As Hurricane Sandy barreled toward New York City, admirers of the “first Arab-American neighborhood” — the “Little Syria” strip of the financial district in lower Manhattan — also felt the loss of control that comes with catastrophe on a mass scale.
My colleague Carl Antoun and I, who have been fighting to save the final buildings in the late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century neighborhood from destruction, once again felt responsible to protect the area. At a time when Syrians are striving and suffering, we are passionately working to save Syrian and Lebanese heritage in the Americas, traces of Sham on once-famous Washington Street.
We care deeply about Little Syria, and people often try to tease out our motivations for supporting local parks and worrying about “some old buildings,” even if they have architectural and cultural value. My colleague’s ninety-three-year-old grandmother grew up on Washington Street, and he wants to connect vicariously to his origins, especially given the misunderstandings and stereotypes he has faced growing up as an Arab-American.
My family did settle in New York in the late nineteenth century, but they did not live in Little Syria. I often tell people that my admiration for Arab intellectual Ameen Rihani (1876–1940), and his 1911 novel The Book of Khalid — which takes place in this oft-forgotten quarter — led me to take an interest in these streets and to be concerned about their neglect.
However, with my heart burdened by the situation unfolding in today’s Syria (and neighboring Lebanon, Palestine, and even Iraq), I better understand the source of my feelings. The flickers of hope from Washington Street bolster my own last hope, as I come of age in a time of war and accumulated historical confusion.
The residents of Washington Street looked from afar at their region’s catastrophes: Ottoman tyranny, European colonization, mass revolt, ethnic cleansing, famine and large-scale war. Their deep bench of intellectuals and activists attempted to address these overseas horrors responsibly, and, like the Lebanese-Americans and Syrian-Americans of today, felt obligated to help.
While Kahlil Gibran is famous for The Prophet (1923) and other works in both Arabic and English, few people are aware that during World War I, together with literary colleagues Ameen Rihani and Mikhail Naimy, he established the “Syria-Mount Lebanon League of Liberation,” a political organization headquartered on Greenwich Street in Little Syria, in order to advocate for freedom and independence.
During the war and the later during the Great Syrian Revolt against the French in the mid-1920s, Syrian-Americans wrote articles, lobbied political figures, and held many dinners and fundraisers to support their homeland. Hani Bawardi, a historian at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is rewriting Arab-American studies by demonstrating that Little Syria, and the entire Lebanese and Syrian diaspora, was much less sectarian and more politically united around Arab nationalism than has been traditionally assumed.
The efforts of the early Arab-Americans to engage the American public about their aspirations — anti-imperialism, anti-sectarianism, loving unity, cultural dialogue, and simple freedom — should not be forgotten. I fear that America’s incessant curiosity in the Middle East is not founded in a love and friendship, beyond even culture, as these prominent writers had hoped and as some earnest missionaries had desired, but rather in something that is largely alien from the America that Washington Street had faith in.
Let us return to Washington Street and listen imaginatively. I will give you a tour.