Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: M.S. Hawie
By: Richard Breaux/Arab America Contributing Writer
What do you do when you find several dozen 78 rpm records all in Arabic and you can neither read, nor speak the language? You research the musicians and record labels and write about them.…at least that’s what Arab America contributing writer, Richard Breaux did. The result is bound to teach you something about Arab American history and heritage in the first half of the 20th Century. Arab America highlights some of the well-known and lesser-known Arab American musicians profiled in this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, M.S. Hawie.
By 1920, over a half dozen immigrants from Greater Syria had recorded for Columbia Phonograph Company, and slightly under a dozen total had recorded for Victor or Columbia together. Whether Arabic music sold well for either of the big phonograph record giants remains unclear, however, by the 1920s, these companies began to record fewer and fewer Arab American and Arab immigrant musicians and independently-owned Arab American record labels like Maloof and Macksoud emerged in their place. M.S. Hawie stands out in Dick Spottswood’s Ethnic Music on Records and in UCSB’s Discography of American Historical Recordings database as one of a dozen early Arab Americans to record not a song, but recitation of a speech called “Goodbye Whiskey” on Columbia in 1920. The recitation, of course, was an ode, of sorts, to Congress’ passage of the Eighteenth Amendment which banned manufacturing, selling and transport of alcohol in the United States. To bolster the power of the federal government to enforce the Amendment, Congress also passed the National Prohibition Act or Volstead Act. Prohibition lasted over a decade and Congress ended it by 1933 with passing the Twenty-first Amendment.
Prohibition’s impact was widespread across the United States and Arab American and Arab immigrant communities felt the influence of this new legislation as much as anyone. For one, most Arab immigrants to the United States were Christian. Even in some small Syrian and Lebanese American communities, like in La Crosse, Wisconsin, oral history notes that some Lebanese and Syrian residents of La Crosse left between 1917 and 1920 to settle in California to become involved in the wine industry; but this resettlement would have taken place during prohibition. California’s wine industry seemed destined to collapse, except the reverse happened. While some wine growers replaced their vineyards with orchards, others doubled down and took advantage of loopholes in the Volstad Act. One such loophole, allowed continued production of sacramental wine for Orthodox and Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis. Furthermore, individuals with a household permit could possess up to 200 gallons of wine for personal use. No ban on grapes also meant vineyards sold concentrated grapes as “raisin cakes,” “wine bricks,” and “wine blocks,” with the idea that Section 29 of the Volstad Act permitted “applejack or blackberry wine on the legal fiction that a non-intoxicating fruit-juice for home consumption.” In La Crosse, all the saloons, including those owned by Lebanese and Syrians immigrants and citizens, disappeared. A number of Arab American and non-Arabs in La Crosse secretly sold alcohol in their converted soda fountains and ran into trouble with the law. A segment of Wisconsin’s population opposed and sought to repeal Prohibition by 1922. Bootlegging beer, moonshine, and other liquor became common practice and local Lebanese Americans like Carem Theep [along with non-Lebanese-Syrians Matt Schaller, John Kubiak, Matt Jacob Meinzer, and three others] received sentences of “a fine of $400) or “four months in the county jail of hard labor” for “cooking mash” in his home in the heart of La Crosse’s Syrian/Lebanese community. Theep and his brother immigrated to La Crosse from Racheya Al Foukhar, a town in modern-day Lebanon, known in the nineteenth century for its pottery and vessel making (Theep was from Rachaya al-Foukhar, known for its pottery making). Theep not only made his own arak, but made containers where he stored his homemade liquor. Federal Prohibition agents in western Wisconsin and their deputies dumped the contents of their bust into the La Crosse River, claimed the local Tribune. What is even more interesting and humorous about this story is that family lore suggests that Theep was, if fact, covering from his wife, the real mixologist in the Theep household.
Undoubtedly, stories like these circulated throughout Arab American communities in the United States. If fact, weeks ago in August 2020, historian Dr. Stacy Fahrenthold, author of Between the Ottomans and the Entente, tweeted a Prohibition-era newspaper clipping about the popularity of “Syrian Alcohol” or arak in Maine printed in the 3 February 1928, Boston Globe. In New York, closer to Little Syria, we can document speakeasies by the score, yet there seemed to be no known or documented speakeasies in Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood. So, what do were know about M.S. Hawie? This is what we could find.
