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.