In New York With Nine Cents


IT was no easy task for me on the morning of that seventh of October, 1891, to believe my senses when I first experienced that well-nigh overwhelming feeling that I was really in the great city of New York. As our little party proceeded on across Castle Garden up toward Washington Street, I felt the need of new faculties to fit my new environment. A host of questions besieged my mind. Was I really in New York? Was I still my old self, or had some subtle, unconscious transformation already taken place in me? Could I utter my political and religious convictions freely, unafraid of either soldier or priest? What were the opportunities of the great New World into which I had just entered? What was awaiting me in America whose life, as I had been told, was so vast, so complex, and so enlightened? Whatever the future had ‘of wonder or surprise,’ it seemed that merely being in the United States was enough of a blessing to call forth my profoundest gratitude. But my revelry in such delicious fancies could not continue very long. The realization of the fact that my assets were only nine cents and my liabilities forty dollars quickly silenced my muse. My two good friends, having fulfilled their promise to lend me enough money to defray my necessary expenses until I reached New York, could do no more for me than recommend me to Abraham,2 their townsman and the proprietor of the chief restaurant and lodging-house in the Syrian colony. Their recommendation was decidedly flattering, and it was not their fault that the beautiful picture of my character and attainments, which they put before the proprietor, contrasted distressingly with my actual financial circumstances. The forty dollars that I owed those friends being equally divided between them, I gave each of them a note (attested by two witnesses) for twenty dollars, for six months, they promising to extend the time further, if it was found necessary when the notes fell due.

When I handed the notes to my creditors, and we all understood that from henceforth so far as business matters were concerned each one of us was to go his own way and work out his own salvation, a distressing sense of loneliness came over me. Aside from my two companions I was not aware that I had an acquaintance within a thousand miles. I had the name of a young man whose family I had known in Syria, and who was in business in New York, but I would not seek him. My poverty made me feel as if every Syrian in New York would look upon me as a beggar and shun my acquaintance. It was, however, by a fortunate accident that I met this young man on the street the next day after I landed. Perceiving my need, he offered to lend me a ’little money.’ I accepted a loan of five dollars from him, which sum I vowed I would make last until I found work.

But what I was most keenly aware of when I first went into Abraham’s restaurant with my Toad of cares,’ was hunger. My protracted sickness and the lack of suitable nourishment on the steamer had reduced me to a state of starvation. My craving at the sight of food was ferocious. For a whole week, no matter how often or how much I ate, I never felt satisfied. To face such a state of things on a capital of half a franc was by no means conducive to peaceful repose. Soon after I had been introduced to the restaurant keeper my hungry eyes fell on a dish of maamoul — a delicious kind of Syrian sweet cakes — which stood on the counter before him. Asking no questions I reached for one of the cakes and proceeded to eat it, with my eyes fixed on the dish. ‘Fletcherizing’ was unknown to me at the time, the cake swiftly disappeared, accentuating rather than appeasing my hunger. When I was about to reach for another, discretion interrupted the proceedings, and I asked, ‘How much are they?’ ‘Ten cents each,’ answered the proprietor. I reached for my half franc and said, ‘This is all I have.’ ‘Never mind,’ said he, ‘we will let it go at that.’

I turned my back on the rest of the cakes.

I spent my first night in New York at Abraham’s lodging-house, at an expense of fifteen cents. Besides my sleeping accommodations I enjoyed the privilege of doing my morning ablutions in a dark hall on the ground floor, where a faucet gave forth a generous supply of cold water. A large cake of coarse yellow soap, and a public towel which bore the marks of extensive use, completed the appointments. Compelled by the circumstances to practice ‘ plain living and high thinking,’I planned my first breakfast in the New World so skillfully that it cost me only five cents. It was by no means satiating.

Realizing my helplessness while unable to speak the English language, I sought to ‘master it’ on the very first morning after my arrival in New York. I gazed at the multitude of store ‘signs’ with awe. The variety in the phrasing and lettering bewildered my brain. When should I ever be able to read such hieroglyphics? Certainly I must be up and doing. The only English book I could find in the bedroom was a small copy of the Bible, which belonged to one of my friends. I turned to the Book of Psalms and searched for a very short one of the songs of Israel, believing that a short psalm must consist of simple words. By the eternal fitness of things my hand was led to the One Hundred and Thirty-First Psalm: ‘Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.’ My two companions helped me to understand the more difficult of the sacred words. They made me understand that the word ‘haughty’ was pronounced hawty and not hufty; they unsealed to my understanding the meanings of the words ‘exercise’ and ‘behaved,’ and, in so far as they themselves knew, they taught me how to distribute the emphasis over the measured lines of the Hebrew singer.

