A People’s History of Photography: Arab American Activist

Thayer & Jackson Stationery Co., Behannesey Brothers, Phares and Kaleel, ca. 1900

At the time of his death in 1955, Phares A. Behannessey was remembered as a prominent Los Angeles businessman and a pillar of the Hollywood civic community. But years earlier, Behannessey was known as an Arab American activist who not only lectured about his native Syria but also agitated against the discrimination of Arab immigrants.

Behannesey was born in Damascus, Syria (then part of Turkey) in 1879, and emigrated to the United States with his family ten years later. His family settled in Galesburg, Illinois, and young Behannessey made his living as a lecturer, traveling as far as Wisconsin and Kentucky to speak about Syria and the Middle East. One account from 1896 noted that the seventeen-year-old Behannessey gave “an interesting lecture on the life and customs of [the Syrian] people…assisted by women of the church in Oriental costume.” This card, dating from about 1900, was probably an announcement for just such a performance, and shows young Phares and his brother Kaleel in native Syrian costume.

In 1909, Behannessey was involved in the landmark legal case, California v. Shishim, which established that Arabs were entitled to become American citizens. Syrian national George Shishim had been denied citizenship based on a U.S. Department of Justice ruling that excluded “nonwhites.” Behannesesey rallied the Los Angeles Arab community around this civil rights issue, and gathered copious scientific and cultural evidence to help prove that Syrians—and indeed all Arabs—are in fact Caucasians. The legal decision in favor of Shishim formed the basis upon which all other states subsequently ruled that “Lebanese, Syrians, and all Arabs” were eligible for full U.S. citizenship.

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One Response to A People’s History of Photography: Arab American Activist

  1. Pingback: Dusting Off: Spicy Backlogs | Nate Graham: Spicybiscotti

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