The music in “Little Syria” is the work of Offendum with Ronnie Malley, who plays the Arab oud as well as piano, and the DJ and producer known as Thanks Joey, who often samples early 20th-century Arab-American recordings. The poetic heart of the project is in a bilingual song featuring words by Elia Abu Madi, a prominent literary figure in the neighborhood.
“He was an immigrant originally from Lebanon, but actually grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, and he was one of the most incredible Arabic poets in the neighborhood,” Offendum said. “I mean, his poetry is still studied in Arabic schools all across the world today.”
Offendum translates Abu Madi’s Arabic chorus into English in one of the song’s verses:
Almost asleep are all the people in this beautiful city,
And fall upon New York a feeling of tranquility.
Yet my eyelids still deceive me
As they see nothing but that enduring sadness that bereaves me.
To which of course I can only mean one thing:
“You know, this idea of longing for your homeland is really prevalent throughout Arabic poetry, especially in what we call the migrant poets, the people who had come here,” he explained. “All these folks through their newspapers and their poems were sort of communicating with each other, and sending these beautiful poetic messages back across the ocean and talking about life here, the struggles and the triumphs. And I think what we’re doing by today bridging that with English and hip hop and obviously theater in this way is just like another layer of that. It’s hopefully considered an homage to them.”
The show’s BAM run has been curated by poet Hanif Abdurraqib. For him, “Little Syria” is part of an even bigger picture.
“Anything that can reframe our relationship to place and remind us that we are not the first anywhere, and that there are histories that have existed before us,” Abdurraqib explained, “that is not only a humbling process, I think, but it is one that hopefully could allow us to approach the places that we have the honor of being the most recent custodians of, that we can treat those well.”
Read more: Hanif Abdurraqib talks about the series he curated for BAM
But history has not been kind to Little Syria. The tangle of roads leading to the Battery Tunnel, now the Hugh L Carey Tunnel, has left virtually no trace of the thriving community that used to live there.
“So this is a story of diaspora and a story of immigration, but this is also very much a story about New York,” Offendum said, “because really I think that’s one of the most amazing things about the city: the fact that there are people from all over the world who come here and rewrite what it means to be a New Yorker, and what it means to be an American.”
“Little Syria” runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Thursday, May 19th, through Saturday, May 21st; bam.org