Arab Detroit : A Panorama of In-Betweenness

By Judith Gabriel

From Margin to Mainstream

Edited by Nabeel Abraham and

Andrew Shryock

Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000, pp 629

Detroit is home to one of the largest, most diverse Arab communities outside the Middle East. There are now roughly 200,000 members of this body of immigrants who started moving to the region a century ago. To the outsider, these individuals may be blurred together in the overarching identity as Arab Americans, or as another ethnic clump of predominantly dark-haired immigrants. Beneath the surface, however, is a highly complex story, with a wide range of individual and group nuances.

Their richly detailed portraits emerge in the work of 25 contributors to “Arab Detroit,” with essays and articles covering a multitude of angles, from food to music, religion and identity to politics. It explores the role of women in a Sunni mosque; the careers of wedding singers, Arabic calligraphers, restaurant owners, and looks at the intimate politics of marriage, family honor, and adolescent rebellion. More than 50 photographs provide a background of images. Anchoring the book in personal experience are several moving memoirs, as well as poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, Lawrence Joseph, Hayan Charara, Saladin Ahmed and Amira Saad.

The editors' combined introductory notes to the book and each section are in themselves filled with in-depth analysis, guided by a framework of conclusions and connections. Nabeel Abraham is a professor of anthropology and director of the Honors Program at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, and Andrew Shryock is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan .

They point out that Arab Detroit has a broad range of lifestyles and varying degrees of assimilation. Its members hail from several national backgrounds–Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis and Yemenis — and from two major religious communities, Muslim and Christians. There are different degrees of assimilation, old-timers and newcomers, with their different attitudes about gender, family, faith and politics. And Arab Americans set themselves apart from each other in these and other terms.

“It is not simply an American ethnic community — parts of it make sense only in relation to the Yemeni highlands or the Lebanese countryside — nor is Arab Detroit an integral part of the Arab world. The city is home, for instance, to tens of thousands of Arabs who cannot speak Arabic,” note the editors in their introduction. “It is this persistent in-betweenness that makes Arab Detroit a challenge for scholars to think and write about.”

This panoramic patchwork of national, religious and village groups who tend to keep to themselves has within it the overlapping identity of Arab American, an identity that emerged quite recently “as part of a complex (and now largely forgotten) reaction to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War,” according to the editors. “ America 's pro-Israel stance in that wake of that conflict increasingly turned ‘the Arabs' into a problem, both in Detroit and in the Middle East. Arab American identity evolved as one way of dealing with that problematic status. In fact, of the major organizations that represent Arab Americans at the national level, not one predates the 1967 war.” And, they note, it is this Arab American identity that non-Arabs are most likely to see in Detroit .

But if you look more closely, following the history and analysis laid out in “Arab Detroit,” specific pictures begin to emerge in sharper detail. In the early part of the 20th century, Arabs and other immigrants began assembling Fords in Highland Park, situated within metropolitan Detroit. When the company moved to Dearborn in 1924, many of the Arabs, mainly Shiite from South Lebanon, moved with the company to the South End. Palestinian Muslims joined them after the 1948 war and the creation of the state of Israel. In the 1960s, large numbers of Arabs, including Yemeni Muslims, immigrated. The Lebanese civil war and other Middle East wars in the 1970s and 1980s brought still more Arab immigrants to Dearborn , with the fallout of the Gulf War bringing up to 5,000 Iraqi refugees. Many eventually moved to the north of the city, which today is bustling with Arab bakeries, clothing stores, restaurants, and professional offices.

With the general historical and demographical picture laid out, the book goes into a rich round of specifics and slice-of-life glimpses, focusing on various constituencies, such as the Chaldean immigrants. Informal estimates suggest that up to 90 percent of Detroit's independently owned grocery and liquor stores are run by Iraqi Chaldean immigrants and their descendants. Most of Detroit 's Chaldeans came originally from a single Iraqi village, Telkaif. In “Behind the Bulletproof Glass,” Gary C. David examines the history of these mom-and-pop stores, where Chaldeans work long hours, and some have installed bulletproof glass windows in the wake of inner city tensions.

Many aspects of life in Arab Detroit –as in other communities – are livened up by the “loud sound systems and lively dance tunes” of musicians. In “The Sound of Culture, The Structure of Tradition,” Anne Rasmussen notes that the Arab American musicans bring to community gatherings “an all- encompassing sonic environment that replaces the host culture with the home culture.” The musicians' skills include those of the “ritual specialist,” Rasmussen says, as musicians, in addition to playing music, “structure time and space by directing audience participation” at weddings and other celebratory events, and are highly valued as culture brokers, whose “sonic patchwork allows Arab Americans to express their collective past and present in distinctive ways.”

There are several religious institutions, serving Chaldean Catholics, Egyptian Copts, Shia Muslims and others. The Detroit Arab sectarian mix has different proportions than in their homelands, generating a range of consequences. While Christians make up only 5 percent of the Arab world, they are at least half of Arab Detroit, and the majority of the city's Muslims are Shia. Throughout the Arab community, religious identity is used in establishing social patterns, particularly the relations between men and women, and more assimilated members of the community often try to develop alternative readings of their own traditions. This manifests in a different mindset between more established immigrants and their more recently arrived kin. “The distinction between ‘culture' and ‘religion' is the battleground on which immigrants fight to define what is Muslim, what is Christian, and what is Arab,” the editors note in their introduction to a section on religion, which includes an exploration of the role of women in a Sunni mosque and the place of nationalist politics in a Coptic church, and a look at Arab Detroit's “American” mosque.

It is this blend of specific instances, personal reflections and overarching analysis that makes “Arab Detroit” a landmark volume, one that speaks of specific particularities as well as general trends.

Also see “Detroit — Arab Capital in North America” by Habeeb Salloum, Al Jadid, Issue No. 25, Fall 1998.)

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 32 (Summer 2000)

Copyright © by Al Jadid (2000)


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