The Thriving Arab American Community of Dearborn, Michigan

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The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, is the nation’s largest mosque. (Bob Sessions photo)

It was only after I got home and really studied this picture that I realized how symbolic it is. The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, is the largest mosque in the United States. The building sits in the middle of several churches in a prosperous Detroit suburb. And it’s got a large American flag flying in front of it.

Anyone who says you can’t be both Muslim and American needs to go to Dearborn.

I was delighted recently to visit this city, which has the nation’s highest percentage of Arab American citizens. About 60 percent of the people of Dearborn are of Arab descent. And in the entire Detroit area, more than 200,000 people are Arab American.

Dearborn began to attract Arab immigrants in the 1920s, when Henry Ford opened the Rouge car factory in the city. Auto industry jobs drew many workers from Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In later decades, the city had an influx of Palestinians and Iraqis. These people built a thriving and diverse Arab American community in Dearborn, a kind of Chinatown with Arabic script. The restaurants, in particular, attracted many visitors to the city, for the food in Dearborn–then and now—has a well-deserved reputation for excellence.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, made life more difficult for many residents of Dearborn. Some people received letters from the U.S. State Department asking them to report for an interview; others were held as “special interest detainees.” Nationally, much tighter controls were imposed on immigrants coming from Arab and Muslim countries, which affected those who hoped their relatives could join them in the U.S. And then an idiot from Texas showed up in the city and wanted to burn a Koran, sparking international controversy.

The interior of Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum is patterned after the courtyards popular in many Arab countries. (Bob Sessions photo)
The interior of Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum is patterned after the courtyards popular in many Arab countries. (Bob Sessions photo)

To combat the growing distrust and prejudice against Arab Americans throughout the country, the Dearborn community raised money for a project that had actually been on their wish list for some time: the Arab American National Museum. This beautifully designed building, which opened in 2005, explores the rich and varied cultures, history and traditions of the Arab World and the people who trace their heritage there. It’s the best place in the U.S. to learn about this ethnic group, a people who are too often either overlooked or misunderstood.

Bob and I toured the museum with Kamelya Youssef, a woman of Lebanese descent who grew up in Dearborn.”My parents came here in the early 1980s to seek refuge from the dangers and hardship of the Lebanese Civil War,” she told us. “They built a wonderful life for our family in Dearborn.”

Youssef began by showing us exhibits tracing the origins of Arab culture and its many contributions to the world. Between the ninth and seventeenth centuries, for example, Arab scholars preserved the ancient knowledge of the previous civilizations of Persia, India, Greece, and Rome. Another display described the intertwined origins of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths, all of which took root in the same small corner of the world (we are all cousins on the same family tree).

A large map provided the catalyst for a discussion of exactly what “Arab” means. Pointing to 22 nations spread across Africa and Asia, Youssef described their uniting characteristics: all have Arabic as their main language, all are members of the Arab League of Nations, and all have common cultural traditions and a shared history. Thus Iraq is an Arab nation, but Persian-speaking Iran is not.

“While about 90 percent of the Arab world is Muslim, its people also follow other religions, including Judaism, Sufism, and Christianity,” Youssef said. “And Arabs make up only about 25 percent of the world’s entire Muslim population.”

 loved the intricate mosaics at the Arab American National Museum. (Bob Sessions photo)
I loved the intricate mosaics at the Arab American National Museum. (Bob Sessions photo)

We learned that “Middle East” is actually a geopolitical term coined by the British in the nineteenth century. “Many people think it’s synonymous with the Arab World, but it’s not,” Youssef said. “Most of the land mass of Arab countries is actually in Africa.”

Upstairs, other exhibits focused on the Arab American immigrant experience. The first recorded Arabic speaker to reach the shores of America was Zammouri, a slave who became a famous healer and explorer more than five centuries ago. The first large wave of Arab immigrants came to the U.S. between 1880-1924, when 20 million people, many of them Christians, immigrated from the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean region that includes Lebanon and Syria).