But my economic circumstances did not permit of extensive search for knowledge. To remain content with paying fifteen cents a night for my lodging savored of recklessness, therefore I went about seeking cheaper quarters in the colony. Some public-spirited countrymen, agreeing with me that a stricter exercise of economy was absolutely necessary to my welfare, informed me that another Syrian, whose name was Moses, kept a sort of lodging-house, ‘good enough for a man in my circumstances,’ and charged only five cents a night. Certainly that was the place for me, and I immediately sought the proprietor. Moses met me with a cordiality which made me feel that he and I had been fast friends for years. He explained to me that the chief reason why he provided lodging accommodations over his store at such low rates was to aid struggling Syrian immigrants, such as I was, to get on their feet. He explained also that he managed to maintain his establishment at these incredibly low prices by dispensing with bedsteads, soap, towels and other luxuries, and reducing the lodging-house business to the absolute essentials. And, since I had a bed (my steamer bed), he thought I would be very comfortable at his house.

I felt somewhat disquieted because of the absence of soap and towels at the new lodging-house, but the saving of ten cents a night was very compelling. It seemed to me, also, that Moses’ cordiality ought to be properly valued. Lodging with him appeared to me like ‘personally conducted’ travel. Therefore I hastened back to the more expensive hostelry, took up my bed (tied up in a bundle), and left Abraham and went to Moses.

The jovial proprietor of the five-cont lodging-house led me up a squeaky stairway in the interior of his store, to a spacious corner off the first landing in which stood a bare board platform, which he most cordially offered to me as my sleeping quarters. The fact that the location afforded me no privacy whatever, seemed to Moses to be an advantage rather than the reverse, as it provided me with an abundance of fresh air. I need not fear the intrusion of strangers, Moses remarked, because all those who went up and down the stairs were our own countrymen. Nor need I be disturbed by the noise which the peddlers, who came in to buy goods until late in the night, made in the store below, because I must be fully acquainted with the noisy bargaining of the Syrians. Lastly, in order to make my lot more acceptable to me, the genial Moses added, as he turned to go downstairs, ‘If you should desire to wash in the morning, be sure to let me know.'

Sustained by the sense of honest economy, I spread my bed on the platform and, after casting a comprehensive look at the dingy paper on the walls and at an indescribable back yard, which I could see reasonably well through a small dirt-streaked window, I went out, promising to return after supper.

On my return in the early evening I found that two other boys had secured lodging accommodations on Moses’s platform. It was wide enough for three persons, such as we were, under peaceful circumstances. But my fellow lodgers fell into a serious dispute early in the evening, over a charge and a countercharge of stealing, which led them to intermittent fighting until late in the night. As a fellow countryman, and desiring to win the blessing promised to the peacemakers and, incidentally, a little much-needed repose, I made some attempts to restore peace between them. The nature of the belligerents, however, was such as to convince me that the vigorous urging of my arbitration measures would very likely cause them to unite their forces and attack me.

As I lay awake under Moses’ roof that night I thought of all the good things I had ever enjoyed in my life, of all the poetry I had learned, of the pride with which my breast had heaved as a ‘learned man’ among my kindred. Now I was in the New World, which did not seem to take immediate notice of my worth, tucked in a dingy corner, nay, crucified between two thieves!

I awoke early the next morning with a raging headache and a stiff neck, picked up my bed, and returned to Abraham. Moses was very kind and reasonable when I paid him my night’s lodging and told him that I felt compelled to seek more comfortable quarters. He even pledged himself to be very diligent in looking out for some suitable employment for me in a Syrian store; and Moses was a man of his word.


The Syrian colony in New York consisted in those days of a few storeand restaurant-keepers, a multitude of peddlers of ‘jewelry and notions,’ and a few silk merchants who, although they peddled their wares, bore the more dignified designation of ‘silk-sellers.’ For lack of better pursuits, college men often took up silk-selling as a means of livelihood, which occupation, however, required capital and often letters of introduction to the well-to-do American families. My inquiries for something to do precipitated usually the following questions from the older colonists, who seemed to me to be steeped in wisdom: —

‘Do you have money so that you can at least buy an interest in a store, or deal in silk?’

‘No, I have no money at all.’

‘Do you have letters of recommendation from missionaries in Syria to persons in this country?”


‘Can you speak the English language?’

‘Not so that I can be understood.’

‘How old are you?’


‘Twenty-two! Too old to master the English language. The only thing you could do, and which thousands of Syrians are doing, would be to peddle “jewelry and notions.” ’

Call it pride, vanity, or whatever you please, whenever I thought of peddling ‘jewelry and notions,’ death lost its terror for me. The mere sight of those crude, greasy peddlers nauseated me. Come what might, I would not carry the ‘keshah’ (a colloquial Arabic name for the peddler’s pack).

