LET ME GET THERE

North African immigrant [1913]

In Sherman's North African Immigrant portrait, we see a solitary man dressed in the traditional attire of a Riffian, an Amazigh sub-ethnic group that has inhabited areas in and around the Riff mountain range in Northern Morocco for millennia.1 He holds a small stringed instrument in his left hand, perhaps a gunibri, and though his stance appears to indicate some degree of dislocation with his new, strange surroundings, his eyes burn through Sherman's camera lens. He's come to an America that's riding an Orientalist craze, which is in part what brought him and hundreds of other Moroccans to North America—but he has agency.

They are not known as immigrants...

The knowledge available to immigrant inspectors, and to Sherman himself, concerning ethnic designation of prospective immigrants at Ellis Island was both limited and extraordinarily dubious, particularly so when it comes to non-western arrivals.2 This explains the vague caption Sherman assigned to the photo on the right, but the portrait itself contains indicators that, when combined with the relatively unique migration patterns of Moroccans to the U.S., points to identity.

Awkwardly dangling from the man's neck is a string that holds an immigrant identification tag; it lists his name along with information about the ship and ship's manifest that was made before embarkation. His name and the ship's name are not discernible, but one can clearly see the number "2", which indicates the Manifest Sheet Number; and below it, the number "1", which indicates the List Number, i.e. the line number on the ship's manifest. There is a comparatively small amount of ship manifests that record the entry of Moroccans during the early 20th century—only a few that identify Berbers (Imazighen)—and there's only one match among the handful of manifests to the "2" and the "1".
The subject's ethnicity, appearance, details on the ship's manifest, and, most importantly, the immigrant ID tag, point to a specific individual: Haroun Riffi Ben Mohamed, a Riffian from the small settlement of Riff, Morocco.

Listed on line 1, sheet number 2 from the S.S. Antonio Lopez's manifest above, Ben Mohamed came less than a year after his once independent homeland had become a French protectorate, a move which ushered in years of unrest among Imazighen, Arabs and the colonial powers of both France and Spain. His birthplace and residence at the time of his emigration was not far from one of the key flash points of the ongoing conflicts between Riffians and Spanish forces, i.e. the Second Melillan campaign (Guerra de Melilla) in 1909.
Just a few years after the unrest, Ben Mohamed crossed the Atlantic with a group of 30 Moroccans ("Arabs and Berbers") on the S.S. Antonio Lopez, bound for New York. According to the 1913 ship's manifest, Ben Mohamed was 32, married, had "whiskers", and his occupation was listed as actor. Given his circumstance, the ascribed profession was more likely what he'd be doing in the U.S., rather than his actual trade while living in the Riff mountains. Like the rest of the group, he had $25 to his name and his stated final destination was Luna Park, Coney Island.

Whatever trade or calling Ben Mohamed and the rest of the group had back in Morocco, they were now coming to New York as performers.

In The Garden of Allah

Non-urban Moroccans, such as Riffians, didn't emigrate to distant lands like the United States by chance or in any great numbers during the early 20th century. The comparatively few that did emigrate to the U.S. were more likely to be sojourners rather than immigrants; as with the individuals in a number of Sherman's other portraits, most were human imports that came to perform under contract. This didn't happen without substantial effort and expense working through an established network of organizers. One person responsible for importing/bringing more Moroccans into the U.S. than perhaps any other was Moroccan by birth but also a naturalized U.S. citizen, Hassan Ben Ali (1877-1914).

Since the 1890s, Ben Ali periodically brought Moroccans to perform as acrobats, dancers, musicians, and stage actors at Luna Park, Dreamland and and theaters in New York City—as well as for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, state fairs, sideshows and International Expositions throughout the U.S.  Some managed to stay and went on to become naturalized U.S. citizens but the vast majority returned to their homeland.

In 1911, Ben Ali was hired to manage a group of Tuareg Amazigh performers in Liebler & Co. production of The Garden of Allah at New York's Century Theater.  The elaborately staged play was a hit and would go on to tour nationally for several years and subsequently be adapted into a motion picture three times between 1916 and 1936. 

In October 1911, Ben Ali brought a group of 25 Moroccans to the U.S. to perform in the next season's run of The Garden of Allah and appears to have intentionally made them quite visible throughout their time in the U.S. Besides theatrical engagements, they would take part in promotional work for various businesses, including well-publicized appearances at oriental rug stores, even when on tour across the country.

The photo below captures the group maneuvering uneasily on a busy New York sidewalk; they appear to avoid eye contact with bystanders as their column works their way forward, while New Yorkers of all ages smile, gawk, or blithely stare on at the slow moving spectacle.

Fire and Sword

By early 1913, Ben Ali was again recruiting Moroccans for theatrical engagements, not for The Garden of Allah but instead for a massive new historical drama to be staged at Coney Island. It would be an off-off Broadway production for a much larger but entirely different sort of audience, i.e. amusement park goers. 

