ON THE MERITS AND FUTURE DESTINIES OF THE UNITED STATES
CURATED BY AVA ANSARI
PERFORMANCE BY AVA ANSARI & BRIAN ZEGEER
MOBILE ART INSTALLATIONS BY BRIAN ZEGEER
SPECIAL PROJECTS | ARMORY SHOW 2015
"And is this the gate of Paradise, or the port of some subterrestrial city guarded by the Jinn? What a marvel of enchantment is everything around us!"
-Ameen Rihani, The Book of Khalid
The multicomponent program clebrated Little Syria, a large enclave of Levantine immigrants who lived in Lower West Side of Manhattan from 1890 until 1940 when the community was evicted through an act of eminent domain for the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel led by Robert Moses. “To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons—more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville or Sacramento. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods.”
Little Syria multiple programs include a short film, a parade, a podcast, and a playlist.
LITTLE SYRIA PARADE
The public celebration honors the cultural inheritance of the Little Syria and tells its history while questioning the forceful urban policies that eliminate the poor and diasporic communities and their urban histories. It hopes to revive Little Syria's legacy and raise awareness of the efforts to preserve the three remaining buildings from the old neighborhood.
The parade is guided by performers, Ava Ansari and Brian Zegeer, who frame the ambivalent position of activists as Shakib and Khalid, the protagonists of Ameen Rihani’s Book of Khalid. Shakib, performed by Ansari, represents the voice of tradition, offering important aspects of Little Syria’s history and accomplishments of its notable residents. Shakib’s history lesson is continually undercut, dredged down with counterfactual statements quoted from Rihani’s anti-hero, Khalid, performed by Brian Zegeer. Khalid is the voice of doubt, absurd fantasies of the future, and cynicism at this history project in the face of looming hi-rise condos that spring up like so many mushrooms.
Guided by Shakib and Khalid, Little Syria Parade participants will chant and walk in Little Syria streets while wearing costumes made by Zegeer. The wearable sculptures are modeled after notable early Lower manhattan skyscrapers; Little Syria residents inventions; and Kahlil Gibran's illustrations that shockingly resemble some of the most iconic Robert Moses' public works including the 1964 Worlds Fair. Together, they evoke a walking, bouncing early-20th century NYC skyline as they travel the streets of this forgotten community. From the 1880's through the 1940's Little Syria was the landing point for thousands of immigrants from Levant, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, a rich cultural center that produced the first Arabic linotype machine, dozens of newspapers for the growing diaspora community, recordings of traditional Arabic music, and The al-Mahjar literary movement that included Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet.
The tour finishes in front of the three buildings that remain of Little Syria: a church, a community center, and a tenement building. Together, these structures encapsulate the various spheres of daily life of the Levantine immigrant community in the early 20th-Century . Mary Ann Haick DiNapoli, historian, genealogist, and Municipal Arts Society tour guide, will speak to the crowd about the successful historic landmarking of St. George's Melkite Church by her group, Friends of the Lower West Side, and the very real danger facing the tenement and community center in the face of the city's redevelopment plans for the "Greenwich Street South" zone of Lower Manhattan.
Other participants then share their personal connections to the community, notably Todd Fine, founder of the Washington Street Historical Society and Project Khalid, and Kim Charles Kay, an artist who is embedded in the Atlantic Avenue community in Brooklyn, the location where much of the Little Syria community resettled after the 1940's.
The cityscape in miniature then will perform the feat of marching into St. George's Melkite Church, not to light a candle for the vanished community, but to sample the fare of the Chinese restaurant that now inhabits the nave of the former Syrian church.
LITTLE SYRIA SHORT FILM
Husam Al-Sayed, director, and Salar Ansari, composer, follow Brian Zegeer, an Alpachian-Lebenese artist and relative of Ameen Rihani currently in residence at the Queens Museum, as he speaks about the history of the vanished enclave and prepares for the “Little Syria Parade”, a participatory performance that commemorates the little known historic Lower-Manhattan neighborhood as a part of The Armory Show 2015. Al-Sayed and Ansari are the recipients of Art Jameel's 2015 artist residency hosted by the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts (EFA) in New York. The trip marked both artists first visit to the United States.
LITTLE SYRIA PILLOWTALK
Stationed at Culturunenrs RV’s bedroom, “Pillowtalk” podcast program was hosted by Ava Ansari and Salar Ansari. Little Syria Pillowtalk was a friendly conversation with Todd Fine, founding President of Washington Street Historical Society (WSHS) and Brian Zegeer about their personal and professional connections to Little Syria.
LITTEL SYRIA-PLAYTIME WITH SALAR ANSARI
A colorful sound procession intended to revive the legacy of Little Syria, this important piece of NYC’s cultural heritage.