The period of painful suspense, which seemed to me to cover a whole year, lasted in reality only twelve days, at the end of which I found employment. During those twelve days, when not searching for work, I spent my time exploring New York, which overshadowed my soul like a vast mystery. I made my first appearance on Broadway on a Monday morning. I shall never forget the almost overwhelming impression which that great thoroughfare made upon my mind. The amazingly wide sidewalks were solid streams of humanity. Compared with the leisurely, swaying gait of Orientals, every one in that vast multitude seemed to be running. How limpid and how quiet that human mass appeared! No disputes and no demonstrative bargainings at the doors of those great stores! No shouting, ‘Ho! your back! your side! ’ as in Beyrout. Almost complete silence prevailed, and the stupendous concourse of men and women moved as swiftly and gracefully as a perfectly adjusted and well-oiled machine.

I soon realized that while I was in, I was not of New York. I was afraid to do anything, even to walk freely, for fear of jarring the harmony of the surroundings. The memories of the Turkish soldiery which haunted my soul made me fear every uniformed man I saw. I felt instinctively constrained to stand at attention whenever I passed a policeman. Men wearing silk hats inspired me with reverence. The close resemblance of this type of hat to the headgear of the Greek priests made me conclude that the wearers of the towering head-dress were all preachers, and confirmed in my mind what I had heard in Syria about the profound and universal religiousness of the American people.

Like a newly born babe, I needed to be completely adjusted to the new environment. In fact, it was neither to my interest, nor to that of New York, for me to act freely in public before I was properly trained. I remember very clearly when I went out to post my first letter in the great metropolis. I was directed by wise counselors to deposit the letter in a red iron box fastened to a post on the sidewalk. Reaching the first box of that description, I took hold of a shining handle and gave it a sharp turn. It was the fire alarm. An alert policeman, motioning to me vigorously with his club to stop turning the shining handle, ran to me, and, leading me to a letter-box, pointed out with some earnestness the difference between the fire-alarm box and the receptacle for missives.

Another strange situation confronted me when I visited the office of a New York business man, on the third day after my arrival in the city. One of my companions on the voyage had a letter of introduction to this man from a friend in Egypt, and we deemed it necessary that the three of us should visit the New Yorker and present the message to him in a body. Upon coming into the office building a boy admitted us into a little room — all made of iron — and closed the door. Seeing no open door anywhere in that room I suspected some foul play. What! have I come to the great New World to have a mere boy play such a trick on me? As I was about to seize the little culprit and demand the release of the whole party, the entire room, floor and all, began to ascend. Then I remembered that in Sûk-el-Gharb, Syria, a few years before, one of the missionaries, while delivering an illustrated lecture before our school, had shown us the picture of a New York building, and told us that the Americans have such vertical means of transportation.

During my days of enforced and painful idleness in New York, Castle Garden was my chief resort. I would spend hours on those benches, either writing poetry, generally of a dolorous kind, or studying the many and varied ships which plied the deep before me, or picturing to myself the greater distress which I thought awaited me when my five dollars was all spent. But Castle Garden stands in my memory associated with much holier thoughts than these, for it was there that a spiritual vision came to me unique in my experience. It is, I believe, chiefly because of that vision that throughout my ministry I have preached with unshaken faith and unreserved devotion the precept that ‘man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.’

Feeling deeply depressed and disheartened, late one afternoon, I strolled down to the famous park. The sea and sky were very beautiful, but I seemed to have no share in their beauty; I appeared to myself to be a fugitive in an unfriendly world. I sat on a bench and cast a vacant look on the world before me. I felt very lonely, and longed, as a babe, for my mother. But as the sun began to fade away from the sky, I began as by a miracle, to feel an inward supply of power and courage. The beauty of the sea and sky seemed to have been made for me; I was owner of all that I saw. I seemed to myself for the moment to look upon the world through the mystic eyes of my Oriental ancestors, and see it, so far as a youth could, as the garment of God. Surely the Father was with me. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God.’ I remember with perfect clearness that I said audibly, ‘The God who created me and these wonders before me will never forsake me,’ and arose and walked like a strong man.

Now you have the privilege of explaining this experience as ‘an uprush of reserve energy from the subconscious realm,’ or as ‘nervous reaction,’ or whatever else you please. What I know is that the abiding worth of an experience ranks higher in the world of real life than that of any philosophy about it. From that day to this, notwithstanding the fact that I have often stumbled and fallen, doubt in God’s providence has never secured a hold upon my mind, nor do I remember that I have ever failed to trust that He is mine and I am His. In my extremity in a lonely world, without Bible, preacher, priest, or sacrament, I came into living, firsthand contact with the Eternal Reality.

