Arab-Americans Thrive in Detroit
But stigma from Mideast conflicts and terrorism spark conflict as citizens reach for mainstream
DEARBORN, MICH. — STOREFRONTS with signs in Arabic. The green domes and crescent-moon spire of a mosque. The New Yasmeen Bakery and Amani's Restaurant. These are clear evidences of a vital, growing Arab-American community in the eastern section of this Detroit suburb.
The Motor City's metropolitan area includes some 250,000 people who have roots in Arab countries. It's widely thought to be the largest Middle Eastern community in North America. The Lebanese community is centered in Dearborn; many Palestinians have settled in the area as well, along with Yemenis, Jordanians, and Iraqis.
The latter group includes many Iraqi Christians, or Chaldeans, whose language (akin to ancient Aramaic), religion, and history give them a distinct identity within the Mideast community. But such distinctions aside, almost all parts of this community have experienced strains - and sometimes outright clashes - in reaching for the mainstream of American life while maintaining a culture that strikes many other Americans as "foreign."
The strains often escalate in proportion to the prominence of Mideast conflicts in newspaper headlines. "The Iraqi war was the only time in my life when my loyalty was questioned because I was a Muslim," says Chuck Alawan, a metal-fabrication company executive and chairman of the Islamic Center of America, located in west Detroit.
The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York on Feb. 26, followed by the arrest of Jordanian and Kuwaiti-born suspects with Palestinian links, had the potential to spark fresh anti-Arab or anti-Muslim feelings here. But quick action by a local Islamic council, which held a press conference to affirm its stance against violence and warn against lumping all Arabs and Muslims together, helped quell such feelings, says Zana Macki, a Dearborn resident of Lebanese background who works for the American-Ara b Anti-Discrimination Committee in Detroit.
The Islamic center's low, off-white building, with a minaret darting from one side, is a focal point of worship, study, and social life for many Muslims in the area, particularly those from the Shiite branch of Islam.
Mr. Alawan's roots in greater Detroit go back to 1914, when his father left Syria for the United States. Henry Ford's offer to workers of $5 a day on his Dearborn assembly line was the initial lure. But the elder Alawan soon followed his merchant heritage into the restaurant business, then a confectioner's store. That progression has been typical of many Arab immigrants. The economic backbone of the community is small business. Many Lebanese, for instance, run gas stations in the Detroit area. Chaldeans are often associated with the "party store" business - small grocery outlets that emphasize beverages and snack foods.
The kinds of censure felt by Alawan during the Gulf war didn't disappear with the war's end. Mrs. Macki describes the disgust felt by many in her community when a local talk-radio station recently posed the question to listeners: "What do you think? Should we lock up Iraqi-Americans?"
"The community is scapegoated for things that go on in the Middle East that we have nothing to do with," says Macki. There was a 300 percent rise in "hate crimes" against local Arabs during the Gulf war, she says. Macki and other Arab-Americans here say that President Bush's "demonization" of Iraq's Saddam Hussein too easily spilled over onto everyone of Arab background.
On the other hand, some non-Arabs went out of their way to express solidarity with Arab acquaintances. Sam Yono, a Chaldean, owns video and grocery stores in both the suburbs and downtown Detroit. "I was astonished at the sympathy for us during the war," he says. "People would ask about our relatives back in Iraq. There were some unpleasant remarks, but the majority of people were concerned."
Nabeel Abraham, a professor of anthropology at the Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, says that local attacks against Arabs were at their worst back in the mid-1980s, when terrorist activities directed from the Middle East reached a peak, as did Washington's offensive against them. At times the FBI has been "unleashed on the Arab community to find terrorists," says Mr. Abraham. "People saw civil liberties falling by the wayside. It undercut their faith in the system."
Alawan says that Americans' general ignorance of Islamic teachings contributes to their readiness to suspect the worst of their Arab neighbors. "We are as American as pumpkin pie," he says of the people who worship at the Islamic center. There's a "natural" affinity between Islam and democracy, in his view. Muslims wouldn't throw out the US Constitution, as some seem to fear, says Alawan, but they would certainly like to see a society that adheres more closely to the high values it proclaims - such as fa ith in God and strong moral standards. "Islam says what it believes and does what it says," he sums up.
Another kind of social tension involves economic friction between Arab and Chaldean business people and their mostly black customers. Bad feelings flared in recent months over an incident involving a Lebanese gas station attendant who shot and killed an African-American he accused of trying to rob the station. Day-to-day relations, shaped by Detroit's high crime rate and storekeepers' security measures, can generate friction.
One way to counter this, says Sharkey Haddad, director of the Chaldean Federation of America in Southfield, Mich., is to encourage store owners to be more sensitive. His organization suggests that owners and employees use only English when customers are around and - perhaps most important - that they try to hire people other than family members. Mr. Yono says his own experience in hiring from the wider community has been very positive, with some African-Americans rising to managerial positions in his sto res.
While economic competition and ethnic animosities pose continuing problems, a fundamental challenge for Arab-Americans may be how to preserve their traditions in the face of a cultural onslaught from the American society of which they are a part.
"When I was a kid, there was more stress on Arab identity," says Abraham, a Palestinian-American. He sees a return to tradition among many newer arrivals. "It's part of the current now coming out of the Middle East. Lots of new immigrants are Shia [Muslims], and they have a closer identity with Islam." Women wearing the traditional veil are now more common in Dearborn, he notes.
During a visit to a Dearborn social-service agency for Arabs, another side of this coin could be seen. Three boys greeted each other in the hallway, surrounded by display cases of traditional Arab handicrafts: "High five! Low five! Down low - too slow!" Typical American kids.