Inside New York’s historical community of Arab immigrants, Little Syria

Inside New York’s historical community of Arab immigrants, Little Syria
Sara Ouhaddou is a Paris- and Rabat-based artist. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 10 April 2020

Inside New York’s historical community of Arab immigrants, Little Syria

Inside New York’s historical community of Arab immigrants, Little Syria
  • The neighborhood was once home to a thriving community of Arab immigrants

DUBAI: In the early 20th century, New York City’s Lower Manhattan area was home to a thriving community known as Little Syria (aka ‘The Syrian Quarter’ and ‘The Mother Colony’). This enclave of Arabic-speaking immigrants traveled by ship from the Ottoman-occupied region of Greater Syria (mostly from Mount Lebanon) to New York — a major entry point for millions of immigrants at the time. 

Many of these newcomers, who had headed to the US in search of a better life, eventually settled on Rector Street and Washington Street — the heart of Little Syria between the 1880s and 1940s. In its heyday, this close-knit community boasted a lively ecosystem of shisha cafés, pastry shops, exotic grocery stores, and textile wholesalers. 




A public artwork created by Paris- and Rabat-based Sara Ouhaddou — nearly a decade in the making — will soon pay tribute to Little Syria. (Supplied)

Little Syria was also associated with some of the Arab world’s most prominent émigré writers, publishers, and thinkers, including Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani, who penned the first Arab-American novel, “The Book of Khalid,” in 1911. 

Today, though, only three historical buildings from that era have survived — including the landmarked St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church — and the area is no longer known as an Arabic hub. Over the past few years, however, the memory of Little Syria has been revived by the likes of preservation activist Todd Fine, who runs educational walking tours as president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group. 

“This part of the city has been changed and demolished probably more than any other neighborhood in New York City. A huge chunk of it was destroyed to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in 1946,” explained Fine, citing one the central causes of Little Syria’s physical demise. 




Little Syria was also associated with some of the Arab world’s most prominent émigré writers, publishers, and thinkers. (Getty)

“(You cannot) underestimate the sophistication and the amount of activity of this robust Arab-American population in the early 20th century,” he continued. “They had so many businesses and were involved in such high-level politics — such as advocacy for the Palestinians and communicating things to the American society about their culture. A lot of that has been totally lost and forgotten.” 

Thanks to collaborative efforts by preservationists and members of the Arab-American community, a public artwork created by Paris- and Rabat-based Sara Ouhaddou — nearly a decade in the making — will soon pay tribute to Little Syria.  




Today, the area is no longer known as an Arabic hub. (Getty)

In an interview with Arab News, Ouhaddou explained that language is at the heart of her project. She was inspired by Little Syria’s literary heritage, specifically the words of the Mahjar (diaspora) poets. 

The French-born artist explained that one of the reasons she applied to the competition to design the commemorative artwork, which was supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, was that she felt a personal connection to the writers of Little Syria. 




This is an example of Sara Ouhaddou’s artwork. (Supplied)

“I’m Amazigh and Arab,” she said. “I’m the multicultural daughter of immigrants from Morocco, a place that is full of minorities. We were a minority in Europe. It’s a history that has repeated itself; the Little Syria history is the same history I’ve lived in France.”




Ouhaddou explained that language is at the heart of her project. (Getty)

Ouhaddou said that her initial main artwork will be manifested through two pathways in a 20,000 square-foot park — the Elizabeth Berger Plaza — that is being built especially for this memorial. The decorative pathways integrate her unique, colorful mosaic design in which she has invented an alphabet that cleverly combines elements of Islamic geometry and classical Arabic lettering. Embodying messages of spirituality and humanity, one of the poems on which she has based the artwork is taken from Gibran’s “The Prophet”: “You who travel with the wind/What weathervane shall direct your course?”

It is through Ouhaddou’s own contemporary practice of amalgamating craftsmanship, geometry and language that she explores identity, a recurring theme in the writings of Little Syria’s poets. “They were Universalists,” Ouhaddou pointed out. “They were very well advanced in the idea that we could be our own complex identity and — at the same time — be a universal human.”




Ouhaddou was inspired by Little Syria’s literary heritage, specifically the words of the Mahjar (diaspora) poets. (Getty)

There is not yet a set date for the unveiling of Ouhaddou’s site-specific artwork, since organizers are finalizing the park’s construction and aiming to attract further funding. 

“It will be a great way for people from around the world to really see something beautiful,” said Fine of the artwork. “And not to do it in the way we do most memorials, where we just have statues. I’m hoping that this is a way to show the beauty of the Arabic language and poetry in a calm and comforting way.” 


