Image from NC State Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, https://lebanesestudies.ncsu.edu/awards/scholarly/Naff.php
Arab American, History
Dr. Alixa Naff was a pioneering historian widely known as the founder of Arab American Studies. She not only documented the lives of the first Syrian and Lebanese Americans, but also illuminated the experiences of first generation non-European immigrants whose experiences had not previously been recognized in scholarship. Naff’s work showcases the diverse lives of Arab Americans, highlights their struggles and triumphs, and most importantly serves as the foundation for Arab American Studies.
Alixa Naff was born in Lebanon in 1919. In 1921 her parents, Faris and Yamna, decided to immigrate to the United States. Finding an established Arab American community in the Midwest from their village, the young family settled in Illinois in 1922, later moving to Indiana, then Detroit, Michigan, in 1931. Her father worked as a peddler before opening a grocery store. As the family established new lives, they faced multiple hardships but persevered in pursuing the American dream. Naff would later remark on her parents’ tenacity and resilience.
Naff was an eager student in her youth. Financially unable to attend college, she fulfilled her obligations working at the family store. It was the sudden tragic death of her beloved mother that stirred her desire to document her family’s stories. Moving to California, she worked with her father to complete an oral history of his life and journey to the US. After a decade of employment in the private sector, she realized her college dream when at the age of 37 she enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA in the 1950s. Seeking to learn more about Arab Americans and finding that no such scholarship existed, Naff’s passion and dedication for documenting immigrant life led her to begin the work herself with her own Syrian/Lebanese American community. Encouraged by fellow Arab Americans, she recorded oral histories throughout the US and Canada, documenting folklore of all genres including stories, and pictures, and newspaper clippings. Dr. Naff archived her lifetime work in a collection named for her parents, the Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Naff earned an MA as well as a PhD (1972) in History from UCLA. She taught briefly at California State University, Chico, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, but left academia to address anti-Arab attitudes as a public activist. Naff saw how political events impacted public opinion and individual identity, and she sought to dismantle anti-Arab stereotypes with accurate information. In her later years, she worked on a documentary film funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and continued to advocate for the diverse lives of Arab Americans.
Among her publications are:
Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience (1985)
The Arab Americans (Immigrant Experience) (1998)