Detroit - Arab Capital of North America

Habeeb Salloum

“Imagine! When I first came to Detroit, I thought that I was still in the Arab world.” Muhammad, once a Lebanese, but now an American, remarked when I asked him if he felt a longing for his homeland. He went on, “In fact, this city is much better than southern Lebanon where we were continually dodging bombs and waiting for the next Israeli incursion. Here, I live in an almost Arab city. There are more Arab things to do in this town than in my country.”

Smiling, he pointed to the Arab retail establishments along Warren Avenue in Dearborn, the heart of Arab Detroit. “See! These are some of Detroit ’s Arab bookstores, grocery outlets, restaurants and sweet shops. We have Arabic language schools and Arabic entertainment, from nightclubs to radio and television programs, and even our political parties have branches in this city – and all this without fear of the daily Israeli attacks.”

Everywhere I looked, shops proclaimed their products and names in both Arabic and English. Women in head scarves mingled with others dressed in the most modern style. Pedestrians passed by speaking loudly in Arabic as they greeted each other in a hospitable and friendly fashion. It was a scene that could easily be replicated in Beirut or Sidon.

These shops and other establishments, emphasized by Muhammad’s words, truly describe the Arabs and their lives in this automobile capital of the U.S. Coming from almost every corner of the Arab world, the Arab immigrants in Detroit have transformed areas throughout the city into replicas of the Arab countries from where they came.

From the time of my youth, growing up on the prairies in western Canada, I often listened to my elders discussing the Arab community in Detroit. A number had traveled there to work after emigrating to the U.S., then left for the Midwest to look for greener pastures. In the Dakotas and Montana, they had heard that the Canadian government was giving 160 acres free to anyone willing to work the land. They therefore traveled north to southern Saskatchewan where they became farmers.

When visiting our home, they would often discuss their Detroit evenings of Arab dancing, music and song. At other times, they would talk about Arab foods like fig jam, halawah, tahina, olives, roasted chickpeas, and other foods for sale in the local homes or stores – foods, at that time, I had never tasted or even heard of.

This picture of Arab Detroit stayed with me through my youthful years and I often yearned to travel to that city which offered the delights of the Arab world. In the late 1940s, I found myself in Detroit for the first time. Arab groceries and eating places like the Sheik – for years, my favorite restaurant – were everywhere. Living in southern Saskatchewan, where the only Arab foods were the dishes our mothers cooked and the only entertainment was the odd times some Arab friends would sing ballads recalled from their childhood, it was to me, the city of a Thousand and One Nights.

Today, my first Arab vision of Detroit has become greatly enhanced. The Arab population of the city, according to Warren David, a third-generation Arab American who is a board member of the Arab American Arts Council, is some 200,000, consisting of four large groups: Syrian and Lebanese – 100,000; Iraqi-Chaldean – 60,000; Palestinian and Jordanian – 25,000; Yemeni – 10,000; and 5,000 from other Arab countries. However, a good number of Arab Detroiters dispute these figures, saying that the total number of Arabs in the Detroit area is more than 300,000.   

Yaha Mawari, a leader in the Yemeni community, stated that the Yemeni population alone is 30 to 40,000 strong. Yet, no matter what the figure is, Greater Detroit, with the exception of São Paulo in Brazi, is considered to be the largest Arab city outside the Arab world.

The Arabization of large sections of Detroit has been going on for many years, from the time the first Arabs, in the late 19th century, came from the Ottoman Province of Syria, which today includes the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. However, by 1900, there were only 50 Arabs in Metro Detroit, increasing to 9,000 by the 1930s.

The immigrant masses arrived in the last half of this century. Unlike the earlier newcomers, they came from almost all countries in the Arab world, especially Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen. The creation of the State of Israel and, later, the Arab-Israeli wars, the long Lebanese civil war, the Iraq-Iran war, the Yemeni civil wars and, lastly, the Gulf War, led a great many Arabs to emigrate to the U.S. – a fair number settling in Detroit.

Most of the immigrants, who called Detroit home early in the century, were illiterate or semi-literate, and ended up as peddlers. Carrying packs of merchandise on their backs, or by horse and buggy, they traveled to the surrounding farms and small towns offering their embroideries, laces, Holy Land souvenirs, and other trinkets for sale. After making some money, most opened up grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants.

By the 1920s, when Ford built his auto plants in the city, the good salaries offered to prospective employees enticed a large number of Syrian-Lebanese and later Yemenis to his plants in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park and later to southeast Dearborn. Soon relatives and villagers of the Ford workers followed each other, most joining the unskilled laborers in the factories.

The majority of the early immigrants, in the main, members of the numerous eastern Christian sects, initially settled in the downtown Lafayette – Congress area. By the second generation, a good number of their children became doctors, engineers, lawyers and politicians. Gradually becoming affluent, many moved to Detroit ’s more prosperous eastern suburbs, including Grosse Pointes, Harper Woods, Mt. Clemens, Roseville, St. Clair Shores and Sterling Heights. Today, the vast majority are totally integrated into American society with only a small minority still retaining some connection to its Arab past.

The Syrian-Lebanese Muslims, who tend to retain the flavor and traditions of their culture more than their Christian brethren, began to settle in the Detroit area in appreciable numbers at a much later date. Their original home was in Highland Park where they erected the first mosque in 1916. Later, the majority moved to Dearborn, and after each war in the Middle East, refugees, political dissidents and other Arabs joined them in ever-increasing numbers until today, with the population of Dearborn being some 20 percent of Arab origin.

Some of the later immigrants from Arab countries, like the Jordanians, Palestinians and Yemenis, followed a similar pattern, but others settled in all parts of the city. The Egyptians, mostly professionals when they came, established themselves in the northern suburbs, and the Iraqi-Chaldeans first planted their roots in the Jefferson East Grand Boulevard area, then moved on to the Boston Boulevard-Hamilton section of the city. They now live primarily in the Seven Mile-John R area and Oak Park, Southfield, West Bloomfield, Sterling Heights, and Troy.

Nevertheless, a good number of the newcomers work as laborers in the auto industry. However, just like the others before them, as they prosper, they move on to buy and operate their own retail and wholesale businesses, such as clothing and grocery outlets, eating establishments or service stations.

In Dearborn , the heart of the Arab business district at Warren and Schaefer, there are close to 100 Arab stores, mostly owned by immigrants from south Lebanon. The Iraqi-Chaldeans, the largest concentration of these Iraqis in North America, have their businesses concentrated around Nine Mile Road and Coolidge. According to David, in the Detroit area, over 80 percent of the service stations are operated primarily by Lebanese; and over 80 percent of the grocery stores are managed predominately by Iraqi-Chaldeans.   

In the last few decades, the large influx of Arab immigrants into the Detroit area created a demand for the use of Arabic in the city’s school system. This has led to bilingual Arabic-English programs, administrated in the Detroit public schools. Many students interested in their language and heritage have enrolled in these programs.

Detroit ’s Arabs and their businesses are a microcosm of that of the Middle East. Everything to be found in these lands and more can be found in Detroit. Some 100 Arab-American organizations cater to the needs of the city’s Arabs, from religion and politics, to dancing and social services. Besides the religious institutions, some of the important organizations in the Detroit area are: The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), one of the largest and most active associations; the American Syrian Arab Association; Arab American Arts Council; Arab American & Chaldean Communities Social Services Council; American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; Arab Chamber of Commerce-Michigan; Chaldean Federation of America; Lebanese American Heritage Club; American Federation of Ramallah; and the Yemeni Benevolent Association.

Five mosques and 10 churches serve the community, almost evenly split between Christian and Muslim Arabs. For relaxation, the Arab Network of America, Arab Time TV, United TV and TV Orient keep the people entertained. In addition, there are a series of radio programs and two newspapers, Sada Alwatan and the Detroit Chaldean Times, in both English and Arabic.

These organizations have affected the lives of Detroit ’s Arabs. Even though, as in all of North America, the stereotyping of Arabs as rich playboys, terrorists, nomads and belly dancers is still widespread, this cultural demonizing is slowly being rectified by some of the city’s Arab organizations and politically-active members of the community.

However, a great deal more can be done. In the past, and to some extent today, identification with the village, family or geographical region in the Arab world and political differences based on religion still retard the effectiveness of Detroit ’s Arabs in influencing the media and the politics of the city. Slowly, however, Arab Americans are developing a power base in the Detroit area. A number of the city’s judges and county prosecutors are of Arab origin, and lately, Arabs played a major role in the election of Spencer Abraham, the first Arab senator to be elected in the state of Michigan.

On the other hand, the second generation, the descendants of Arab immigrants, is thoroughly Americanized. By this time, for a good number of these U.S-born Arabs, the countries from where their parents came are only faintly remembered. They retain only their love for Arab food, dancing and singing. Hurriedly, more than most other immigrants, they melt into American society.

In the meantime, Detroit ’s Arab immigrants and some of their descendants are trying to do their bit to enhance the Arab image in North America, while they live in a fulfilling Arab atmosphere. In the words of Amal David, supervisor in the office of bilingual education for Detroit Public Schools, “Our family moved to Detroit because here we can bring up our children in the Arab tradition, while we integrate into American society.”

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 25, Fall 1998.

Copyright © 1998 AL JADID MAGAZINE