By Aya Elamroussi
Todd Fine was coming of age when the United States was battling the war in Iraq. He was in Harvard University studying politics when the terror attacks of September 11 happened. Instead of adding to the unease most Americans felt toward Arab Americans and Muslims at that time, he decided to learn about the literary works of Arab Americans.
“I was in a period of crisis,” Fine said to a room of about 60 people at the Busboys and Poets restaurant located on the corner of 5 and K streets Monday night.
“When I graduated college, we were looking at the Iraq War and a lot of problems. I wanted to learn more about Arab Americans and what did have to say.”
That’s when Fine stumbled upon the literary works of Ameen Rihani and Kahlil Gibran. Rihani and Gibran were among the first wave of Arabs to emigrate from Greater Syria–today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine– and settle in New York City in the 1880s, said Lyne Sneige, Art and Cultural Program Director at the Middle East Institute, who moderated the discussion.
“I learned that poets like Kahlil Gibran were not just in the clouds writing about love, but they were actually quite active and involved in the politics of their time and dealing with crises as writers,” Fine said.
Rihani and Gibran are renowned for their work as the first Arab Americans literary artists, penning the first Arab American poetry and prose in English. They settled in what became known as “Little Syria” in Downtown Manhattan on Washington Street.
Because New York City is known to be the destination for new immigrants, groups who come to America from the same country usually settle near each other. “New York was the place of entry for all immigrants,” Fine said.
To be clear, “Little Syria” is an American expression used to label the geographic neighborhood where the first wave of Arab immigrants settled in the U.S, Fine said. The city of New York has many neighborhoods as such like “Little Italy,” “Little Egypt” and “Little India” just to name a few.
By the time the 1940s rolled around, there was no more Little Syria on Washington Street.
Fine said people from Little Syria started to relocate to Brooklyn Heights to seek better living conditions. “They didn’t want to live in these tenements,” Fine said. “They would get very stuffy, [which caused] problems with disease.”
“But the kicker was the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel,” Fine said. Robert Moses, New York City’s planner in the mid-20th century, led a series of construction projects which led to the destruction of Little Syria. “He leveled most of Little Syria to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which eliminated the lower part of Washington Street.”
Unwavering, Fine founded the non-profit organization Washington Street Historical Society specifically to preserve what is left from Little Syria, which are only three buildings on Washington Street Downtown Manhattan.
Because Little Syria was, according to Fine, at some of the most valuable real estate property in the world, preservation is not easy.
“Preservation seems so impossible with tens and millions of dollars at stake,” Fine said. Investors are willing and able to buy the remaining buildings of Little Syria, level them and build skyscrapers.
In turn, his organization took an alternative route to preserve the literary art of some of the first Arab Americans who lived in Little Syria.
Fine persuaded the City of New York and the Department of Cultural Affairs to include an art component in a new part that is being built near Battery Park and the Financial District in Downtown Manhattan. The art component is aimed at honoring the literary writers of the neighborhood. In addition to Rihani and Gibran’s art, the park will also feature art by a young Moroccan artist, Sara Ouhaddou, according to Fine.
Notably, Fine’s motivation to preserve Arab American art is to honor the language and culture of a people whose art is being diminished and insulted.
“It’s hard being Arab in today’s world… I’m just sympathizing,” Fine said.
Fine said that he hopes his attempts to preserve Arab Americans’ literary art is noticed by Arab Americans as a gift so Arab Americans can see that their art and culture appreciated.
“It’s not about religion,” Fine said. “It’s about shared humanity.”
“And what better message can we have than writers who made that their total orientation.”