One hundred and twenty years ago, in the Lebanese mountain village of Freike, a small and picturesque hamlet known for its grapes, figs, and olive trees, lived a Maronite priest, Antoun Mokarzel, with his two sons, Naoum and Salloum.
In 1890, at the age of 26, Naoum – a village teacher and the oldest of the two, decided to leave his birthplace for a better life in America.
Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, with no clear plans of employment, he dreamed of becoming a librarian, journalist, editor, and even a medical student. Soon after, Naoum began to work in a bookstore in Philadelphia. In 1894, he fulfilled his dream and launched an Arabic language newspaper called Al-Asr (“The Age”) thanks to the financial support of his friend, Najib Maalouf. Sadly, the newspaper lasted less than a year, and Naoum decided to embark on medical studies.
Two years later, however, he realized that journalism was his true passion.
On February 22, 1898, Naoum founded a bi-weekly publication titled Al-Hoda (“The Guidance”). The date was not a coincidence. According to an interview in the New York Times with his niece, Mary Mokarzel, Naoum chose that date because it coincided with the birth of George Washington. He was inspired by the American independence from Great Britain and was hoping to see his homeland, Lebanon, independent from the Ottoman empire. That same year, his youngest brother, Salloum, decided to join him in the United States and started working in the same field.
In 1902, Naoum moved the publication to New York City, where the greatest concentration of the Lebanese community resided. “The Arab-American community was very active culturally, socially, and politically. Many publications were in fact created during this period of time,” researcher of the Arab-American press, Edmund Ghareeb, told Inside Arabia. “Al-Hoda was very important because its influence extended beyond the United States to other countries of Lebanese and Syrian immigration,” Ghareeb added.
“Al-Hoda was very important because its influence extended beyond the US to other countries of Lebanese and Syrian immigration.”
The newspaper’s readership and influence grew steadily, becoming more visible year after year. Al-Hoda discussed many topics affecting the lives of the Arabic speaking communities in the United States and called for a free Lebanon. The newspaper covered politics, news, and employment information serving the Arab community in New York and other cities. Additionally, foreign correspondents reported on international events. During the First World War, they related what was happening in Europe, Asia, and in the Middle East.
In his editorials, Naoum stressed the objectivity of his newspaper even as he often defended his own religious Maronite Christian community. Historically, the Maronites Christians lived in the mountainous areas of Lebanon and were strong advocates of Lebanese independence and freedom from the Ottoman Empire.
In Al-Hoda, Naoum Mokarzel, always an outspoken and passionate supporter of independence and political reform in Lebanon, spoke frequently in the name of the Maronites and their relations with other Christian communities, especially the Orthodox.
He soon found himself in political and sectarian disagreement with the Arbeely family, founders of the first Arabic language newspaper in the United States, Kawkab Amrika (American Star), which was published in New York City between 1898 and 1908. The Arbeely’s who came from Damascus were Greek Orthodox and at the beginning supported the Ottoman Government.
Same Talent, Different Approaches
By 1909, Naoum’s younger brother Salloum had established a catalog compiling the names of Arab-American businesses in the United States. In 1910, he adapted the Linotype machine to the Arabic language making it simpler and faster to print in Arabic and he registered it as a patent with the Linotype company. This invention had a wide-reaching impact not only in the Arabic language press in the United States, but in the Arab world itself and other countries with large Arabic speaking communities.
In 1910, Salloum Mokarzel adapted the Linotype machine to the Arabic language making it simpler and faster to print in Arabic.
“The Egyptian newspaper, Al -Ahram, the most influential and longest-running Arabic language newspaper, benefited from Salloum’s invention,” explained Ghareeb. “We can easily say that Salloum was a true pioneer in the field.” Salloum’s success allowed him to start The Syrian-American Press*, which published scientific studies and commercial journals.
Although the two brothers shared the same interest and worked in the same field, they didn’t always see eye-to-eye politically. “Naoum identified himself as a Lebanese Francophone and became the voice of Francophonie in New York. As for Salloum, he considered himself a Syrian-American,” explained Historian Claire Kampa.
This difference can be seen both in the content of their writings and their audience as well as in the language they wrote in. While Naoum wrote in Arabic, Salloum wrote in English and was more interested in the second generation of Syrian-Americans. In 1926, he published the Syrian World, a monthly magazine aimed at the younger generation born in the United States and whose first language was English.
Salloum’s Syrian World attracted some of the best-known Arab-American writers of the time such as Amin Rihani, Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy, and Philipp Hitti, among others. He also helped create social and cultural clubs for their gatherings.
In 1932, Naoum died in Paris while representing the Lebanese diaspora and still advocating for Lebanon’s independence. Salloum took over the editing of Al-Hoda until his own death 20 years later in 1952. His daughter Mary picked up the mantle till 1972.
According to Ghareeb, the ownership of the paper passed to Lebanese-American publisher, Phares Istphan. Its editors included prominent writers and poets such as Youssef al-Khal, Henri Zogheib, and others, until the paper’s demise in the early 1990s.
Al-Hoda allowed Lebanese-Americans to maintain ties with their heritage and understand their new country.
The long life of Al-Hoda allowed Lebanese-Americans to maintain ties with their heritage and understand their role and responsibilities to their new country. It also shed light on the Arab world for American readers.
The brothers were both buried in their native village of Freike on Mount Lebanon, 20 km from Beirut. The small community is ever so proud today of the rich contributions of the Mokarzel’s to the world. In the United States, the Lebanese and Syrian communities still remember in a nostalgic way the Mokarzel’s as Arab pioneers and true modern men.
*Author’s note: At the time, the Lebanese and Syrian populations were both called “Syrians” in the United States because both countries were known as Ottoman Syria and subjects of the Ottoman Empire.