M.S. Hawie was born Melhem Saloom Hawie on 15 November 1882 to Shukralla and Marsha Hawie in Dhour El Choueir, Greater Syria (now Lebanon). He was at least one of eight children. Dhour El Choueir is a town nineteen miles from Beirut, populated by mostly Orthodox, Melkite and Maronite Christians and known as the birthplace of Arab American writer Abraham Rihbany. In the Fall 1902, Hawie left Beirut, docked at La Harve, France and arrived in New York in 29 November 1902 onboard the S.S. La Touraine. After fifteen years in the United States, Hawie married his wife, Naffie, on 30 November 1916. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, Naffie immigrated to the United States around 1911 and she married Melhem when he was 25 and she was 18. This means that when Melhem filled out his World War I draft card in 1917, he had only recently married.
Over the years, Melhem and Naffie moved to various addresses in Brooklyn and Melhem remained more financially well-off than many Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in the first wave. Upon his arrival in the Unites States, Melhem lived at 366 41st Street and worked as an embroiderer. In 1923, when Melhem applied to become a naturalized citizen, he resided at 4509 Sixth Avenue, and seven years later he worked as a real estate broker and lived at 225 Eleventh Avenue. Melhem and Naffie moved again by World War II, this time to 9269 Shore Road. Once an embroiderer and then a real estate broker, in his fifties Melhem ran an import business. Although well-known in Brooklyn’s Arab American community, he eluded press reports related to his life and only popped up in the Arab American or mainstream press on occasion.
Three months later she returned to the recording studio to cut “Yalwatt El Oursi Part 1 & 2″ Columbia E3603, “Al Bulbul Nagja Part 1 & 2” Columbia E3782 “Ha Bibi Ghab Part 1 & 2” Columbia E3783 “Gose Elhamam Part 1 & 2” Columbia E3784 were recorded for Columbia on November, 1917.
The first pressings of Zekia Agob’s Columbia discs appeared on the company’s orange and gold band “ethnic label” printed from 1916 to about 1920. This colored label seems to have been designated for Columbia’s more classical “ethnic music.” Columbia also pressed a more-common green gold band ethnic label. At least one of Agob’s songs, E-3783 “Gose Elhamam,” appeared on the company’s green “flag design” label, printed from 1923-1927.
We should note, that Zekia Agob recorded under a combination of her first name by birth and her mother’s maiden name – not her own married name. We do not know exactly why she or Columbia made this decision, but it was not unusual or unheard of for some singers to record under a pseudonym. Ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson maintains that quite a few Arab women singers, especially in the mashriq, recorded under pseudonyms most notably Umm Kulthum (Fatima Ibrahim es-Saytid el-Beltagi), Asmahan (Amal al-Atrash) and Fairouz (Nouhad Wadie Haddad). A later generation of Arab American singers like Najeeba Morad, Jamili Matouk, and Odette Kaddo, all used their birth surnames when performing instead of their married surnames, although middle period singers Hanan (Jeanette Hayek Harouni) and Kahraman (Olga Agby) used stage names.
Fact is, in the 1920s, while the careers of women singers in Lebanon and Egypt like Umm Kulthum and Marie Jubran, began to take off, only Zekia Agob, Laeteefy Abdou, and Marie Bashian Bedikian had recorded in Arabic in the United States. Bedikian, of course, recorded in Arabic for the Maloof Phonograph company, although she was Armenian, not Arab.
Zekia’s singing paid the bills, but there is no evidence she could support herself, Joseph, or the children alone with her singing career. Joseph maintained silk weaver and, as noted above, Zekia took work as a part-time dressmaker and raised the children. The children found employment as they became old enough to hold down jobs. Also, around the time Zekia recorded for Columbia, the family moved from New York City to 522 Central Avenue in West Hoboken, New Jersey. Joseph found work at Schwartzenbach, Huber Company’s Silk Mill in West Hoboken. The company also had mills in Union City, Bayonne, Hackensack, and Stirling. At some time in the 1920s, Schwartzenbach moved Joseph from their West Hoboken to their Union City mill. The family took up residence at 614 25th Street in Union City.
On the national level, of course, the United States Congress passed legislation to limit the number of immigrants from around the world including the Levant. Arab American communities nearly ceased growing by the influx of immigrants as quotas limited arrivals from the homelands to 100 per year.
