HOME IS HERE

 Writer:

 Mark Singer

 Source:

 The New Yorker

 Date:

 15 October 2001


America's largest Arab community
 in the aftermath of September 11th.

(note)

     DEARBORN, MICHIGAN
 

    
In the summer of 1988, a young Arab-Israeli woman named Maha Mahajneh visited the United States at the invitation of an organization of Palestinian-American women who were holding a convention in New Jersey. It was Mahajneh's first trip to America. At the convention, she gave a talk whose topic was, indirectly, the story of her life: the challenges confronted by Arab citizens of Israel. Mahajneh happened to be an anomalous specimen of upward mobility. Growing up in Umm al-Fahm, a small city in the Galilee, she had longed for three things, at least two of which were out of the question: "I wished I was Jewish, I wished I was a man, and I wished I was rich." Clearly, however, she possessed ample self-confidence and self-awareness. Her family was Sunni Muslim, but far from devout. At eighteen, she left home. By twenty-four, she had a university degree, had settled into a cosmopolitan life in Tel Aviv, and had become the first Palestinian woman certified public accountant in Israel.

Mahajneh went on to deliver the same lecture in Chicago and Detroit, where one member of the audience was Roy Freij, a businessman whose Arabic given name is Raed. At the time of the Six-Day War, in 1967, he had been three years old and living in Jerusalem. In its aftermath, his parents decided to follow a well-travelled path to southeastern Michigan, where two hundred and fifty thousand Arabs now reside—other than Paris, the largest concentration outside the Middle East. Months of letter-writing followed Maha and Roy's first encounter, and in the spring of 1989 he flew to Israel and asked her to marry him. Within three weeks, they had wed and Maha had obtained a visa. "I wasn't thinking to come to America at all," she told me. "I came for a man I loved." In 1992, she became a United States citizen.

Maha is the chief financial officer of ACCESS, an Arab social-service and advocacy organization that operates out of eight locations in Dearborn, Michigan, offering, among other things, medical care, psychological counselling, job training and placement, adult education, and after-school programs. Dearborn has a population of a hundred thousand, more than a quarter of which is Arab; in the public schools, the figure is about fifty-eight per cent. For its clients—Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Yemenis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and North Africans—ACCESS, with a comparatively modest annual budget of ten million dollars, is a more vital presence in the community than the Ford Motor Company. Maha's office is in ACCESS's main facility, a converted school building in Dearborn's south end, a dingy district along the perimeter of Ford's gargantuan River Rouge plant.

On the morning of September 11th, she awoke at six o'clock and took a two-mile walk in Livonia, the affluent suburb west of Detroit where she lives with her husband and their two young sons. She had dropped the boys at school and was driving to the office while listening to National Public Radio when she heard the first news bulletin about the World Trade Center. Soon after she reached her desk, Maha knew that, while no work would get done that day, she and her colleagues, for symbolic and practical reasons, had to keep the doors open at all of ACCESS's facilities. Except for a three-hour bomb-scare evacuation of one building and a four-day suspension of the after-school program, they succeeded.

The names of Maha and other ACCESS executives are listed on the organization's Web site, and two days after the attack she received an E-mail from a man who attached an inflammatory newspaper column, written by Nolan Finley, an editor at the Detroit News, which had appeared in that morning's paper. The "least [Arab and Muslim Americans] can do for their neighbors," Finley insisted, would be to "help in every way possible to smash the network within their own communities that provides money and shelter to terrorists." In other words, what the United States government's intelligence-gathering and law-enforcement apparatus had failed to accomplish before September 11th (or since), the law-abiding Arab citizens of Detroit, in a vigilante spirit that would validate their patriotism, should undertake themselves. The E-mail sender appended his own opinion: "Talk is cheap! If you really love America, turn over the terrorist sympathizers in your midst."

Intemperately, Maha responded in kind: "Your thinking is cheap. It seems to me that you have an IQ of 10???"

In his next message, her pen pal took off the gloves: "Your remark makes it clear you support the vermin that murdered thousands of innocent Americans in New York. . . . I will forward your response to the Detroit News and the local FBI. Terrorist scum like you have no right to be in our country."

"I'm the one who's going to forward your stupid remarks to the FBI," Maha replied. "As far as the News, I will not be surprised if they have more space for racist remarks from people like you. The way they did from racists like Nolan Finley."

When I paid her a visit, a week later, she seemed burdened by deepening preoccupations.

"The main thing I'm thinking now," she said, "is, after September 11th, how is it going to be for my kids? They were born in this country, and they are totally like other kids. I want my kids to be the President of the United States. Or one will be President. The other will be the adviser. I really want to believe that. At home, the day of the attack, my husband and I sat down with our sons and told them that a bad thing happened and that there might be Arabic people who caused this. We said, 'If someone at school bothers you, you answer back that these people are not representative of the Arab community. You say, "We are Americans, so don't be small-minded and include us in this." ' And I keep thinking about the possible retaliation our government might take and the consequences. All our work and accomplishments—are they shattered by what happened in New York? Because we look a certain way? We are not even allowed to grieve like everyone else. People look at us like we are the enemy. I want to say, 'No, I didn't do it. I was on my way to work.' It's like Palestinians living in Israel. They're always under suspicion. And I feel that our situation here might become the same way. And if that happens where do we go? There is no place."

(note)


As narratives of immigrant journeys go, Maha's, because it is a love story, seems paradigmatic, even though it is driven neither by economic nor by political urgency. The willingness to uproot oneself and come to America and partake of what it has to offer expresses—more than any appetite for material comfort—a passion for possibility. There has always been a dark side to this evergreen tale, a shadow of dread, a xenophobia rooted not so much in fear of assault from outside aggressors as in a dull-witted suspicion of those among us who look or sound or somehow seem as if they "don't come from around here." Now that the United States actually has been assaulted from the outside, the license to feel suspicious of certain of one's neighbors has been sanctioned as an unfortunate price that the country, at war with an indiscernible foreign enemy, is willing to pay.

The migration of Arabs to Detroit in measurable numbers began in the early twentieth century. The first wave of immigrants were mostly Christians from Syria and what is now Lebanon. Muslims, attracted by job opportunities in the automobile industry, started appearing not long thereafter, and since the nineteen-sixties they have predominated, arriving in ripples that emanate from cataclysms in the Middle East—an influx of Palestinians after 1967, followed by Lebanese refugees during the late seventies and early eighties, and Iraqi Shiites in the early nineties. Nothing about the local scenery reminded the earliest arrivals of home, but today certain run-down pockets of southeast Dearborn look as if they might have been grafted on from the West Bank, and in the middle-class neighborhoods there are long commercial stretches with store signs in both Arabic and English. An average of five thousand new Arab immigrants make Detroit their port of entry each year.

In Dearborn, as in New York City, September 11th was a mayoral primary-election day. Unlike New York, Dearborn kept its polls open. The incumbent, Michael Guido, was seeking a fifth term, and although he received sixty per cent of the vote, the rules mandate a November runoff against the second-place finisher, Abed Hammoud, a thirty-five-year-old assistant prosecutor, who got eighteen per cent. Hammoud, who is Lebanese, immigrated to the United States in 1990, and likes to say that he landed in America "three days after Saddam moved into Kuwait." This dash of rhetorical color won't hurt with the Iraqi refugee vote, but he would pick that up anyway. Not that it will be enough. No one, with the possible exception of Hammoud himself, expects him to win.

For a small-city mayor, Guido, a stocky fellow in his mid-forties who favors pin-striped suits, suspenders, and monogrammed shirts with French cuffs, has been quite adept at cultivating an old-school big-city mayoral persona. During his first campaign, in 1985, he circulated a blunt-talking pamphlet that referred to Dearborn's "Arab Problem," in which he disparaged bilingual classes for Arab children in the public schools, "new neighbors [who] neglect their property," and the " 'gimme, gimme, gimme' attitude" of "the so-called leadership" of the Arab community. Some Dearborn Arabs with long memories place Guido on a continuum that extends back to the heyday of Orville Hubbard, an unapologetic segregationist who was mayor from 1942 to 1977. (Hubbard is most often remembered for promoting the unsubtle motto "Keep Dearborn Clean" and for his role during the 1967 race riots in Detroit, when he took to the street to prohibit blacks from crossing into his city.) Guido has sufficient finesse to have befriended many members of the older Lebanese business establishment. But no one would accuse him of being overly solicitous toward the larger Arab population, and they are grossly underrepresented in the municipal workforce—about two and a half per cent.

Dearborn is arguably the most likely city in America where a mayoral candidate, after outlining his position on street-light maintenance, might be tossed questions about national security and would be expected to answer. Guido knows that most voters aren't all that concerned with local politics at the moment and that the less he says the better. The terrorist attack, he said, "clouds what you can do to separate yourself from your opponent." He continued, "You don't point out that your opponent is Arab-American. You talk about what you can do. What I've done for my city, I blow this guy out of the water—that should be the contest. But, you know, I have people saying, 'I'm voting for you because I don't want to vote for an Arab.' Three people have told me that in the last week. Three people telling you that out loud is like getting ten letters. And the politician's rule of thumb is that ten letters means a thousand people are thinking about it."

Or, as Hammoud said to me the week after the attack, "You think I can go knock on doors now? It's not a good time to campaign."

In the spring of 1991, after participating in uprisings against the government of Saddam Hussein, Abu Muslim al-Hayder, a Shiite college professor of computer-control engineering who was then in his mid-thirties, fled Iraq with his wife and four children. They had not been long inside a Saudi Arabian refugee camp when it became evident that it was hardly a refuge. The camp population was infested with spies for the Saddam regime and "the Saudis don't look at us as full human beings—they look at us as prisoners." After the family spent a year and a half in detention, a relief agency called the Church World Service resettled them in Washington State. There al-Hayder went back to school and subsequently tried and failed to find a job in the computer industry. Confident that his bilingual abilities made him employable, in 1995 he moved the family to Detroit.

On September 11th, al-Hayder, who has been a citizen for five years, happened to be one of the federal observers dispatched to monitor the municipal election in the town of Hamtramck, ten miles northeast of Dearborn, where there had been discrimination against Arab voters in the past. He was supposed to spend that night in a hotel and file a report the next morning, but he was allowed to leave at 9 P.M. and return to his wife and (now six) children, in Detroit.

"I found all my family scared, afraid that somebody would attack the house," he told me. Most of his neighbors had American flags displayed on their porches, and when he went to a flag store the next day it was sold out. As a short-term approach to making his allegiance plain, he tied an American-flag balloon to his balcony.

Before September 11th, al-Hayder said, he felt happy and secure. He was delighted with his children's progress in school and, in his work as ACCESS's professional liaison to the Iraqi community, he was gratified by the chance to help his newly arrived countrymen. He counts himself far more fortunate than many other erstwhile Iraqi professionals—the college teacher who now delivers pizzas; the widely published literary critic who, having failed at carpentry, is now on welfare. But he is also greatly disturbed by the American media's depiction of Muslims, most of all because of how it might affect his children's perception of themselves.

Al-Hayder has a long familiarity with, and an exceptional equanimity in the face of, the consequences of dissent. In 1978, he was imprisoned by Saddam's predecessor, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, and sentenced to death for his political associations, then released a year and a half later when Saddam came to power and issued an amnesty for most political prisoners. Al-Hayder remembers regarding the gesture with skepticism. "I didn't trust Saddam," he said, "because I knew that even if he gives you something he will take a lot of things more valuable."

If he saved your life, I asked, how could he take from you something more valuable?

"There are many things more valuable than your life. There is your dignity, your respect. If you live a life with no respect, it's better to die. And this is why I agreed to come to America as a refugee—better than to stay in Saudi Arabia or go to another country. But this crisis we are in is making many people, especially the media, turn away from the values that I know. If someone comes and tries to insult me for no reason, I cannot tell him thank you. A lot of people now who are colored and are American citizens, and who have a right to have weapons, may go and get a license to have weapons to defend themselves. I may even lose faith in law-enforcement agencies because they target people who are Arab and Muslims. And this is very disturbing. None of this is why I came here. I came here to be a respected human being."

On a rainy afternoon eight days after the attack, I went to the New Yasmeen Bakery, a popular establishment in north Dearborn, where John Dingell, the Democratic congressman who has represented Detroit's Downriver suburbs for forty-six years, was meeting with more than twenty Arab community leaders, mostly Lebanese businessmen and professionals. The group gathered around a square of tables in a brightly lit room and listened as Dingell praised Dearborn's Arab and non-Arab populations, noting with relief that the city had avoided the bloody spasms of anti-Arab violence (or mistaken-identity violence, as in the case of a murdered turban-wearing Sikh) that had erupted elsewhere. A couple of law-enforcement people attended, Mayor Guido sent a representative, and a tone of mutual good will prevailed. "I can't think of a single criticism of what you've done and I can't think of a single thing you haven't done that you should have," Dingell said. "This community has made me proud. You have shown yourselves to be exemplary Americans, and I apologize to you for any of the hurts that have been inflicted upon you."

That was the good news. The ominous downside was implicit in several questions posed to Dingell: What about government proposals to expand wiretapping authority? What about the ratcheting up of racial profiling and the broadened application of "secret evidence" (the tactic authorities use to detain immigrants without explanation)? Abed Hammoud cited a fresh Gallup poll, which showed that fifty-eight per cent of Americans favored requiring Arabs, United States citizens included, to go through "special, more intensive" security screenings at airports.

Dingell didn't gloss over any of these concerns. "I can tell you," he said, "that the events of last Tuesday are not going to be useful to us in terms of protecting basic liberties."

Inauspicious in a different way were snatches of conversation I overheard before the meeting got under way—a sifting through rumors that reflected the awfulness of feeling marginalized, a grasping at anything remotely self-exculpatory. Hadn't there been news reports that some of the alleged terrorist pilots had turned up alive in Saudi Arabia? (And if they hadn't been flying the planes, who had? Europeans, perhaps?) For days, an E-mail had circulated concerning the newsreel footage, first shown on CNN, of Palestinians celebrating in East Jerusalem in the hours after the attack; it was ten-year-old videotape, several people assured me, recycled from the Gulf War, when Iraqi missiles landed in Israel. (After I returned to New York, I checked CNN's Web site, where conclusive evidence was posted that the claim of hoax was a hoax.)

The next day, I dropped by the office of the Arab American News and met with the editor, the inconveniently named Osama Siblani, who'd been collecting factoids as well as incendiary phone messages, some of which he played for me. Many were bizarrely disgusting (e.g., the rant from a fellow whose favorite television programs were being preëmpted by the prime-time news blanket: he wanted Arab corpses fed to the sharks in Florida), but most were just plain chilling. Siblani also expressed dismay at the half-dozen E-mails he'd received urging him to publish the "fact" that four thousand Jews had mysteriously not shown up for work at the World Trade Center on September 11th. Was Dearborn a place where, unavoidably, two startlingly divergent realities had taken root? Or was the nuttiness symptomatic of a profound urge to insulate oneself from reality altogether? More than once, I heard Arabs express the fear that a "Dearborn connection" to terrorism might materialize.

Alas—the law of percentages dictated as much—that had already occurred. The day of the gathering at the New Yasmeen Bakery, a screamer headline in the Detroit Free Press said "TERRORIST TASK FORCE ARRESTS 3 IN DETROIT." Federal agents looking for Nabil al-Marabh, a presumed associate of Osama bin Laden, had raided an apartment on the southwest side, just outside Dearborn. Al-Marabh wasn't present (he was captured later in the week, near Chicago), but the three men who were arrested reportedly had false identification papers as well as a notebook that made reference in Arabic to an American base in Turkey. As the story unfolded over the next few days, it emerged that last year, in Dearborn, al-Marabh obtained licenses to drive large trucks with hazardous cargoes. Two of the other suspects, Ahmed Hannan and Karim Koubriti, attended a commercial truck-driving school this past summer. Their tuition of thirty-three hundred dollars apiece had been paid by ACCESS, a revelation that obviously pained Ismael Ahmed, the executive director. "We send people to all kinds of training programs and we don't check their political credentials," he told the Free Press. "All they have to do is come here looking for a job." In fact, Ahmed told me, he is working with the authorities. "There's a legitimate investigation of terrorism, and we think people should be coöperating," he said. "But we're not telling our community to march into the ovens. I just read a survey that shows sixty-one per cent of Arab-Americans agree that profiling is justified. That's a symptom of plain fear. That's not what they truly believe, but when they're asked about this in the context of national security, that's what they're going to say."

