Just below the World Trade Center and Liberty Park in Lower Manhattan, you’ll find Washington Street, a stretch of four relatively nondescript blocks. There’s a hotel, a Starbucks, a burger place.
But from around 1880 to 1940, this street was the hub of a thriving neighborhood called Little Syria. Now, that neighborhood gives its name to a new show by the Syrian-American rapper and poet Omar Offendum, onstage this week for a three-night run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
"I’ve kind of transplanted myself into that time period, as what I like to call the Hakawati of the neighborhood," Offendum said in a recent interview. "And Hakawati essentially means a storyteller or a griot."
The story of "Little Syria" is full of surprises, and the biggest of all — aside from the fact that there even was a Little Syria — is that one of the most popular books ever published was written there. Kahlil Gibran wrote "The Prophet" on Washington Street, and he is one of the written sources for Omar Offendum’s storytelling.
So, too, are the newspapers – groundbreaking Arabic publications from the neighborhood and wider circulation newspapers whose stories are uncomfortably familiar.
"Some of these newspaper headlines, honestly it’s like they were lifted from today," Offendum said. "You know, like 'Syrians must go back' and 'Syrians must be deported' and 'we don’t want Syrian immigrants here,' etcetera."
The music in "Little Syria" is the work of Offendum with Ronnie Malley, who plays the Arab oud as well as piano, and the DJ and producer known as Thanks Joey, who often samples early 20th-century Arab-American recordings. The poetic heart of the project is in a bilingual song featuring words by Elia Abu Madi, a prominent literary figure in the neighborhood.
"He was an immigrant originally from Lebanon, but actually grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, and he was one of the most incredible Arabic poets in the neighborhood," Offendum said. "I mean, his poetry is still studied in Arabic schools all across the world today."
Offendum translates Abu Madi’s Arabic chorus into English in one of the song’s verses:
Fast asleep are all the people in this beautiful city,
And fallen upon New York a feeling of tranquility.
Yet my eyelids still deceive me
As they see nothing but that enduring sadness that bereaves me.
To which of course I can only mean one thing:
"You know, this idea of longing for your homeland is really prevalent throughout Arabic poetry, especially in what we call the migrant poets, the people who had come here," he explained. "All these folks through their newspapers and their poems were sort of communicating with each other, and sending these beautiful poetic messages back across the ocean and talking about life here, the struggles and the triumphs. And I think what we’re doing today by bridging that with English and hip hop and obviously theater in this way is just like another layer of that. It’s hopefully considered an homage to them."
The show's BAM run has been curated by poet Hanif Abdurraqib. For him, "Little Syria" is part of an even bigger picture.
"Anything that can reframe our relationship to place and remind us that we are not the first anywhere, and that there are histories that have existed before us," Abdurraqib explained, "that is not only a humbling process, I think, but it is one that hopefully could allow us to approach the places that we have the honor of being the most recent custodians of, that we can treat those well."
But history has not been kind to Little Syria. The tangle of roads leading to the Battery Tunnel, now the Hugh L Carey Tunnel, has left virtually no trace of the thriving community that used to live there.
"So this is a story of diaspora and a story of immigration, but this is also very much a story about New York," Offendum said, "because really I think that’s one of the most amazing things about the city: the fact that there are people from all over the world who come here and rewrite what it means to be a New Yorker, and what it means to be an American."
"Little Syria" runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Thursday, May 19th, through Saturday, May 21st; bam.org