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As anyone who has studied the history of the South knows, racial hostility was ubiquitous across the Mississippi Delta throughout the hundred years following the Civil War. But contrary to the dominant narrative, conflict there was not purely limited to the relationships between blacks and whites. As Haseeb George Abraham, a Lebanese peddler who immigrated to the Mississippi Delta in 1885, discovered, those who came to the Delta from elsewhere had to learn the customs of the region before they were accepted into the social culture there. Gregory Thomas of Vicksburg describes how his great-grandfather traveled across the region peddling his wares, once unintentionally asking a lady on a Delta plantation to "sleep with him," instead of asking if she could provide shelter for the night. Knowing little English, he soon found himself upon the back of a horse with a noose around his neck, prepared for his hanging. Only when another Lebanese man came along and inquired as to what had happened was the mistake made clear and Abraham's life spared.1
Haseeb Abraham's experience provided him a crash course in the ways of the Delta. Generally, itinerant peddling gave immigrants the opportunity to gradually learn and adapt to the prevailing social customs of the South, including its stringent social codes and harsh judicial practices. Interactions with rural farmers and, occasionally, townsfolk gave peddlers the chance to view the culture as somewhat passive observers in the sense that they were perpetually "passing through."
In 1892, Commour Ellis immigrated to New London, Connecticut, from Mount Lebanon, Syria, with sons George and Michael. In 1901, she and her five sons moved to Meridian, Mississippi, where they joined her brother. Seven years later, the family moved to Port Gibson, Mississippi, where they opened a mercantile business on Main Street. Commour Ellis and sons (left to right) James, George, Michael, and Sam. (Commour's son John is not pictured.) Courtesy of the author.
Moving to the Mississippi Delta
Between the 1880s and the end of World War I, a combination of famines, epidemics, extreme poverty, and religious and political genocide led to more than 100,000 deaths in the Mount Lebanon region of Ottoman Empire-controlled Syria. During that same period, over 100,000 Lebanese residents of the predominantly Christian region participated in a mass migration that scattered them across the globe to places such as Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. While most of these Lebanese citizens intended to emigrate only until conditions at home had improved, many eventually realized that the life of an emigrant in the United States was preferable to that on what was commonly known as "the Mountain." Ironically, many Lebanese fleeing hardship and oppression found themselves in Mississippi, settling in the caste-based, Jim Crow Delta, where they were considered neither black nor white. These Lebanese immigrants—mostly male—found work peddling wares to blacks and whites across the Delta, forming close economic bonds in and with black communities and hoping one day to assimilate into the economically and socially dominant white community—all while retaining vital elements of their own cultural heritage.2
For decades, observers from within and beyond the mostly rural Mississippi [End Page 36] Delta have chiefly defined the region as a black/white dichotomy that consisted primarily of planter-class and poor whites, and slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-impoverished blacks. William Alexander Percy furthered that notion in his 1941 autobiography Lanterns on the Levee:
[T]he cloth of the Delta population—as of the whole South—is built of three dissimilar threads and only three. First were the old slave holders, the landed gentry, the governing class; though they have gone, they were not sterile; they have their descendants, whose evaluation of life approximates theirs. Second were the poor whites, who owned no slaves, whose manual labor lost its dignity from being in competition with slave labor, who worked their small unproductive holding ignored by the gentry, despised by the slaves. Third were the Negroes.3
The reality, however, is that the region has long...
Lebanese emigration to the american continent witnessed in the first and second decades of the XXth century a lot of evolution. At first, emigration was achieved randomly and quickly without any study or farsightedness... The immigrant didn't care about the place where he would establish as much as he cared about getting rid of the poverty and injustice from which he suffered in his own country. In other words, the Baabdati was satisfied to stay in a place where there were reasonable working conditions, where he could make some profit and send a part of it to his family. As for the rest, he would keep it to form a capital he might take with him if one day he decides to go back to his country and birthplace.
As we already mentioned, the causes and motives of the lebanese emigration apply in general on the Baabdati emigration. However, there are specific causes and factors that encouraged the emigration of the lebanese to some countries more than others.
The first lebanese emigration was towards the american continent. The initial lebanese immigrants worked in trade unlike their main source of living in Lebanon that was based on agriculture. They became ambulant sellers, "tujjar al-Kasheh", known in Brazil as mascate, in the Unites States as peddlers. The word "Kasheh" in the portuguese language means box. The lebanese immigrants counted on peddling because it didn't demand any experience, education, capital or developed language skills. It also brought quick revenue, independence in movement and it's a freelance work that doesn't have any schedule. The equipment is a wooden box that weighs sometimes up to 50 kilograms carried on the back of the seller. The latter walks with it long distances starting from dawn till sunset. They put some necessary tools in the box such as threads, needles, pins, socks, soap, cigarettes, combs, mirrors, perfumes, underwear, textile, ready-to-wear clothes... that they sold in the city streets or rural areas.
The lebanese were also known as the "credit turks" because they sold their merchandise on credit. They were also called in some areas the "percussion makers" because the wooden meter that they used for the textile looked like a hammer constituted of two pieces of wood linked with a leather cord. When they hit each other, the two pieces made a noise sounding like "trac trac" announcing the arrival of the ambulant seller.
The peddlers started their work very early in the morning. They crossed the roads and streets looking for houses in the heat, cold or under the rain. They carried with them some bread, cheese and a banana to have the only meal they could afford during the day. They went from East to West, North to South, passed by the suburbs, the internal cities, the farms, the woods and the distant plains. They walked on muddy roads where it was difficult to go on foot or on the back of a horse or a mule.
Those who chose emigration faced a lot of dangers including the rough areas, bandits and wild animals. They faced hunger, homelessness or stayed in the barns or on the wet grass. They suffered from exhaustion and dryness of the throat. Their feet chapped from walking long distances in rough lands. Thieves attacked them, they lost their road companions and hundreds of doors were shut in their faces. They were insulted, obliged to escape from the guns of the farmers that were pointed at them or from the enraged dogs that chased them... However, as they always did, they knew how to be patient and wisely overcome their difficulties counting on the knowledge some of them earned from the traditions of the country.
Peddling paved the way for a better life. Later, they opened shops in many places and slowly started to become famous. They succeeded in different fields such as industry, agriculture, politics, business, medicine, law, sciences, engineering, stock exchange, literature and others and reached very important and high posts that confirmed how distinguished they are.