Afifa Karam was only 14-years-old in 1897 when she married her cousin, John Karam, a successful businessman living in the United States. John had traveled back home to Lebanon to find himself a bride. Soon after, Afifa Karam followed him to the United States, leaving behind her family and Amshit, her beautiful hometown located on the Lebanese coast.

Amshit, a beautiful coastal town endowed with many archeological sites, was the residence of the famous French writer, Ernest Renan, known for his impact in Europe as a scholar of religion and for his famous book, “The Life of Jesus.” Amshit is also recognized for its educational contributions to the region. It was among the first towns to launch a school dedicated to girls, which Afifa attended until her marriage. It’s in that idyllic setting, surrounded by calm and relaxing nature, that she learned to read and write.

Karam’s passion for education was sustained and developed after her arrival in Shreveport, Louisiana. In her new town, she didn’t have to work because her husband was wealthy. Her situation was unusual at that time since very few Arab American women were educated and the majority of Syrian American women earned their income as peddlers—contrary to societal norms in the United States in that era, where men were usually the merchants and breadwinners for their families.

Consequently, Syrian women who worked outside the home were misrepresented and misunderstood. Nadine Suleiman Naber explains this context in Suad Joseph’s book “Arab Families Studies;” “the way Syrian immigrant women worked . . . to support their families . . . was [considered] a disruption of the American heteronormative family unit,”[1] Suleiman writes.

Afifa Karam spent much of her time educating herself and reading books about American history and culture.

Thanks to her privileged status, Afifa Karam spent much of her time educating herself and reading books about American history and culture, learning to understand and navigate her new societal norms and surroundings.

The young woman was also enthused to discover writings in Arabic within her own community. During this period, prominent Syrian and Lebanese authors like Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Nu’aymi, Nassib Arida, and Ameen Rihani, who were very culturally active, were living in North America, specifically in New York City.

Their writings were featured in many Arab publications such as Al-Hoda—an influential newspaper that was one of the early Arab American publications in America. Al-Hoda was established by Naoum Mokarzel, who met Afifa Karam during one of his visits to Shreveport, soon after her arrival to the city.

Mokarzel and Karam had many things in common. They were both very attached to Lebanon and Syria, which at the time were part of the Ottoman empire, and they were both passionate about Arab literature. Mokarzel quickly “became [Karam’s] most important literary ally, supplying her with Arabic texts and encouraging her to study and write,” according to researcher and scholar Elizabeth Saylor.[2]

Moreover, Mokarzel did his best to introduce Karam to the many influential Arab intellectuals he knew in New York City like Khalil Gibran and Mikhail Nu’aymi.

Afifa Karam

Public art commemorating the “Little Syria” neighborhood of Downtown Manhattan and its literary heritage of Lebanese and Syrian figures like Kahlil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy, Elia Abu Madi, Nasib Arida, ‘Afifa Karam, and Ameen Rihani.

As years passed, their strong intellectual relationship continued. Mokarzel applauded Karam’s writings first as a journalist, and later as a novelist, and was convinced that as he put it, “more educated women [should] be like [her], not afraid to appear in a literary setting.”[3]

It was in 1899 that Al-Hoda published Karam’s first article. She was only 17-years-old.

What inspired the young newlywed to start writing? It is certainly the literary and scholarly context in which she found herself that stimulated her. Karam often traveled outside of Shreveport to New York City. There, she met many Arab American writers and journalists whom Mokarzel introduced her to. Their ideas were progressive and influenced by the American values of freedom. At that time also, American women were starting to gain greater rights. Some of them were active members of organizations working for social reforms and requesting the right to vote. Impressed by their fights and efforts, she felt the need to explain to her compatriots how things were changing.

“The worst kind of women are the ignorant ones who are the disease of civilization and the curse of modernization.”

