12/07/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

'Little Syria' Exhibit Opens at Arab American National Museum

On December 7, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan inaugurates an exhibit on a fascinating topic that forms the foundation of Arab-American history: the Little Syria neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. The Museum, in a few short years since its opening in 2005, has become the premier Arab-American cultural institution, and its soon-to-be-retiring director Anan Ameri has worked tirelessly under challenging conditions to establish a unique ethnic heritage museum, which, crucially, serves to educate beyond Dearborn by frequently constructing travelling exhibits. By focusing on this core, underexplored topic, they have again reasserted the importance, at this moment, of grounding our understanding of the Arab-Americans within their quite long and rich history.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the "Little Syria" area along Washington Street formed the economic and cultural heart of Arabic-speaking life in the United States. It fostered the famous Pen League of Ameen Rihani, Kahlil Gibran and others in literature, and it was the center of operations for many merchant businesses. When asked why they chose to live there near the docks, residents would joke that "they wanted to remember how to get back" or that "they didn't have the nickel to go uptown."

However, Little Syria declined and disappeared, not because the immigrants returned to Lebanon and Syria, but because of their very success in America, which led to their dispersal to other places throughout the country and to Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue in New York. As the immigrants assimilated into the American fabric, their first neighborhood became largely forgotten. Most of the neighborhood's buildings were destroyed by the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and various high-rises, and only a treasured handful of physical traces remain today (yet are still threatened). In this context, the Museum's task to rebuild awareness of this neglected story could have a significant and tangible impact on the area's future and on general perceptions of Arab-American history.

To learn more about the exhibit's development, I interviewed Dr. Matthew Jaber Stiffler, researcher at the museum.

Todd Fine: Many Arab-Americans across the United States may not realize the critical connections between Washington Street and their own personal histories, in terms of temporary stays and trading networks for their ancestors. As a museum in Michigan, did you discover anything in your research that especially will help you establish these connections for your audience?

Dr. Matthew Jaber Stiffler: It makes sense that Arab-Americans have often referred to the New York community as the "Mother Colony." Besides supplying peddlers and stores with goods nationwide and throughout North America, Little Syria's businesses established many other connections with budding Arab-American communities. We have found postcards from New York-based bankers to clients in Iowa and have read memoirs of store owners in West Virginia that write of getting their start with Little Syria's textile manufacturers. And these aren't even the connections that made it into the exhibit. The more well-known examples of these connections are Detroit's Germack Pistachio Co., which began in Little Syria; noted-Hawaiian shirt designer Alfred Shaheen (who was honored in 2012 with a stamp from the U.S. Postal Service), whose grandfather established multiple textile businesses in and around Little Syria; and a Syrian-born Orthodox bishop who established dozens of parishes across the United States.

One of the most unfortunate things about the historiography of Little Syria is that we cannot really identify "the book" that provides the core historical consensus, such as population estimates and causal theories regarding immigration flow. How did the museum address this problem of lack of historical writings in trying to tell this story in a reasonably accurate way?

The exhibit focuses more on themes and trends, instead of exact numbers and figures. Much of our research was based on newspaper accounts, both from Arab-American sources as well as others, and family history. Even without exact figures, given the diversity of government classification of Arabs as either Syrian, Turkish, Asian, etc., we were able to find patterns and corroboration of stories through the multiple sources that we consulted. Community members from today's Arab-American community in New York have provided the best information and leads.

Do you have any particularly interesting stories about discovering information or objects for the exhibit?

We stumbled upon a fashion blog post about Odette Barsa, a name we had never encountered before. We found that Odette Barsa was the wife of one of Little Syria's most well-known textile manufacturers. In the early 1930s, Odette opened her own shop manufacturing women's lingerie on Fifth Avenue. As her popularity grew, her designs were featured in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue from the 1940s to 1970s. Today, Barsa's designs are collected by vintage clothing enthusiasts. Her daughter, Ms. Nadia Gerrity, was thrilled that her mother's legacy would be featured in our exhibit and sent us many colorful advertisements and magazine spreads.

Some of the exhibit promotional materials make the argument that educating people about Little Syria and the Arab presence in Lower Manhattan could serve to improve the image of Arab-Americans and their long history. What aspects of this story do think might especially be helpful in correcting stereotypes?

Unfortunately, the attacks of September 11, 2001, thrust Arab Americans into the spotlight as if they had just shown up in the country at that time. There was little discussion of the long history of Arab-Americans, both Muslim and Christian, in the United States, and particularly lower Manhattan, and of their contributions to their communities and the nation. Further, the story of the early Arab-American community of New York is similar to other immigrant communities at the time. The types of businesses and associations that Arabs formed in New York and the hardships they faced as recently arrived immigrants mirrors the experience of Jews, Italians, Hungarians, and other ethnic groups. The best way to combat stereotypes is by providing accurate information. The "Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community's Life and Legacy" exhibit is both engaging and educational and, because we focus on stories of individuals and families, will help solidify the Arab immigrant experience as an American one.