Sotheby’s to auction unseen sculptures by Egyptian pioneer Mahmoud Mokhtar

Sotheby’s to auction unseen sculptures by Egyptian pioneer Mahmoud Mokhtar
Updated 7 min 10 sec ago

Sotheby’s to auction unseen sculptures by Egyptian pioneer Mahmoud Mokhtar

Sotheby’s to auction unseen sculptures by Egyptian pioneer Mahmoud Mokhtar

DUBAI: Auction house Sotheby’s announced on Tuesday that it is auctioning two sculptures by Egyptian pioneer Mahmoud Mokhtar this month.

The artworks have never been auctioned. 

They were bought directly from the artist, who died in 1934 the age of 43, by illustrious collector Hafez Afifi Pasha – an influential politician and the first Egyptian delegate to the United Nations – and have remained in the same family for decades, unseen by the public until now.

Mahmoud Mokhtar, “Ibn El-Balad,” 1910, bronze. (Supplied)

Embedded in Egypt’s cultural sphere, Afifi was one of Mokhtar’s great patrons – funding him for his most famous sculpture “Egypt Awakened,” also known as “Nahdat Misr,” a triumphant representation of Egypt’s past and present, as well as founding the Friends of Mahmoud Mokhtar Foundation after the artist’s death.

The first sculpture, titled “Ibn El-Balad” (estimated at around $107,000- 131,000) was Mokhtar’s university graduation project. 

Mahmoud Mokhtar, “Arous El-Nil,” 1929, bronze. (Supplied)

Dating to 1910, it was among the first sculptures he created, and marks the pivotal moment that he evolved into the artist he is renowned as today. 

The second, “Arous El-Nil,” from 1929 is a Pharaonic head of a woman, a marriage between Ancient Egyptian aesthetics and Art Deco (estimated at around $143,000-214,000). It is the bust of a full-length sculpture in the collection of Paris’ Musée du Jeu de Paume. 

The bidding will be online and will go live from March 23-30.


Luxury e-tailer Farfetch launches Ramadan capsule collections

Oscar de la Renta for the Farfetch Ramadan collection. Supplied
Oscar de la Renta for the Farfetch Ramadan collection. Supplied
Updated 8 min 34 sec ago

Luxury e-tailer Farfetch launches Ramadan capsule collections

Oscar de la Renta for the Farfetch Ramadan collection. Supplied

DUBAI: In anticipation of Ramadan, luxury e-commerce platform Farfetch has launched an exclusive edit featuring  30 regional and international designers and brands.

The modest edit includes designs from homegrown talents like Shatha Essa, Sem Sem, Bambah and Sandra Mansour, in addition to renowned global brands such as Marchesa, Oscar de la Renta, Off-White and Tory Burch, among others.

The pieces, which include fluid kaftans, flowy jumpsuits, printed long-sleeved maxi dresses and embellished heels, are all exclusive to Farfetch.

Speaking of the launch, Edward Sabbagh, managing director of Farfetch Middle East, said in a statement: “For the coming Ramadan season we wanted to ensure we could deliver a take on modesty with an Only on Farfetch angle by working with a variety of global and local brands across core categories that we know to be in demand during the period.”

The Ramadan campaign will run across Farfetch’s platforms globally, with items available for purchase around the world.


Shoe maven Amina Muaddi teams up with Net-a-Porter for good cause

Amina Muaddi created a charitable t-shirt for Net-a-Porter. Instagram
Amina Muaddi created a charitable t-shirt for Net-a-Porter. Instagram
Updated 09 March 2021

Shoe maven Amina Muaddi teams up with Net-a-Porter for good cause

Amina Muaddi created a charitable t-shirt for Net-a-Porter. Instagram

DUBAI: March 8 marked annual International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates and champions the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world and also highlights what still needs to be done in the ongoing fight for women’s rights and equality.

To celebrate the occasion, many brands, designers and retailers introduced Women’s Day-themed collections and cause-driven products that see all profits go towards charities and organizations that advocate for women and girls, including Net-a-Porter.

The luxury e-tailer, which launched a localized platform in the Middle East this week, teamed up with 12 female designers who have created exclusive pieces.

Among the designers who have participated in the initiative is Jordanian-Romanian footwear designer Amina Muaddi, who has created a white, long-sleeve shirt that bears the words “I got you” in pink and of which 100% of the proceeds will be donated to charity Women for Women International.

“Happy International Women’s Day Sisters!” she wrote on Instagram.

“I made this long sleeve tee to support @netaporter’s charitable partnership with @womenforwomen. 100% of profits will be donated to Women for Women International,” she said, adding that in 2020 Net-a-Porter “raised over $230,000 for women survivors of war, and in total over the last three years, raised enough to fund over 850 women through the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program.”

Other designers that took part in the initiative include French-Algerian homeware designer Anissa Kermiche, who created a set of mini jugs inspired by her bestselling Jugs Jug, reimagined as a pair to promote female solidarity.

