Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Arab New York

Fifty years ago lower Manhattan was home to a vibrant Arab community dubbed Little Syria. David Dunlap in the Times:
Conjure, for a moment, a place just steps from City Hall but a world apart. Salaam.

Yes, that is the fragrance of strong coffee in the air, of sweet figs and tart lemons, of pastries that remind buyers of childhoods in Damascus and Beirut. Bazaars abound with handmade rugs and brass lamps and water pipes. Men wear fezzes. A few women retire behind veils. Al-Hoda is the leading newspaper. Business signs — at least those legible to a non-Arabic speaker — proclaim “Rahaim & Malhami,” “Noor & Maloof” and “Sahadi Bros.”

This is not what the lower west side of Manhattan would look like if the much-debated Islamic community center were built two blocks from the World Trade Center site. This is what it looked like decades before the World Trade Center was even envisioned. This is its heritage.

New York is like that, and many other places in America are like that. Before some neighborhoods were what they are today, they were Greek enclaves or Jewish enclaves and before that maybe they were warehouse districts or African burying grounds or Indian villages. I have done a lot of archaeology on Civil War battlefields, and most of what you find comes not from the battle but from the homes of people who lived there before and after the few days of fighting. The claim of any one group of people or one event to a particular plot of land is always questionable, always subject to other, competing claims.

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