My very recent friend, Moses, did not forget his promise to be on the lookout for a position for me in some Syrian store, for on my tenth day in New York he sought and found me in Castle Garden, and, with a generous smile, told me of a merchant who needed a katib, — bookkeeper, — and Moses thought I was the man for the place. Realizing that I had never had any experience in bookkeeping, he instructed me not to be over-conscientious in confessing my ignorance, for he was certain that I could do all the bookkeeping that the merchant needed. The customers of the store were peddlers of ‘jewelry and notions,’ who did business on very simple lines, and almost all the transactions were carried on in the Arabic language. If at long intervals some orders came to us in El-Angleezy — English — Moses promised to come and help me fill them in the proper manner.

In company with my beneficent friend I proceeded to No. 5 Carlisle Street, the store of Khawaja Maron, where the position of katib awaited me. Moses introduced me to the proprietor as ‘one of the most efficient bookkeepers he ever knew,’and departed. Maron told me that the salary of the position I was seeking was twenty dollars per month, and that I would be expected to perform the usual duties of a katib. I accepted the offer with gladness of heart, promising to be at my ‘desk’ at seven o’clock the following morning.

Recalling the time when as a schoolteacher in Syria my salary was three dollars a month and my board, twenty dollars, seemed to me a species of ‘frenzied financiering.’ I had always known the position of katib to be most conducive to dignity and elegance, and an excellent opportunity for advancement in the commercial world; therefore I had every reason to imagine that my new position at 5 Carlisle Street was the gateway to riches and honor.


Before seven the next morning I was at the store. The proprietor, who slept in a room in the rear end of the building, was just out of bed and about half dressed. He greeted me very pleasantly, although his appearance just then, and the fact that he slept at the store, cooled my ardor considerably. After lighting a cigarette, he handed me twelve cents, explaining that my first duties in the morning were ‘to go down to the corner,’ buy a scuttleful of coal for ten cents, a bundle of kindling wood for two cents, carry the ashes out and deposit them carefully in the barrel on the sidewalk, build a fire in the stove, sweep the store and the sidewalk, see that the boxes of goods on the shelves were in proper order, and then take up my clerical duties. It was not so much the quantity as the quality of the programme that pierced my heart with many sorrows. Was this what it meant to be a katib? Was this what I had come to America for? Whatever it was, necessity was laid upon me to humble my pride and accept the situation. Did I not consent to the spirit of the One Hundred and Thirty-First Psalm, my first scriptural lesson in America, when I repeated reverently, ‘Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty’? The seemingly menial tasks of my new office came, perhaps, to test the sincerity of my prayer.

I applied myself to my duties as katib most conscientiously. My broom searched the remotest and darkest corners of the store, and, as it seemed to me, made the sidewalk in front of it the envy of our neighbors. The boxes of ‘jewelry and notions’ stood on our shelves in as straight lines as any courses of stone I ever laid as a stonemason. Even Khawaja Maron noticed the orderliness and cleanliness of the surroundings and pronounced them ‘exceptionally good,’ and I was really proud to have it known by every one who came into our store that it was I who put the establishment in such order.

But our store was put to other uses which were not strictly commercial, but which the social habits of our Syrian customers demanded. On rainy days it fell to me to entertain groups of peddlers who sat around the stove, smoked cigarettes of ‘Navy Tobacco,’ and indulged themselves in their simple but boisterous pleasures. At times they would buy a wash-pitcherful of beer and drink to one another’s health out of one common glass. They would offer the leamed katib’ a foaming glass of the beverage, which was invariably refused.

On one occasion Maron offered the store to one of his customers for the celebration of a genuine Syrian wedding. The offer was accepted and our commercial establishment resounded with joy. Other than Syrian dwellers of the neighborhood flocked to doors and windows and feasted their souls on things which their eyes had never before seen nor their ears heard. We seated the bridegroom (the bride was in another building) in the place of honor — behind the counter. Beer and arak flowed like water. The men sang aataba and the women zelaghet, and we all partook of a bounteous feast which was spread on benches, cases, and chairs, while the straight rows of boxes of ‘Fine Combs,’ ‘Collar Buttons,’ ‘Baby Rattles,’ and so forth, looked down upon us from the shelves with Occidental serenity.

My salary of twenty dollars a month did not prove so ample for my every need as I had at first thought it would. Only by the strictest economizing was I able to secure food and shelter and other necessities at an outlay of only fifty cents a day, which left me but five dollars a month as a sinking fund with which to pay my debts and fortify myself against accidents and sickness. I had only two suits of clothing, one of which I reserved for Sundays. The winter was fast approaching and I had no adequate clothing for it. I envied every man I saw wearing an overcoat. Being already forty-five dollars in debt, I resolved that I would borrow no more under any conditions. Compared with the temperature of Syria, the cold in New York was as much of a revelation to me as the skyscrapers. How to keep warm out of doors was a question which I could not safely evade. By the advice of a well-disposed acquaintance I bought a coarse, heavy shirt which, I was told, was made of camel’s hair, and therefore very warm. I was glad to renew my acquaintance with the camel, even though in such a roundabout way, as well as to bear some resemblance to John the Baptist, but the coarseness of the shirt militated strongly against all my ideas of refinement. It was, however, my chief means of defense against the rigor of my first winter in America, my memories of whose blasts remain keen and clear.

