Arab Detroit: from Margin to Mainstream

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

review by Brian Smith

Arab Detroit:
From Margin to Mainstream
edited by Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000) 629 pages
$24.95 (paperback).

JUNE, 2002: A luncheon of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has been delayed for a half hour. The delay is not just inconvenient but also awkward, as the luncheon is being held to honor a senator and a congressman who have been supportive of the Arab American community’s concerns.

The cause of the delay? Police have detained the event’s caterer — an Arab American — even though the man received advance security clearance for the event.

Such is life for Arab Americans in post-September 11 United States. Some in attendance at the luncheon were able to laugh off the incident, having become accustomed to such occurrences and perhaps also understanding the irony of one occurring at an ADC meeting.

While Arab Americans were already subject to a general “cultural profiling” well before September of 2001, recent events have pushed them even farther into the limelight. Accurate portrayals of Arab Americans have never been important.

Community Ethnography

Metro Detroit is home to the most concentrated Arab American community in the United States. Providing excellent insight into that community is this anthology. (Arab Detroit was published before September 2001, so does not cover the impact of recent events).

Arab Detroit is intended as a community ethnography or, as the editors explain, “a self-conscious exercise in cultural representation.” (15) The book consists of academic studies of the community by Arabs and non-Arabs, memoirs and poems written by community members, and interviews.

Abraham, an anthropologist on the faculty at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, is a co-editor of what was previously the main study of Detroit’s Arabs, Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab American Communities.

Shryock, who teaches at the University of Michigan, has done fieldwork in Jordan and Yemen as well as metro Detroit, and is the author of Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan.

Among many themes, Arab Detroit’s primary focus is what it means to be Arab in America. Subtitled From Margin to Mainstream, the anthology examines the degrees to which Arabs in Detroit have experienced inclusion versus exclusion, tradition versus assimilation, and isolation versus integration.

The editors acknowledge that these dichotomized ways of viewing Arabs, while useful analytical tools, are somewhat flawed; they suggest that “it is best to think of margins and mainstreams as overlapping imaginative zones.”

What makes Arabs in metro Detroit a unique immigrant group, they say, is “the extent to which the community exists `on the margin’ and `in the mainstream’ at the same time.” (16)

Arabs in Detroit have experienced a high level of “American Dream” style success. Levels of education and income for many Arab groups are similar to national and metro averages. Yet Arabs remain a highly stigmatized and misunderstood group.

Penetrating Arab American Diversity

A central way in which Arab Detroit serves to lessen that stigma and misunderstanding is by thoroughly illustrating how “Arab” and “Arab American” are socially constructed categories that encompass multiple groups.

Arab, as viewed by most in the United States, constitutes a coherent, unified racial group. In this view all Arabs are Muslims, seen as an equally monolithic-and menacing-religious group.

But the diversity within Arab America is extensive and drawn along many lines — nationality, religion, sect, class, gender, and length of time lived in the United States. Far from being unified, different groups within the community are routinely at odds with each other.

Kim Schopmeyer’s “A Demographic Portrait of Arab Detroit” finds significant differences among Arab Americans of various nationalities in terms of education levels, income, occupations, women’s employment, and family size. The length of time an Arab or Arab family has lived in the U.S. is also a key factor in several of these indicators.

In “Arab Detroit’s `American’ Mosque,” co-editor Abraham chronicles the intense disputes over the “correct” type of Islam practiced at one of the community’s earlier mosques.

The conflict, over what constituted “authentic” and “inauthentic” forms of Islam, centered around whether the mosque should allow singing and dancing, women to enter without headdress, boys and girls to attend the same classes, and the general position of women in the congregation.

The dispute was triggered by more recent immigrants, who arrived in the United States to find fellow Muslims practicing what was considered an `Americanized’ form of the religion and engaging in practices either unheard of or rare in largely Muslim countries.

Multiple Identities

Such rifts illustrate the complexities involved in Arab Detroit’s central question, what it means to be Arab in the U.S. That this question dominates the book’s pieces is reflected in the editor’s comment:

“If the contributions to this book have a single trait in common, it is the need to come to terms with the imaginary hyphen imposed between the words `Arab’ and `American’ and the sense of marginality this hyphen engenders.” (31)

Arab, in many cases, is not the primary identity placed on oneself. Sometimes a national identity — Palestinian, Yemeni, Lebanese — may be of higher importance. In other cases, religious or familial identity has priority.

The creation of and importance placed on `Arab American,’ the editors explain, is recent and emerged, in part, as a reaction to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“America’s pro-Israel stance in the wake of that conflict increasingly turned `the Arabs’ into a problem, both in Detroit and the Middle East. Arab American identity evolved as one way of dealing with that status . . . of the major organizations that represent Arab Americans at the national level, not one predates the 1967 war.” (39)

Several authors record their intensely personal reactions to the war. The feelings, in part, reflected hope that the Arabs would unite, rise up and show their strength to the world. The major defeat suffered by the Arab nations, however, left many with feelings of personal and cultural inadequacy.