Ahmed Mohamed Esa is a short, slightly built, soft-voiced forty-eight-year-old man with a cropped white beard, black hair, a gap between his front teeth, and thick dark rings beneath his eyes. Since 1976, he has divided his life between Yemen and Dearborn, where he shares with two other Yemenis a five-hundred-dollar-a-month three-room flat. In Yemen, Esa has a wife and six sons. They live three hours from the city of Taiz, in Makbana, a village with no telephone and no electricity. None of them have ever seen America. Until the day after the attack on the World Trade Center, Esa had worked at a small welding company for fifteen years—longer than everyone except the company's owner, Paul Rakoczy. He earned $12.36 an hour and usually put in an eight-and-a-half-hour day. Whatever money he saved he sent to his wife, unless he was bringing it in person; each year, he spends at least three or four months with his family.

On September 12th, Esa told me, he arrived at the welding shop at 5:40 A.M.—around the time the muezzin at his neighborhood mosque was uttering the morning prayer call—and punched the clock. Then: "I go take my work uniform. When I hear the whistle for the work, I take my coffee and go to take my gloves and go to see Mr. Paul what I work on today. He say complete the job from yesterday. I start to work. I'm working twenty minutes, a half hour, and he say to me, 'Don't work. Go home.' I tell him, 'Why I go home?' He say, 'You are Arabic, you are Muslim. You don't see what happened in New York, in Washington? You don't see how many people your people killed?' I tell him I not do nothing. I work here. I have been here fifteen years. How I can go home? He say, 'I can see your face. Go pray in your mosque. Go pray with your leader. I don't want you to work here.' For a half minute or a minute, I thinking what I can do. He say, 'If you don't go, I get the police for you.' I hear that, I say maybe there is trouble, so I go. I have my check coming the next day, but I don't go get it. I'm too scared. I think maybe if I go there he do something, I don't know."

After finding his way to an ACCESS counselling center, Esa told his story to me and to a reporter for the Free Press, who in turn tracked down Rakoczy. Though Rakoczy disputed elements of Esa's account—he had not fired him outright but had told him to take the rest of the week off—he made no attempt to conceal his feelings about Islam. "As far as I'm concerned, their religion is done," he said. "When these guys ran their plane in there like that and hurt all those people, that was the end of it right there. That made their religion—you might as well write it as I say it— the scum of the earth." (Last week, a lawyer for Esa filed a discrimination suit against Rakoczy.)

I asked Esa whether his wife knew that the family no longer had an income.

"I speak to her sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month," he said. "If she come to the city, she will call. She doesn't know what happened with my job. She maybe doesn't know what happened in New York. I maybe will talk to her today. Maybe tomorrow."

When I asked whether he had plans to look for another job, he smiled, shrugged, and said, "How can I face an American guy and ask him to work? How can I knock the door and say I'm an Arabic guy? He might kill me."

So what was he planning to do next?

He smiled and shrugged again.

"America has changed like the weather. You not see America how is it? I sleep on Monday. I get up in the morning on Tuesday. Now I don't know what tomorrow will happen. Tomorrow. I don't know. Tomorrow is too far."


Note: Posted cartoons are not part of the article as it appears in The New Yorker.

§ Links:


Arab Americans Under Attack !


 

 Search this site
Home - English Contact Us BJ Guide Guestbook Bint Jbeil E-mail News & Polls Home -  Arabic