In the 1930s, large numbers of Palestinians came to the U.S., followed in the 1960s by thousands of Arab professionals who were recruited by the U.S. government because of their valuable technical skills. And more recently, many Arab immigrants have come to this country because they’re fleeing political turmoil and war in their homelands.

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The Arab American National Museum includes artifacts donated by immigrants. (Bob Sessions photo)

The museum does a beautiful job of telling some of the stories of these immigrants. One of the most poignant displays shows items that they brought with them, from a pillbox full of soil to a VHS videotape of a wedding. When you have to leave nearly everything behind, whatever is kept becomes incredibly precious.

The diversity of stories surprised me. “This museum makes me realize how little I know about Arab Americans,” I admitted to Youssef.

“Most people don’t know a lot about us,” Youssef said. “We’re somewhat of an invisible minority, in part because until recently there was no category in the U.S. Census for people of Arab descent.”

An exhibit on media depictions of Arabs was particularly eye-opening. In a survey of 1,000 films featuring a reference to Arabs, 12 had positive representations, 56 were neutral, and the rest were negative.

“Growing up, I could find virtually no positive images of Arabs in the larger culture,” said Youssef.

Thankfully, this museum is helping to change these misperceptions. We learned about Fordson, for example, a Dearborn high school that is 99 percent Arab American. Their football team holds night practices during Ramadan, but otherwise it’s similar to any other U.S. high school. And we saw displays on some of the famous Americans of Arab descent, including poet Naomi Shihab Nye, astronaut Christa McAuliffe, journalist Helen Thomas, and U.S. Senator George Mitchell.

A culinary tour of Dearborn shows the ways in which food and culture are linked. (Bob Sessions photo)
A culinary tour of Dearborn shows the ways in which food and culture are linked. (Bob Sessions photo)

After touring the museum, we headed out into the neighboring streets to do my favorite form of research: eating. The museum sponsors tours called Yalla Eat! (Yalla is Arabic for “let’s go”). Food plays a vital role in conveying culture–and in Dearborn, it’s incredibly delicious as well. For a couple of hours, the three of us visited restaurants, grocery stores and sweet shops that sell halal foods (halal refers to foods prepared according to Islamic religious traditions–think of it as a Muslim version of kosher).

Zo Olabi is owner of Dearborn’s Good Burger Restaurant. (Bob Sessions photo)
Zo Olabi is owner of Dearborn’s Good Burger Restaurant. (Bob Sessions photo)

We started in a grocery store that looked like any suburban store except for a massive olive bar, some unfamiliar produce, and a lot of products that had Arabic labels. Next we sampled a Lebanese version of a hamburger at Good Burger, enjoyed a traditional Yemeni pastry at Sheeba, picked up some amazing coffee at Hashem’s Nuts & Coffee Gallery, sampled the sweets at Shatila Bakery, and had a multi-course lunch at Al Ameer, a James Beard-award-wining restaurant that served us some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.

Bob and I ended our day at the Islamic Center of America, where we were warmly greeted and told to wander where we wanted. Its central worship space reminded me of mosques I’ve been to in Egypt and Turkey–elegantly spare, adorned with beautiful calligraphy from the Koran, and steeped in invisible but palpable prayers.

Standing in that beautiful sanctuary, I recalled the response Youssef gave when I asked her what she wanted the larger world to know about her hometown of Dearborn.

“I would like people to know that we have complexity and diversity here, just as in many other American communities,” she said. “We have gas station owners and poets, doctors and school teachers. Some of us are religious, and some are not. We trace our ethnic background to a variety of countries, each with their own unique histories and traditions. And we welcome visitors who want to learn more about us.”

The Arab American National Museum (313-582-2266) is at 13624 Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan. The Islamic Center of America (313-593-0000) is at 19500 Ford Road in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Islamic Center of America includes this beautiful dome. (Bob Sessions photo)
The Islamic Center of America includes this beautiful dome. (Bob Sessions photo)

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