Letter by an Arab American Soldier writing home from the Front

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Description

Writing from his deployment with the United States 101st Engineer Corps in Northern France, George Abraham Matook asks the Syrian American Club of Boston to send letters to the Arab American troops in his unit. Before his deployment, Matook had worked with the Syrian American Club to recruit Arab American immigrants for the United States Army. However, after discovering the Club had published their names in the Arabic press, he criticised it for appropriating Arab American troops as symbols for liberation movements aimed at the Arab Middle East.

Context

Born in Boston to Syrian immigrant parents, George Abraham Matook enlisted in the U.S. Army when America entered the war in April 1917. Most of the 100,000 Syrians then living in the United States were still nationals of the Ottoman Empire. Although the United States never formally declared war on the Ottomans, Syrian immigrants were legally exempt from the Selective Service Draft of 1917 as neutral allies of the enemy. That said, Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian Arabs could voluntarily enlist in the Army and could even be granted U.S. citizenship in return for military service. Around 10,000 Arab American men served in the United States Army during the war, and the Army employed second generation Arab Americans like George Matook as recruiters, targeting immigrant volunteers. Matook recruited in the Boston area until his own deployment as an interpreter for the 101st Engineer Corps in 1918. Syrian ethnic clubs in the United States promoted military service as a patriotic act, both as new Americans and as liberators of Syria from the Ottoman Empire. This 1918 letter to the Syrian American Club of Boston (al-Muntada al-Suri al-Amriki in Arabic) references that club’s promotion of enlistment as an Arab nationalist duty in its newspaper, Fatat Boston. Recruiters described the war in Europe as a fight for Syrian liberation and, although these ideas were popular on the homefront, Syrian troops became progressively alienated by them once abroad. Matook’s letter illustrates his own ambivalence about recruiters’ promises: he questions American patriotism of the Syrian American Club before framing Arab American troops as fighting for both Liberty and Syria. Matook requests that Syrian Americans should focus on writing to deployed Syrian troops rather than about them in the nationalist press. This source is courtesy of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.