Notwithstanding my humble position as katib, I was not long in New York before I began to dream dreams and see visions. How to acquire the priceless privilege of being an American citizen, was the first and foremost question in my mind. I was told that I did not need to be in such a hurry about this matter, but I thought differently, and on November 18, 1891, not quite six weeks after I landed at Ellis Island, I appeared in the Court of Common Pleas of the County of New York, accompanied by an interpreter, and asked to be‘admitted into American citizenship.’ My heart never thrilled with holier emotion than when I assented to the oath of allegiance, ‘that it is bona fide my intention to become a citizen of the United States and to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty, and particularly to the Sultan of Turkey of whom I am a subject.’ I felt such an inward sense of relief and exaltation that my countryman, the interpreter, appeared to me to be an alien. It seemed to me at the moment, although of course not so clearly as it does now, that by that act I had forever broken the shackles which had bound me and my forefathers for ages to the chariots of tyrants, and had become a citizen of a country whose chief function was to make free, enlightened, useful men.

I soon also made the acquaintance of the few college men in the Syrian colony, foremost among whom stood Khawaja Najib Arbeely, the Syrian inspector of immigrants at Ellis Island, who examined me upon my arrival in New York. Being eager to enjoy the privileges which in the Turkish Empire we never dared even to talk about, I proposed the organizing of a society whose purpose should be the mutual benefit of its own members and the advancement of the various interests of the Syrians in general. The suggestion met with favor among the leaders of thought in the colony, and the ‘ Syrian Scientific and Ethical Society’ was organized. Mr. Arbeely was elected president and, to my amazement and notwithstanding my shirt of camel’s hair, I was elected vice-president. It is never an easy task to bind a large number of Syrians together in any enterprise. The oppression under which they have lived for ages has well-nigh crushed all public spirit and initiative out of them. The lifters being the very few, any attempt among them at collective action of any sort is beset with grave difficulties. But our proudly titled society flourished for a time beyond our most extravagant expectations. My deep interest in it, and in what I thought was to be its future, made me eager to serve it in almost any capacity. The subjects of our debates and discussions were large and various. History, philosophy, the good and evil of immigration, the greatness of the United States of America, the superiority of the Syrian to the Irish population of Washington Street, — these and many other subjects called forth the impassioned eloquence of the orators among us, who spoke with perfect confidence and freedom, and often regardless of the facts.

I was expected to make an ’oration’ at any time and on any subject. Being one of the very few in the society who could speak the classical Arabic in extemporaneous address, I was looked upon by many of my fellow members as a ‘real orator,’ and credited with such a wealth of knowledge as would have dwarfed the resources of a Herbert Spencer. My most impassioned appeals in those ‘ orations ’ were for the stronger cohesion of the Syrian population in the great city in which we lived, and the endeavor on the part of our people to adopt the noble principles of American civilization, of which, however, I knew nothing at the time.

The headquarters of our society were established at Abraham’s restaurant. He and his partner Abu-Khalil permitted us to hold our meetings at their eating place on condition that, after every regular session, on Wednesday evening, those of the members who were really interested in the welfare of the society, should purchase at least one plate each of a spread of Syrian sweets, such as wheat starch cooked with grape molasses, rice cooked in milk and sugar, and other dainties, which AbuKhalil served with incredible promptness after it had been ‘moved and seconded to adjourn.’ Abu-Khalil’s anxiety to ‘do business’ during the sessions greatly interfered at times with the proceedings. His customers came in at all hours, until late in the evening, and they had, of course, to be served. While our orators were toiling to round out their telling periods, Abu-Khalil would sit behind the counter smoking his narghile. Utterly unmindful of the significance, at least to the speaker, of an approaching climax, he would interrupt at the most critical moment by calling into the kitchen, ‘One plate of stuffed squash for Khawaja AbduAllah!' Such behavior led the officers of the society to serious disputes with Abu-Khalil as to how he should conduct himself during our sessions. God and Mammon could not be served together. ‘The Syrian Scientific and Ethical Society’ was driven out of Abraham’s restaurant, and after some wandering and vain searching for a suitable shelter, perished.

