The last church standing in what was once Manhattan’s Syrian Quarter is now a Chinese restaurant attached to the tallest Holiday Inn in the world. Until recently, it was an Irish pub.
The Arabic signs and smoking parlors may have disappeared from the neighborhood around Washington Street in Lower Manhattan, which from the 1880s until 1946 was home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the United States. But a few weeks ago, descendants of former Little Syria residents — among them Brooklyn patriarchs and Malibu surfers — gathered on Ellis Island for the opening of the “Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy” exhibit.
The show comprises artifacts once owned by residents of Manhattan’s Little Syria or “The Syrian Quarter” as it was often called, as well as maps and magazines produced by those who once lived there. There are photographs of serious young men in suits smoking argileh (water pipes) and playing cards, a peddler’s case of embroidered linens, a recording of “America Ya Hilwa” — “O Beautiful America,” in Arabic.
Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan dreamt up the idea for the exhibit during the controversy over the Park51 Islamic community center, when “it became apparent that a lot of New Yorkers were unfamiliar with the history of Arab Americans in New York.”
The timing of the exhibit is important, Akmon says, “because of the misinformation about who we are. There’s a heightened xenophobic discourse going on in politics with the election, and conflict abroad has not painted a particularly good picture, and that has an impact on the Arab American community.”
Phrases like “correct the stereotype” and “reclaim our history” could be heard from every table at an opening reception for families of Little Syria’s descendants, many of whom had lent or donated items belonging to their relatives to the show.
“We have always been here, we’re not the new immigrants on the block,” says Joseph Elhilow whose grandfather opened a shop on Washington Street in 1900. “My father was born down there, and my grandfather had a business there — there was a portrait of him with a big moustache,” he grins, “exactly like my moustache.” The younger Elhilow’s is slate gray, shot with white and curls up in two identical semicircles on either side of his nose. Now the patriarch of the family, Elhilow still lives in Brooklyn and belongs to a Syrian men’s group called the Salaam Club.
Like most of the neighborhood’s residents, Elhilow’s family came from what was then “Greater Syria,” which encompassed Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
They moved to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn when much of Washington Street was razed to build the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel. The tunnel opened to traffic in 1950, but almost all of Little Syria’s roughly 1500 residents had moved to Brooklyn or elsewhere by 1946.
A 1921 map in the exhibit depicts the routes peddlers of the time would take, arriving in New York and traveling west across the United States. The names of the states on the map are written in Arabic.
“We were brought up in Southern California as WASPs!” says Linda Jacobs, 69, an Arab American who grew up hearing stories of her parents’ upbringing on Atlantic Avenue, and only learned of her connection to the Washington Street community in a strange conversation with her grandmother.
“[She] told me on her deathbed… she had taken the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan to have an abortion. She told me she was going to a midwife in the Syrian colony on Washington Street.”
Jacobs began to wonder why her grandmother had gone to a Syrian midwife in Manhattan, and she stumbled upon Little Syria. Since then, Jacobs has written a book about the history of the neighborhood entitled “Strangers in the West,” for which she has interviewed many of the family members of its former residents.
Midwives weren’t the only women in Little Syria’s workforce. Women often made the best peddlers, “since most people who were home in the middle of the day were housewives, more likely to open their doors to a strange woman than a strange man,” Jacobs explains.
Levantine peddlers often sold silk and other textiles and Rector Street was once the lingerie capital of New York. They even cornered the market for Japanese-inspired kimonos.
Little Syria was also the center of the Arab-American literary world. At the turn of the last century, the neighborhood was home to the first Arabic language publication in the United States — al-Hoda, which means “the guidance” in Arabic, founded in 1898. The linotype machine—used to print newspapers and magazines worldwide until the 1970s—was first fitted with Arabic letters for the paper. An ad for the machine from about 1910 reads, “No better illustration could be given of the value of the Linotype than the use it is being put to by publishers of Arabic newspapers in America.”