This was the group that Ben Mohamed was a part of and the production was called Fire and Sword: The Fall of Adrianople. Though not as obvious an orientalist fantasy as The Garden of Allah, it did call for Ben Ali's Imazighen to perform incongruously out of character, i.e. as Turks...much in the same way that the 1912 group was performing as Arabs from the Sahara. Neither the audience nor the critics seemed to mind or even be aware of the more ludicrous elements filling the enormous stage.3

The photo below captures the extravagant but extraordinarily dubious spectacle that these Riffians found themselves in, less than two weeks after their arrival at Ellis Island. By October 1913, Ben Mohamed and the rest of the group would be on their way back to Morocco, some five months after landing at Ellis Island. Their departure was covered in the typically cringeworthy manner of the day in the New York Tribune but also sheds some light on the terms under which the group was allowed to stay.  During their time in New York, Ben Ali essentially acted as the group's guardian and was responsible for their actions, which apparently included ensuring that they leave the U.S. by a certain date:

Hassan Ben Ali will breathe a sigh of relief when the last of the Serbs [i.e. Berbers], the Arab tribesman who have been appearing in "Fire and Sword" at Luna, have been safely shipped aboard a vessel bound for the Mediterranean. For Hassan is under bond to the immigration authorities for every man of them, and must kiss goodbye to a sheaf of 100 bills for every one who is not accounted for at the end of the month. Hassan is Luna's provider of denizens of of the desert. If Luna wants a tribe or two of swarthy sons of Mahomet the management nonchalantly mentions the fact to Hassan, over a postprandial cigar, and Hassan does the rest. He went to Northern Morocco for the Serbs [i.e. Berbers] appearing in "Fire and Sword". Two of them have brought their Veiled wives along, and one of the ladies has, besides a baby, a little boy who will be having the time of his young life all winter, holding forth to his untravelled comrades at home on the marvels his American year has shown him.4

As with a number of Sherman's photos, Ben Mohamed's has been re-imagined in new mediums by contemporary artists who were captivated by the 100 year old images. There has been considerable effort to rework Sherman's portraits and cast them as emblematic of the classic Ellis Island experience, even when the truth behind the photos reveal atypical migration patterns. With Sherman's North African Immigrant, we have enough evidence to place the subject in a specific scenario and a likely identity to ascribe.

Despite the lack of detail surrounding the subject, his is still a worthwhile narrative framing the image to reanimate; successfully doing so adds a vital but otherwise obscured dimension to the act of understanding migration: meaning and purpose. Moreover, even just the ancillary facts of a migration story can expose the hidden fabric on which long-term patterns of discrimination rest. Having a better understanding of that environment—particularly though visual material—carries the ability to recast our perceptions of the past, expose long-forgotten movements of peoples, and to more fully realize how fundamentally different but the same U.S. immigration policy and practice has been over the last 100 years—despite the endless, uninformed stream of political and popular rhetoric from restrictionists past and present.

Notes

1 This designation first came to my attention via Dr Khalid Bekkaoui's excellent Beyond Borders: Moroccans in Britain and America website, which aims to "shed light on Moroccan travelers and immigrants to Britain and America from the early modern period to the first half of the 20th century." Ben Mohamed was captioned as "A Riffian Arrives at Ellis Island, 1910."

2 The infamous Dictionary of Races or Peoples, first published by the Immigration Commission in 1911 and subsequently used as a standard diagnostic tool by immigration inspectors at Ellis Island and Angel Island, says nothing about Riffians and gives minimal (and incorrect) explanations on Berbers (Imazighen), save that "they are not known as immigrants."

3 Though meant to depict the bloody Siege of Adrianople that pitted Bulgarians and Serbs against Ottoman Turks during the First Balkan War (1912-1913), Luna Park's "Fire and Sword" had something else in mind. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle summed up the spectacle just days after Ben Ali's troupe arrived: "Chief among the new features at Luna, Coney Island, this summer. Is a spectacle of enormous size. It Is called “Fire and Sword,” and far surpasses anything of the kind ever staged. Here an entire foreign city is shown on a stage 360 feet in length. It is a mountain, municipality nestling among the foothills which melt into the perspective of far away peaks. There are picturesque houses, temples, towers and mosques. From distant mountain battlements guns bristle. The scene portrays a city that has been under the siege of battle. The enemy has withdrawn and the inhabitants believing the siege is over are storking [sic] about in their picturesque costumes defiant of the frowning guns..." The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York). 18 May 1913, Page 35.

4 Exodus of Brotherhood of Freaks from Coney—Magic of Hassan Ben Ali, The New York Tribune, 12 October 1913. Available via Chronicling America.

This page has paths: