Struggling to Be Both Arab and American
New York Times
Photographs by Jeffrey Sauger for The New York Times
The Islamic Center of North America, top, under construction in Dearborn, will be the country's largest mosque. Above, Donnie Unis, left and Richard Abdullah at Al Ameer Restaurant in Dearborn. Unis, a lifelong Dearborn resident, asks, "When do I become an American?"
Kayal Saad, left, and Janelle Hejaij with a school yearbook in Dearborn, Mich., where two-thirds of students are Arab Americans.
Lubna Kanwal, left, Zanah Qasen and Duha Fahury during a break at Dearborn's Fordson High School, which is 90 percent Arab American.
DEARBORN, Mich., Nov. 3 — The national anthem was a given. So was the flag. But the planners of the Arab American Political Action Committee's fourth annual banquet were stuck on one detail: What to put on the banner behind the podium?
Someone suggested "America First," to quash questions of divided loyalty yet hint at exasperation over Israeli influence on American foreign policy. Another offered the bland but ubiquitous "United We Stand." The dozen immigrants and sons of immigrants struggled for a catch phrase to capture their complexity: "Proud to be Arabs, but 100% American." "Truly Arab, Fully American." "Proud Arabs, True Americans."
"I think we should stress the Arab, because our community is shying away," said Mazen Hammoud, 33, an engineer who arrived here in 1988.
"Frankly, I'm just really sick and tired of defending my ethnicity," said Tina Farhat, 22, a student at the University of Michigan campus here. "Is there any reason I shouldn't be a proud Arab?"
The struggle over a slogan here in the headquarters of The Arab American News, where murals from Beirut and Jerusalem hang over stacks of the bilingual weekly, echoes the broader battle fought daily in this city's classrooms and cafes, on the assembly line at the Ford auto plant and over real estate transactions on newly vibrant Warren Avenue.
Since Sept. 11, as reporters have scoured the sidewalks for terrorist sympathizers amid law enforcement suggestions that Dearborn is crawling with "sleeper cells," the community has increasingly tried to assert its nascent political power, seething over ethnic profiling and declaring it a democratic right to criticize American foreign policy. Outrage over the terrorist attacks is matched by outrage over Israeli occupation, Iraqi sanctions, stereotyping and wiretapping.
Yet even as Arab Americans claim their place, the alienation is obvious. In dozens of conversations, with new "boaters" who have been here a few months and those whose families have stayed for generations, people here inadvertently but consistently refer to non-Arabs as "Americans."
"When do I become an American?" asked Donnie Unis, 62, a retired fire captain whose grandfather came here in 1896, and who has lived all his days in this city, except for a 19- month Army tour in Germany. "I don't want my kids to live the life I've had to lead, always apologizing for who I am. I can either be an American or I can be an Arab, but I can't be both. You know what? I am both."
Dearborn, a town of 27 square miles southwest of Detroit, was famous first as the home of the Ford Motor Company. Now it is better known as the heart of Arab America, the place with the largest concentration of Middle Eastern people outside the Middle East.
Some 300,000 Arabs live in metropolitan Detroit: Palestinian Christians in Livonia, Iraqi Chaldeans in Southfield and Warren, Yemenis in Hamtramck and Syrians in Macomb County. Dearborn, dominated by Lebanese Muslims, is the community's soul, with an Arab population that has grown to 30,000 from 7,000 in 1970.
Arabic signs hawking insurance, dental work, auto repair, bargain blue jeans and fresh fruit stretch for miles down Warren Avenue, as 188 Arab- owned businesses have opened in the last decade.
There are a dozen mosques, from tiny storefronts to the $15 million dome rising on Ford Avenue that will be the nation's largest. "Yala," Arabic for "Let's go," is a staple of sidewalk chatter. Pharoah's Cafe I has elaborate water pipes with six flavors of tobacco, including Bahraini apple, rose and "cocktail," but no liquor.
"When I speak to my parents, they say, `How do you like living in America?' " said Farhan Latif, 20, the Pakistani-born president of the Muslim Students Association at Henry Ford Community College, whose parents live in Dubai. "I tell them I'm not living in America. I'm living in the gulf."
As their culture permeates street and social life, Arabs are also organizing to influence local politics, starting with the schools, where they make up nearly two- thirds of the ballooning enrollment. At Stout Middle School, like other schools here, Muslim girls in head scarves jump rope in sex- segregated gym classes. The school district banned pork from its lunches eight years ago, and this fall began a program serving halal meat, permitted under Islamic rules. At Fordson High School, which is 90 percent Arab American, just 300 of the 2,100 students attended the homecoming dance, many of them escorted by male relatives.
At the same time, Arab entrepreneurs are lobbying to be included in minority small-business loan programs. Others are complaining that none of City Hall's department heads, just 7 percent of its appointed commissioners and only a handful of police officers and firefighters are of Arab descent.
