Call for Narrative Webisode Screenplays
The Middle East Film Initiative (MEFI) is soliciting narrative webisode screenplays on the subject of Manhattan’s Little Syria and its inhabitants. MEFI will select one webisode to be produced as the pilot of an episodic web series. Additional screenplays will be considered for the following episodes.
The Middle East Film Initiative (MEFI) promotes diversity and the creation of equal employment opportunities in United States film, TV, and new media. The MEFI community serves U.S. media and entertainment professionals who are of Middle Eastern descent or working on topics of importance to local Middle Eastern communities.
Little known today, starting in the 1880s until the 1940s, a thriving Levantine neighborhood called the “Syrian Quarter”, “Mother Colony” or “Little Syria” existed in downtown Manhattan. People from all over the Western Asian part of the Ottoman Empire made New York City their home. Textile and food businesses thrived. New York City, together with Cairo and Beirut, was an international center of Arabic language publishing. Renowned writers, poets, journalists, and artists such as Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani emerged from this community. The feminist Afifa Karam published her popular Arabic writings in Little Syria. In a cosmopolitan New York, they found innovative ways of making sense of their Eastern and Western, Middle Eastern and American identities. Following the displacement of Little Syria’s inhabitants due to the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which began in 1940, many relocated to Brooklyn. Today, only three buildings remain of Little Syria on Washington Street, two of which are threatened with destruction.
We have assembled a selection of excerpts from period writings as well as contemporary testimonials of former residents of Little Syria to independently serve as inspiration for a stand-alone webisode. Please choose ONE (1) of the subjects listed below under I through IV as the basis for a fictional webisode set in New York City during the time when Manhattan’s Little Syria existed. The webisode should be 6-8 minutes long. This opportunity is open to all.
Please submit your qualifying screenplay along with a synopsis, bio, cover note, and a signed copy of the release to [email protected]. Indicate on the title page of your script on which of the proposed subjects or interview clips your screenplay is based. Each applicant may submit up to two (2) entries on different subjects. Please submit a separate submission package for each script. All documents must be in PDF format. Receipt will be confirmed. Incomplete submission packages will not be considered. If you are a co-writer, include a separate bio. All co-writers have to sign the release. The script must be in industry format and in the English language. If part of the text is in a language other than English, a professional translation must be submitted with the application. The participating screenwriter is responsible for keeping their personal contact information up to date.
The entry period begins on May 25, 2017. Submissions are due by September 10, 2017 at 11.59 pm EST (extended deadline).
- We are seeking to bring quality entertainment content to a wide audience within the limits of a low-budget production.
- All genres of scripted narrative live action will be considered, with the exception of docufiction, docudrama and historical reenactments. We encourage the development of innovative approaches to referencing a historical setting and how it informs us today.
- We are interested in meaningful roles for both men and women. We are looking to diversify and increase the in-depth on-screen representation of women and people of Middle Eastern descent in the U.S.
The Middle East Film Initiative interviewed former residents of Manhattan’s Little Syria. You can find their testimonials here on the following topics:
- Leaving Syria
- Language and Ethnicity
- Economic situation
- World War II
- Music and Dance
- Food and Hospitality
- Next Generations
Pick ONE (1) of the video clips and write a narrative webisode which is informed by the thoughts, atmosphere and information contained in it.
II. Afifa Karam: Fatima the Bedouin
In 1908, the successful young journalist Afifa Karam (1883-1924), while living in Louisiana, published her second novel Fatima the Bedouin in Manhattan’s Little Syria. It tells the story of Fatima, a Bedouin formerly from Baalbek (located in modern-day Lebanon), who—speaking perfect English—is stranded on New York’s Broadway with her baby. Alice Harrison, a privileged and independent woman, takes them home to her mansion. The two women bond in unexpected ways, open-mindedly sharing the stories of their lives, loves, and circumstances.
Chapter One: On Broadway
In the greatest city in the New World—the great city of New York with a population of more than four million people—and on its greatest street, the magnificent Broadway, among the crowds rushing to their work on a summer day, a confused, perplexed woman was staggering like a drunk, as if her eyes could not see the ground she was treading on account of her scattered thoughts.
The woman was about twenty years old, with a tan complexion closer to fair than to brown. Her cheeks were so rosy that an onlooker would think that they comprise milk and wine, and above them were a pair of beautiful eyes bordered above by two sharp swords protecting her from the looks of people or rather protecting people from her unwittingly killer looks. She was tall with a somewhat full figure, indicating good health which is the source of true beauty, especially when combined with matching features. In her arms, she carried an eight or nine months old baby, beautiful like his mother, but different in appearance since he was fair with blond hair while his mother’s was chestnut.
Since she was, as previously stated, confused and perplexed, and was in great danger in a city where the danger besetting a pedestrian on its crowded streets is greater than that besetting someone sailing on the sea, a police officer who had been watching her, and had become suspicious, approached her, took off his hat and said to her gently and respectfully:
“May I ask you, ma’am, if you need my help?” She looked at him startled, and said in an anxious and plaintive tone: “Who are you?”
“I’m a police officer.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want to help you if you’d let me and if you need it”
“If you really want to help me, then let me go on my way.”
“I’d rather not leave you, ma’am, because you’d be in great danger if you continued walking aimlessly.”
“What do you want to do with me?”
“I want to see you home to protect you.”
“I have no home. I’m a stranger.”
“Then I’ll take you to the hotel you want to go to.”
“No, I don’t want to go to a hotel. Please leave me alone.”
“No, I can’t leave you without knowing where you’re going. That’s my job.”
“I’ve already told you I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not going anywhere in particular.”
“Then it’s my duty to protect you even more than before. You must come with me.”
