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The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2000 that there were 29,518 Texans of Lebanese and Syrian ancestry. Although their numbers may be small in comparison to the state’s population, the Lebanese-Syrian impact on the culture has been profound.
Names of well-known Lebanese- and Syrian-Texans appear in many fields. They include medicine (Dr. Michael DeBakey, the heart surgeon); business (the Haggar and Farah families, clothing manufacturers); and law and politics (the Kazens of Laredo and the Jamails of Houston). And in the arts there is actor F. Murry Abraham of El Paso who won an Academy Award in 1985 for his role in the movie Amadeus.
Their influence can be seen across the state from Houston, where the Antone family has a food import business and where names like Halbouty and Haddad are big in oil, to El Paso, home of the Azar Nut Company.
Lebanese and Syrian families began coming to Texas around 1880 from what were then Middle Eastern provinces within the Ottoman Turkish Empire. But the first Arabic-speaking individuals from that region already had arrived in Texas in 1856 as camel tenders.
Hadji Ali was a young man from Syria who, along with a few Turks and Greeks, arrived in May 1856 in Indianola with a shipload of camels. The camels, part of an experiment by the U.S. Army, were used for a few years before the Civil War as pack animals in caravans that linked the military forts on the western frontier.
Hadji Ali, a Muslim convert, was the son of a Syrian father and Greek mother. He was called “Hi Jolly” by the soldiers, and by that name became an American folk figure. After the job with the Army ended, he mined for gold and silver in the desert Southwest, using camels as part of his work. He died in 1902 in Arizona.
Elias, another Syrian who worked in the Army camel experiment, moved on to Sonora, Mexico. Elias’ son, Plutarco Elias Calles, became president of Mexico in 1928.
The first Syrian family to visit Texas was that of Professor Joseph Arbeely, who came in 1878 after having served as president of the Patriarchal Syrian Orthodox College in Damascus. He taught Arabic to American missionaries. Two of his sons remained in Austin until 1881.
About that same year, Cater Joseph Cater, a teacher at the Presbyterian school in Roumieh, Lebanon, began sending his children to Austin. In Austin, the family name was changed to Joseph. The oldest son eventually opened a confectionary and other sons opened retail stores there.
By 1910, there were 1,125 immigrants in Texas “from Turkey in Asia,” as the U.S. Census Bureau referred to the Ottoman Empire. Another 466 persons had parents born there. The vast majority of them were from the provinces then called Mount Lebanon and Greater Syria. However, most of the immigrants did not arrive directly, but instead worked briefly in other states before settling in Texas.
Almost all of the early immigrants were Christians: Antiochian Orthodox, Maronite Catholic and Greek Catholic (called Melkites), all of whom trace their roots to the Church of Antioch of the first century. There were also some Protestants, mostly members of the Presbyterian Church, which had established schools in Lebanon. After 1945, some of the immigrants from Lebanon and Syria were Muslims who were fleeing the unsettled situation in the Middle East. However, today the majority of Texans from these two Arabic-speaking countries remains Christian.
In the 19th century, Christians in the Muslim-ruled empire were tolerated but had to pay extra taxes and faced some professional restrictions. Also in the latter 19th century, there was unease in Lebanon following the “troubles of 1860,” a conflict between the Druze and Maronites that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Christians.
The Maronite Christians are unique to Lebanon. The name comes from a priest named Maron who died in 410. After conflicts within the Church of Antioch, his followers took refuge on Mount Lebanon. Because of their isolation, these Maronites were unknown to the West until the Crusaders encountered them in the 12th century. Today, the Maronite Catholics are in union with the pope but maintain their own liturgy and hierarchy.
Many of the Maronite Catholic Lebanese who came to Texas assimilated into the Roman Catholic parishes because none of their own clergy was here. Only in the late 20th century did Maronite parishes become established in the urban areas of Dallas, Houston, Austin and El Paso. The exception was the creation in 1925 of St. George Maronite Church in San Antonio.
The Antiochian Orthodox (sometimes called Syrian Orthodox), on the other hand, began to establish churches in Texas much earlier. Galveston’s Sts. Constantine and Helen Church was founded in 1895 mainly by Serbians and Greeks, but it also had a few Syrians among the parishioners. The first Antiochian Orthodox church, St. Michael’s, was formed in Beaumont in 1907. Other Antiochian Orthodox churches followed in Austin, Houston, Corpus Christi and El Paso.
In smaller Texas cities, some of the immigrants joined Episcopalian, Methodist or other Protestant churches.
Although the Christian identity within a Muslim empire was one catalyst for emigration to the West, the principal reason was the lack of economic opportunity in the old societies.
The Middle East’s central location had contributed to a tradition of trade, dating back to the time of the Phoenicians. Thus, many of the first Lebanese and Syrians in Texas began making their livelihood here as itinerant peddlers and traversed the state from Canadian in the Panhandle to Del Rio on the Rio Grande and Tyler in East Texas.
These enterprising and adaptable merchants, who have also been described as clannish, soon had relatives joining them to create the first Lebanese and Syrian communities within Texas cities. The second and third generations then began moving into the fields of law, education and oil exploration.
Social Clubs and Festivals
The close-knit communities, mostly in urban areas, began to form social and benevolent organizations. The Jamails of Houston, the largest clan, formed the United Jamail Club in 1890, which in turn became part of the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese Clubs.
The Southern Federation was founded in 1931 and held its first convention in Beaumont in 1932. Besides serving to tie together all the various clubs in each city, the federation began to help the most recent immigrants from Syria and Lebanon and to provide scholarships to young people of the ethnic community.
Since the 1960s, it also has been contributing to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Other ethnic organizations include the Cedars of Lebanon Clubs in Austin, Waco and Tyler, and various women’s clubs throughout the state.
Also, the clubs provided a way to celebrate and to preserve the traditional food, dances and customs of the Syrians and Lebanese. Most of the clubs have annual gatherings called sahrias where delicacies are served, including Arabic bread, tahini (a paste made of sesame seeds), baklava pastries, and kibbe, a kind of meatloaf.
The traditional circle dance, dabke, is also part of the festivities. Music is provided by small bands made up of a lute, called an oud, a hand drum, or derbukki, and the tambourine.
These same customs of music, dance and food are celebrated with other Texans at annual festivals put on by community churches. They include:
• Austin — St. Elias Orthodox Church, Mediterranean Festival, second weekend of October.
• San Antonio — St. George Maronite Church, Magic Is the Night, September.
• Lewisville — Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church, Lebanese Food Festival, first weekend in October.
• Houston — St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Mediterranean Festival, September.
• El Paso — St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Middle East Feast, May.
• San Antonio — The Texas Folklife Festival, held in June, includes Lebanese and Syrian food, music and dances.
— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2006–2007.
• The Syrian and Lebanese Texans, The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1974.
• Country of Origin, 1910, U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Commerce.
• New Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, 1996, various: “Lebanese-Syrians” by James Patrick McGuire; “Nahim Abraham” by H. Allen Anderson; “Clothing Manufacture” by Dorothy D. DeMoss; “Farah, Incorporated” by Myrna Zanetell; “Camels” by Chris Emmett and Odie B. Faulk; “Folk Festivals” by Beverly J. Stoeltje.