"We want to pick up the garbage in our community," said Osama Siblani, editor of The Arab American News and an adviser to the Lebanese immigrant who is challenging the four-term mayor in Tuesday's election. "We want to be police officers. We want to be firefighters. It looks like an occupation army."
Considering the community's longevity and upward mobility, many question why it has not moved further into the mainstream. New waves of immigrants reinforce old- world ways. Religious differences and disagreements over America's place in the world exacerbate feelings of isolation.
Hassan Jaber, deputy director of the 30-year-old Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, said Dearborn's Arabs lack strong institutions to speak through. "People are starting to question where we are as a community," he said. "One of the mistakes we've done as a community is lack of interaction."
Economic success has preceded political influence. When Hassane Baydoun, sometimes called Sam, arrived here in 1978, there were no lights on Warren Avenue and the storefronts were boarded and broken. Today, Mr. Baydoun, an American flag on his lapel above a Century 21 pin with 70 tiny diamonds — one for every $1 million sold — cruises through in his Cadillac, one hand on his ever-chirping cellphone.
To the left is the New Yasmeen Bakery, the Stars and Stripes in the window blocking Al Jazeera, beamed from Qatar, on televisions inside. Someone offered $132,000 in 1987; now the building is worth $2 million, Mr. Baydoun said. On the right is the Hamido restaurant — the owner just bought a 1,400-square-foot doughnut shop on the next block for $510,000. That Mobil station on the corner? It sold for $15,000 in 1987, then $90,000 a few years ago. Today it would cost $1 million.
Arab Americans long ago spilled over from the South End, near Ford's Rouge Plant, to dominate Dearborn's East End, and are increasingly buying houses — whose values keep rising despite warnings of immigrants ruining the neighborhood — in the West End and even in nearby Dearborn Heights.
A few years ago, Mr. Baydoun, 38, built a $250,000 home in the East End. The Arabic inscription over the front door reads, "In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful." Below it hangs an American flag.
"I didn't know how American I am, really, until this thing happened," Mr. Baydoun said of the terrorist attacks.
He recalled his Oct. 1, 1984, naturalization ceremony. "They asked me if I wanted to change my name. I said, no, I'm Hassane, that's the name my father gave me. In retrospect, maybe I should have changed it, with what's going on nowadays."
One of Dearborn's first Arab- owned businesses was Joe & Ed's, a market with seven kinds of olives and umpteen flavors of Frito-Lay chips. Mr. Saad, Joe's son and Ed's brother, is Al to the distributors gossiping over golf and Adel to the workers trading tidbits from Al Bayat, the Beirut daily newspaper sold at the counter.
"The American people that come here, everyone that comes to this community, likes us," said Mr. Saad, 42, a Dearborn native. "The thing that used to strike me is when the kids would say, `You're not like the other Arabs.' I am like them."
Mr. Saad's sons play football, his daughter is a cheerleader. He gives money to the mosque but rarely steps inside. He has never been to Lebanon.
"If they wanted to tell everyone to go home, where would I go? To the moon?" he said. "I don't have a country. This is my only country."
Mr. Saad's sister Lorraine, 49, left Dearborn 12 years ago to open a restaurant in Las Vegas, where her fuchsia lipstick and sleeveless shirts would not stand out. "I don't want to be like them, I don't want to act like them," she said of the Dearborn Arabs.
Ms. Saad came home to Dearborn in May to help her 27-year-old son open a pizza and bagel shop next to the market. "I don't want him in Vegas until he gets married," she said, "because he has a better chance here of marrying his own kind."
The familiar comforts of the community are not always present in the workplace. Said Berry laughed when asked if any of the union stewards at Ford's Rouge plant are Arab American. Mr. Berry said that in 13 years of loading and unloading trucks he has never been late, yet the cleaner jobs always go to someone else.
When co-workers pass him by while handing out literature, Mr. Berry said he cannot help but wonder whether they think him illiterate. More than once, he said, men on the line have asked whether he pays taxes on his $24 an hour.
After Sept. 11, Mr. Berry warned his wife to be careful going outside. But when she said she would appease any harassers by saying she understood, he exploded, "You won't."
"I always thank God for everything, and an extra thanks for being here — we believe this is the land of opportunity," Mr. Berry said. "When I go to Lebanon, I miss it back here. What do you call this, loyalty, love? It's not like I'm forced to come. I feel I should come back."
At the political banquet, "This Land is Your Land," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," wafted through the Bint Jebail Cultural Center, named for the Lebanese town that has, in a way, recreated itself here in what is known throughout the Arab world as Dearborn, U.S.A.
Three members of Congress attended in a nod to Dearborn's 10,000 Arab registered voters.
Don Unis, the retired firefighter, announced endorsements in local races, including Arab American candidates for Dearborn's school board and City Council. Mr. Siblani, the newspaper editor and master of ceremonies, spoke of how a "bunch of thugs" on Sept. 11 attacked "our nation."
Behind him hung the banner, in red, white and blue: United We Stand, Proud Arab Americans.
Americans Under Attack !