A combination of the Great Depression and personal loss tested the family in a way they had not been tested before. Zekia maintained a house full of children and in 1930, her youngest was only three years old. Elise, the oldest child, took up work as a sewing machine operator at a dressmaking company. The family moved to a flat at 357 40th Street in Brooklyn in 1932 and the death of Joseph in 1934 meant that financial pressures forced most of the children to work. Elise worked for a negligee manufacturer, Nellie and Anthony worked as a silk winder and delivery boy respectively for Schwartzenbach, and Rose, who helped raise her younger siblings became newly employed by 1940. Zekia, too, continued to bring in occasional dressmaking work to boost the family’s income. In total the family brought in about $1100 per year.
The few news clippings that mention Hawie make it quite clear that he was not a musician or a singer, but an orator. This explains why Hawie recorded a recitation or monologue on Columbia in 1920 instead of a song. While many believe this to have been Hawie’s lone traceable recording, in the mid-1920s he also recorded a poem on Macksoud #1696 “Weedah el Kamrah.” Also during the 1920s, M.S. Hawie was an active member and officer in the Damascus Lodge No. 867. At one point, he was the lodge’s Junior Past Master. The Annual Sales Congress and Conference of the Diefendorf Agency, part of the Brooklyn Branch of Mutual Life Insurance Company awarded Hawie “first prize for the best three-minute sale talk” in February 1925.
About two decades later, in December 1948, several musicians performed at a benefit for the American Middle East Relief at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, M.S. Hawie, however, recited a poem in Arabic, and others danced or performed in a dramatic play called, “The Tragedy of Palestine.” Nearly, a decade later a bride and groom called on Hawie to offer up a few words of inspiration and encouragement at the reception of the newly married Dr. Roderick A. Comunale and Yvonne Farkouh. Similarly, when M.S. Hawie’s best friend and editor of the As-Sayehnewspaper, A.A. Haddad married in January, 1955, Melhelm stood as best man. Hawie’s international import business and political connections back in Lebanon and other places he did business drew him into diplomatic work. In 1958 – 1959, Hawie served on the Board of Directors for the International League for the Rights of Man, a group that served as consultants to the United Nations. His fellow masons at Brooklyn’s historic Damascus Lodge No. 867 F. & A.M. elected him Chaplain in 1959 as well.
Melhem and Naffie traveled several times to and from Beirut to visit family and Melhem maintained his import business. One of the flights when can document with certainty returned to the United States in August 1961, a few years before Congress would once again transform the relationship between nationality and immigration with the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The new law struck down immigration restrictions enforced from 1921 to 1965 which limited immigration to the United States in a way that favored white northern and western Europeans. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act had limited the percentage of immigrants from each country to reflect the proportion of the nationality in the United States to 3% of that which lived in the United States in 1910; and the 1924 Immigration Act not only lower that percentage to 2%, but moved the baseline year to 1890, years before many of the US’s Middle Eastern, Asian, and Eastern European immigrants arrived in significant numbers.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Melhem’s brother George passed away, but two of his sisters moved to Mesa, Arizona. Melhem’s nephew Fareed recalled a time when Melhem visited relatives in Mesa and the family attended a spring training camp baseball game. Fareed’s mother, Helen Hawie Nader, was Melhem’s sister. Melhelm’s niece remembered him as a kind and generous uncle who was perhaps especially kind to his nieces and nephews because he and Neffie never had their own children. When St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn launched a $75,000 campaign to raise money for “restoration and revocation” in 1960, M.S. Hawie donated $50.Sources suggest that Melhem visited at least one of his sisters in Arizona since the 1940s and they continued to visit each other, and sometimes meet up with their other siblings at remote locations.
In May 1976, Melhem Saloom Hawie died at the age of 93 in Brooklyn, New York. In the last years of his life he was honored by the Damascus Lodge F & A.M. as a past master emeritus and helped in the ceremonies to confer degree on newer members. During that time, immigration to the United States from Lebanon picked up again as a result of people fleeing the Lebanese Civil War which began in 1975. The United States, of course, celebrated its bicentennial two months after Melhem Hawie’s passing.
Our copy of Hawie’s “Goodbye Whiskey” turned a century old as this year marks 100 years since Prohibition began, the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage, and one hundred commemoration of the Pen League (Pen Bond or al-rabitah al-qalamiyah).
Special thanks to Fareed N., Elizabeth M., Stacy Fahrenthold, and Matthew Empey.
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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