Delta Lebanese

The first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants to the Mississippi Delta began in the 1880s and continued through the 1920s. They came from the Mount Lebanon region of Syria, looking to escape religious and political persecution and make better lives for their families in America.

Instead of arriving as agricultural laborers like the Chinese and Italians did, these immigrants quickly established themselves as members of the merchant class, peddling dry goods and sundries to tenant families, both black and white, throughout the rural Delta. Most started out with a small suitcase of goods to peddle. As they established customers, they graduated to selling from horse-drawn wagons. For some, horse and wagon sales gave way to brick-and-mortar businesses.

As more Syrian immigrants made their way to the Delta, they formed social clubs, cooked and served traditional Sunday meals for family and friends, and marked celebrations with music and dance. Vibrant cultural traditions remained intact as these immigrants navigated life in the Deep South.

In 1943 Lebanon gained independence from Syria. Many immigrants from the former Mount Lebanon region of Syria welcomed this distinction and began calling themselves Lebanese.

Today, the Delta’s Lebanese community has dwindled. American-born children of immigrants left Mississippi to go to college or start families elsewhere. But vestiges of their vital culture remain. The tales collected here tell the story of immigration and assimilation. And, of course, they tell the stories behind the food.

Meet Mary Louise Nosser who, for more than 40 years, has helped stage the annual St. George Orthodox Church Lebanese Dinner. Hear Chafik Chamoun tell of how the kibbe sandwich his wife made for him jumpstarted a life in the restaurant business. Learn about Ethel Wright Mohamed, the late stitchery artist, who married an immigrant and documented their life in the Delta.

Interviews

Carol Mohamed Ivy

In 1974 one of Ethel’s memory pictures was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. In an effort to share her work with her new admirers, Ethel turned her home into a living gallery and welcomed visitors to her door. Her children dubbed the place Mama’s Dream World.

Chamoun's Rest Haven - Chafik Chamoun - Delta Lebanese

Chafik Chamoun

Chafik worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, but, like many Lebanese immigrants before him, including his grandfather, he spent years peddling dry goods to tenant families. He eventually earned enough to open a small grocery store out on Friars Point Road in Clarksdale, where Louise often made him lunch: a kibbe patty wrapped in homemade Lebanese bread. Customers began asking about Louise’s “kibbe sandwich,” and soon, picnic tables dotted the parking lot, and Louise was serving traditional Lebanese foods to the people of Clarksdale.

Elaine Daho

At first, life in Clarksdale was difficult. Not only was Elaine a recent immigrant, she was the lone Syrian among a great community of Lebanese. As Elaine puts it, she was the outsider of outsiders. But she managed to get a foothold in the Lebanese community and became a member of the Clarksdale Cedars Club, a Lebanese Social Club. Today, Elaine is the club’s president.

Mary Louise Nosser

Mary Louise Nosser is a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Her parents, John and Effie Nosser, immigrated to Vicksburg from the Mount Lebanon region of Syria (now Lebanon) just after World War I. In 1924 John opened a small grocery store on Washington Street. A year later, he married Effie, and they started a family. Mary Louise remembers growing up in a vibrant Lebanese community, with mom-and-pop grocery stores on every corner and traditional Lebanese feasts every Sunday.

Pat Davis, Sr.

In 1960 Pat took over his father’s cafe. Today, Abe’s Bar-B-Q is landmark restaurant situated at the busy intersection of Highways 61 and 49. Regulars stop in for a Big Abe (a two-layer pulled-pork sandwich with Abe’s signature barbecue sauce), Blues pilgrims grab a plate of hot tamales (an ironic but iconic Delta food), and those in the know ask for the stuffed grape leaves.