Let me paint you a picture of New York as someone who has never been and who has no experience of it whatsoever. I imagine supremely busy streets; overlapping, epilepsy-inducing digital ads helmed atop skyscrapers, and of course, the iconic Times Square, where all of the above marry in insane harmony at one intersection. Now, let me tell you what I don’t imagine: Egyptian mahraganat music blasting across Times Square from a halal food cart. In spite of all of the Sex and the City re-runs and the 100+ romantic comedies that I’ve watched that are set in the famously cosmopolitan city, I have never once come across that scene. But in real-life New York, and to people who have actually visited, this is not an unfamiliar occurrence.
The first halal food cart was started by a group of Egyptian cab drivers, who would be working on all these late shifts, and had no food that was accessible to them or that was halal or that they liked
In fact, it’s ubiquitous. And if it’s not Egyptian mahraganat, it’s Oum Kulthum. The halal food cart rose as a phenomenon in the city in the late 1990s. “The first halal food cart was started by a group of Egyptian cab drivers, who would be working on all these late shifts, and had no food that was accessible to them or that was halal or that they liked,” explains NYC-based Egyptian community organiser Rana Abdelhamid, who lives in Steinway, a street in NYC nicknamed 'Little Egypt.' “So one of the cab drivers decided that he would start this stand. And now, their brand is called The Halal Guys, and they’re everywhere,” she continues.
The Halal Guys food cart rose as a phenomenon in the city in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Livia Lopez.
Abdelhamid recently co-founded a community-building initiative with fellow Egyptian community organiser Raniem Abdelaziz, focusing on one street in Astoria, Queens saturated with Egyptians and Egyptian-owned businesses: Steinway street, more commonly known by NYC residents as Little Egypt. “[Walking down this street,] you’ll see Egyptian [and Arab] 3amo's and tunts strolling, greeting each other by their names, something you don't see very much in [the rest of] NYC,” explains AbdelAziz. “Shop owners would leave their stores open to go pray in the mosque. [The street] has that casual ambiance Egypt has, of time being still and people socialising there for hours.”
[Walking down this street,] you’ll see Egyptian [and Arab] 3amo's and tunts strolling, greeting each other by their names, something you don't see very much in [the rest of] NYC
While it is now overflowing with hookah lounges and Arab and Egyptian grocery markets, the street had long existed as an ethnic enclave in Queens - where many other enclaves are located - first becoming home to a wave of Greek and Italian immigrants. “There was a push and pull factor [that attracted Egyptians, because] Greek Orthodox culture, especially with its similarities to coptic Egyptian culture, made Astoria into a space that felt familiar to the first wave of Egyptians, because of the similarities in food and maybe even the mannerisms.”
The first Egyptian Hookah Lounge in the US, located in Little Egypt, was closed down after the lease expired recently. Photo courtesy of Rana Abdelhamid.
Many Arab diasporas in the US are concentrated and well-known, like the Yemeni-Americans, many of whom live in parts of New York as well, or in Dearborn, Michigan. A large pocket of Palestinian Americans have also concentrated in Bay Ridge, southwest of Brooklyn, and in other parts of the US including Chicago. But in spite of Egyptians making up a huge portion of Arab American demographics - the 2016 census records 181,677 Egyptians - Abdelhamid insists that finding other Egyptian Americans to connect with is not an easy feat. “It’s very hard for us to find other Egyptians who are young professionals to connect with, or to talk with about the Egyptian identity, about being hyphenated, and be nostalgic about our culture, and like, kick it and watch black and white films, and speak in Arabic.”
Shop owners would leave their stores open to go pray in the mosque. [The street] has that casual ambiance Egypt has, of time being still and people socialising there for hours.
The ‘Little Egypt’ initiative bloomed from this simple, inherent desire to “kick it” with people who know your language, had a similar childhood and went through similar experiences and challenges - although it later grew into something much bigger and perhaps much more serious: an initiative to save the street. The Little Egypt initiative launched late last year with an event that brought all of these happier, nostalgic elements together - the day was filled with authentic Egyptian food cooked by the street’s local residents, a classical oud player who performed famous Oum Kulthum and Abdelhalim Hafez melodies, and conversations about memories of Egypt. Since then, the co-founders have been tackling the multiple elephants in the room - or in this case, street - that threaten Steinway.
It’s very hard for us to find other Egyptians who are young professionals to connect with, or to talk with about the Egyptian identity, about being hyphenated, and be nostalgic about our culture
Rana Abdelhamid in front of a restaurant on Steinway Street. Photo courtesy of DeSean McClinton Holland, for Quoted Magazine.
While according to Abdelhamid - who recalls many endearing memories of growing up in Steinway, like learning Karate in the basement of the neighbourhood's Al Iman Mosque - Little Egypt consistently maintains this joyful, hopeful atmosphere, the odds haven’t always been in their favour, as one would imagine. Located in the heart of New York, only around 11 miles away from the World Trade Centre where the 9/11 attack had taken place, life for Egyptians on Steinway Street shifted on its axis following that, becoming increasingly more precarious and traumatic.
