From Acre to Texas: A Memoir by Constantine Asad Saikali, 1861-1928

21 November, 2023

The ACRPS has published From Acre to Texas: A Memoir by Constantine Asad Saikaly, 1861-1928 (248 pp.) edited and annotated by Taissier Khalaf. The book includes an introduction followed by 20 chapters and 15 appendices based on the memoirs of a Palestinian Christian who lived before and after the Tanzimat reforms. These writings address his family and personal life, his successes and migration, conditions in the Ottoman Empire through the transitional period, and the lives of Christians therein. Saikaly speaks of the circumstances of his migration, of the concerns of life in America, and to an extent of politics, organizations, interim laws, and Arab-Ottoman relations.

The book’s editor Taissier Khalaf came across Constantine Asad Saikaly’s memoirs while look for sources for his novel The Birds of Darwin. Jordanian historian Raouf Abujaber had offered a glimpse at the documents in his work The Saikaly Clan: Authentic Origins in Northern Palestine, writing that he drew on the memoirs for numerous details. Khalaf obtained a clearer view of the memoirs from Abujaber, who himself received them from his friend Michel Sleiman Saikaly. When Khalaf began editing the manuscript, he discovered critical information on life in the Palestinian Galilee and Ottoman Syria transmitted by a well-educated individual who studied medicine and took part in civic activities. Constantine’s memoirs relate the story of the first theatre company in Palestine, the plays shown from 1880 to 1883, and important details about the conditions of Arab Christian migration to America in the late 19th and early 20th century – information not commonly found in Arab migration memoirs from the period.

Constantine wrote his memoirs between 1926 and 1928 in eloquent language representative of the stylistic conventions of the time. Hence, the text is full of structural and orthographical forms no longer in contemporary use. Khalaf largely preserves Constantine’s wording, such as his reduction of hamzas (al-riyāsa, al-rāyiq, fāyiqa > al-riʾāsa, al-rāʾiq, fāʾiqa), his occasional use of colloquialisms (ʿwaynāt, al-fārde, shakhtūra), and historical forms of some words (ghirsh > qirsh; farānsāwī > faransī). The editor explains some of these terms, especially those of Ottoman origin, corrects orthographic and grammatical errors due to haste, and adds punctuation for clarification in cases of what appear to be sentence fragments.

Because the sources of Constantine’s memoirs were his memory and what he heard from his father, he was unable to remember certain dates. The editor fact-checks many of these details, evaluating events Constantine was unsure had occurred and details about his lineage based on reputable documents, books, and newspapers, and investigating locations and historical figures mentioned in the manuscript. The memoirs are followed by two kinds of appendices: reports and newspaper articles, and original Ottoman documents with the corresponding translations. Khalaf observed that Constantine does not use a chronological sequence in his memoirs, instead dividing them into numbered parts of which most have a main heading and sub-headings – except for Chapter 2, where the editor adds a title Constantine had omitted.

It must be noted that these memoirs are to be classified as family history, as exemplified by the likes of Abdul Qader al-Azm and Issa Iskandar Maalouf. Interest in the genre emerged as the perception of Syrian-Arab identity took hold, as a reaction to the idea of Turkish Turanist identity which was imposed on the Arabs of the Ottoman Empire.

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