By Aya Elamroussi
Todd Fine was coming of age in his college years in the early 2000s. He was in Harvard University studying politics when the terror attacks of September 11 happened, and the United States went to war against Iraq. The political climate at the time compelled him to learn about the literary works of Arab Americans.
“I was in a period of crisis,” Fine said at Busboys and Poets restaurant Monday night. “When I graduated [from] 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.”
Fine’s curiosity about Arab Americans led him to 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.
Rihani and Gibran are renowned for their work as the first Arab Americans literary artists, writing the first Arab American poetry and prose in English. They settled in what became known as “Little Syria” in Downtown Manhattan on Washington Street.
“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.
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. “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 1940s, there was no more Little Syria on Washington Street— thanks to the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Fine said. Fine, 36, founded the non-profit organization Washington Street Historical Society to preserve what is left from Little Syria, which are only three buildings on Washington Street Downtown Manhattan. But 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. 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 park that is being built near Battery Park and the Financial District in Downtown Manhattan. The art exhibit is aimed at honoring the literary writers of the neighborhood. In addition to Rihani and Gibran’s art, the art exhibit at the park will also feature art by a young Moroccan artist, Sara Ouhaddou, according to Fine.
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. Fine said that Rihani’s political activism is the reason he appreciates him. According to Fine, Rihani was a creative person who put the responsibility on his own shoulders and came up with creative ways to deal with the politics of his time without being a politician or being connected to any institution.
“[Rihani traveled] by camel to Riyadh in the 1920s to build an alliance between Iraq and Saudi Arabia to affect the British imperialism as a poet from Manhattan,” Fine said. “For me it was endlessly fascinating.”
Fine said that he hopes his attempts to preserve Arab Americans’ literary art is noticed by Arab Americans as a gift and an act of love toward them. Fine added that he understands how Arab Americans must feel.
“It’s hard being Arab in today’s world… I’m just sympathizing,” Fine said.
Fine said he sees his efforts to display Arab American literary art as a way to show Arab Americans and Arabic speakers that Americans appreciate their art and culture. Fine said he feels that the art display will show Arabs and Arabic speakers that Americans care about them and their art.
“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.”