Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia – An Extract

In recent years, it has been impossible to ignore the resurgence of xenophobia. Issues like the European migrant catastrophe and the crisis over the border between Mexico and the United States have placed Western advocates of globalization on the defensive. The irrational hatred of others, a ‘New Xenophobia’ seems to have gripped people around the world.
In Of Fear and Strangers, George Makari traces the history of xenophobia from its origins to the present day. Often perceived as an ancient word for a timeless problem, ‘xenophobia’ was in fact only coined a century ago, tied to heated and formative Western debates over nationalism, globalization, race and immigration. Read on for an extract from the prologue.

As a psychiatrist and a historian, I usually work behind a screen. However, in this case, that seemed impossible, even deceitful. How could I write a history of immigrants, sectarian conflicts, borders, and failing empires without openly considering how these matters have shaped me? Consider, for example, my namesake.

Born in a Lebanese fishing village in 1877, my grandfather, George Jacob Makari, was placed on an ocean liner with an uncle, aunt, and cousin. He had no say in the matter, for he was only eight. His parents had given him up in despair over his prospects as a Greek Orthodox Christian living under the increasingly intolerant, flailing Ottomans. After mind-boggling days on an infinite sea, he arrived at Ellis Island and was asked questions in a language he did not comprehend. Officials renamed him George Jacob, a new identity for the New World. His little troupe then made their way to relatives in Austin, Texas. For a while, the boy was a street peddler; toughs chased and tried to torment him. Much later, he told his son heroic tales of cleverly outwitting these brutes. A few years later, his younger brother, Mike Jacob “McCarie”— Ellis Island phonetics at work here— arrived. By 1909, the two founded Jacob Brothers, a store that sold Turkish and Persian rugs. They hung a huge sign and lived upstairs. Five years later, in search of more inventory, George booked his first passage back to his birthplace.

My grandfather’s timing was awful. Just as this thirty-seven-year-old with a penchant for Wild West tales landed in a homeland he could barely remember, a world war commenced. Turkish killing sprees against Christian minorities kicked off, ocean travel became unsafe, and in a twist befitting this biblical setting, locusts descended. Allied blockades ensued, Christians were considered internal enemies, and whatever little food existed was confiscated for Ottoman soldiers. Mass starvation followed. Moaning, skeletal figures around Mount Lebanon picked through garbage for orange peels and old bones. Children gobbled up weeds. Some 200,000, a third of the population, died under their barbaric masters, victims of a crime that at that time had no name. Stranded in this whirlwind, my grandfather stepped in to help his family: he took back his last name, married, and never left again.

Born in the same seaside village, my parents came to consciousness after the Ottoman Empire lingered only as a foul memory. As part of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement that split the region between France, Britain, Italy, and pre-revolutionary Russia, their home was now a French protectorate. Lebanon was a multi-religious confederation composed of Sunnis, Druze and Shia Muslims, Sephardic Jews, Armenian refugees, and a mix of old Eastern Christians including Syrian and Greek Catholics, Chaldeans, Eastern and Syrian Orthodox, Melkites, and Maronites. By the time this colony wriggled free of France and declared itself independent on November 22, 1943, it was a nation teeming with heretics.

Though the Western imperial powers had let go, they had not gone. Their competition for hearts and minds drew a line right down the center of my family. My mother, Wadad Tamer, attended Les Soeurs de Nazareth, where the French nuns rechristened her Odette. She began her school day with a hearty rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Her private diary, her prayers, eventually her dreams came forth in a language her parents did not comprehend. A hundred yards down the road, my father was ushered into another universe. Enrolled in British and American schools, his name morphed from Jacob to Jack. By the time he stepped onto the campus of the American University of Beirut, he was possessed by his father’s yarns about Texan outlaws and was known to recite poems about the Brooklyn Bridge, a marvel he had never seen. His father’s death in a car accident in 1938 made the youth dream of that other home he had heard so much about. In 1945, as a young physician, he was awarded a scholarship to study tropical disease in London, then another to Harvard, which commenced his career in American medicine. In 1955, my parents married and formally moved to the United States. They said good-bye to their homeland made up of minorities so as to settle in another, supposedly tolerant and pluralistic place whose ideology was— users be warned— a dream.