It was a secret squad of plain-clothed officers that basically would eavesdrop on conversations in cafes; they would show up at mosques; they would befriend Muslims and build relationships with them, as a way to collect secret intelligence information
While much of the targeted violence may have come from the average passerby - a racist comment or, at times, a physical attack - a lot of the race-based backlash wasn’t just incidental, it was institutional. In the wake of the attack, the state police established the ‘Demographics Unit’ - a police base specifically made for the intent of gathering secret intelligence on Muslims in New York, by placing informants in their midst.
Photo courtesy of Rana Abdelhamid.
“It was a secret squad of plain-clothed officers that basically would eavesdrop on conversations in cafes; they would show up at mosques; they would befriend Muslims and build relationships with them, even romantic, as a way to collect secret intelligence information, with the assumption that our community is implicated in something,” explains Abdelhamid. “In all of our favourite cafes and restaurants, you had NYPD on the street, pretending they were normal people. That ruins and corrodes the trust in the community, because you don’t know who to trust.”
Little Egypt is that hope that was created during a time, post 9/11, when Arabs were demonised, Muslims were demonised, immigrants were demonised
This is one of many reasons why community-building is at the core of Abdelhamid and AbdelAziz’s initiative. The sense of pervasive fear and a larger, foreboding environment - one that tends to result from years of unwarranted, intrusive, and violent modes of surveillance, which, notably, did not generate a single lead - keeps Astoria’s residents constantly on guard. So for both Abdelhamid and Abdelaziz, whose work involves a lot of research and community engagement, this issue sticks out like a sore thumb, a painful reminder of the history of insecurity impacting Egyptian-Americans’ lives to this day.
An Egyptian chef in one of Little Egypt's restaurants. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.
That insecurity does not just stem from a singular institutional effort to instigate fear amongst the community, it’s part of the larger context of civil rights abuse that exists in the US, specifically impacting minorities and immigrants. There are various levels of policy that are affecting the community, according to Abdelhamid, the first of which is on a federal level. “Basically all the things that would impact any immigrant community, any working class community, any community of colour; like in our case, this sense of fear that if you’re undocumented, you don’t know if there might be ICE raids or you might be detained or deported [at any point].”
That’s typically what communities do when they’re under threat; they look inward.
But what is important to note is that in spite of this overwhelming, persistent state of fear that the community may be subject to, there is also, in both women’s words, a sense of love and nostalgia for the way the street and community was formed - even strengthened - in the most trying of times. “Little Egypt is that hope that was created during a time, post 9/11, when Arabs were demonised, Muslims were demonised, immigrants were demonised, and yet despite that, internally we were thriving, especially in business, and being safe and being joyful and celebrating our existence,” Abdelhamid explains.
“That’s typically what communities do when they’re under threat; they look inward. They’re not going to look outward. They look inward to hold on to what they know, to feel safe, to feel supported… [and] we were all under attack because it didn’t matter how Muslim you were or what your last name was or how brown you were… if people think you’re Muslim - you can even be coptic Egyptian, and people think you’re Muslim - then you’re still treated a certain way.”
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Norman for The New York Times.
So, ironically, that was a period of time where Little Egypt came out far stronger and closer than before. Businesses began attracting more customers; people began congregating and gathering more often. And even those who live outside of Astoria - including Abdelaziz, who lives in Bayside, which is around 8 miles from the Queens neighbourhood - would routinely flock there, as though it were their own. “I always saw and still do see Bayside simply as where I reside and Astoria as my neighborhood. It's where my parents know they can speak comfortably with the business owners and others in Arabic. It's where we get our groceries. It's where we know we'll find community during Ramadan, Eid, and when Egypt is playing a soccer game.”
It's where we know we'll find community during Ramadan, Eid, and when Egypt is playing a soccer game.
This sense of closeness enabled Abdelaziz and Abdelhamid to meet, and years later, decide to draw on their own expertise gained from working with non-profit and community-based organisations in the US, to benefit their community. “There’s an incredible history of immigrant communities [in the US] being hella dope and hella resilient, and you see it happen over and over again,” says Abdelhamid.
Abdelhamid speaking at a "Families Belong Together" rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, June 2018. Photo courtesy of Pax Ahimsa Gethen.
These acts of resistance and community-based support cause a ripple effect - across time, across borders, across different ethnicities, even - that led to the state of the US today, where there's an undeniable ascent of Arab and Muslim Americans in politics - embodied by Muslim-American congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, most notably - as well as increased representation across state, city, and even schoolboard elections. In spite of the racism and hate-based violence still targeting these individuals - much of it coming from the US president himself - their mere presence makes an impact, causing another ripple effect among people like the women behind Little Egypt’s community-building initiative, who now see the kind of impact they can have on a political level. “Now you have politicians who are local, realising that they can’t ignore our vote, they can’t ignore our community, and we do have a lot of politicians coming into our spaces, trying to understand how they could align with us politically.”
