Lost lessons from Sumayeh Attiyeh's America

What does it mean to be Arab American? Lost lessons from Sumayeh Attiyeh's America
7 min read

Zaina Ujayli

16 April, 2021
Comment: How we choose to tell our story is a complex matter. This Arab American Heritage month, let's remember our ancestors who tired to do just that, writes Zaina Ujayli.
Sumayeh Attiyeh came the US from Ottoman Syria at the age of 13 [Wikimedia Commons]
If you ask any Arab or Arabic-speaker in America about why Americans are afraid of Arabs, the answer will likely be - because they don't know who we really are. From Edward Said to Jack Shaheen, addressing issues of how Arabs and Arabic-speakers are represented in American media has been a central pillar of fighting against discrimination. 

But how Arabs and Arabic-speakers choose to represent their communities has never been universal, even if the issue of representation is ever present. From think tanks, to Hollywood writers rooms, Arabs across America are continuing to look for ways to fight stereotypes, tell new stories, and represent their communities as they know them.

But today's Arabs are hardly the first to struggle with this challenge.

They say that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it - but you can't learn from history until you know it.

This April marks the first Arab American Heritage Month, dedicating time to honour the achievements of diverse communities of Arab Americans and Arabic-speaking Americans.

The occasion is an opportunity to return to our history, to celebrate our heritage, and I believe, learn from our forebears - especially those most of us have forgotten. And when it comes to the complexity of representing Arab and Arabic-speaking communities, few figures are more fascinating than Sumayeh Attiyeh.

  When it comes to the complexity of representing Arab and Arabic-speaking communities, few figures are more fascinating than Sumayeh Attiyeh  

Sumayeh Attiyeh immigrated alone to Chicago from then Ottoman Syria at 12 years old, but by 13 found herself with just five dollars in her pocket, her father dead, and her mother and six siblings impoverished back home.

Pledging to bring her family to the US and send her siblings to school, Sumayeh began working at a department store and saving every cent she could.

Despite being forced to stop her formal education, Sumayeh was determined to continue learning. She asked the girls she worked with to correct her grammar and carried a little dictionary in her pocket. "I said, 'Where there's a will there's a way,' and I tried to find that way. I decided to read and study and improve myself, and I got books from the Public library."

Chance would have it that, after speaking in Chicago at a Church meeting about the Middle East, her personality caught the attention of members of the Chautauqua lectures. 

After a year, Sumayeh began touring with them, becoming the youngest female lecturer in the United States. By 25, she had lectured in 44 states and earned the moniker "Sunshine" for her optimism on the road:

"She has smiled when they put her in the Hotel de Chickencoop of the little Northwest flagstop. She has smiled as she boarded the 3am mixed caboose with the ranchers, cowboys, and sheepherders. She has smiled in the long waits at the station and kept smiling as she bolted the ten-minute doughnuts and coffee at the next junction". She would grace the cover of
magazines, eventually tour internationally, and was even praised by former president Theodore Roosevelt. 

Read more: Our Arab American forefathers left us a legacy we can't afford to ignore

But for many contemporary readers, how she chose to deliver those lectures may be controversial.

Despite speaking at length about her proud Americanisation, Sumayeh would dress in elaborate Turkish costume, and even pose making Turkish coffee during her lectures. In other words, at a time when wealthy women like the Vanderbilts were posing for photographs in "Oriental outfits", Sumayeh played into that fascination by exoticizing her own image. 

Multiple newspapers report that her lectures were much like performances, designed to be both theatrical and entertaining - and she even prepared for them like an actress rehearsing for the stage.

Attiyeh's over-the-top Turkish "costumes" are perhaps one of the reasons she's been left behind in the archive, while her male counterparts who published in the same magazines, like Khalil Gibran, have been memorialised.

While her costumes attracted audiences to her lectures, they appear to have trivialised her work in the years after - almost giving scholars an excuse to dismiss her as merely a young girl playing into stereotypes for fame. If she were alive today, she'd likely be critiqued by many Arab and Arabic-speaking Americans for playing into racist and Orientalist narratives.

Where do we draw the line between turning our culture into a performance to entertain others, and showing it off to educate others?

  Sumayeh teaches us that questions of representing culture are fraught and rarely straightforwardly good or bad  

Most recently, the sitcom United States of Al was criticised for playing into stereotypes in its portrayal of an Afghan Muslim, but its creators defended the character as a step in a positive direction for representation. In other words, perhaps playing into some stereotypes is justified, if it means dispelling greater ones?

If a young Syrian girl dresses herself in Turkish clothing to draw American crowds, do we criticise her if her lectures, as an Arab editor would remark, would "paint a picture of her native land that evokes respect and admiration?"

What Sumayeh teaches us is that questions of representing culture are fraught and rarely straightforwardly good or bad. Even if Attiyeh played into stereotypes, we must recognise her shrewd agency in doing so. This was not a woman cast in a show to play an Orientalist role, but rather a woman who made a deliberate decision to assume an Orientalist guise to succeed in a goal - one  which she clearly defines in her writing and letters.

writes, "[My work] enables me to do my duty towards the mother country, to serve my countrymen by trying to bring an understanding between the East and West over the radio and on the Lyceum and Chautauqua lecture platforms in my small and simple way; to have Americans know us and see us as we really are; to get them acquainted with the finest and best that is in us". 

And, in the end, Sumayeh fulfilled that purpose.

  Even if Attiyeh played into stereotypes, we must recognise her shrewd agency in doing so  

Left to fend for herself at just 13, Sumayeh would become an "Oriental diplomat" to crowds across America. More importantly for her, she succeeded in bringing every one of her siblings to the US, and put each of them through school. Her sister, Sameera, would become one of the few female poets to write in the Pen League's literary magazine, Al-Funoon. And Sumayeh herself became a social worker for immigrant communities when she stopped her national travels. 

Sumayeh, to me, is a woman who dedicated her life to serving her community, whether on the lecture platforms as a young woman, or as a social worker. While we might look back and judge her methods today, what we can learn from her is the power of choosing to tell your community's narrative as truly and creatively as you can.

To Arab and Arabic-speaking writers who are struggling today to find the words to tell the "right" story of their community, I think Sumayeh would probably advise you to just tell it, even if others may disagree. Tell it, but tell it with the intention to support, rather than harm your community.

Sumayeh once wrote to famous Pen League writer Ameen Rihani that she did "not want vanishing and vain glory, or the flash of fame that fades, nor a fleeting fortune." Instead, she writes that she wanted to fulfill her true purpose, "so I may be able to say at the end of the road I fought a good fight, and won the battle as the famous Roman soldier who died while fulfilling his duty."

In my book, Sumayeh won her battle - though I believe she deserves a little more than a flash of fame - and I hope she may be able to inspire us this Arab Heritage Month to fight ours. 

Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.