While the untimely death of our society was a severe disappointment to me as one deeply interested in the welfare of the Syrian colony, individually I had every reason to be grateful for the results of my activities in it during its brief existence. I won the confidence and respect of my countrymen, which seemed to raise the level of my life and make me forget for the time being that I was a poor youth clothed in garments of camel’s hair. After hearing my first ‘oration’ at one of the meetings, my employer, Maron, was so favorably impressed that on the next morning he informed me that he had added five dollars to my salary, declaring with childlike sincerity that he had never imagined that his katib was so ‘learned.’ His breast heaved with pride when many of our countrymen besought me to write letters for them to their feudal Lords in Syria, ‘in my profound classical Arabic.’ A month later he added another five dollars to my salary, promising, also, to give me a share in the business if I would agree to stay with him permanently. Friend Maron further concluded that I was too good to sweep the store, which duty he assigned to a peddler who lodged in the back room in the building.

All that was indeed glory and honor, and some money for me. But after having spent three months with Maron I discovered unmistakably that I was not made for a commercial career. I never could remember the prices of things from one day to another, while it was no effort at all for me to commit to memory a score of lines of poetry by reading them only two or three times. To listen to those peddlers talk with gushing enthusiasm and satisfaction about how much money they had made on their trips, was really painful to me. Being in business for the sole purpose of making money appealed to me very faintly, even in my poverty. The ideal side of life gripped mightily at the strings of my heart. There was no idealism in the selling of hair-brushes, pipes, cuff-buttons and the like, therefore I did not deem it the proper occupation for me.


While in such a frame of mind I was most naturally eager to accept another position which was offered to me early in the spring, and which seemed to me to combine both the commercial and the ideal aspects of life. About that time Mr. Arbeely, the president of our Scientific and Ethical Society, began the publication of Kowkab America,— the Star of America, — the first Arabic newspaper ever published in the Western hemisphere, and offered me the position of literary editor. lie stated that my utterances in classical Arabic at the meetings of the society, and the public spirit which permeated them, convinced him that I was the man for such a position, and he hoped I might accept it.

With difficulty I restrained myself from shouting for joy. Was it possible that I was to occupy the commanding position of an editor, to become the fashioner of public opinion, so soon after my arrival in America? Certainly the supreme opportunity of my life had come; the open road to the realization of my hopes and ideals was now before me. My salary was to be the same at the start as that which I had been getting as katib, with the promise of a substantial increase in the not very far future. I was to be provided with comfortable lodging accommodations in the office building on Pearl Street, and to have exclusive quarters, all my own, as the editor, from whom much was expected. Desirable as a larger income was, it appeared to me to be only a minor matter. The dreaming idealist in me had the upper hand of the prudent and practical commercialist.

The office of editor offered imperishable rewards. It meant intellectual expansion, moral and social victories, leadership of public opinion, and, in this case, perhaps the inauguration of a political movement in free America, which might at least mitigate the tyranny of the ' unspeakable Turk,’ in our mother country. Last, but not least, was it not very probable that by virtue of my position as editor I would in due time be admitted to the circle of editors of the great New York dailies, and thus come in close touch with the highest and best in the life of America?

‘Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?’ Woe to that youth who does not dream on a large scale. My expectations were not only laudable but commendable. I accepted Mr. Arbeely’s offer the very day after it was made, promising to take up my duties in about two weeks.

My exalted opinion of the office of editor and its social requirements made me shed my camel’s hair shirt and buy a real white stiff-bosomed American shirt, a turn-down collar and a four-inhand necktie, ready tied. That was as far as I could go in acquiring suitable wearing apparel for my new office, and it really seemed to me a big step forward in my social evolution. During my career as katib I had shared a bed with another man in a Syrian lodging-house, at an expense of fifteen cents a night for both of us. Our room was possessed of a peculiar type of odor, which neither my bedfellow nor I knew how to modify. When I accepted the new position it did not seem to me that that room was the most suitable lodging for the editor of the first Arabic newspaper ever published in the Western hemisphere, even for the two weeks, at the end of which I was to enjoy the comforts of a more desirable environment. I dissolved partnership with my bedfellow immediately and in a businesslike manner, leaving to him all the bedding I had brought with me from Syria, which had increased rather than decreased by use.

Our newspaper office force consisted of Najib Arbeely, the proprietor, a Damascene; Hbib Patrekian, the publisher, an Armenian; Yusuf Hajj, the compositor, a Beyroutine; and myself. Our journalistic enterprise began most auspiciously. Its advent was celebrated at headquarters by a large company of Syrians and a few Americans, largely reporters. The rooms, which the artful proprietor decorated with rich Oriental draperies, were packed with happy guests, and eloquence flowed no less copiously than beer and arak. The New York papers gave generous accounts of our undertaking, and the warm congratulations of educators, poets, and prelates poured upon us from all over Syria.

