Photo courtesy WFYI
DR. EDWARD E. CURTIS IV joined us on the heels of the release of his book Arab Indianapolis and documentary Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History, which recently aired on WFYI, to discuss the film. Dr. Curtis takes a scholarly look at the often-neglected history of Arab Americans in Indianapolis, who have made significant impacts on the region since the late 1800s. He is the William M. and Gail M. Plater Chair of the Liberal Arts at IUPUI, the founder of the Arab Indianapolis community project, and author and editor of over a dozen books covering Muslim, Black, and Arab-American history and life. Here, Dr. Curtis opens up about his Arab heritage, what he discovered while producing the book and documentary, and what projects he’s working on next.
What brought you to Indianapolis, and where are you originally from?
I came to Indianapolis in 2005 from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to take a tenured, endowed professorship in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. It was as close as I could get in my business to a homecoming. Academia is a little like the priesthood. You often accept where you are posted. I grew up in Southern Illinois, where my Arab ancestors settled before World War I. More than a century ago, one out of every five Syrian-Lebanese people left their homeland—driven out by a bad economy and pulled to the Americas by the allure of opportunity. Like so many of the early settlers in Indianapolis, my family got their start as peddlers. The first was Samaha Moses, who hawked this and that to the bargemen, rail passengers, and citizens of Cairo, Illinois. When his partner and son, George Moses, had earned enough money, he purchased a farm where he used to sleep outside during some of his peddling runs. These Syrians, as they called themselves, married others from their ethnic group until my mother’s generation. My mother met Edward E. Curtis III at Southern Illinois University, and I was born a few years later.
What piqued your curiosity about exploring your personal family heritage?
As I was growing up in Mt. Vernon, I felt like an outsider because of my brown skin. Other kids always asked me, “What are you?” They couldn’t tell if I was white or Black. Cassie Moses Saffa, my grandmother, had an answer to that question. She said, “You are an Arab, a Syrian, a Lebanese.” She told me the stories of our people and nurtured me with her Levantine cooking—rolled grape leaves, kibbi (ground lamb with bulgur wheat and onion), and tabbouleh. My Arab heritage, in other words, became a humanizing, reassuring answer to questions about my identity and my place in society.
Did that influence your choice of career?
In a way. Most of my research has been about the history of Black Muslims in the United States and around the world. In retrospect, I think I was attracted to these stories because so many of the people whom I studied proudly, unapologetically embraced their identities as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-Black racism. Only in the last couple years have I turned to researching the history of Arab Americans, both Christian and Muslim. I use many of the same tools—for example, understanding how minoritized people respond to racism—in my work now on Arab America.
How so in the case of Arab Indianapolis?
One of the themes that runs throughout both the film and the book is the impact of xenophobia and colorism on Arab Americans. Some of the film’s most touching moments for me are when one Arab American describes how a grandmother tried to wash away the brown color on her mother’s skin or the poignant prayer of one Arab mother that her kids would not be ostracized like some Arab Americans have been. The film and the book celebrate our community’s success, sacrifice, perseverance, and traditions, but they also tell the truth about the ongoing discrimination that we face.
At what point did you become interested in telling the story of Arab Indianapolis?
I was partly motivated by Gov. Mike Pence’s attempt to ban the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana in 2015. I said to myself, “Wait a minute! We’ve been coming here since the 1880s. Why are we still being treated as threatening foreigners?” But there was another essential step. When I was writing a previous book about Midwestern Syrian-Lebanese pioneers and settlers, I learned some new research techniques, and I practically stumbled onto the local history of Arab Americans in Central Indiana.
What was your most surprising discovery while telling the hidden history of Arab Indianapolis?
Without a doubt, that there was an Arabic-speaking neighborhood in Indianapolis in the 1890s, and that this neighborhood was located on the exact same ground as Lucas Oil Stadium.
You’re uncovering truths and stories for an overlooked Midwest population. Why do you think these are important history lessons for Hoosiers, both young and old, to learn?
Our history has always been ethnically, religiously, and racially diverse. There has never been a time in the history of Indiana when we were all white and Christian. This is not some “liberal” conspiracy. It is the truth. If we tell the truth about our past, we will identify some proud moments and some shameful ones. If we choose to look away from our real history, we will make it impossible for people of diverse backgrounds to live together in peace and equality now and in the future. Our ideas about who we were in the past shape who we can become in the future.
What has been your favorite moment about the release of the book and documentary?
I have now heard a number of times from second-, third-, and fourth-generation Arab Americans how the project has awakened their pride, brought back sweet memories of parents and grandparents, or in many cases, made them hungry, since we feature Arab food in both the book and the movie.
What’s your favorite Arab food spot in the city? In the book you mention Sahara Cafe, Saffron Cafe, Rayyan Restaurant & Bakery, Canal Bistro, and Al Basha.
You’re trying to get me in trouble. I have to remain neutral on this one. The book documents the breadth of Arab restaurants in the region. I am grateful that there are now more than a dozen of them from which to choose.
You’re an impressive person—truly a renaissance man: a classically trained opera singer and a Fulbright scholar. Tell me more!
Thank you. Maybe I just have a hard time deciding what to do with my life. Throughout my 20s, as I was training to be a professional historian and religious studies scholar, I continued to perform as a tenor in classical concerts and opera scenes. What I loved about making the film was that it allowed me to use whatever skill I have as a performer to connect viewers with a community about which I deeply care. I think it’s fair to say that most professors don’t do television and film work, but it’s much easier if you have been on stage since childhood.
You talk so fondly of your Arab grandmother. What’s your favorite memory of her?
My granny, as I called her, would put me in the back seat of her red Ford LTD and take me foraging along gravel roads in Southern Illinois for wild grape leaves. Only the most tender leaves were acceptable. I hated all the chiggers and ticks I got, but I felt abundantly loved during these adventures. Not just by her but also by the land, which gifted us the raw materials we needed to keep our culinary traditions alive. After returning home, I would sit with her for hours in the kitchen as she stuffed those grape leaves with meat and rice or made various salads, always with lots of parsley. She insisted on tossing the salad by hand, and the copious amounts of olive oil she used in her dressing made the gold bracelets put around her wrists in Damascus sparkle.
What’s your next big project?
So many people and different units of IU and IUPUI helped to make the book and the film possible, and I want to make sure that they have as big impact as they can have. I hope to have statewide screenings and community conversations on the film, and to involve my students in that work. I will also split up the documentary into short clips and use those clips to write lesson plans and activities for K–12 Indiana classrooms. Then, I will offer teachers the chance to study how to use those resources in their classrooms. In addition, I am going to continue to research the history of Arab America, knowing there is so much left to discover.