She was a poet. He was an entrepreneur.
They both grew up in Indianapolis’ Arabic-speaking Syrian community, and like many sons and daughters of immigrants in the era between World War I and World War II, when the time came to get married, they chose to wed someone from their own ethnic group.
Julia David was born to Habeeb and Sadie David, both immigrants from Syria, in 1901 in Indianapolis. Habeeb, like so many early immigrants, made his living as a peddler. In 1897, he married Sadie and two years later in 1899, the city directory listed their residence as 536 South Capitol Avenue.
Julia David may have come from modest means, but she grew up in a family that believed in civic engagement. Her father was a Shriner, taking part in fundraising and performances at the Murat Temple. She followed his example. As a teenager, Julia David volunteered at Indianapolis’ Young Women’s Christian Association, where she participated in theatrical productions and raised money for mission trips and sympathy banks.
After graduating from high school, Julia David attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Although a minority of Americans still attended college by the time Julia David became a student, the number of women who entered higher education increased dramatically after World War I. At DePauw they were aided by a $2.5 million scholarship fund established in 1919. As a student, Julia David joined a writing and literary society called Tusitala. Some described it as a group for people who liked to write things.
While Julia David was writing at DePauw, her future husband was working in his family’s import business. Nicholas Shaheen was born in 1901 in a small town in southern Syria called Qatana (also spelled Kattana). In 1908, Shaheen and his family left Syria and first settled in Canton, Ohio, and then in 1912, they came to Indianapolis, where Shaheen’s family sold clothing, linens, and other merchandise.
After marrying, the couple moved into the David family home at 2249 North Delaware Street. They started a family, and had three daughters: Adele in 1925, Joan in 1927, and Margaret in 1930.
Nicholas Shaheen’s business was growing. Originally located on 2204 North Meridian Street, near today’s IU Methodist Hospital, his store offered Oriental rugs, laces, and linens. In 1929, he moved the shop to the heart of Indianapolis—45 Monument Circle.
This “House of Quality,” as he advertised it, claimed prominent public space in the city not just for him, but for all Syrian immigrants. Today the entrance and box office of Hilbert Circle Theater, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, occupies the site of the Shaheen Oriental Rug shop.
Nicholas Shaheen saw his ethnic identity as an asset. He dressed in an Arab costume more associated with desert Bedouins than urban Syrian merchants for a formal portrait taken by famed Indy 500 and Indianapolis Star photographer Charles Bretzman. This was no impediment to social inclusion–it was a passport. The Star published a number of social columns about him and his family, including a report about a visit to the Greater Hotel Gibson, described as the finest and most expensive hotel in all of Cincinnati.
Like their mother, the Shaheen daughters attended college. Joan, an honors student in high school, went to Northwestern. Adele matriculated at her mother’s alma mater, DePauw, and became engaged to Richard Freije, another member of the Indianapolis’ Syrian community.
The story of Julia David and Nicholas Shaheen shows how, just one generation after Arabic-speaking immigrants from the Middle East arrived in Indianapolis, Hoosiers of Arab descent became prominent in the city’s economy and public life. It is also a testament to the commitment of Arab immigrants to the education of their daughters. The Syrian community in Indianapolis was built through the efforts and intelligence of both men and women.
Thanks to Mickey Yoder, who researched this post as part of her IUPUI Honor College work in Prof. Edward Curtis’ Arab Histories class.