I was decidedly proud when, upon my arrival at the office to assume my editorial duties, I read on the door of a small room, ‘The Editor’s Room. No Admittance.’ That was a justifiable and stimulating exclusiveness, which seemed to me to mark the beginning of a splendid career. My further acquaintance with the headquarters, however, tended to weaken my confidence that I was connected with a great enterprise.

Our offices occupied a small apartment, apparently intended originally for light housekeeping. It consisted of three rooms and a ‘kitchenette.’ The proprietor and the publisher slept in the main office, in folding beds which were disguised in the day-time to appear as something else. The compositor slept among his type-cases, Mr. Arbeely’s brother in the kitchenette, and I in my ‘editor’s room.’ Before many weeks the compositor rebelled against sleeping in the ‘type room,’ where the smell of benzine, oil, and paper threatened his health. By the direction of the proprietor he moved his bed into my room ‘temporarily.’ Soon after, the brother of the ’boss’ discovered that it was utterly impossible for him to secure sufficient rest in the kitchenette, which was the wash-room for all the office force, and wondered whether he could not be accommodated ‘ for the present’ in the editor’s room. It was decided by his brother that he could. The three cots which beset my desk behind and before, with their complements of clothing and shoes, were hardly conducive to lofty flights of literary genius. But that was not all. The proprietor’s other brother, who was a physician, would often bring his ‘special patients’ into my room for examination, and request me to ‘kindly go into the other room for a few minutes.’

It soon developed also that my duties as editor had been intended by the proprietor to be as multifarious as were my duties as katib. I was required to keep the accounts, to look after the list of subscribers, attend to a large part of the business correspondence, solicit advertisements, do the work of a reporter, and even help fold the papers and prepare them for the mail, besides editing every item which went into the paper.

In the rather distressing circumstances a philosophical turn of mind came to my rescue. I tried to read the gospel of my destiny in the light of the years, and not the days and months, and to look upon the present difficulties as merely transient. Our enterprise was in its infancy, and as a healthy infant its potentialities were great. The path of success and glory most often traverses swamps and deserts, and those who have the vision of ultimate triumph must learn to endure hardships as true soldiers. I thought of what the proprietor had often told me of the poverty and hard struggles of some great American editors at the beginning of their careers, and often quoted to myself the great saying of Mohammed, ’Heaven is under the shadow of swords! ’ Furthermore, by being obliged to translate the general news from the American newspapers, under the supervision of the proprietor and by the constant aid of the dictionary, I was acquiring a very serviceable English vocabulary.

I counted it a great honor also when I was sent to interview Dr. Charles Briggs, professor at Union Theological Seminary, when he was being tried for heresy by the New York Presbytery. By the aid of an interpreter I ventured to ask Dr. Briggs whether he still believed in Christ. The Professor smiled quizzically and answered me with a quotation from the First Epistle of John: ‘“And the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” ' The interview was ‘satisfactory,’ but I still entertain the suspicion that Dr. Briggs, inwardly, treated my pretentious visit to him as a joke.

With such means of consolation in mind I addressed myself to my task, for a whole year, with unreserved devotion and with the determination of a man who was bound to succeed. No Horace Greeley ever wrote editorials with a clearer sense of his own infallibility than I did in the Kowkab. My objective was no less than to be the disinterested reformer of my people, to whom I directed a series of editorials, brimful of fatherly advice.

Contrary, however, to my most confident expectations, the proprietor looked upon my policy with disfavor. He contended that my bugle-calls to the Syrians to follow the path of American civilization were bound to arouse the suspicion of the Turkish authorities, The Kowkab, he said, was meant to be loyal to the Sultan, if for no other reason, because the majority of its subscribers were residents of Turkey. If Abdul Hamid should for any reason stop the circulation of the paper in his empire our whole enterprise must cease to be. The publisher also protested against any show of antagonism to Turkey in our columns, chiefly because his brother held office in one of the Turkish provinces, and he had written to our office that the least manifestation of disloyalty on our part might cost him not only his office, but his liberty as a citizen. That was a severe disappointment to me. The hand of the Turk was still heavy upon me, even on Pearl Street, New York.


Apparently the course of my destiny lay in another direction than that of journalism. The Kowkab did not make the forward strides I had expected it would. My task as editor grew harder at the end of the year and less dignified, rather than the reverse. Serious differences occurred between the proprietor and the publisher, which led them one evening to a fist fight. Discord ruled our office, and I concluded to seek new pastures outside New York. By exercising strict economy I had succeeded in paying my debts and buying an overcoat (at a fire-sale) and a new suit of clothes. Otherwise I was penniless.