At the turn of the century, Arab Americans would come to Little Syria from all over the northeastern United States to buy magazines and Arabic books, as well as dry goods and other Levantine products. Khalil Gibran, the third best-selling poet of all time, lived in Little Syria where he founded an Arab-American literary society called The Pen League, along with Amin Rihani, Mikhail Naimy, and other Arab American writers.
The group hoped to establish a new way of expressing themselves in Arabic, “to lift Arabic literature from the quagmire of stagnation and imitation, and to infuse a new life into its veins so as to make of it an active force in the building up of the Arab nations,” Naimy once wrote in a letter to Gibran.
Another member, Amin Rihani, who cited Walt Whitman as one of his influences, spoke of creating a new literary language though mixing Arabic and English sensibilities in his writing: “Here and there the raw silk of Syria is often spun with the cotton and wool of America. In other words, the Author dips his antique pen in a modern inkstand, and when the ink runs thick, he mixes it with a slobbering of slang,” he wrote in his 1911 novel The Book of Khalid that takes place in part in Lower Manhattan around Battery Park.
Like many immigrants, residents of Little Syria, tried to make their businesses appealing to the city at large: in a kind of auto-Orientalism the Kirdahy brothers renamed their restaurant “the Sheik” after the 1921 Rudolph Valentino film at the suggestion of another Hollywood star in hopes of attracting a broader clientele.
When Manhattan’s Syrian community dispersed in 1946, part of it was reconstituted on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where it remains, albeit in a somewhat attenuated form. But many Syrian-Americans, having amassed enough money peddling to start their own businesses, headed west to places like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. In an America where assimilation was the primary goal for many immigrants, many Levantine-Americans moved into largely white neighborhoods, and aside from perhaps certain foods, maintained little linkage with the communities from which they had come.
“There’s no Arab-ness left in it,” says Gail O’Keefe, who is descended from Little Syria residents on both sides of her family, referring to her name as she introduces herself. She remembers her aunts and uncles speaking Arabic to each other “but they were Americanizing,” she explains, and did not pass it on to the younger generation.
“When 9/11 happened, I saw a shift in how Arab Americans expressed their identity,” says Mary Kate Chaath, who works for the UNICEF United States Fund and is half Palestinian. She says people embraced a wider Arab identity, in place of narrower religious affiliations.
In some ways, the families of the descendants of Washington Street’s Little Syria are a new community, forming in response to the political pressure of the moment. When the curators of the Little Syria exhibit began reaching out to families asking for objects for the show, and as Linda Jacobs began contacting people to interview for her book, many were excited to find that there were others who shared their family histories.
“It’s a real thrill, here I was, I thought I was alone in the world with a weird set of documents and stuff — I don’t speak or read Arabic” says Michael Monterastelli, whose great grandfather lived in Little Syria. Monterastelli lives in Malibu where he works in corporate sales for Xerox and surfs on the weekends. “To see this small community building momentum, maybe it’s not a Chinatown or a Little Italy, but it’s something like that.”
Chaath, who is Arab American but not a descendent of a Little Syria resident feels the exhibit is important for Arab Americans more broadly: “It gives a stake within American history for Arab Americans, it creates a connection and a tie to the history of many other immigrants.” This unity is all the more important now, she says, “as we hear this rhetoric in the news from a presidential candidate [Ed: Now president-elect] about who will and won’t be allowed into this country.”
But some feel that politics back in the Middle East are dividing Arab-Americans at a time when they should be banding together.
“Syrians in the US have stopped talking to each other,” says Dr. Alexander Khandji, who came to the US with his family in 1969, “this war has divided us between religious factions.”
The connection with the current refugee crisis was explicit. One of the last items in the exhibit is a letter from 1916 by Khalil Gibran, who immigrated to Little Syria as a young man, calling on Syrian Americans to send money back to the homeland during the three-year famine in Mount Lebanon.
“Your heart bleeds for them, we are a refugee country,” Joseph Elhilow said of the current Syrian refugees. “We all came, the Jews came after WWII; this is how we built ourselves. Sometimes you have to bless yourself, hope for the best and let them in.”
“Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy” runs through January 9, 2017 at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration at the Statue of Liberty National Monument.