In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Indianapolis was home to a thriving, Arabic-speaking community whose legacy, though not well-known by many Hoosiers, has made a lasting impact on Indiana’s history.
IU’s Edward Curtis, IV has spent the last few years working with IUPUI students to document the history of Arab Americans in Indianapolis. Through in-depth research with community partners and discussions with Arab Americans in the city, Curtis has brought to light the important impacts this community has had on the city and state.
That history will soon be accessible for all Hoosiers when “Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History” premieres on WFYI on June 16. The documentary, which will air at 9 p.m., will stream on the WFYI and PBS apps at the same time. Community members can register to attend the public premiere on June 7 at Indianapolis’s Central Library.
Curtis’s book, “Arab Indianapolis,” will also be available for purchase beginning on June 7.
“Prejudices against Muslims and Arabs play an enormous role in our public life and in our foreign policy as a country, with many of those prejudices based on the idea that Arabs or Muslims are new, that they can’t assimilate or that their cultures are fundamentally different from ours,” said Curtis, the William M. and Gail M. Plater Chair of Liberal Arts and professor of religious studies in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. “But this project makes us face the reality that Arabs have been a part of who we are and have been a part of Hoosier history for as long as most people who trace their roots to Indiana have been.”
Through this project, Curtis and his students met dozens of Arab Americans who wanted to tell their stories, were interested in the stories of their ancestors, or who wanted to learn the history of the Arab people who came before them. Community members shared about everything from how families celebrated holidays to the kinds of foods passed through generations to the activities that took place at St. George Church, the first Arab American congregation in Indianapolis. There were so many stories, Curtis said it became difficult to choose which ones to feature.
“One of the reasons they trusted me to tell these stories was not just because I’m also Arab American, but because they saw early on the quality of the research we were doing on the earliest Arabic speaking immigrants,” Curtis said. “Both recent immigrants and those here for four or five generations were delighted to see that story told with integrity and accuracy. This is their legacy and our shared legacy, and they wanted to make sure it was preserved.”
IUPUI student researchers, including Jay Brodzeller and Ronnie Kawak, played critical roles in this project. In addition to learning more about the heritage of their city, they were able to acquire new skills and were exposed to a wide array of research techniques, including the use of state archives and digital databases, conducting interviews and collecting field data.
“My work on Arab Indianapolis helped me develop as a researcher in ways my normal coursework could not, and it allowed me to connect with a community with which I had little previous interaction, which was a very enriching experience for me,” Brodzeller said. “I learned a great deal about the Arab community in Indianapolis both past and present, which has allowed me to develop a greater appreciation for the incredible diversity of our city. In a society that continues to be plagued with racial and religious division, projects like Arab Indianapolis allow us to highlight the commonalities between us all.”
Curtis’s plans to share about this rich history don’t stop with the June 16 WFYI premiere. To help Indiana K-12 teachers incorporate it into their curriculum, he will design lesson plans around specific parts of the documentary. In addition, he will be partnering with Indiana Humanities on a series of statewide community conversations about the documentary and how it can help Hoosiers think about migration and immigration as part of the state’s history and culture.
“Indianapolis has been built in part through the contributions of Arab people, which I think is shocking for some to learn,” Curtis said. “We need to reach back to our past to discover that we have always been more diverse than we think. Through this project, I hope people will discover that Indiana, when at its best, has always been a place where people from diverse religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds can succeed.”
IUPUI Chancellor’s Professor Paul Mullins from the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, University Library's Stephen Lane, and IU School of Medicine’s Dr. Shadia Jalal and Dr. Mohammad Al-Haddad also appear in the documentary.
Watch the trailer for "Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History", premiering on WFYI on Thursday, June 16.
Description of the video:
[Historic photos of Indianapolis appear]
Every American city
[Photo of Arab American family appears]
[Photo of Arab American family appears]
by the stories of immigrants.
[Photos of Arab Americans appear]
Some are stories
[Photo of boat in water appears]
we know well.
[Video of immigrants appear]
[Map of Willard Street appears]
[Photo of Nicholas Shaheen Oriental Rugs and Linens appears]
And some are waiting
[Photo of Hilbert Circle Theater, Home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra signage appears]
to be discovered.
[Edward Curtis walks down Indianapolis canal walk]
[Closeup of Curtis walking]
[Video of immigrants appears]
a century ago, Arab immigrants
[Photo of immigrants at a train appear]
made the long voyage
[Historic photo of Indianapolis appears]
from a world away
[Historic photo of downtown Indianapolis appears]
[Photo appears with the words “Colony of Syrians, People From the Holy Land Live on Willard Street.”]
where they carved out a place
[Illustrations of Arab Americans appear]
that blended old world
[Portrait of an Arab American appears]
[Photo of two people outside the Haboush Super Market appears]
a new American life,
[Video pans over the top of a church]
Adding to the rich history of our city.
[Curtis walks up the steps of the War Memorial in Indianapolis]
Join me, professor
[A man opens a drawer with historic documents]
Edward Curtis, for a
[Stephen Lane, Curtis, and Paul Mullins look at maps]
journey through the stories of Arab
[Closeup of Curtis]
Americans in Indianapolis,
[Video pans around Curtis]
[Curtis walks in Indiana Statehouse with Senator Faddy Qaddoura]
[Curtis sits with Arab American community members]
where we’ve been,
[Curtis sits with Arab American community members, looking at photos]
what makes us who
[Closeup of food appears]
we are today, and
[Closeup of Curtis, who takes a bite of food]
the kind of community we
[Curtis and community member walk down street]
can be tomorrow.
[Curtis walks in Monument Circle in Indianapolis]
All hidden, right here, in plain sight.
[“Arab Indianapolis A Hidden History” appears]
[“Premiering June 16” appears]