Beirut on the Bayou

Alfred Nicola, Louisiana, and the Making of Modern Lebanon

Weaves a family narrative into the story of a people, of Lebanon-in-the-making.

Habib Shwayri was seventeen when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1902. Having left Beirut, then a harbor city on the Syrian coast of the Ottoman Empire, only weeks before, he took the name Alfred Nicola on his arrival and made his way to New Orleans, where he had relatives. There, he took to peddling down the Bayou Lafourche, befriending the communities living alongside the water and earning the nickname “Sweet Papa” for his kindness and generosity. When he returned home to Lebanon, he began to invest the money he had made from years of peddling in real estate. After his death, his youngest son, Nadim, turned his part of the inheritance into an endowment that started Al-Kafaàt, an iconic institution in Lebanon that serves the handicapped and underprivileged.

The story of Alfred Nicola, however, like the story of Lebanon itself, begins farther back in history. In its account of centuries of Ottoman rule, decades of colonial occupation, and years of internal political strife and civil war, Beirut on the Bayou weaves a family narrative into the story of a people, of Lebanon-in-the-making. From the Fertile Crescent to the Crescent City, the saga of Alfred Nicola and the Moujaes and Shwayri families reflects the experiences of those Lebanese who walked the path of immigration to the United States, as well as those who stayed behind — or returned — to help forge a nation.

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