Shifting the narrative: USC professor explores Arab American identity

A medium shot of Sarah Gualtieri sitting on a green branch in a blazer

A medium shot of Sarah Gualtieri sitting on a green branch in a blazer
Sarah Gualtieri received the 2020 Alixa Naff Book Prize in Migration Studies for her book, “Arab Routes.” 
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Gualtieri)

Catching up with her friend in a coffee shop in As-Suwayda, Syria during an early 1990s summer, then-graduate student Sarah Gualtieri overheard a language she was surprised to hear in the region: Spanish. Thinking that the Spanish speakers were tourists and voicing her thoughts to her friend, Gualtieri was corrected that the “tourists” were in fact Syrians visiting from Venezuela for the season. 

Since then, Gualtieri’s interest in the study of Syrian migration, particularly in connection to Latin America, has only grown. 

Her book “Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrians in California,” which explores the growth of the Syrian American community in Southern California and of Syrians who principally migrated from Latin America, was recently awarded the 2020 Alixa Naff Book Prize in Migration Studies in November. Gualtieri, chair of the Middle East studies department and recently promoted to full professor in American studies and ethnicity, history and Middle East studies, has also explored racial formation and the problematic classification of Arabs in the United States in her book “Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora.” 

“Arab Routes,” based on personal interviews and archives shared by families Gualtieri interviewed, also looks to unpack and shift the narrative of what it means to be Arab American.

“A lot of the way in which stories of Arab Americans are told is very standard, ‘Well, they came, like so many other immigrants did, to Ellis Island, they congregated in New York and they spread out to other areas, principally in the East Coast and Midwest,’” Gualtieri said. “All that is true, but I really think it’s important for this narrative to also shift out of that location … and to the West Coast to a site I call the Syrian Pacific.”

While attending the University of Chicago for graduate school where she studied Middle East studies followed by Middle East history, Gualtieri’s initial intention was to research and write about the Palestinian women’s movement. She based her master’s thesis on the forms of activism within the movement, particularly with a focus on activism within Chicago, and later began to wonder about other directions she could take her research. 

Taking graduate seminars and courses in Latin American and African American studies and reading works by James Baldwin including his essay “On Being White and Other Lies,” Gualtieri said the classes encouraged her to ask questions about racialization and power — material often overlooked in her Middle East history classes. 

“James Baldwin writes about whiteness as [being a lie] — that immigrants come to the United States and [they] have to really learn about the power of whiteness — why it matters so much, and the way in which it structures hierarchies and systems of oppression, and immigrants have accommodated [that system] and I began to see the ways in which Arab immigrants [in the early 20th century] … pivoted toward whiteness, claimed whiteness and wanted the privileges that whiteness conferred: the right to vote, the right to own property — they wanted those privileges. And at times, they resisted the claims to whiteness.” 

Interested in exploring this tension and inspired by her engagement with scholars in the Latin American and African American studies departments, Gualtieri wrote her dissertation, which would eventually become her first book: “Between Arab and White.” Based on tracking the “process of racialization of Arab immigrants in the United States,” Gualtieri’s first work is what led to her gaining tenure.  

In 2010, a year following the publication of “Between Arab and White,” Gualtieri began a new research endeavor focused on oral histories for “Arab Routes.” Initially looking into the composition of the Syrian and Lebanese community in Los Angeles, Gualtieri’s research took a turning point following an interview with a mother in Brea, Calif. who recounted her parents’ migration journey. 

Migrating to L.A. in the early 20th century and later residing in Boyle Heights, the mother recalled a woman that her family referred to as a “mother’s helper” and with whom her Lebanese father often spoke Spanish. Understanding the father to speak Arabic, Gualtieri was surprised to learn that he spoke Spanish after living several years in Mexico, working alongside other Lebanese immigrants. 

“It came as a surprise to me,” Gualtieri said. “Researchers are always happy when they encounter dimensions of a project that are kind of unexpected and so that was really a moment where I thought, “Ah, I really have to think about this Syrian connection, this sort of … pathway to and from Mexico that Syrians in Los Angeles, had and, in many senses, still have.”

Along with collecting oral histories, Gualtieri engaged in archival work including repositories, naturalization and census records. However, Gualtieri’s research also included an intergenerational component through a concept she calls an “archival transaction.”

Whereas historians would typically request documents from archives that would be brought out in organized boxes, Gualtieri’s historical research would also involve the families — usually intergenerational — she interviewed in the archival process. Often she would leave with a box filled with letters, documents and photographs and visit again at a later date with more items awaiting her. 

“The archive was really co-constituted; it was brought into being through this interaction I had with my interlocutors,” Gualtieri said. “So I think that for me as a historian [it] was very moving and also exciting to think of the ways in which we can think of archives differently … We don’t have to just be constantly going to these big libraries of these already established repositories; there’s a way in which wecan be seeking out archival material in smaller places including people’s basements, or garages.”

However, her work also took her to exploring archives long left untouched. Visiting an Orthodox Church on Temple Street, Gualtieri connected with a member of the congregation who also served as the church’s librarian. She learned from the librarian that she was the first person to access these records for research, despite various community members visiting the church on a weekly basis. 

“I hope the work that I’m doing encourages, especially younger people, to speak to their elders, to ask them about their memories of migration because there will be a moment in which that’s no longer possible,” Gualtieri said. “I just remember that it’s been an experience where I felt very honored to be in that place, but also a little bit sad in the sense that I assumed that there would have been more use of the records.” 

