en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 17, Number 3May/June 1966

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Damascus in Brooklyn

Written by Michael B. Sullivan
Photographed by Thomas B. Stevens

Six days a week—and on the seventh when the spirit moves him—Elias Malko Karkenni, a chubby, bumptious Syrian of 63, scurries around his oriental food shop breathing in the converging scents of cinnamon, sweet paprika, curry powder, baklava, pistachioes, almonds, cashews and spices from all over the Middle East. He sets in place the urns of Turkish coffee, the narghilas —water pipes—and pouches of tobacco, dusts off the ouds and dirbekehs and finally throws his doors open to what will be first a trickle, and then a stream, of Turks, Hindi, Greeks and Arabs flowing into his shop.

There is nothing inherently unusual about the scene. Syrian merchants, after all, have been at this sort of thing for centuries. Except that outside Elias Malko Karkenni's shop there are skyscrapers reaching up to a sky crowded with jets. Except that by the docks down the road a bit the largest ocean liners in the world pass by on their way to Europe. Except that Elias's shop is not in Syria. It's in Brooklyn. On Atlantic Avenue, to be exact, right in the heart of an area which is the center of distribution of Middle East food, clothes, music and information. "You ask anybody in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Miami," says Elias Malko in between bites of cheese which he will share with you from behind his counter, "where you can get Middle East food, wholesale, and he'll tell you Atlantic Avenue."

"And," he goes on, "he'd be right! Look at that." Eiias points toward an area five blocks square where, it turns out, there are three community clubs, three pastry shops, two music stores and three bakeries, all devoted to things Eastern and Arab. In addition, there are churches where the Eastern rites are celebrated as they have been for centuries and, a block north of the avenue along a quiet, tree-lined street, the Islamic Mission of America, with New York City's only mosque.

But Atlantic Avenue is the mainspring of the area and if you take the subway from Times Square to Borough Hall station, walk south two blocks and turn west toward the harbor, you can't miss it. Indeed you can't, for as you walk past the unassuming cluster of stores and shops you're sure to hear the wailing chant of a Middle East vocalist, the gentle plucking of the oud or the shifting thud of a desert drum. If you stop and look around, you'll see signs above the shops in ornate Arabic calligraphy telling you the owner's trade. In the windows you may see round flat discs of bread and in the air you may catch the smell of roasting nuts or strange spices packed in old-fashioned glass containers. There's no doubt that here in Brooklyn is a genuine slice of the Middle East, transplanted, adjusted, but undeniably the Middle East.

More than 40 years ago there was a great influx of Arabs into the United States, most from the Levant. Following the tradition of their fathers, many of the immigrants set themselves up as merchants in shops along Washington Street on the southwestern tip of Manhattan Island where, in the shadows of Wall Street's high towers, it soon won the name, "Little Syria," and became a kind of informal center of immigration for the Arab world. Barely had an immigrant landed on Ellis Island—just a seitoon's throw off the tip of Manhattan—when the merchants of Washington Street were chipping in to provide a stake and were advising him on how to get on in America. Since most of the newcomers turned instinctively to trade, it's no exaggeration to say that they literally peddled their way across the United States.

In the thirties, however, the Washington Street area began to lose its merchants and after World War II, when much of the area was razed for a tunnel to connect Manhattan with Brooklyn, the remaining shopkeepers followed. They collected along Atlantic Avenue to sell their wares, fewer in number but still strong in spirit. "I'd know my people anywhere," says Joe Shuhda, who roasts nuts across from Elias'. "I know them by their eyes." Or maybe by their coffee cups. For as soon as they settled in, the neighborhood sprouted the traditional coffee shops without which an Arab would be a lonely man. And soon, along Atlantic Avenue, there arose sounds and smells that would instantly be recognized in Damascus or Beirut, voices raised in dispute over thick black coffee, dice clattering in the trictrac box, smoke rising in gentle clouds as the water in the narghilas bubbled and gurgled.

Even in Brooklyn, however, the little community faced difficulties. The city decided that the area should be demolished for a housing project and the merchants, facing the prospect of relocating a second time, decided to band together and fight. They formed the Atlantic Avenue Merchants' Association and, in the first campaign of a two-year battle, marched on City Hall. So effectively did they fight that battle that the municipality finally gave up. The Lebanese consul even awarded one merchant who spearheaded the drive a Cedars of Lebanon award for preserving the Lebanese community.

By attrition the community has shrunk over the years and today it is much quieter than the happy days when the area was checkerboarded with coffee shops. But if smaller each year, the community nevertheless survives and some of its members flourish. Joe Shuhda, for example, does a thriving business roasting nuts of all kinds and shipping them, as he puts it, "to other nut houses" all over the city. Next door is Mike Karneeb, called the "Lamb King" by Arabs all over the New York metropolitan area. They come to him from as far away as 100 miles to load their cars, 50 pounds a throw, with his lamb chops, lamb sausages and cubed lamb—ideal for stuffing in grape leaves, cabbage, squash and eggplant. A baker across the street and one flight down runs the Near East Bakery which turns out halabi, shami and the marquq from a massive 75-year-old oven set into the ground under Atlantic Avenue. If you're really famished he can also offer spinach or meat pies that warm the belly on a cold winter day. And there's Albert Rashid who discovered, 30 years ago, that he could earn an extra dinar or two by importing and showing Arab movies. He does this at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where, periodically between September and May, the 2,200-seat house fills to the balcony and the screen brightens and blares with the latest hit from Cairo or Beirut—usually a film featuring at least one belly dancer and many singers whose efforts inevitably lure the crowd into joining in. Many of the films are old and some are repeated a dozen times, but for the Atlantic Avenue set it's not so much a movie as a visit home and home is supposed to be familiar, isn't it?