After 1903, Karam was an established columnist who was writing mainly about women’s issues. Emphasizing the importance of women’s education and criticizing their illiteracy, she declared that “the worst kind of women are the ignorant ones who are the disease of civilization and the curse of modernization.”[4]

Karam also examined the social and economic challenges faced by Syrian and Lebanese women. She defended the Syrian women peddlers explaining that “they are sometimes forced to do it either because of poverty or because they have no one to support them, [or] because they have someone they have to support.”[5]

Afifa Karam

Afifa Karam’s first in print Arabic publication for Arab women in the United States, The New World (dated September 1912)

In 1912, Afifa Karam made history when she bought the monthly Arabic magazine Majallat al-Alam al-Jadid al-Nisaiyah (The New World, a Ladies Monthly Arabic Magazine). On the cover, her name was printed as the owner and editor of the publication. “It was the first time that an Arab woman in the United States occupied this kind of function,” Edmund Ghareeb, researcher of Arab American history, told Inside Arabia. A year later, Karam also launched Al-Maraa al-Souriya (The Syrian Woman).

Unafraid to push barriers, Karam publicized her progressive beliefs in her articles. Born and raised as a Christian Maronite, she promoted religious acceptance. “When I am in church, I worship God. I know my faith and I consider all other religions equally. I am Maronite, Catholic, Muslim,” she once proclaimed in Al-Hoda, according to Dr. Ghareeb.

In addition to being an accomplished journalist, Karam was the first Arab woman novelist and translator in the United States. Her original novels clearly demonstrated her desire to advance women’s rights. In “Badia wa Fuad” (Badia and Fuad,1906), Karam explores the idea that money and wealth are not enough for women if they are not educating themselves.

In “Fatima al-Badawiyya” (Fatima the Bedouin,1908), the strong friendship between an Arab woman and American woman with very different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds validates Karam’s beliefs that when women support each other, they are stronger. “Ghadat Amshit” (The Girl from Amshit,1910) rejects the culture of arranged marriage and aims to strengthen women’s rights in the Arab world.

Karam chose three books to translate from English and French to Arabic, “Nansi Stayir” (Nancy Stair, 1914), “Riwayat ibnat naib al-malik” (La Fille du Régent, 1918), and “Muḥammad Ali Basha al-Kabir” (Muhammad ‘Ali und sein Haus, 1919).

By selecting those particular books, her first goal was to demonstrate women’s power. In fact, the main female characters are capable of fighting for love like Nancy Stair. In “La Fille du Régent” (The Regent’s Daughter), they are unafraid to push against family constraints. Karam’s last translated book, “Muḥammad Ali Basha al-Kabir,” is a reminder of the beauty and the richness of the Arab heritage. By translating the German author Clara Mundt, who told al-Kabir’s life, Karam succeeded in making her Arab readers proud of their history and legacy, exactly like she was doing.

Karam’s last translated book, “Muḥammad Ali Basha al-Kabir,” is a reminder of the beauty and the richness of the Arab heritage.

Throughout her life, Karam remained faithful to two men: her intellectual ally, Naoum Mokarzel, and her husband, John Karam. Her husband steadfastly encouraged her to pursue her career. Each time a book was published, the couple celebrated the event as a new beginning, almost like they would a newborn. The Karams had been deprived of those celebrations, as they were unable to have children during their life together.

In 1924, Afifa died from cerebral hemorrhage. She was only 41-years-old. John was still alive. He did what he could to preserve her legacy. Yet, as years passed by, her heritage was forgotten. Some Arab and Arab American intellectuals knew about her, but she was unknown to the general public. Today, more than ever, we should all discover Afifa Karam’s writings. Then, we will realize that long before others, an Arab woman was fighting to change the role of women in society.

——-

[1] Suad Joseph, Arab Family Studies: Critical Review, ed., (Syracuse University Press), 309.

[2] Claire E.Saylor. A Bridge Too Soon: The Life and Works of Afīfa Karam: The First Arab American Woman Novelist. ed: (University of California, Berkeley), 64.

[3] Naoum Mokarzel, Al-Hoda (July 14th,1903).

[4] Afifa Karam, Al-Hoda (April 8th, 1900).

[5] Afifa Karam, Al-Hoda (July 14, 1903).

Bibliography: Saylor, E Claire. A Bridge Too Soon: The Life and Works of Afīfa Karam: The First Arab American Woman Novelist. ed: University of California, Berkeley.

 

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