Designers Stella McCartney, Emilia Wickstead, Westman Atelier, Tove, Anya Hindmarch, Jennifer Fisher, Simone Rocha and Ninety Percent, Roxanne Assoulin and Alighieri also took part in the initiative.


George Clooney jokes ‘ER’ role is causing trouble with Amal at home

George Clooney jokes ‘ER’ role is causing trouble with Amal at home
Updated 09 March 2021

George Clooney jokes ‘ER’ role is causing trouble with Amal at home

George Clooney jokes ‘ER’ role is causing trouble with Amal at home

DUBAI: Hollywood actor George Clooney joked this week that his hit TV series “ER” is causing him problems with his wife, British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. 

The Oscar-winning actor said in an interview with podcast SmartLess on Monday that his wife is currently watching the 1994 medical drama. 

“It’s getting me in a lot of trouble because I’d forgotten all of the terrible things (his character Doug Ross) was doing picking up on women,” said the “The Midnight Sky” actor.

Clooney played the role of a pediatrician who was dedicated to his profession, but also was a ladies’ man. He later married a nurse, Carol Hathaway, played by US actress Julianna Margulies.

Amal and George first met in 2013. They married in a lavish ceremony in Venice in 2014, and had twins, a boy, Alexander, and a girl, Ella, in 2017.

The “Ocean’s Eleven” actor also spoke about meeting his wife on the podcast. “She took my breath away. She was brilliant, funny and beautiful and kind. I was sort of swept off my feet,” he told the hosts.

“She was brilliant and funny and beautiful and kind,” he added. “I was sort of swept off my feet. We got engaged after a few months and got married within the first year that we met. It surprised me more than probably anybody else in the world — and everybody else was pretty surprised.”


‘Memory Box’ is a haunting look at love in battered Beirut

‘Memory Box’ is a haunting look at love in battered Beirut
Updated 09 March 2021

‘Memory Box’ is a haunting look at love in battered Beirut

‘Memory Box’ is a haunting look at love in battered Beirut

CHENNAI: A compelling work about love, life and loss packaged neatly and executed with brilliance, “Memory Box” competed for the Golden Bear at the recent Berlin International Film Festival. Part of the reason why the movie is so touching is its story and script, which drew inspiration from Lebanese co-director Joana Hadjithomas’ letters and diaries penned during her teens. Made with Khalil Joreige – the duo is known for their range of documentaries, features and performance art – “Memory Box” covers three generations of women from 1980s war-ravaged Beirut to icy Montreal. The writing — by the directors — is tight and leaves no room for confusion in this back-and-forth narrative.

The first film from by the award-winning directors in nine years, it has a picturesque start. It is Christmas Eve in Montreal, but one woman carries in her heart the ravages of the war, the loss of her love and the distress of seeing a sibling and parent die.

Hundreds of grainy old photos, notebooks, newspaper articles and cassettes arrive in a huge box without warning during a snowstorm at the Montreal home of Maia (Rim Turki) and her teenage daughter, Alex (Paloma Vauthier). The parcel is from Paris, and it contains just about everything Maia sent to her best friend, Liza after she left Beirut in 1983. Maia had put down every thought, every feeling, every sorrow in letters, notepads and cassettes and mailed them to Liza. Now that she is dead, the boxful of memories has been returned to the sender.

Alex is infinitely curious to see what the parcel contains, but her grandmother, or Teta (Clemence Sabbagh), discourages her, telling the young girl to hide it and wait for the holidays to be over before informing Maia. But in the middle of the night, Alex sneaks into the basement and discovers the ecstasy and agony of her mother’s youth, her love, her stolen kisses inside a car with bullets flying all around or sometimes in the darkened auditorium of a cinema.

Alex finds out that her mother, Young Maia (passionately played by Manal Issa) was strong-willed and lived with her parents, who struggled to accept the death of their son in the war. The father was a principal who refused to leave his school, and the mother a nervous wreck living each minute in fear. But carefree Maia roamed the streets with her girlfriends, until she meets the handsome Raja (Hassan Akil). And then there was no stopping them — in a visually engaging sequence we watch the two zip along on a motorbike with the city in flames. This is one of the impressive visual effects by Laurent Brett. Josee Deshaies’ cinematography offers some arresting moments. The contrast between a city living under falling bombs and the tranquility of the Canadian metropolis, where snow-white clouds hang tantalizingly low, is striking, to say the least. And the last shot of the sun rising over post-war Beirut infuses certain warmth.

It is a heady cocktail of a mother-daughter struggle and a story on the overwhelming power of memories. But the end is a tad too tame, even slightly contrived, which rather lets a wonderful film down.