When the woman heard his last words, she screamed like a mad woman, and fell down unconscious, as she was deeply affected and the police officer’s words added insult to injury. People crowded around her, most of them laughing and mocking, as American lowlives are wont to do before the most moving scenes. They stand before anything strange or unfamiliar like bemused onlookers, even if it was heartbreakingly sad.
Chapter Two: The Queen of Philanthropists
In the blink of an eye God replaces one condition with another.
It was only an hour later that the woman opened her eyes and found herself in a room furnished very tastefully and at a great expense, but her child was not beside her. She thought she was dreaming, and immediately closed her eyes again, but couldn’t go to sleep. So she opened her eyes and looked around in the hope of figuring out where she was. She recapitulated what she had been through, remembered her conversation with the policeman and that the last thing he told her was that he wanted to take her to a hospital or to prison, but couldn’t remember anything after that. She rose from her bed like a mad woman and went to the window.
[ Detailed description of the lavish garden she sees.]
In less than ten minutes, the woman regained her composure and remembered her son. She began to search for him in the room but could not find any trace of him. She cried at the top of her voice while choking on tears: “Saleem! Saleem! Where are you my child and where am I?”
She had barely finished her sentence when the lady of the house entered, having heard her cries, carrying the baby in her arms.
Karam, Afifa. Fatima al-Badawiyya. New York, NY: al-Huda Press, 1908, pp. 1-6.
Translation by Muhammad F. Azem
III. The New York Times
On August 20, 1899, The New York Times published an article titled New York’s Syrian Quarter. In it, the reporter Cromwell Childe describes his visit to the Washington Street area, comparing its perceived exoticism and hygienic challenges to those of other immigrant neighborhoods in New York City. At a time when the Yiddish language press boomed on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with scores of publications in Hebrew letters, the Arabic language press flourished on the Lower West Side. The reporter writes:
Three newspapers thrive in the quarter, more remarkable even to the eye with their Arabic fonts of type that look like schoolboy pothooks than are the strange Yiddish news sheets of the Ghetto. There is “Al-Islah,” (Reform,) “Al-Ayam,” (Reformer,) and “Kawab America,” (Star of America.) In the Ghetto the “molders of public thought” are frequently unwashed and greasy. Syria’s editors, on the other hand, are delicately nurtured gentlemen, of the highest mercantile order.
IV. Ameen Rihani: The Book of Khalid
In 1911, Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) published the English language novel The Book of Khalid in New York City. He came to New York from the Ottoman Syrian province in 1888. He grew to be a renowned and socially conscious writer in both English and Arabic.
Khalid, the lead character, is a free-spirited young man, who immigrates to the United States with his friend Shakib. Upon their arrival, they peddle, share a humid basement in Manhattan’s Little Syria and admire the girls in Battery Park. Rebellious, curious and naive, Khalid gets involved in numerous revelatory misadventures ranging from literature and politics to spirituality, before returning to Greater Syria, where he embarks on a challenging journey.
In a letter, Khalid describes how he divides his life in the Bronx between peddling, a fancy restaurant and the Botanical Garden:
“My loving Brother Shakib,
“I have been two months here, in a neighborhood familiar to you. Not far from the place where I sleep is the sycamore tree under which I burned my peddling-box. And perhaps I shall yet burn there my push-cart too. But for the present, all’s well. My business is good and my health is improving. The money-order I am enclosing with this, will cancel the note, but not the many debts, I owe you. And I hope to be able to join you again soon, to make the voyage to our native land together. Meanwhile I am working, and laying up a little something. I make from two to three dollars a day, of which I never spend more than one. And this on one meal only; for my lodging and my lunch and breakfast cost next to nothing. Yes, I can be a push-cart peddler in the day; I can sleep out of doors at night; I can do with coffee and oranges for lunch and breakfast; but in the evening I will assert my dignity and do justice to my taste: I will dine at the Hermitage and permit you to call me a fool. And why not, since my purse, like my stomach, is now my own? Why not go to the Hermitage since my push-cart income permits of it? But the first night I went there my shabbiness attracted the discomforting attention of the fashionable diners, and made even the waiters offensive. Indeed, one of them came to ask if I were looking for somebody. ‘No,’ I replied with suppressed indignation; ‘I’m looking for a place where I can sit down and eat, without being eaten by the eyes of the vulgar curious.’ And I pass into an arbor, which from that night becomes virtually my own, followed by a waiter who from that night, too, became my friend. For every evening I go there, I find my table unoccupied and my waiter ready to receive and serve me. But don’t think he does this for the sake of my black eyes or my philosophy. That disdainful glance of his on the first evening I could never forget, billah. And I found that it could be baited and mellowed only by a liberal tip. And this I make in advance every week for both my comfort and his. Yes, I am a fool, I grant you, but I’m not out of my element there.
“After dinner I take a stroll in the Flower Gardens, and crossing the rickety wooden bridge over the river, I enter the hemlock grove. Here, in a sequestered spot near the river bank, I lay me on the grass and sleep for the night. I always bring my towel with me; for in the morning I take a dip, and at night I use them for a pillow. When the weather requires it, I bring my blankets, too. And hanging one of them over me, tied to the trees by the cords sown to its corners, I wrap myself in the other, and praise Allah.
“These and the other towels, after taking my bath, I leave at the Hermitage; my waiter minds them for me. And so, I suspect I am happy—if, curse it! I could but breathe better. O, come up to see me. I’ll give you a royal dinner at the Hermitage, and a royal bed in the hemlock grove on the river-bank. Do come up, the peace of Allah upon thee. Read my salaam to Im-Hanna.”
Rihani, Ameen F. The Book of Khalid. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Pub, 2012, pp.118-20.
* * *
Thanks to Dr. Elizabeth C. Saylor for sharing the story of Afifa Karam.
* * *
© 2017 The Middle East Film Initiative