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

Sara Ouhaddou is a Paris- and Rabat-based artist. (Supplied)
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Updated 10 April 2020

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.” 


Imaan Hammam was the star of Milan Fashion Week

Updated 27 September 2020

Imaan Hammam was the star of Milan Fashion Week

DUBAI: The Milan calendar is quieter than usual this season, with just a handful of designers staging physical shows and the rest opting for digital presentations. However, that didn’t stop Moroccan-Egyptian-Dutch model Imaan Hammam from having a pretty stellar Fashion Week.

Hammam, who made her runway debut at Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fall 2013 Couture show aged 17, is a Fashion Week regular.

After months of lockdown and self-isolation amid the coronavirus health crisis, the 23-year-old supermodel jetted off to Italy this week to make her runway return for a number of prestigious fashion houses. 

She kicked off Milan Fashion Week with an appearance at Fendi last week. Despite not walking for several months, when the model got out there, she made it look as easy as ever. Wearing a black, oversized blazer over a sheer top-and-skirt combo, her hair pulled back and parted neatly down the center, she stole the show.

“Feels good to be back at work,” wrote Hammam on Instagram following the event. “What a beautiful show,” she added, thanking Silvia Venturini Fendi.

Next up on Hammam’s jam-packed schedule was Alberta Ferretti’s Spring 2021 showcase that was staged in the open air in a Milan courtyard. The Amsterdam-based model opened the show wearing a belted, taupe skirt and a floral-printed top accessorized with a boho seashell necklace and suede sandals.

For her second look, Hammam stunned in a black mini-dress with a sheer skirt. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Yesterday Opening @albertaferretti what a show!!!! Thank you @aleksworo

A post shared by Imaan Hammam (@imaanhammam) on

“Yesterday opening @albertaferretti. What a show!” the model wrote on Instagram, alongside runway snaps of her looks.

Hammam’s Milan Fashion Week closed out with a bang on Friday with Donatella Versace’s under-the-sea inspired Spring 2021 runway show.

The model, who was born to a Moroccan mother and an Egyptian father, joined fellow supermodels and Versace regulars, including Irina Shayk, Adut Akech, Joan Smalls and Vittoria Ceretti, to shut down the audience-less runway in an event that was live-streamed to the rest of the world.

The catwalk star turned heads in not one but two looks. For her first runway turn, Hammam donned a colorful, striped blazer-and-shorts co-ord. She then changed into a bombshell minidress with a crystal-encrusted bodice that took the form of a shell. 

With her dewy skin and trademark curls damp, Hammam resembled a real-life mermaid. 

As Milan Fashion Week came to a close on Sunday, we now turn our sights to Paris Fashion Week, where Hammam will no doubt continue to dominate the runways.