Omar Offendum revives the memory of New York's Little Syria through music

New York's Little Syria
6 min read
26 May, 2022
The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. At the turn of the 20th century, many Syrians came to settle in New York, spawning a thriving community. But what was a burgeoning community has been largely forgotten, until now.

Syrian-American artist Omar Offendum sets about reviving New York's “Little Syria” neighbourhood in a new music show, curated by American artist and music writer Hanif Abdurraqib and directed by Texas-native Josiah Davis.

Offendum engages with the themes of heritage, uprootedness, and belonging through hip-hop, Arabic instrumentation and traditional oral storytelling on stage. The space he explores is the forgotten atmosphere of Little Syria, on and around Washington Street, in Lower Manhattan.   

Syrian Children, ca.1910-1915, Bain News Service, Library of Congress
Syrian Children, ca.1910-1915, Bain News Service [credit: Library of Congress]

From the late 19th century to the Second World War, Syrians (a term that commonly encompassed Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Levantine people), mostly Christians, settled into what became a vibrant cultural hub.

For some, they fled the conscription and religious oppression of the Ottoman Empire, and for others, they came to New York in pursuit of new opportunities. This included intellectual figures such as Gibran Khalil Gibran.

"It’s challenging to insulate the past from the present and the latter seeped into Little Syria when Offendum sings about race and whiteness"

A life away from home animated for a time the tenements, shops, cafes, and restaurants. Living conditions in the late 19th century were often insalubrious.

Over time, many Syrians moved uptown or elsewhere. “By 1930, only about 10% of the Syrian businesses in Manhattan remained in the Washington Street neighbourhood,” writes scholar Linda K Jacobs.

But we can’t see much of it anymore. The neighbourhood was razed – first for a tunnel, then for the World Trade Center. The American Arab Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, revisited the history of the Syrian Quarter in 2012 in an exhibition called Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy.

Little Syria
[Twitter: @RidzDesign]

This history, like its physical remains, is mere fragments today. A cornerstone of St. Joseph’s Chapel was found in 2002, in the rubble of Ground Zero. On 103 Washington Street, one can view the preserved façade of the former St. George's Syrian Catholic Church, a designated New York City Landmark since 2009.

It’s a rare acknowledgement given that Little Syria is largely forgotten, compared with other neighbourhoods such as Little Italy or Chinatown. So it’s a joy to see it come alive on a foggy evening at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, a New York borough which hosts an important Arab-American community, with cafes and shops along Atlantic Avenue, some of them relocated from Little Syria.

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Welcomed by hosts in Ottoman cosplay, the audience is quickly immersed in the smoky, cosy, and maximalist décor of a café-lounge. Offendum incarnates one of these early 20th century migrants.

Wearing a tarbush and a caftan (an elegance regrettably lacking from today’s streets of New York), he introduces the daily life of Washington Street, in the sorrow of a sophisticated Levantine living near the BT Babbitt soap factory and its assaulting pork lard stench, the vicissitudes of finding work and succumbing to various intoxications and dreams, in short vignettes alternating between a theatrical scene and music.

The shifts between Offendum’s different voices and styles are impressive – seamless – from poetry recitation to rap. He owns the stage.

Offendum, a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, has significantly contributed to the reinterpretation of Arabic language poetry in contemporary hip-hop.

His releases, and most recently Lost in Translation, go hand in hand with a strong commitment to community engagement and the visibility of Arab heritage. 

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A charismatic performer, Offendum succeeds in the tenuous act of educating while entertaining. Oud player and pianist Ronnie Malley is also on stage with Offendum along with music producer Thanks Joey. Malley charms with his talent, and regrettably his oud solos remained all too brief.

Offendum in Little Syria, photo by Edwina Hay, courtesy of the photographer
Offendum in Little Syria, photo by Edwina Hay, courtesy of the photographer

Little Syria’s ambience evolves when Offendum is joined by Syrian-American singer Nano Raïs – a welcomed addition to an otherwise all-male show and narrative.

Sadly, we don’t get to explore her point of view as this remains Offendum’s show. She’s a crystalline mirage, an embodied Lady of Liberty for the reimagined migrant, an elevating whisper – not a main character. Maybe next time?

Archives projected on a large screen, bring additional context, setting the stage for the migrants’ arrival, seeing storefronts, and newspaper clippings. However, they quickly became repetitive and distracting.

Quiet ḥakawātī-style storytelling was often a more engaging form, channelling witty humour and vulnerability, more so than other songs whose lyrics sometimes felt short (“serious business” or “the roots of a tree know more about the earth than its leaves”). I wanted a little more diwan vibes, such as more critical engagement with the words of Gibran Khalil Gibran and poet Elia Abu Madi and a little less Americana.

Little Syria is in many ways a feel-good show whose audience is often unclear. When Offendum explains the origins of coffee from the Arabic Peninsula and what kebbe is, he’s not addressing the same people who react to his subtle word-plays in Arabic and community in-jokes.

A Syrian Arab at Ellis Island, 1926, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library
A Syrian Arab at Ellis Island, 1926, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection [credit: The New York Public Library]

The “immigrant story” is a genre in itself which plays on common tropes – the arrival, the first experiences of othering, the complexity of assimilating, inter-generational family dynamics, and trauma.

In books, there are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), Call Me American (2019) by Abdi Nor Iftin, or Names for Light (2021) by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint.

It’s challenging to insulate the past from the present and the latter seeped into Little Syria when Offendum sings about race and whiteness.

He points out that the fair complexion of a Syrian (implied, himself) does not equate to the privileges of being white, but without much context, narrative arc, or a clear conflict touching on this issue in the show.

The US Department of Justice ruled that Arabs were White (as opposed to “Yellow”) in 1909, following a petition from a Christian Lebanese. In those days, the decision meant that Syrians could be naturalised as American citizens (unlike other Asians). This was further confirmed in 1943.

But recent voices now criticise how this turned Arab Americans into an “invisible” minority as the US Census fails to account for their specific ethnicity, with calls to understand race as an everyday experiential reality, not just the legacy of historical segregation. The reference may feel anachronistic to the times covered by Little Syria.

It also needed more space to unpack the construction and projection of refracted identities (what about Black Arabs?), drawing on what author Laila Lalami called “conditional citizenship.”

Similarly, a song on moneymaking channels today’s hustle, personal branding culture which doesn’t quite fit with the ways in which first-generation migrants were (and are) routinely expected to “give back” via remittances, helping out, or facilitating the arrival of relatives.

Someone’s success is generally for others – family, community. Not quite then the materialistic, transactional, individualistic-driven aspiration to “get rich or die trying.”

Unaddressed in Little Syria are resonances with the Syrian Revolution but also post-9/11 racial profiling and mass surveillance.

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Given other more modern references in the show (for instance, the third-wave coffee culture of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg area), folklore seems to have kicked more contentious politics aside.

This to me resituated Little Syria in the American context of the early 21st century with its dedicated heritage months (April, for Arab American heritage), festivals, and a longing to be more visible and acknowledged (loved?). The success of Mohamed Diab’s Moon Knight among MENA communities isn’t anodyne; representation matters, sure, but is it all that counts?

Little Syria perpetuates the pleasing good immigrant story, and yes it’s a lovely attempt at mythologising an answer to the perennial “where do you come from?” But do we need to be likeable to simply exist? And for whom?

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis