Alixa Naff, an early and pioneering historian who documented the lives of the first wave of Arab-American immigrants a century ago, died June 1 at her home in Mitchellville, Md., after a brief illness. She was 93.
Naff was born September 15, 1919 in Rashayya al-Wadi, a village in what today is Lebanon and immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was a toddler. She is perhaps best known for a large collection of oral histories and artifacts that she donated to the Smithsonian and which is available for scholarly research at the National Museum of American History.
The collection, named for her parents Faris and Yamna Naff, contains more than 2,000 photos, 450 oral histories and 500 artifacts such as personal and household goods. “Through her research, Alixa Naff greatly contributed to the understanding of the early Arab immigrant experience in the United States from 1880 through the 1950s,” said Melinda Machado of the American History Museum.
Naff traveled the country in a blue Volkswagen Beetle nicknamed “the camel,” to collect the histories, and used her powers of persuasion to convince people to give up treasured family items to be included in the collection, said friend and colleague Rosemarie Esber.
Items in the collection include musical instruments, clothing and even a kibbe pounder, a large stone used to make a traditional Middle Eastern dish, Esber said.
“Her greatest legacy is saving all this material for all the others who came after her,” Esber said.
Her work documented the diversity in a community that was often overlooked by scholars, focusing on the first wave of Arab immigrants, mostly Christian, who came to America in the years surrounding the turn of the century.
“Her ability to tell their story was important in understanding the diversity of the Arab American experience,” said Helen Samhan, a friend and former executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “Even in scholarly circles, the history of the Arab-American experience was often skewed in favor of hot political issues.”
Naff grew up in Spring Valley, Ill.; Fort Wayne., Ind.; and Detroit. Before moving to Mitchellville, she lived for a number of years in Falls Church, Va. She is survived by brothers Tom and George Naff and numerous nephews and nieces.
Posted: 17 June 2013