Given the size and concentration of metro Detroit’s Arab community, its members have the option of living in a world that retains many Arab cultural traits. But with the influence of American popular culture, avoidance of it — as well as a certain degree of assimilation and Americanization — is impossible.

The difficulties faced in attempts to become sufficiently “American” to succeed, yet also to maintain desired customs and traditions (in other words, to remain Arab), are best covered in the book’s many fine memoirs.

The most substantial challenge is being able to move between and balance two very different cultures. Shams Alwujude, a woman from Yemen, writes of this divide:

“One culture was that of television, which, more importantly, we also found in our school. The other culture was that of our home . . . . As soon as we walked over the threshold into our house, we walked into Yemen. (384)

In the book’s best study, “Family Resemblances,” co-editor Shryock explains the ways in which standard public school experiences are often in conflict with Arab cultural patterns, especially for recent immigrants:

“Given the notions of sexual impropriety that prevail among new Arab immigrants, simply attending public schools is an ominous experience. In American schools, the immigrant parent sees unrelated boys and girls actually being encouraged to date, touch, and dance together (i.e., the prom); hand-holding and kissing are tolerated in the hallways (i.e., high school sweethearts); boys and girls are encouraged to socialize together after school, and even after dark (i.e. clubs)… (584)

The Outside Within

Even the most basic and seemingly mundane aspects of life, such as food, can highlight one’s difference and outsider status. Contributors talk of gradually moving to a taste for more traditionally American foods, often motivated by a desire to minimize one’s differences with others.

The cumulative stresses of these differences, whether large or small, can lead to a heavy psychological toll. In his memoir “To Palestine and Back,” Abraham writes:

“Mother attempted to preserve a Palestinian Arab Muslim identity at home, while my brothers and I found ourselves increasingly pulled into other worlds, each demanding unconditional conformity. I subconsciously spent the better part of the next three decades trying to keep a strict separation between my home and these other worlds . . . moving among these worlds filled me with trepidation and anxiety . . .” (430)

One consequence of the stresses involved with living in multiple worlds is the desire to rid oneself of one of them. Several of the memoirs describe a period in which the authors distanced themselves from Arab culture and, in some cases, other Arabs.

In “Coming Home,” Lara Hamza describes a common desire to “fit in with the majority.” (392) Despite these periods of turmoil, each author who experienced such a period of alienation eventually came to an appreciation of Arab cultures.

Margin and Mainstream

Despite the struggles and pains to find one’s place and understand what it means to be Arab American, the process also provides opportunities and challenges many find beneficial. These undefined labels and boundaries can be “areas of innovation, creativity, and fundamental change,” the editors explain. (32)

For some, existing in dual cultures means having an ability to select the preferred traits of each, while better being able to challenge and critique both American and Arab cultures.

The book is comprehensive, covering numerous aspects of Arab social, political, family and religious life. In addition to the topics mentioned in this review, the book also includes pieces on Arab social services; Arab politics and political organizations; the meanings of travels back “home;” and the role of Arab music and food in presenting a public face of the community to non-Arabs.

Though the book, as would be expected, is generally serious in tone, many writers find humor in their experiences. Alixa Naff calls Protestant churches “effective Americanizing institutions” (116) due to their Wonderbread-bland form of ritual.

While every selection in the book is in some way political, Arab Detroit is highly personal and engaging. The mix of academic studies, memoirs, poems, and interviews is well balanced and a very effective combination. Statistics and analysis of course have their place, but the personal stories bring the experiences of Arab Detroiters alive in ways that academic studies rarely do.

As with any anthology, the contributions are of varying quality. A study of the main Arab social services agency provides a solid history of the agency, but leaves unanswered the interesting question of how social services are administered in a community that traditionally has relied on family and religion.

Another question left unaddressed is how Arabs were able to settle as a community in Dearborn, a suburb usually considered the center of Arab Detroit. Dearborn has a reputation as a racist suburb, having been led by an openly segregationist mayor from the 1940s through the early 1970s.

Dearborn’s African-American population has always been small, even though a substantial number of Blacks have long worked there, many at the historic Ford River Rouge plant.

How and why were Arabs able to move in and settle, when Blacks were so effectively excluded? What is the relationship between the Arab community, primarily located on Dearborn’s east side, and the white community that resides mostly on the west side?

These, however, are minor flaws in an anthology that provides a thorough, comprehensive, insightful and timely portrait of the Arab community in Detroit.

Ideally, the authors will put together a follow-up volume. In addition to obvious questions about the impact of September 11 on the community, it’ll be interesting to see the general direction in which the community has moved: closer to margin, mainstream, or as has been its paradoxical experience, closer to both?

ATC 100, September-October 2002