James Abourezk, the First Arab American Senator, Dies at 92

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After leaving the Senate, he became “Iran’s Man in Washington,” as The Times labeled him in 1979, serving as counsel for the Iranian Embassy and seeking to recoup money that the Islamic Republic said had been stolen by the Shah. He also founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which drew attention to prejudicial treatment of Arabs by the government and in everyday life.

James George Abourezk was born on Feb. 24, 1931, in Wood, S.D. He grew up there and in Mission, two tiny towns that were on the Rosebud Indian Reservation of southern South Dakota. His father, Charles, had moved to the United States from Lebanon as a peddler in 1898 and managed to open general stores in Wood and Mission. His mother, Lena (Mickel) Abourezk, a Lebanese Greek Orthodox immigrant like her husband, ran the family store in Wood, while Charles managed the one in Mission.

Mr. Abourezk served for four years in the Navy. He got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and in 1966 he earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota School of Law.

Before entering politics, Mr. Abourezk worked as a farmhand, wholesale grocery salesman, car salesman, bartender and bar owner. He became passionate about politics after a family doctor lent him copies of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, The Nation and The New Republic.

Mr. Abourezk’s marriages to Mary Ann Houlton and Margaret Bethea ended in divorce. He married Sanaa Dieb in 1991. She survives him, along with Alya, their daughter; two sons, Charlie and Paul, and a daughter, Nikki Pipe On Head, from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Chesley Machado; more than 30 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

Mr. Abourezk’s wife runs Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean, a restaurant in Sioux Falls that The Times credited in 2014 with kicking off “an epicurean trend” in the city. In 2019, when he was 89, The Aberdeen News reported that Mr. Abourezk enjoyed holding court at the restaurant, telling stories of his colorful life and sharing his views on politics.

He suggested to The Capital Journal a way to ensure more independent-minded legislators such as himself: term limits.

“If a member of Congress is not worried about getting re-elected, he or she will more often than not vote in the public interest rather than in his or her own electoral interest, which is now what happens,” he said.

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