Primed to be pawns in a game played out by old Europe, my forebearers discovered that fate had other plans for them. A great tide had swept them up, spun them about in a swarm of shifting identities and disappearing empires, then tossed them onto this shore. Dazed, they landed with a thud on a half-acre lot in New Jersey. Cross- eyed and confused, my sisters and I were raised as unwitting carriers of British, French, Byzantine, and Lebanese quirks, sayings, slang, habits, and customs. We were Greek Orthodox— that is, Christian Arabs— which made us to many a self- nullifying paradox. At home, we spoke a mélange of English, French, and Levantine Arabic. However, outside the doors of our split-level home, Grace, Doris, and I seized our advantage. We had no accents, American first names, and we existed in the then vast middle class. We could make our pasts vanish.

It seemed like the perfect place to blend in. Everyone, save for the decimated indigenous peoples, had come off some boat. Still, my parents remained out of place. Kibbe and za’atar only served to remind them of how far they were from the sensual whorl of that place where they opened their eyes, the one that became their first world, perhaps the only one to be so taken into the body that it could evoke all the safety and ease of that word “home.” Every new day pushed them further from the sounds, smells, and sights that in the beginning ordered their days. I came to realize that they had never truly left those environs where they first blinked reality into being. Do any of us? Instead, the days came with a low grinding loss of who they once were. They talked incessantly of their imminent return. At parties filled with baseball and business chitchat, my father would whisper, “una ghareeb ma hal’alum”: “I am a stranger among these people.” I thought I would become one, too.

It didn’t work out that way. Early on, I was forced to choose. As a young boy, my mother advised me to turn the other cheek if bothered on the playground, but after a few experiments, I determined this was awful advice. I learned to fight back when bullies mocked my mother’s accent. Meanwhile, into my flickering brain came The Dating Game, The Rifleman, Newark riots, Mrs. Walsh reading Charlotte’s Web, Mark Twain, Thomas Alva Edison, Sly and the Family Stone, CBS News body counts, Nixon, the classical heroism of Muhammad Ali, Apollo 11, miniskirts, Farrah Fawcett, barefoot hippies by the duck pond, the Camaro, and Clyde and the Knicks. Most of all, I fell in love with that magical, universal solvent called rock and roll. I affected all kinds of swagger, let my hair grow, wore my Landlubbers low, refused to go to church, and read as if my life depended on it. My parents watched, bemused, at times bewildered. I was deciding whose side I was on. Painfully for all of us, it was not theirs.

I devoted myself to E pluribus unum and harbored a guilt charged by more intimate uncertainties. Of course, I noted the disdain: the Harvard professor who dismissed my father, saying a “little Arab” could never do such big things, or the all-Arabs-are-terrorists logic so rife during A. M. Rosenthal’s stewardship of the New York Times. It wasn’t racism; that term was reserved for the brutal struggle that African Americans fought. And while I was technically Semitic, my trouble was not what anyone meant by anti- Semitism. Whatever. I wanted to get away from my family’s strangeness. If that might be called assimilation, it could also be called a small act of self-annihilation.

George Makari, taken in 2020. Photo courtesy of the author.

When confronted with an application or official document, I would hesitate. I would have gladly checked “late- twentieth- century American,” but no such luck. When “Other” was an option, I happily dove into it. Often, it was not available. Since I was not Black, Hispanic, or Jewish, a confusing array of skin color, language group, and religion, I must be . . .  that odd American category, white?

When I left for college, I eagerly shed these tensions. Frozen in time, I can still see my parents on that cobblestone street on College Hill in Providence, waving goodbye as if from across an ocean. In a burst, I began to write, formed deep friendships, played in a rock band, and fell in love. Then, during senior year, my bigger- than- life mentor, the African American poet Michael S. Harper, in one of his terrifying office hours, stared at me with his wide dead- eye and, clutching a swath of my empty, late- twentieth- century American poems, declared like some sphinx, “Makari, where is your history?” I whispered that I really didn’t know what he meant, but of course I did.

George Makari is a psychiatrist, historian, and author, most recently of Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. He is Director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute and Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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