Mr. Rashid, a quiet man of 57 who also runs an oriental music store, still remembers the first film he showed. It was "The White Rose," starring Abd al-Wahab, then a young man. Today he distributes Arab films all over the U.S. and shows a profit, even though he has competition in the person of Djamal Asian, another music store owner, who also rents films, and is a musician to boot. Mr. Asian plays the oud and sings at functions all over the country. His record company, Cinaraphone, has distribution rights to the works of many Middle Eastern performers and he, like Mr. Rashid, offers a wide choice of beautifully illustrated albums of Um Kulthum, Muhammad Abd al-Wahab, Farid al-Atrash, Nur al-Huda, Abd al-Aziz Mahmud and others whose voices adorn the sound tracks of numerous Arab films.

Despite the apparent preoccupation with eating, drinking and making merry, the area also has a religious character. Not far away is St. George's Church, one of the first Lebanese churches in America, and just three blocks off the avenue, the Church of Our Lady of I^ebanon stands on a quiet street. Inside, away from the clamor of the city, a hushed stillness prevails and in a painting that dominates the vaulted, balconied church, Our Lady of Lebanon gazes peacefully down at the Mediterranean, as does the original statue on Mount Harissa. The church serves a sizable congregation of Marontte Christians whose patron, Saint Maron, lived near what was then Anttoch, Syria. As Bishop Mansour Stephen, a spry man of "about 70" tells it, the Maronites in New York flocked to Brooklyn as their ancestors flocked to Lebanon. Built back in 1844, the church is being designated one of the historic buildings of Brooklyn Heights and will get a plaque to prove it.

A few blocks further on is the mosque. Though modest by comparison with the well-known mosque in Washington, D.C., it is part of the Islamic Mission in America and on the front is a plaque on which are written the five prayers which faithful Muslims must say every day. In the mosque Shaikh al-Hadj Daoud Ahmad Faisal gives Friday services to Muslims of all callings, from United Nations diplomats to merchant seamen from Middle East shaikhdoms who visit when they are in port. In 1961 Shaikh Faisal made the pilgrimage to Mecca and was invited to be a guest in the palace of the King of Saudi Arabia, possibly in tribute to his zeal in establishing, 33 years ago, a center from which he hoped to explain Islam to America.

Atlantic Avenue's only serious lack is night life. For that you must leave Brooklyn and take the subway to the side streets off Broadway on Manhattan's West Side where a small clutch of Middle East night clubs bearing names such as "Egyptian Gardens" and "Port Said" cater to the New Yorker's yen for the exotic and offer some semblance of the original Middle East entertainment. Any night you can part the curtain, enter the tent and feast your eyes on beautiful dancers whose flashing eyes stir memories of mysterious clubs in Cairo, Beirut or Baghdad. In the same neighborhood there are restaurants named the "Mecca," the "Cedars of Lebanon," or "The Shaikh" and the "Son of the Shaikh," where the succulent specialties of the Middle East dominate the menu.

But for most items it is best to return to Brooklyn, where you can buy almost anything originating in the Middle East. Wadi Sahadi, a neighbor of Rashid's from Zahle, Lebanon, can get between $50 and $200 for richly decorated, Damascus-made swords, once the pride of ancient lighting men. Wadi also sells the pipes that the Bedouin play to lead the sheep through desert places, delicately carved trains of wooden camels, hassocks, leather goods, wallets and musical instruments for those who want to play along with Asian's or Rashid's records. "The young rock 'n' roll people," he says "love to play the dirbekeh." In Malko's place there are long desert abayas—a sort of white cassock—with matching kufias— headcloths—and gold-lined agals to hold the kufias in place.

"Only crazy people buy these things," grins Elias. "They cost $25. A lot of people buy them for parties. And one man in Florida who owns five horses bought one to go riding in. If I had five horses I'd buy one too."

So life goes on in this tiny enclave. And despite the distance and the years that separate Damascus and Brooklyn the old ways haven't changed very much. There is the familiar cluster of dark-haired, black-eyed people wandering casually into stores and browsing among the dates, the spices and the watermelon seeds from Baghdad. There are customers inspecting Syrian lentils, mouloukhia and dry okra from Damascus, or looking over clay pots, hilwa and tahini from Beirut. And there are merchants standing there to greet them, saying as they have for centuries, "Marhaba," and thus launching a dialogue as old as Damascus itself.


"Tell me how much are these in this jar?"

"Ah, these are 59 cents, they are the finest..."

"Indeed, that is strange. I have found kinds like this a few blocks away for only 49 cents. Could they be the same?"

"Ah, but of course not. See here, the fine aroma, the ingredients are straight from. ..."

Damascus in Brooklyn, indeed.

Michael B. Sullivan, formerly a reporter for the Worcester Telegram and an associate editor for Barron's Financial Weekly, is now studying in Cairo under a Fulbright grant.

This article appeared on pages 29-32 of the May/June 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1966 images.