While writing “Arab Routes,” Gualtieri said she looked to write in a more accessible tone where a “wider swath of readers” outside of academia — where academic prose is common in the profession — could approach and engage with her work. She also looked to “translate to the page” the intimacy she had with the families she interviewed and of the stories and memories — often painful — that they shared. 

Along with accessibility, Gualtieri also looked to capture a more personal register in “Arab Routes” to honor the moments that her interviewees shared with her, particularly Arab American women, and to let their stories frame the narrative of the book. 

Researchers and academics will often bring their own personal experiences into their work, Gualtieri said. Writing “Arab Routes,” she faced tremendous grief due to the loss of her partner  to cancer.  As a result, she was unsure whether she would be able to regain her writerly voice. However, vulnerable due to her own loss, Gualtieri said she ended up connecting with the stories of loss that interviewees narrated to her. 

One of the women interviewees, following the recent passing of her grandmother, shared with Gualtieri her personal journey to understand her Arabness. Born in the United States and growing up not speaking Arabic, the women looked to learn more about her family history during this time of mourning. 

“[The women interviewee] began to explore that dimension, actually gave herself permission to explore that dimension of her identity,” Gualtieri said. “I really connected with her about how mourning, loss and grief […] I opened up in [new] ways to interpret stories of migration.”

In February, Gualtieri held a talk in Doheny Memorial Library on “Arab Routes,” three months after the publication of her book. Scheduled for another talk at Rice University in early March, Gualtieri made the last minute decision to cancel the event as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread nationwide. 

Several months later, Gualtieri said she never would have imagined the state of restricted travel currently in place and where, instead of attending in-person seminars, she would be giving talks remotely to individuals from various parts of the globe. 

“I really miss the dynamic of looking out and seeing people in the audience. Seeing the way they move as they listen to a talk,” Gualtieri said. “As a whole, I would say that the pandemic has really had the effect of shutting me off from the communities that I typically interact with, [with] regard to my research.”

Evelyn Alsultany, associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, remembers the first time she heard about Gualtieri was while attending the Middle East Studies Association Conference in 2002. A graduate student at the time with an interest in understanding Arab Americans in relation to U.S. racial politics, Alsultany attended Gualtieri’s talk looking at the question of whether Arab Americans should be defined as white. This was the first of the association’s talks that involved conversations about Arab Americans and race, Alsultany said. 

As a colleague who read the first chapter of “Arab Routes” before publication, Alsultany said she looks forward to the impact Gualtieri’s works will make in the field of Arab American studies. 

“It’s really exciting that she is helping us understand who Arab Americans are, in these new ways,” Alsultany said. “I have no doubt that in time it will also have a huge impact in the field and how we approach our research and think about Arab Americans.”

Throughout the pandemic, Gualtieri’s “Arab Routes” has received widespread recognition, both on social media and through her recent Alixa Naft award.  

Karen Tongson, a professor of english, gender and sexuality studies, and American studies and ethnicity, congratulated Gualtieri on her promotion to full professor and recent award. Both started as professors at USC in Fall 2005, attending all the new faculty events together and staying friends ever since. Tongson said she’s delighted that Gualtieri was able to honor her book’s “intellectual and personal vision” while working as a professor and during their extensive service hours on USC committees. 

“It’s gratifying all around to hear how much praise she’s been receiving for that book, how well received it’s been by scholars in her field and also really glad that it’s receiving the [accolades] that it deserves in this context,” Tongson said. “I couldn’t be more excited for her, that she could achieve that link.” 

As someone “notoriously shy on social media” and who only created a Twitter account following her publisher’s recommendation, Gualtieri said she’s enjoyed seeing various users interact with “Arab Routes,” even with her limited activity. 

“I’ve seen younger scholars refer to the book and the way it’s opened up new horizons for them in terms of thinking about inter American migration and [about] racial liminality. And I think that’s what someone in my position loves to see is that scholars engage with [my] work and often find ways of describing it [with] a meaning that I had not even seen at first.” 

Surprised at being named as one of the recipients for the Alixa Naff Prize, Gualtieri said the news felt affirming and that she was honored to receive the accolade, which was named after an influential scholar in the field of Arab American Studies. 

“The Mother of Arab American Studies” and daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Alixa Naff is known for driving  across the United States and eastern Canada in her beaten up Volkswagen Beetle in the early 1960s, interviewing and documenting the stories of more than 80 Arab immigrant elders. Collecting newspapers, photographs and recordings, Naff established the Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to preserve the stories of Arabic-speaking immigrants. 

“I like the fact that my book has gotten an award that’s named after her,” Gualtieri said. “It’s a way for me to feel connected to this really innovative kind of iconoclastic work that she did so many years ago.”

Reflecting on her recent promotion to full professor — following years in higher education as a tenure track to later tenured professor — Gualtieri said she remembers being inspired by her professional mentors to follow the route of an engaged activist scholar. Having worked on several search committees for departmental hirings, she also believes she was lucky in gaining a job as a young scholar.

Although currently facing a challenging balance of staying at home, parenting her child, teaching and completing administrative tasks as a department chair, Gualtieri continues to engage in archival work and looks to embark on a personal project to understand her family’s connection to the Palestinian solidarity movement.