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'Muslims of the Heartland' explores how immigrants made the Midwest home in the early 20th century

Cover of "Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest, Edward E. Curtis IV" featuring map of Midwest
NYU Press
Curtis looks at the history of Syrian Muslim communities in cities like Cedar Rapids, Detroit and Sioux Falls.

When people think of the population of the Midwest, they might immediately envision someone who is white and Christian.

But the region has a more diverse history than you might think, including a strong and far-reaching community of Syrian Muslims who immigrated to the country in the early 20th century.

Edward E. Curtis IV is a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with him about his book, Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest.

Interview Highlights

On the history of diversity in the Midwest

It turns out that my story, and the story of my family was far more typical than I had been taught growing up. It turns out, of course, the Midwest, before it was the Midwest, it was the land of many Native American nations. It was always diverse. There were always many religions, and many languages spoken in the Midwest. And when a large number of immigrants came to our region, they too brought many religions and many languages. So, we think sometimes of the nation's Heartland as affectionately as "flyover country," full of sameness, and it turns out that it's just not the case.

On the resources he used to write the book

There are hundreds of oral histories, memoirs and interviews in the National Museum of American History that I used. And then, what's so important is local librarians, local historians across the Midwest, thought enough about this community to ask them for interviews. And these interviews I had to discover, you know, at state historical societies and local libraries. All of those first person narratives were indispensable in trying to narrate the lives of the people who drive the stories in the book.

On issues of identity today as members of the MENA community are considered white by the U.S. Census

Many of us are working right now to get the United States Census to recognize us as Middle Easterners and North Africans. And I hope that my book plays a very small role in helping readers understand that we have a long history and that we deprive ourselves, all of us, all of us Americans, we deprive ourselves of a sense of who we have been when we try to erase those differences.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: When people think of the population of the Midwest, they might immediately envision someone who is white and Christian.

But the region has a more diverse history than you might think, including a strong and far-reaching community of Syrian Muslims who immigrated to the country in the early 20th century.

Edward E. Curtis IV is a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He wrote the book, Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest.

He joins me now. Thank you being here.

Edward Curtis: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Saliby: Can you talk about your personal connection to this subject? You're descended from Syrian immigrants, right?

Curtis: My mother's family emigrated to this country from what today are Syria and Lebanon, slightly in the late 1800s and up until World War I.

Most of my family was Christian, but there was a mystery, and the mystery kind of starts this book. There may have been some Muslims in our family, and their stories may have been forgotten.

Saliby: Why focus on this time period? These immigrants were not the first Muslims to arrive in America, so what made this era from the late 19th century to a little after World War II important?

Curtis: When I was growing up in Southern Illinois in the 1970s and 80s, I thought of my brown skin as an intervention in what seemed to me to be a white, bleached-out country. Certainly, I was treated that way sometimes.

It turns out that my story, and the story of my family was far more typical than I had been taught growing up.

It turns out that my story, and the story of my family was far more typical than I had been taught growing up. It turns out, of course, the Midwest, before it was the Midwest, it was the land of many Native American nations. It was always diverse. There were always many religions and many languages spoken in the Midwest.

And when a large number of immigrants came to our region, they too brought many religions and many languages. So, we think sometimes of the nation's Heartland as affectionately as "flyover country," full of sameness, and it turns out that it's just not the case.

We think sometimes of the nation's Heartland as affectionately as "flyover country," full of sameness, and it turns out that it's just not the case.

Saliby: Was writing this book, in any way, healing from your childhood? You know, talking about feeling very out of place, but now to learn about this history, the roots of this Syrian community in the U.S.?

Curtis: You're right that I did feel very alienated, in some ways, from the place I grew up.

But as I visited the graves of these Syrian ancestors, as I read their stories, as I went to the places where they used to live or I saw those on a map that you know, because sometimes they're no longer available, I did feel more connected to the region than I ever have felt before. I felt more determined to not allow others to take that feeling of connection away from me.

Saliby: You mentioned these people's stories. A lot of the content of your book is centered on these first-person interviews with these immigrants and their children done later in their lives, kind of reflecting back on their growing up and their immigration stories.

Can you talk about your process to find these resources? Because it's so clear, these people's stories.

Curtis: A number of readers have commented on that already asking, "Where did you find this detail? I mean, sometimes you've got what they ate for lunch, what they wore, what they live...?"

As much as possible, I wanted to write a character-driven history that would allow readers to imagine being there with the various major characters of the book.

As much as possible, I wanted to write a character-driven history that would allow readers to imagine being there with the various major characters of the book. And so, it's very much a sort of a story driven by these people and by these places. The places are also kind of characters in the book.

So, how did I do it? I did it like a historian would. There are hundreds of oral histories, memoirs and interviews in the National Museum of American History that I used. And then, what's so important is local librarians, local historians across the Midwest, thought enough about this community to ask them for interviews.

And these interviews I had to discover, you know, at state historical societies and local libraries. All of those first person narratives were indispensable in trying to narrate the lives of the people who drive the stories in the book.

Saliby: You describe Detroit as the capital of the Muslim Midwest. Why did the city become the center of this community in the region?

Curtis: For some people, we look now in the Midwest, we look at Detroit, and we think, you know, well, of course, it's the biggest both Arab American and Muslim American, and those aren't always the same things, but it's the biggest community in the Midwest.

One of the things that my history shows is how, because of the growth of the automobile industry, Detroit eventually became this capital.

But it wasn't always the case. And one of the things that my history shows is how, because of the growth of the automobile industry, Detroit eventually became this capital.

But so many of the characters in the book, whether they're from Michigan City, Indiana or Sioux Falls, South Dakota or Ross, North Dakota, these people eventually migrated from their homesteads or from their homes in towns across the Midwest to Detroit for economic opportunity, generally, during the 1920s and 1930s. They were far more far flung out across the region before World War I.

Saliby: I want to end on kind of a big question. At the time, many of these immigrants pushed to be identified as white, like other ethnic groups, including Italians and the Irish, because it meant they could increase their social standing and become citizens.

I find it interesting today that on the U.S. Census, there is no box for people from the Middle East and North Africa to check. So, they do have to identify as white, and their needs as a community aren't as defined because they're part of a way bigger group of people.

Do you have any thoughts on how these issues of identity have changed, you know, over the past century, from the 1920s to now the 2020s?

Curtis: You're exactly right. You know, honestly, our ancestors got what they wanted. They wanted to be white [laughs], want to be classified legally as white, and now the United States Census classifies them as white.

But one of the sort of ending notes in my book, which concludes in the 1950s, is that the problem is that the whiteness of Arab people is very unstable. And after 9/11 in particular, we see how even political whiteness, that is the ability to be a full citizen of the United States, can be taken away at a moment's notice. And it certainly can be affected by also popular vigilante violence.

I hope that my book plays a very small role in helping readers understand that we have a long history and that we deprive ourselves, all of us, all of us Americans, we deprive ourselves of a sense of who we have been when we try to erase those differences.

So, that is a problem that has to be overcome. Many of us are working right now to get the United States Census to recognize us as Middle Easterners and North Africans.

And I hope that my book plays a very small role in helping readers understand that we have a long history and that we deprive ourselves, all of us, all of us Americans, we deprive ourselves of a sense of who we have been when we try to erase those differences.

Saliby: Edward Curtis is the author of Muslims of the Heartland. Thank you for joining me.

Curtis: My pleasure.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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