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Forgetting 'Little Syria' at 9/11 memorial

Perceived exclusion of Arab roots from New York City’s World Trade Center museum stirs debate.

Last Modified: 02 Aug 2013 13:23
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The 9/11 Memorial Museum now under construction is scheduled to open to the public in the spring of 2014 [Reuters]

New York City, United States - One of Carl Antoun’s favourite things to do in Manhattan’s financial district is to ask passers-by, “Did you know that you’re standing in Little Syria right now?”

Less than 100 years ago, New York City’s renowned commercial district was home to the largest Arab community in the Western hemisphere. Since the 1880’s, Arab immigrants from what was then known as Greater Syria - and later divided into present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine - settled in this neighbourhood, the first stop in New York City after Ellis Island.

Streets that are now lined with skyscrapers housing the headquarters of world financial institutions were instead lined with low-rise Arabic coffee shops, Middle Eastern restaurants and shops. Men in traditional fezzes poured coffee for passers-by on the streets.

They went right to Lower Manhattan, they wanted to be close to the water, just like over there. They were used to getting on ships to transport their goods and whatnot.

Carl Antoun, Save Washington Street preservation society

Antoun’s family, like many others, were merchants who brought their trade from present-day Lebanon to New York City. They exported dried goods, jewelry, sewing materials and textiles - particularly silk - to Latin America and Mexico.

“They went right to Lower Manhattan, they wanted to be close to the water, just like over there. They were used to getting on ships to transport their goods and whatnot,” Antoun told Al Jazeera.

Antoun’s grandmother grew up at 1662 Washington Street, which isn’t there anymore. Most of Little Syria has since been destroyed, first with the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel during the 1940s, and then the rest with the construction of the World Trade Center during the 1960s.

Most of Little Syria’s original immigrants and their descendants have since moved and settled in the traditionally Arab-American areas of Brooklyn such as Bay Ridge and Atlantic Avenue, though many residents and businesses - including the popular Sahadi’s grocery store on Atlantic Avenue - trace their roots back to Little Syria.

Remembering'Little Syria'

Now, Antoun is part of Save Washington Street, a preservation society campaigning to recognise the three remaining buildings of Little Syria as city landmarks. However, in recent months, Save Washington Street has taken on another task: challenging the September 11 Memorial Museum to include Little Syria in its permanent exhibit.

The museum is set to open in April 2014 as part of the September 11 Memorial sight. Recently, it became publicly known the museum does not plan to include any mention of Little Syria in its permanent exhibit.

Although the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibit is specifically designed to showcase the history of the World Trade Center site, there will be no mention of Little Syria or its artifacts on display in this collection, raising concern that Manhattan’s Arab roots are being sidelined.

When pressed on the issue, 9/11 Memorial spokesman Michael Frazier said the museum had offered to include an oral history of Little Syria in a temporary exhibit that would run only for a few months.

Todd Fine, one of the founders of Save Washington Street, said the offer “is not enough”.

“In the oral history section, the story of Little Syria will be stored with thousands of other histories and heard by a much smaller amount of people,” Fine said. “If it is in the permanent exhibit, it will be seen by hundreds of millions.”

Of additional concern to the advocacy groups is that although there are brochures in several different languages at the memorial site, Arabic - the fourth-most spoken language in the world - is not one of them.

Groups are concerned Arab roots to New York are being ignored

“The lack of Arabic brochures and the apparent exclusion of Arab-American history suggests a pattern of discrimination towards Arabs and Arab-Americans,” Raed Jarrar, communications director for the Arab-American Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), said.

Jarrar and the ADC are not the only ones who feel the decision could be interpreted as discriminatory. Sarab al-Jijakli, president of the Network of Arab-American professionals, agreed with the assessment.

“The decision to exclude any mention of ‘Little Syria’ in the permanent historical exhibit is problematic, as it omits an important historical fact that all New Yorkers should be made aware of and, intentionally or not, adds to the ongoing marginalisation of Arab-Americans by erasing the community’s history and role in helping build this great city.” 

‘A sentence or a photograph’

Although the ADC and Save Washington Street volunteered to provide the necessary research and artifacts to include Little Syria in the museum free of charge, the museum responded to letters of concern from the ADC eight weeks later by saying there is not enough time for the work involved to include Little Syria in the museum’s permanent exhibit.

“All we are asking for is a sentence or a photograph,” said Fine.

Another concern is the enormous amount of taxpayer money being allocated towards the museum, and the ensuing disregard for the Arab-American community, a significant demographic of US and New York tax-payers who are funding it. So far, the September 11 Memorial Museum has taken in $300m in taxpayer-funded grants, and will have a yearly operating cost of $60m.

“We expect that all Americans, all US taxpayers, will be respected and included in the museum,” Jarrar said, framing the perceived exclusion of Arab-American history as a public funding issue.

For many involved in the fight to include Little Syria in the September 11 memorial’s permanent exhibit, the signs of discrimination bring back memories from the initial weeks and months following the September 11 attacks.

Despite their long-history as Americans, the Arab-American community - many of which are second and third generation - still bears the brunt of heightened suspicion, discrimination and in some cases, personal and violent attacks.

Antoun recalls when, in the weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center, many Arabic grocery stores on Atlantic Avenue were vandalised, and had rocks repeatedly thrown at their windows. One store even placed a giant banner outside their business that said, “We Are Christian” in bright red marker.

We expect that all Americans, all US taxpayers, will be respected and included in the museum.

Raed Jarrar Arab-American Anti Discrimination Committee

Coincidentally, many Arab immigrants who originally settled in New York’s Little Syria were Christian, rather than Muslim. Still, Antoun is adamant that the fight today is about shared Arab identity, not religious differences.

“They weren’t alien as people may think,” Antoun said, referring to the Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans of Little Syria. “They fought in World War I and in World War II and did a lot to cultivate the American fabric.”

Past to the future

In addition to honouring the Arab-American community with historical integrity, Antoun said including Little Syria in the permanent exhibit will have an impact on future generations of Arab-Americans as well.

“I think what we are doing could make more recent immigrants feel more at home, and like they have a place in our history, too,” Antoun said.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security issued new regulations that will allow more Syrian refugees fleeing the current conflict in Syria to settle in the United States for longer. In addition to Syrians coming to the US, new generations of Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese and many other Arabs are coming to visit, study, join family and, in some cases, start a new life - just as their ancestors may have done in Little Syria more than 100 years ago.

“Right now there is not enough cultural understanding of Arabs,” Antoun said. “It [the inclusion of Little Syria in the museum] would be an excellent opportunity to open the doors and get things going.”

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Al Jazeera
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