Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari
Just ten miles north of Beirut, in the coastal city of Sahel Alma, near Jounieh, Fayad and Margo Berbari witnessed the birth of one of at least four of their children, George F. Berbari, in 1892 (although his WWI Draft card reads 1896). Silk production and juice production fueled the city’s economy in the late nineteenth century and it was one of the earliest cities in Greater Syria to commercially produce ice. Fayad Berbari was a silk merchant. Competition in the global silk markets drove down the value of Ottoman-produced silk and this combined with population growth and changes in conscription and tax policies served as a catalyst to Greater Syrian emigration.
George was a Maronite cantor for a bishop in Lebanon in his youth. By 1910, George and his cousin Manuel followed George’s brother Nicholas to the United States. George was one of 9,200 Arab immigrants who came to the US that year. Nick immigrated to the US in 1905; his sister remained in Lebanon, and another brother, Yunes, immigrated to Argentina. Nick settled in Zanesville, Ohio, where he manufactured ice cream cones and George first peddled then opened a confectionery store. George’s primary source of income, however, came from working as a barber.
George relocated to Massillon, Ohio, in 1926 and he moved to Buffalo, New York, where he met Theodora Ghosn while they both sang in the church choir. George and Theodora married within the year and their family grew quickly. Over the next three years, George and Theodora had their first two children, Mary and Clovis. George continued to work as a barber, but in 1929, the family picked up and moved to Detroit, Michigan.
Today, the Detroit metropolitan area is home to one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americas in the United States. The area includes people who trace their ancestry to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Greece. These communities began to take shape in the 1910s, although some 9,000 Lebanese arrived in Detroit (between 1929 and 1939) at the same time the Berbari family settled there. While in Detroit, Theodora gave birth to a third child, Bernice, and the family resided at 3411 Hendricks Street. After two years in Detroit, George and Theodora loaded the kids and their belongings up and moved back to New York, but this time to Utica. In Utica, Theodora gave birth to Lourice and Sally. The family regularly attended Utica’s Saint George’s Syrian Catholic Church. The rental property at 901 South proved affordable, if small for the growing family. The circumstances which prompted a move back to Detroit seem untraceable, but by 1937 George and Theodora were there to stay. The last child, Wanda, came along in 1937 and the Berbari finally put down roots in Detroit at 3720 Henricks Street.
How and where George picked up the ability to play the oud remains unclear, but he was talented enough to develop a following. Theodora played the piano Between 1941 and 1946, George recorded at least four songs for Farid Alam al-Din’s Alamphon label out of Brooklyn, New York. Alamphon released A2006 Mishtak Irgah (Your finger is thin, your lips are soft), A2007 Mein Allak (Who Told You?), A2008 Albi Ferfakti (I Will Bless Your Heart, With Your Hand), and A2009 Shou Halaib.
Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.
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