Joan Mandell’s Tales from Arab Detroit

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Janice J. Terry

Tales from Arab Detroit. Directed by Joan Mandell, produced by ACCESS and Olive Branch Productions. (c) 1995, 45 minutes color stereo.

TALES FROM ARAB Detroit is a video documentary offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives and struggles of the Arab American community in the Detroit tri-county area.

Independent documentary maker Joan Mandell (whose first film Gaza Ghetto powerfully showed the realities of daily life in that underreported section of occupied Palestine) produced this film in conjunction with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). ACCESS is located in the “South End” of Dearborn, a working class enclave in the shadow of the monstrous Ford Rouge plant.

Tales from Arab Detroit grew out of an ongoing effort by ACCESS to preserve Arab culture for its own community and to present it to the larger American society. As part of its growing cultural program, ACCESS brought to Detroit an Egyptian classic storyteller, Sheikh Ghanim Mansour.

The desire of ACCESS to record the storyteller’s visit, and Mandell’s interest in exploring the community’s own experiences, generate the film’s dual focus, in which the Sheikh’s epic recounting of tribal journeying interweaves with the modern cultural and emotional odysseys of several Arab-American generations.

Genesis of Arab Detroit

Although some Arabs, predominantly Christians from Greater Syria (present-day Lebanon and Syria) came to Michigan during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Arabs in Dearborn — the real focus of this film’s attention — came to work in the booming automotive plants prior to and following World War II.

Further waves of immigrants moved into the area following the 1973 and 1982 Arab-Israeli wars as well as other Middle East upheavals. Many were refugees who had lost their homes and means of survival: Palestinians, Lebanese (particularly Shi’i Muslims from the south), Yemenis, Chaldeans (Eastern rite Catholics) from Iraq.

This diverse community, reflective of the religious and national complexities of the Arab world, continues to attract at least three thousand new immigrants per year. ACCESS was established in the early 1970s as a grassroots organization to provide much-needed assistance to this growing community.

ACCESS originally concentrated its efforts on English language instruction, legal assistance and health and service programs. As the organization grew, the directors recognized the need for cultural preservation and education programs, of which Sheikh Ghanim Mansour’s visit was an expression.

Migrations Old and New

The differences between the Sheikh and the Arab Americans greeting him at Metro Detroit airport are apparent the moment he steps off the plane. The film records his arrival wearing his traditional gallabiya, the flowing robe worn by Egyptian peasants, carrying his rababa — a single-stringed traditional instrument — ready to entertain young and old alike.

Sheikh Mansour is part of a tradition, dying out even in Egypt, of storytellers who have committed to memory the entire Beni Hilal epic — all 100 hours of it. For comparison’s sake, this is the rough equivalent of memorizing four full seasons of “Melrose Place!”

But unlike the pablum served up by the television networks, the epic is the food that feeds human souls. This saga, recited by the Sheikh over several evenings, recounts the history of the Beni Hilal tribal journeys, from Egypt to North Africa — their trials, human foibles, tribulations and joys, but most of all their tale of survival.

Yet the Arab youth in America, while attracted to the Sheikh’s infectious laugh, understand neither his Arabic nor the story itself, both too far removed from their personal experiences.

To highlight these differences, several segments of the film focus on two teenage Arab-American musicians who are totally caught up in popular American culture. (One is accepted within his own family; the other, a young Yemeni rapper, is sent back to Yemen to marry his cousin.)

Only the older generations whose first language was Arabic, and who were educated in the oral tradition, fully appreciate the stories. Throughout the film, second and third-generation Arab Americans discuss their alienation, their difficulties in fitting into either the Arab or larger American society.

Whether they represent the earlier or newer generations of immigrants, all those interviewed contend with conflicting desires–to assimilate, while preserving their own Arab and religious/communal identities. Most successful in this regard, perhaps, are the children of Fandy Rashid, a storekeeper and poet who communicated to his children his love of both classical Arabic and English literature.

Only the Sheikh seems totally comfortable in his own skin. Indeed, even in Egypt his way of life is being crushed the steamroller of western culture. (This fact of course is beyond this short film’s scope, except when Sheikh Mansour himself muses that the hero of the Beni Hilal epic, with all his fighting prowess, “wouldn’t stand a chance” in a world of jet planes and machine guns.)

The flood of consumerism, pervasive advertising and media from the west has so inundated Egypt, as it has most of the Third World, that villagers are made to look like foreigners in their own countries.

Example and Inspiration

In so short a film it is virtually impossible to do more than touch upon the many generational conflicts, economic and social struggles, religious foundations and future of this community.

Audiences not acquainted with the diversity of the Detroit Arab-American communities will be entertained and educated by Tales from Arab Detroit. Those with experience in the community or in the Arab world, however, may wish for more emphasis on the constant struggles of working class Arabs in Detroit, or on the religious and political tensions in the community. But these are minor quibbles.

Tales from Arab Detroit has already won the highest form of praise – imitation — from those most intimately involved in the problems of growing up Arab in the United States.

After viewing the film, female teenagers in an afterschool program at the Arab-American Community Center in Chicago immediately wanted to produce a video to tell their particular story. Their energy positively leaps out of the screen in their production Benaat Chicago (Daughters of Chicago).

(The Benaat Chicago video is produced by Jennifer Bing-Canar and Mary Zerkel of the Chicago Center of the American Friends Service Committee, 59 E. Van Buren, #1400, Chicago IL 60605.)

If the Chicago experience is an indication, Joan Mandell may have begun a process whereby — much as the Beni Hilal saved their history through oral stories–working class communities throughout this country can preserve their tales of survival through the contemporary medium of film.

(For more information or to contact the filmmaker: Olive Branch Productions, 1511 Sawtelle Blvd #265, Los Angeles CA 90025. Phone/fax 310-444-9715. Also distributed by ACCESS, 2651 Saulino Ct., Dearborn MI 48120. Tel. 313-842-7010. For institutional purchases: New Day Films, 22D Hollywood Ave., Hohokus, NJ 07423. Phone 201-652-6590, fax 201-652-1973.)

ATC 67, March-April 1997