August 19, 2010
Looking for the Wahabs
by Dr. James J. Zogby ©
President, Arab American Institute
OCRACOKE ISLAND, N.C.
We are just
ending a family vacation on this little island off the coast of North Carolina.
We have been coming here for 35 years now, and though so much has changed, the
simple beauty of the place remains.
is one of the Outer Banks' barrier islands jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.
By any measure, it is tiny: a mere 16 miles long and, for the most part, less
than a few hundred yards wide - though at its southern end, the
island stretches out to a width of a mile and a half.
makes this island so special is the fact that no buildings are allowed on its
entire coastline, meaning miles of empty beaches, and its remoteness - it is
only accessible by ferry or boat. The population is small: year round residents
number only 800 souls living mainly around a small lagoon on the island's
sound side. During the peak vacation season the population swells to 5,000 visitors.
precisely Ocracoke's remoteness and its simplicity that brought us here 35
years ago. That, and stories about the Wahabs who lived there.
Joseph's teacher first piqued our interest with tales about his many visits to
the island: the beaches, the birds, the boating etc. Reading a bit more, we
learned about: Ocracoke's early colorful history as refuge for the notorious
Blackbeard the Pirate; its nickname "graveyard of the Atlantic",
earned for the more than 100 shipwrecks off its coast; and the descendants of
the island's first settlers (some remnants of pirates and shipwrecks) -
families named O'Neal, Scarborough, Howard, Garrish, Ballance and
Shipwreck on Ocracoke Beach:
(Click on photo to view a larger image.)
it was that latter who caught my attention and so that summer my wife and I
took our little family on their first journey to Ocracoke to, among other
things, find the Wahabs. Heeding the advice of those who had been there before,
we prepared ourselves for the long drive, the need to buy fresh vegetables on
the mainland (back then, none were available on the Outer Banks), and to bring
what was needed for rustic living.
beaches were, as promised, pristine, expansive and deserted. The
wildlife (both coastal and marshlands) was diverse and plentiful. And the
island's residents were hospitable, delightful and eager to tell their
my first stops was a visit to the Wahab family cemetery. There were many
tombstones, some going back 200 years, marking the passing of the likes of
Elizabeth Wahab, Job Wahab, James Wahab etc. I was determined to meet their
Eliza Wahab Tombstone:
(Click on photo to view a larger image.)
owners of the most beautiful house on Ocracoke were Stanley and Myra Wahab -
the last of the family on the island. Stanley, I learned, was on the
mainland, but Myra - the island's grande dame - agreed to meet with me.
R. Stanley Wahab:
was, as I had been warned, a formidable presence. Imperious in her bearing and
yet gracious in her manner, she welcomed me into her home for tea and
conversation. For over an hour she regaled me with island lore and the many
accomplishments of her husband. And then to the family history. According to
her, the earliest Wahab was an itinerant merchant shipwrecked on the
island, she believed, in the latter part of the 17th century. The family,
she said, had always understood their ancestor to be an Arab, making him
the earliest Arab immigrant to these shores.
became quite animated when she told me that a few years earlier some
researchers from Duke University had come to interview her. They claimed the
family was probably "originally Scottish and
named ' Wachob ' or something like that". She
scoffed at this, telling me that she had dismissed them replying " We
are Ay-rabs and proud of it. And you can't take that from us". Formidable
and feisty, imperious and a presence - and well worth the visit.
(Click on photo, courtesy Chester Lynn, to view larger image.)
died in 1988. Myra lived to 99, passing away in 2002. One nephew, Larry
Williams, who also proudly claimed Arab ancestry (he was featured in a special
issue of ARAMCO World Magazine highlighting Arab Americans from each of the 50
states), inherited the Wahab properties (we stayed in his guest house and
visited with him before he died in 2008). But he too is gone, leaving
Ocracoke, for the first time in maybe a few hundred years, without a
(Click on photo to view larger image.)
of one family is cause for some sadness. The island has changed, in other ways,
as well. There are fresh vegetables for sale, meat is served in stores and
restaurants, rental properties are air-conditioned, some mobile telephones
work, and cable TV and wifi are now available everywhere. The beaches are still
pristine (this remains one of the few places on the Atlantic coast where you
can walk for miles in the surf never seeing another person) and the wildlife is
still plentiful. But the Wahabs who I came here to find 35 years ago are
now gone and all that remains of them are the stories that others
will tell and the markers in the family