There’s an incredible history of immigrant communities [in the US] being hella dope and hella resilient, and you see it happen over and over again
One of the biggest aforementioned elephants in the room that Little Egypt is experiencing, however, and that Abdelaziz and Abdelhamid are now fighting against, is gentrification, which, as Abdelhamid puts it, is “the lack of awareness and intentionality around development that happens in cities, where there’s massive developments, and as a result, there’s rising costs to living, and so people can’t afford to live, and can’t afford to maintain their businesses.” It starts with an increase in young, wealthy professionals moving into the area, and the - consequential - opening up of businesses and developments that raise the cost of living and, ultimately, changes the fabric of culture and life in the neighbourhoods.
Raniem Abdelaziz, co-founder of the community initiative.
Now you have politicians who are local, realising that they can’t ignore our vote, they can’t ignore our community, and we do have a lot of politicians coming into our spaces, trying to understand how they could align with us politically.
This issue conflates with people’s lack of access to knowledge, information and political engagement and involvement from which the Egyptian community of Steinway has, for years, been alienated, if not only because of a lack of trust in a government that subjected them to years of surveillance, or for a historical lack of political representation, then for language barriers. That's where the Little Egypt NYC initiative comes in. Although debates in the US about gentrification have led to countless arguments and counter-arguments - one of which is that gentrification is an inevitable outcome for the real estate market in the US - these women are fighting back. "It’s not [the market], because there’s policy around commercial rent stabilisation that other parts of New York can and do experience." This points towards the vulnerability of the people and the place in question.
“Gentrification is happening in so many neighborhoods across New York but it hits hard here because our identity in the city is diminishing,” explains Abdelaziz. This is why a community-building initiative like Little Egypt significantly chose to straddle both an identity-strengthening approach - through gatherings, talks, and events - as well as efforts to strengthen and raise civil rights awareness and political engagement, because they come hand in hand. Because “opportunity is very much aligned with a race-based identity in the US,” as Abdelaziz puts it. And lastly, because the history of the community - like the aforementioned experiences of insecurity, fear, and consequential secrecy and safeguarding - is known and felt by the community itself, and thus a grassroots movement is necessary to address the concerns - with all of their complexities - of the people.
Gentrification is happening in so many neighborhoods across New York but it hits hard here because our identity in the city is diminishing
“When we go and we do business canvassing, and we speak to small businesses, and we ask, ‘what’s up? What’s going on?’, every Egyptian uncle, everyone’s like, ‘oh I’m fine, there’s no problem. ‘Mafish ay mashakel, mafish moshkela khalis,’” says Abdelhamid. “And then we pry a little bit more. Then they’re like, ‘well, I used to make X amount a month, and now I’m making ⅛ of that and I have no idea where everyone’s gone… [and it’s because] people have not been able to afford to live here anymore, and so they moved out, and that’s where the customer base has gone.”
Gentrification has deeply impacted the cultural fabric of Astoria in recent years.
These issues have all been exacerbated and brought out of the shadows with the recent outbreak of COVID-19, the global pandemic sweeping the globe, and the US, for months now. “Many immigrant communities, many of which are financially supported by small businesses and unprotected labor, have been impacted financially by the virus,” Abdelhamid explains. “In particular, it is most difficult for members of our community who are uninsured and undocumented. It's also hard because much of the information is available in English and is not immediately translated to languages that would be accessible to our communities so there's a ton of misinformation going around.”
Many immigrant communities, many of which are financially supported by small businesses and unprotected labor, have been impacted financially by the virus
The initiative is now shifting its focus on keeping the community aware and knowledgeable of the measures the state is taking to mitigate these financial impacts on communities, specifically in New York. “The government has offered several loans and employee payment programs to help...Our goal is to make sure that our communities are aware of these resources, so we've been connecting with business owners individually and translating the comms from government agencies,” says Abdelhamid.
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This is running alongside their work to get the community to participate in the US census, which happens every 10 years, and records and documents the country’s demographics. “This is the first year ever, in the history of the US, that the census is being translated in Arabic, and there’s funding intentionally going to ensure that Arabic speakers are filling out the census,” Abdelhamid says. “So we’re doing a census canvas to make sure that Egyptians are filling out the census, and we’re going to talk to them about how to fill it out, and why it’s important.”
This is the first year ever, in the history of the US, that the census is being translated in Arabic, and there’s funding intentionally going to ensure that Arabic speakers are filling out the census
And with these many - small in some ways, historic and giant in others - steps, two women from Astoria are keeping the spirit of Little Egypt alive. The hope with which they spoke to me of their future plans - permeated, nonetheless, by a minor, betraying sense of realism, knowing not all of it will be achieved - remained palpable and practical, even in the context of a labyrinth of issues they’re trying to navigate. “If we have a magic wand, then [in a few years] we’re able to establish a community art hub for Egyptians. And the second more ultimate goal, is obviously, that Steinway still exists.”
You can keep up with Little Egypt though their Instagram.