The Music and Jewelry of the Feistikji Family

The Feistikji family were artists–and in more than one medium. Immigrating from Aleppo, Syria, in the early 1920s, father John, mother Mary, and children Francis, Joseph, Alma, Emma, and Katherine were Armenian Roman Catholics who made unique contributions to the city and its Syrian and Lebanese communities in the mid-twentieth century.

Katherine Feistikji (c. 1913-1987). From The Syrian Ark, July 1937, 14.

Like many other Syrians, the Feistikjis owned a grocery store, but they were also the most prominent players of classical Middle Eastern music in Indianapolis. The Feistikji family ensemble performed at the 1936 festivities celebrating the establishment of the Midwest Federation of Syrian American Clubs. Appearing before hundreds of delegates at the Syrian American Brotherhood building on Riverside Park, sister Katherine, the youngest child, soloed and played the oud, or lute. Father John played the qanun, or zither; brother Francis, the kamanja, or bow; and brother Joseph, the darbuka, or goblet drum.

In the summer of 1937, the family provided accompaniment to the dances of visiting artist Julia Taweel. Katherine once again sang and played the oud. According to the Syrian Ark newspaper, her rendition of “‘Ya Wardat al-Hubb’ (Oh Rose, Emblem of Love) sung with emotion and ‘plaintive adoration’ soon won for her title, ‘Sweetheart of Syria.'”

The family also performed for non-Arab audiences, including at Little Flower Roman Catholic Church in 1943. The occasion was an “oriental dinner” that offered the public a menu of “kibbi (ground meat with wheat), riz moff mofalfal (buttered rice noodles), mehshi malfoof (stuffed cabbage rolls), loubia kjadra (green beans), salads and desserts.”

But making music was not this family’s only artistic talent. In the 1930 U.S. census, all of the children save Katherine listed their occupations as jewelry maker. By 1936, several of them had gone to work for Herff Jones. They also opened a corner grocery on Olney street in Brightwood, a favorite neighborhood of Arabic-speaking immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1945, Feistikji Jewelry Company had moved into the Century Building in downtown Indianapolis and then by 1947, to the Lemcke Building.

Feistikji Jewelry Company specialized in filigree, a style of jewelry ubiquitous in the Eastern Mediterranean. Fashioned from 22-carat gold and sterling silver, their hand-made pieces are still sometimes available at auction. In 2019, a broach, necklace, and pair of earrings was sold by John Moran for $1,600.

The Feistikji Jewelry Company advertised this hand-made, filigree broach in the Indianapolis Star in 1947. This broach, or one like it, appeared in a California auction in 2019. Credit: Indianapolis Star, Oct. 24, 1947, 10, and JohnMoran.Com.

The Feistikji family made life in Indianapolis more beautiful through their contributions to the musical and decorative arts. Their music literally accompanied many of the most important events in Arab Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s. The fact that they were ethnically Armenian points to a larger phenomenon among Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in the Midwest and beyond: whatever differences existed, their shared cultural heritage and social networks forged a meaningful and consequential sense of community among them, one that amplified their impact in their adopted homeland.

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