Friday, Jun 23, 2017
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Review: 'Arab Americans in Toledo' is flawed but essential work

If you have the slightest interest in anything involving history, Arab-Americans, or the Toledo community as a whole, you shouldn't think about borrowing this book. You should buy a copy, now.

Actually, anyone who is involved in politics, business, or community activities in these parts ought to own a copy of Arab Americans in Toledo. Part entertaining read, part digest of reprinted articles, and part mini-encyclopedia, it is the closest thing we'll probably ever have to a true anthology of the local Arab experience.

This is a community which, as much of the world knows, gave us Amos Jacobs and Jamie Farr, who begat the enduring cultural icons Danny Thomas and the cross-dressing Corporal Max Klinger.

Naturally, there is a lot more to the local Arab-American community than nationally known comedians. They have also given the region U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary and a distinguished set of lawyers, physicians, businessmen, and leaders like the late Michael Damas, the first-ever Arab-American mayor of Toledo.

Yet even those names barely scratch the surface of Arab-American Toledo, which is one reason Samir Abu-Absi, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toledo, spent years compiling this book. The professor is not exactly a native, though he is in a sense more steeped in the community than many who are.

Abu-Absi arrived in town as a young, enthusiastic, and freshly minted Ph.D in 1968, eager to help build a linguistics program at the University of Toledo. Somehow he stayed, and became more and more a part of the community.

That's a community that he long felt needed and deserved to know more about itself. After the horrifying events of Sept, 11, 2001, he realized there was an even more crying need for Americans of other backgrounds to know more about Arab-Americans.

Actually, Abu-Absi reports that there was a revival of ethnic prejudice more than a decade before that. He found that the 1991 Gulf War "resurrected some old stereotypes and embellished them with new twists."

What followed made things even worse. Hence, this book. The University of Toledo's Urban Affairs Center Press was in the process of publishing books on Irish-Americans and Hungarian-Americans in the city, and it didn't take much prodding to get the editors to enthusiastically commit to this one as well.

Arab Americans in Toledo is far from perfect. While a necessary and at times fascinating work, it could have been better. Abu-Absi emphasizes that this is not his book, but that he saw his role as merely a "catalyst" to bring together "a group of talented and knowledgeable individuals" to tell some of their stories.

They do that, but this book could have done with some tighter editing. The two miniprofiles of Danny Thomas (did we really need two?) give different dates of birth for the entertainer, for example.

The book also reprints a number of profiles and other stories from a series The Blade, principally former staff writer Betsy Hiel, wrote and published in 2000. The stories are mostly excellent, but time has passed, and many are dated or needed some updating.

Arab Americans in Toledo also could have benefited from a chapter that looked hard at some of the pitfalls and difficulties the community has faced since 9/11, as well as one that dealt with some of their heritage who were not necessarily saints.

But it still is an essential book, one that occasionally even rises to the level of greatness. My favorite passage comes from a story the immortal Jamie Farr told about the late Danny Thomas, who once dropped a dime and almost didn't pick it up.

Why should he bother? he reasoned. He was a millionaire. But then he remembered that he was really just Amos Jacobs of Toledo, Ohio, and he immediately stoops down and swoops up the dime.

As for Jamie Farr, "I have tried never to forget that I am, in reality, Jameel Farah of Toledo. I always stoop to pick up the dime!"

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