“I first heard about the Little Syria project from an ad about The Middle East Film Initiative in the Women in Film Weekly Newsletter. The project addressed one of my key concerns: We need a lot more ‘real’ representation of Middle Eastern life and characters in the current American media scene! Good roles! Interesting stories!

And how exciting that someone wanted to focus a web series on an historic area of New York City, a community that contributed so much to the world in terms of the arts, literature, culture, and business.

I was eager to watch and learn from such a web series, and to help promote it in any way I could. I really loved the idea, and was inspired to apply for it.

I have a family tie to the subject matter, too. Little Syria is indirectly connected to my own paternal grandfather’s background. In the late nineteenth century, his father emigrated from a small town in Syria (although it’s now located in Lebanon); my paternal great grandfather was a dry goods peddler, as were some of the residents of Little Syria. My great grandfather Shamas eventually settled in Oklahoma, where I was born. But he came through New York City, and I think he knew about Little Syria. I can imagine him spending the night there as a young man, on his way to build a new life in the United States, a part of the Arab diaspora.

As a writer, I’ve explored my family’s complex heritage in different ways, forms, and genres. I’ve written several plays with Middle Eastern characters centered on family and identity, and felt especially called to do so after 9-11.

The Little Syria project comes at an important time, especially after so much discussion of changes in immigration rules in the U.S., and the recent iterations of ‘travel bans.’ We’ve had enough of the stereotypes of Middle Eastern characters that have been so common in much of the current media environment this century and last. It’s time to take a fresh approach and change things. I’m thrilled to be part of a project with the goals to expand diversity in the current media environment by bringing the fascinating story of Little Syria to life.”

– Laura Annawyn Shamas, PhD, Writer

“My interview with Ruth Priscilla Kirstein was a trip back in time to my childhood in ‘Little Syria.’ Ruth asked probing and relevant questions, which prompted and encouraged me to recall many wonderful memories. Those memories are now recorded in a video I will cherish.  Ruth Priscilla Kirstein is an insightful and caring reporter.”

– Lydia M. Gordon, Retired Professor, New York City College of Technology

“The Middle East Film Initiative proved to be an incredibly rewarding and fun experience. It is an instance to explore texts that are not normally available in the US and a great chance to meet and network with fellow actors, castings directors and other industry people. It also offers a great chance to see how the eastern and western worlds collide and compliment each other. Both texts that were read the night I participated in this event were great: an original sit-com pilot (which proved to be more entertaining than most other pilots I’ve seen) and a short film based on the ancient Persian story of Barsisa the Hermit. I would seriously encourage everyone to attend as many readings as you can and try to participate and stay engaged with this community. Congratulations Ruth on establishing such an amazing enterprise!”

– Nicolas Alvo, BFA Acting, New York University Tisch School of the Arts

“I was very excited to learn about The Middle East Film Initiative. An organization dedicated to stories about Middle Eastern ethnicities, traditions and culture opens up opportunities for actors with Israeli, Turkish, Iranian and Arab backgrounds. I was lucky enough to participate in the first reading of the Middle East Film Initiative. As an Iranian American actress I do not have a lot of opportunities to advertise the Iranian part of myself. This initiative not only used my Iranian heritage but introduced me to other Iranian artists in the Tristate area.”

– Sohailla Mahjour, Drama Student, New York University Tisch School of the Arts

“Being a part of the a reading with the MEFI was a unique and positive experience for me because it’s not often that I am able to play characters of a similar ethnic background as myself.

What I really connected with in “Rainbow Street” was being able to see young people who had two distinct worlds in which they lived in. When the young people were out with their friends, they were very relatable and had conversations not dissimilar to American twentysomethings. But the pilot also represented the relationship between the parents and the children, and that is definitely something that I can relate to because as a first-generation American, there are things that my family just doesn’t relate to, and it almost forces me to live two lives. To have those two worlds represented in a pilot, and to be able to work on a script that addresses that was such a rare privilege, and one that I’m not sure would be possible without the MEFI.

I loved being able to work with and meet actors that also grew up surrounded by a very Americanized way of life, but also had an awareness of a distinctly different, culturally rich home-life, regardless of where everyone came from. Being in rehearsals with everyone felt like there was an understanding of the two worlds, and we had the chance to speak words into that grey area.”

– Lida Darmian, BFA Acting, New York University Tisch School of the Arts

“Personally, I have never seen an Arab character on TV that I can relate to. I think it’s very important for everyone to have that. Generally, we (as Arabs) are a culture that’s always shown in black and white – regionally and internationally. All these greys that I identify myself with (as do most people) are often neglected and create issues with one’s identity and sense of belonging. As a writer, it only seemed appropriate that I would reflect these aspects through my own work – with a focus on a youth subculture in Amman, Jordan. The Middle East Film Initiative was a welcoming and supportive platform for me to share my pilot script, “Rainbow Street” beyond my borders and the few people who I had previously shared it with – in a way I hadn’t been able to before. To see the actors and audience read and connect to it through the video recording was a wonderful experience that, as a writer, inspires and motivates me to keep pushing through boundaries – in hopes of one day seeing Arab characters on TV that I (and others like me) can identify with.”

– Shirin Kamal, Screenwriter

“There is nothing better than to combine excellent film choices with genuine human interaction. At the Middle East Film Initiative, Ruth Kirstein screens masterpieces that offer an artistic taste of culture followed by a group discussion before which everyone introduces themselves. The ensuing debate is warm and fun. This film club is a sure pleaser, and educator, for anyone interested in both or either of films and the Middle East. What the curator and facilitator accomplishes with this format is very precious. She bridges the gap between film markets and provides NYC filmmakers and film lovers with access to a very personal experience of Middle Eastern films. Unlike festivals and other screenings, this is a participatory approach to viewing. Rather than focus on speakers and directors, the Middle East Film Initiative focuses on us. It’s a viewer-centered experience that is extremely refreshing.”

– Mostafa Hashish, United Nations Interpreter

“I attended a recent film showing of the Middle East Film Initiative. I was impressed by the film (a Kurdish-Iranian production), which it would be unlikely for me to have seen anywhere else, by the audience of several nationalities as well as immigrants to America, and by the quality of the discussion. Ms. Kirstein obtained the film, led the discussion and created an atmosphere of congeniality and mutual respect among people who would otherwise have no reason to be together. I applaud her work and hope she can continue. I feel especially connected to the Middle East since the time when I was a New York City public official and the US State Department sent me to Egypt to discuss matters of municipal administration with my Cairo counterparts. I have also visited Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.”

– David Gurin, City and Regional Planner



© 2018 The Middle East Film Initiative