It should be borne in mind, however, that my decision to depart from New York altogether was only in small part the result of my dissatisfaction with my lot as editor. The real cause lay much deeper. The Syrian colony in New York seemed to me to be simply Syria on a smaller scale. During my stay of nearly eighteen months in it I did not have occasion to speak ten sentences in English. We ate the same dishes, spoke the same language, told the same stories, indulged in the same pleasures, and were torn by the same feuds, as those that had filled our lives on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. I seemed to be almost as far from the real life of America as if I had been living in Beyrout or Tripoli. The only glimpses I had of the higher life of this country came to me through the very few enlightened Syrians who mingled extensively with the better class of Americans, and who only occasionally visited our colony.

The sum total of my year-and-ahalf’s experience in New York convinced me that it was most difficult, if not impossible, for a foreigner to become really Americanized while living in a colony of his own kinsmen. Just as the birth of a new species can never take place without a radical break with the parent stock, so the thorough transformation of a foreigner into an American can never be accomplished without the complete departure, inwardly and outwardly, of that individual from his kindred.

I often asked myself, in those days, where and how do the real Americans live? Who are the people who foster and maintain that American civilization of which I hear so much, but which I have not yet known? I have seen a multitude of Irish, Italians, Poles, Russians, Chinese, and other human elements which make up the community in which I am living, but where are the Americans? It seemed to me that in a cosmopolitan city like New York it was well-nigh impossible for a poor foreigner like me to come into helpful contact with its real American families. Therefore I would leave the great city and seek the smaller centres of population, where men came in friendly touch with one another, daily. It had been made clear to me that a purely commercial career could not satisfy me, that I had a deep longing for something more in the life of America than the mere loaves and fishes, therefore that something would I seek.

But, as has been already stated, at the end of my year-and-a-half’s labors in New York, I found myself almost penniless. I had not enough money to carry me two hundred miles from that city. Whatever my theory of the ’loaves and fishes’ may have been, the fact was that I sorely needed them.

It so happened that the most intimate friend I had in America at the time was a young man, a graduate of the Syrian Protestant College in Beyrout, who was engaged by the Presbyterian churches of Pittsburgh as a missionary among the Syrians in that city. Amin sent me a most urgent invitation and money enough to come to him. He thought his salary would keep us both, until we had matured our plans for the future. We were ‘to live and die together!’

Fortune smiled also from another direction. Several Syrian silk-merchants in New York, learning that I was about to leave the colony and that I was in straitened financial circumstances, offered to give me all the silk goods I might want to sell in my travels, ‘to keep me alive until I found a more congenial occupation,’ — for which goods I was to pay at my convenience. The selling of silk, or anything else, was really hateful to me, but the urgent necessity compelled me to carry with me a small quantity of the fabrics. The Syrian missionary in New York introduced me to the noted Presbyterian divine, Dr. David Gregg of Brooklyn, who gave me a letter of recommendation. In compliance with wise advice I went also to Dr. Henry van Dyke, then pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church, and requested his endorsement of Dr. Gregg’s letter. Dr. van Dyke met me very cordially, but felt some hesitancy about giving a recommendation to one who was an entire stranger to him. But I said to him, in my broken English, not to be afraid because ‘ I was very good man’! at which I saw him turn his face from me and smile. Reaching to the bookcase behind him he took out a book of a very strange character and asked me whether I could read that. I said, ‘No. This must be Babylon writing.' Shaking with laughter, he said, ‘It is shorthand.’ He wrote on my letter, ‘I join in Dr. Gregg’s wish for Mr. Rihbany’s success,’ and so forth, and dismissed me with a ‘God bless you.’

Armed with those weighty documents, on the strength of which a man of stronger commercial instincts than I possessed might have done much business, I started out of New York. Upon my arrival at the Pennsylvania Railroad station to take my first railway trip in America, the luxurious coaches seemed forbidden to me. Recalling to mind the rough and dingy ' third-class ’ car in which I was shipped from Marseilles to Havre, I thought certainly the plush-seated, mahoganyfinished coaches which stood before me were not for penniless foreigners such as I was. Failing to find the humble conveyances I was looking for, I asked a uniformed man, ‘Which the train to Pittsburgh?’ Pointing to the train which I had inspected three times, he said, ‘This.’ Still afraid of getting into the wrong car I gazed at the man, who, perceiving my perplexed condition, took me by the arm to the door of one of those costly coaches and said, ‘Get in here.’ I immediately obeyed, and the moving palace carried me to Pittsburgh, where my friend Amin and I wore to seek as our fortune the best things in the life of America.

(To be continued.)

  1. Mr. Rihbany’s autobiography began in the November number. — THE EDITORS.
  2. The Syrians invariably address a person by his given name, prefixing the title Khawaja, or Effendi, on more formal occasions. The constant use of only the given names in the Bible, such as David, Samuel, Paul, John, etc., shows the antiquity of the custom. — THE AUTHOR.