photo: Gordon Beck, The Gazette
Montreal's first Syrian-Lebanese immigrant arrived 121 years ago, and many others soon followed. With artifacts and photographs, the Centre d'histoire de Montréal gives a snapshot of their lives at the turn of the 20th century.

by MONIQUE POLAK, freelance writer

Brian Aboud is curator of the exhibit that includes cash register from the United States Jewelry store, owned by the Zigayer family.

Min Zamaan is Arabic for "since long ago." It's also a fitting name for an exhibit at the Centre d'histoire de Montr?al, an Old Montreal museum that was once a fire station. The exhibit focuses on the history of Montreal's Syrian-Lebanese community - a community that has been thriving since long ago.

Abraham Bounadere, who came to Montreal in 1882, is believed to have been the first Syrian-Lebanese immigrant to settle in the city. It took him 55 days to travel here on a small boat from his home town in Zahl?, in what is now Lebanon.

According to Brian Aboud, the Vanier College sociologist who came up with the idea of mounting this exhibit, the term Syrian-Lebanese refers to Arabic-speaking immigrants to Montreal, who came from what is now Syria, Lebanon, southeastern Turkey, Israel, and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. "These people were part of our city, but they've been absent - until now - from Montreal's official narrative," Aboud said.

Aboud's inspiration came when he was visiting his grandmother, who lives in the Villeray district. She'd been living in the same house for over 70 years, and her basement was cluttered with memorabilia she'd brought with her in 1922 from Rashayya, a town in what is now southeastern Lebanon.

"I suggested the stuff be donated to a museum and then, the idea grew. I realized that in other Syrian-Lebanese families, people were possibly having similar conversations," Aboud said.

As you walk into the third floor exhibit area, one of the first things you'll notice is an enormous jug in a rattan holder. That jug came from Aboud's grandmother's basement. But when she brought it overseas, it was a little heavier. "It was filled with arak, a Lebanese licorice liqueur," Aboud said.

In the main exhibit room, you'll learn that most of the early Syrian-Lebanese immigrants to Quebec worked as pedlars or "kashshashin." They travelled throughout rural Quebec, selling buttons, thread, pins and socks. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, the term "le Syrien" was used as a synonym for pedlar.

Peddling was hard work, and so, some of these early immigrants decided to settle in places like Sherbrooke, Rouyn and Lake M?gantic, where they opened dry goods stores, hotels and cinemas. Others established businesses in Montreal. In the 1920s, Notre Dame St. E., between Gosford and Berri Sts., was the centre of the Syrian-Lebanese commercial district. You could come here to buy Arabic newspapers, Syrian flatbread, or to play backgammon at the Syrian National Club. If you had a hankering for hummus, tabouli or stuffed vine leaves, you could stop in at Afifi's, a popular eatery located in a private home and run by Afifi - the lady of the house.

An enlarged photo shows the interior of United States Jewelry, a costume jewelry store owned by the Zigayer family on Notre Dame. Notice the potbellied stove and the elegant stairway leading to the family residence. Look up at a red metal sign dating back to the 1910s, announcing the opening of a new S. Rossy store. Salim Rossy eventually opened a chain of what were called 5 cents to $1 stores.

An enlarged architect's drawing shows the exterior of the St. Nicholas Cathedral, built between 1910 and 1911, and located on Notre Dame near Berri. Though at the time, there was another Syrian Orthodox church housed in a renovated building on Vitr? St., St. Nicholas Cathedral was the first Syrian Orthodox church built in Canada. Today, the building is a private residence.

On your way out of the exhibit room, you'll pass a wall of photos taken by Rawi Hage, a local photographer who immigrated to Montreal from Lebanon in the 1980s. These photos capture moments in the lives of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian Montrealers. In one photograph, we see an extended arm holding a hand of cards. You can almost smell the cup of Turkish coffee on the table. Another photo depicts a Palestinian solidarity demonstration held in Montreal in March 2000.

Today, it is estimated that more than 150,000 Montrealers are of Arab descent. "The demographics have changed," Aboud said. "Recent Arab immigrants to the city are no longer just from Syria and Lebanon, but from all the Arab countries including Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Iraq."

Though this exhibit was planned before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, the events of that day strengthened Aboud's commitment to go ahead with the project. "After Sept. 11, there was an even greater need for all Montrealers to realize that the Arabs among them were co-citizens who have helped build this city."

Min Zamaan - Since Long Ago: The Syrian-Lebanese Presence in Montreal Between 1882 and 1940 continues until May 25 at the Centre d'histoire de Montr?al, 335 Place d'Youville. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults; $3 for seniors and students. Admission is free for children under the age of 6. For more information, call (514) 872-3207.

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