Land and its features define people and communities, their lives and their traditions. But too often, land is politicized by the agendas of nation-states. Nations persecute and displace those who have called a land their home. They draw borders and militarize them. They discriminate against those who are unlike them in race, religion, or creed.
Omar Offendum’s The Little Syria Show, now fully staged after four years of development in workshops, weaves together historical, contemporary, and autobiographical elements in a mixture of narrative, rap, song, and instrumentals. It is, ostensibly, a show about the Lower Manhattan neighborhood that, from the 1880s until the 1940s, was a vital hub for the Syrian American community. But the show’s scope, in truth, is a bit broader. While it unpacks layered histories that are distinctly Syrian, its most potent moments at UCLA’s Nimoy Theater on Saturday, Nov. 4 also allowed the audience to explore recurrent patterns around people, land, and belonging.
Offendum, a supremely gifted storyteller with considerable swagger, used symbolic objects to access several generations of experience. Many immigrants to Little Syria crafted traditional soap with olive oil and laurel in order to support themselves. In an early interlude, Offendum noted with appropriate bitterness how that soap, which nowadays might be heralded for its artisanal purity, made Syrian Americans the subject of discrimination on account of its unfamiliar smell. It’s observations like this one, linking historical discrimination to contemporary fetishization, that make lyrical choices such as using “haters” and “crusaders” in the same verse feel grounded, not overly ambitious.
The evening was studded with similar episodes rooted in historical specificity but with a longitudinal eye. Musings on the Syrian history of coffee, accompanied by a gloriously expansive oud solo from Ronnie Malley (oud, piano, vocals), raised similar questions. A meditation on palm trees –— a non-native species brought to Southern California by Spanish colonialists who first encountered them in the Levant — became a larger consideration of the familiar, the unfamiliar, and a longing for home that transcends a single generation’s experience. These gestures were nearly always effective. Only occasionally did the show’s ambitious blend of temporal registers obscure the evening’s focus on Little Syria itself.
The music also reflected the layered histories at play in the show’s narrative arc. In a number about Washington Street, the heart of Little Syria, a thumping sub-bass and Malley’s angular oud playing found a striking balance. Offendum’s dense internal rhymes were among the most technically impressive on show. And producer Thanks Joey, a highly sensitive chamber musician, dexterously wrapped a sample of Khalil Gibran’s poetry around Offendum’s voice as the song concluded.
Joey and Offendum, who said in a postconcert conversation that the two were drawn together by their love for old Syrian records, have paired that sample base with elements of various hip-hop traditions, from boom bap to the theatrical zeitgeist of the mid-2010s. Malley’s oud and piano playing — alternately sonorous and percussive, lyrical and virtuosic where needed — often served as both a sonic spark and an effective glue between the two registers, as it did during a high-energy ode to the food traditions of the Levant.
In fact, it was traditional hip-hop elements that were responsible for the evening’s more static moments. Drum programming occasionally approached sonic homogeneity. And at some junctures, Offendum’s delivery became overly square or wooden as he attempted to pack informational storytelling into limited bars instead of relying, as he did in other moments, on narrative interludes to carry the weight of facts-dense anecdotes. Offendum’s mixing also somewhat undercut lyrical comprehension, his voice sometimes bleeding into the timbre of the backing track.
But his audience listened keenly despite that fact, cheering along fiery couplets and picking up call-and-responses with surprising speed. The engagement was palpable, heightened perhaps because of current events. As the Israeli government continues its grievous assault on Palestinian citizens (which Offendum condemned from the stage to robust in-room support) in the wake of Hamas’s murderous Oct. 7 attack, it was clear that Saturday’s audience craved a testament to the belief that all people and all peoples’ cultures deserve the space to belong. Offendum’s show was not created with these events in mind, but as he held court from center stage, it was clear it met the moment.