Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: April 2012
Several neighborhoods in New York City have sheltered important literary communities and movements: Greenwich Village was the stomping ground of the Beat Writers and the so-called “Lost Generation,” Brooklyn Heights claimed Richard Wright, W.H. Auden, and Truman Capote, and today’s vibrant contemporary literary scene stretches from Brooklyn Heights to Fort Greene.
However, in terms of global impact, the “Little Syria” neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, along the lower part of Washington Street, produced one of the most significant New York literary movements of all. Concentrated on Washington Street, from Battery Park up through Rector Street, and as high as Chambers Street, Little Syria was famous throughout the Arab world. A sizeable cohort of writers that worked in this neighborhood and formed an organization called the “Pen League” is still widely read in Arabic-speaking countries. They launched an aggressive campaign of innovation in the style and form of Arabic literature, explicitly importing Western and American ideas. The work of one of its participants, Kahlil Gibran’s singular English-language phenomenon The Prophet (1923), thrives as one of the best-selling books in world history, with estimates ranging from eleven to one hundred million copies sold.
Yet, besides Gibran with his massive popular following, collective memory in the United States and in New York City has largely forgotten both this first Arab-American neighborhood (mostly demolished by the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and by the World Trade Center) and the talented writers who operated there and often wrote in English as well as Arabic. This ignorance even has physical consequences for New Yorkers today.
The Arab-American community, in New York and nationally, has had to struggle in a difficult fight with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the final three remaining historic buildings of Washington Street from demolition. This preservation campaign has received wide media attention in Europe and in the Arab world, but New Yorkers may not be familiar enough with the history of Little Syria to understand why Arab-Americans, of both Christian and Muslim background, feel so strongly about it.
From the 1870s until around 1940, New York City was the center of Arab life in the United States and in the Western Hemisphere, and, from Washington Street, Lebanese and Syrian merchants built up armies of peddlers and import-export empires that reached from the Midwest to Latin America. And with its freedom from Ottoman control and vibrant newspaper scene (strengthened by the adaptation of modern printing presses to Arabic script in New York), the neighborhood cradled a vibrant group of poets and intellectuals who gathered in the numerous cafés and pastry shops which dotted Washington Street. In addition to Gibran, other key figures (also born in modern-day Lebanon) included the popular poet Elias Abu Madi (1889 or 1890–1957), the mystical Mikhail Naimy (1889 –1988), and the versatile mentor of them all, Ameen Rihani (1876–1940).
While much of their writing engages specific Arab cultural issues and nationalism, a good amount directly addresses American and New York themes in a surprisingly modern and universalist manner. One work in particular, the first Arab-American novel written in English, Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911), tells the story of two young men who leave Lebanon for Little Syria. The New York setting serves as a vehicle for a sophisticated philosophical rumination about Arab democratic revolution and religious reform.
Melville House, the Brooklyn press which has undertaken a mission to revive many overlooked works of literature through its “Neversink” series, is republishing an edition of this long out-of-print novel in May. Because of its explicit theme of revolution in the Arab world (the novel concludes with revolutionary riots in Damascus, Syria against the Ottoman Empire), intellectuals of the Arab Spring have grappled with the novel’s uncanny parallels with the events that occurred exactly one hundred years after its publication.
In Rihani’s Arabic-language writings, he used the symbolism of New York in a conscious appeal to the Arab world. In one essay, while looking out from the Brooklyn Bridge, he asked, “When will you turn your face towards the East? Is it possible that the future will witness a Statue of Liberty next to the pyramids?” Now, as some of Rihani’s dreams articulated in The Book of Khalid are perhaps materializing, New Yorkers may wish to consider how some of the most powerful and creative visions of Arab revolution and of cultural dialogue were first articulated from a now forgotten Lower Manhattan neighborhood.
Todd Fine is the director of Project Khalid, which commemorates 100 years of Ameen Rihani’s “The Book of Khalid” and promotes education about Rihani’s work and life.