Faris Maluf, and Dr. Philip K. Hitti as their representatives. Tapping into humanitarian discourses then shaping U.S. policy towards the Levant, they lobbied the American Peace Commission to “do the work of liberator and educator” and rescue the Syrian people from oppression and tyranny: “America, Go East!”[xx] The New Syrian National League petitioned for and applauded the formation of the King-Crane Commission which investigated Syrian political claims in 1919, but the commission’s findings (which largely confirmed Khayrallah’s political claims) were subsequently ignored by the international community.[xxi] If policymakers had ever entertained the idea of an American Mandate, they turned definitively away the idea at that moment in 1919. Instead, France took control of Syria and Mount Lebanon in 1920; defeated, Khayrallah returned to the shoe factory, married, and lived as an American citizen without ever returning to Syria.

In the grand geopolitical scheme of things, Jurj Khayrallah’s activism illustrates a case of historical contingency, not of consequence. A minor figure in the flash-pan drama of émigré politics, his party and the links it made between military service, U.S. citizenship, and the prospect for Syrian-American partnership were swiftly forgotten. That said, his biography illustrates the complex position that Syrian migrants held between the Ottoman Empire and the Entente, and the extent to which the war created new strategies for political action that led individuals to work across several national contexts. Khayrallah served in the Army as a means of cutting ties with the Ottoman state, but his time in the Syrian corps and chairmanship of the New Syrian National League illustrate that he saw his service not as a departure from Syria but as part of a bid for Syrian independence. His story defies the expectations of nationalist historiographies which would scatter his life across several contexts, depriving it of its coherence and explanatory power. This collapsing of contexts — the Syrian with the American — was precisely Khayrallah’s political goal. Historians of migration must build analytical units which remain true to the social geographies of such individuals. In such a story, Syrian migrants appear not as liminal agents at the margins of many histories at once; they are central actors in a transnational drama which microhistorical methods render accessible.

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[i] Cyrus Schayegh, “Small is Beautiful,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 46, no. 4 (2014), 374.

[ii] Melanie S. Tanielian, The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017); Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Salim Tamari, Year of the Locust: a Soldier’s Memoir and the Erasure of Ottoman Palestine (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011); Abigail Jacobson, “Negotiating Ottomanism in Times of War: Jerusalem during World War I through the Eyes of a Local Muslim Resident,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 40, no. 1 (2008): 69–88; Najwa al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate their Children: Wartime Memory and the Politics of Food in Syria and Lebanon,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 46, no. 4 (2014), 719–736.

[iii] Kohei Hashimoto, “Lebanese Population Movement 1920–1939,” in Lebanese in the World: a Century of Emigration, Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi, eds. (London: I.B. Tauris, 1992), 102. See also Isa Blumi, Ottoman Refugees 1878–1939, Migration in a Post-Imperial World (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[iv] Reem Bailony, “Transnationalism and the Syrian Migrant Community: The Case of the 1925 Syrian Revolt,” Mashriq and Mahjar 1, no. 1 (2013), 8–29; Simon Jackson, “Diaspora Politics and Developmental Empire: The Syro-Lebanese at the League of Nations,” Arab Studies Journal 21, no. 1 (2013), 166–90.

[v] National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 21 (henceforth NARA, RG 21), M1366 Petitions and Records of Naturalization, U.S. District and Circuit Courts of the District of Massachusetts, roll 93, Elias George Khairallah, Boston, 20 September 1918.

[vi] Sarah Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 60–1.

[vii] Dozens of membership records for the Syrian American Clubs of New York and Boston ar housed at the Arab American National Museum, Dearborn MI, Evelyn Shakir Collection (hereafter AANM/ES), Box 1, Folders 5–6.

[viii] Naʿum Mukarzil, “al-Lubnaniyyun wa-l-Suriyyun tujaha al-Khidma al-ʿAskariyya,” al-Huda, 1 June 1917, 3.

[ix] NARA RG 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, M1916 Application for Headstone M2113, Elias George Kheiralla, 22 June 1959.

[xi] NARA, RG 21, roll 93, Petition for Naturalization, Elias George Khairallah, Boston, 20 September 1918.

[xii] Simon Jackson, “Global Recruitment: the Wartime Origins of French Mandate Syria,” in Alison Carol and Ludivine Brock, eds, France in an Era of Global War, 1914–1945: Occupation, Politics, Empire (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 137; N.E. Bou Nackhlie, “Les Troupes Spéciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916–46,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 4 (1993), 647–8.

[xiii] New York State Archives (hereafter NYSA), Records of National Guard Service Man Serving in World War I from New York. Service no. 2883023. James Habib Attara. Boston, 21 May 1918.

[xiv] NYSA Service no. 3728993. Shucri J Baccash. New York City, 22 July 1918.

[xv] Stacy Fahrenthold, “Former Ottomans in the ranks: pro-Entente military recruitment among Syrians in the Americas, 1916–1918,” Journal of Global History 11, no. 1 (2016), 88–112.

[xvi] The party’s cognate in Cairo called itself the Syrian Moderate Party under Faris Nimr, Yacub Sarruf, and Said Pasha Shuqayr. AANM/ES 1(5) Syrian American Club of New York, Faris Nimr to Jurj Khayrallah, Cairo, 1 April 1919. In Buenos Aires, Dr. Khalil Saadih established an allied party called al-Hizb al-Watani al-Dimuqrati; Ali Hamiya, al- Allama wa-l-Duktur Khalil Sa adih: Siratuhu wa-A maluhu (Beirut: al-Furat li-l-Nashr, 2007), 170.

[xvii] Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: the League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2015); Andrew Arsan, Interlopers of Empire: the Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 2014); Carol Hakim, The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1820–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[xviii] NARA RG 59, M367, roll 392, 763.72119/3456, George Khairallah to Frank Polk, 15 January 1919, 2.

[xix] NARA, RG 59, M367, roll 392, 763.72119/3456, Kheirallah to Polk, 15 January 1919, 2–3.

[xx] Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, America Save the Near East (Boston: Beacon Press, 1918), 22–3, 26; Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread from Stone: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 44.

[xxi] Andrew Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative: The King-Crane Commission of 1919 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).