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What is the first American city with an Arab majority like?


Located just outside Detroit, Dearborn offers tourists a taste of the Middle East as they explore how Arab-Americans have shaped the nation.

On a Sunday afternoon at the Shatila Bakery, in the city of Dearborn, in the US state of Michigan, a line of customers gathered in front of the windows full of baklava puff pastries, stacks of meshabek (twisted Egyptian sweets) and Lebanese-style golden macarons.

As employees rushed to fill orders, customers chatted animatedly in a mix of Arabic and English. “Here are my healthy eating plans,” one confessed to a friend.

Shatila, in many ways, is a microcosm of Dearborn. Founded by a Lebanese immigrant in the 1970s, the 45-year-old bakery is surrounded by dozens of restaurants, shops, markets, halal butchers, hair salons and mosques, all run by Arab-Americans.

Signs in Arabic and English guide people along Dearborn’s two largest transit corridors: Warren Avenue and Michigan Avenue. The city is close to Detroit, which has long been synonymous with the Ford Motor Company and the automotive industry.

And over the last century, Dearborn has certainly flourished as the most Arab-influenced place in the United States.

“Homeland far from homeland”

Dearborn will become the first city with an Arab majority in the United States in 2023. With 110,000 inhabitants, it is home to the National Arab-American Museum and the largest mosque in North America.

The city is governed by one of the few Arab and Muslim mayors in the United States. Dearborn was also the first American city to make Eid al-Fitr (the end of the Ramadan fast) an official holiday for city employees – and is one of the few places in the country where a mosque was allowed to broadcast the adhan (the so-called Islamic prayer on its speakers.

For a local resident, the city is the “homeland away from the homeland.”

For all this, Dearborn offers visitors an enticing opportunity to travel to the Middle East without leaving the United States, exploring how Arab Americans have shaped the city and the country.

According to Dearborn Historical Museum curator Jack Tate, the city was little more than sparsely populated farmland until the early 20th century.

But everything changed in the 1920s, when automaker and future business magnate Henry Ford (1863-1947) moved the headquarters of his company – Ford Motor Company – from Highland Park, 10 miles away, to Dearborn.

“At the time, it was a small, seedy community,” Tate explains. “And when he opened the [nova] factory, people came from all over the United States, all over the world, to work for Ford. It was the great beginning of the migration from the Middle East to here.”

When Ford created his famous Model T automobiles in 1908, he needed people to build them.

The businessman was known for his racist hiring policies against African Americans and his anti-Semitism. And, in his search for labor, Ford found recently arrived immigrants from the Middle East in the Detroit region.

Waves of workers from what is now Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian Territories soon began arriving in the Detroit area, seeking new jobs and high wages.

Local legend has it that Ford once told a Yemeni sailor that his factory paid its workers the generous (for the time) wage of $5 a day. That’s how this wave of people came to the Detroit region from Yemen and other parts of the Middle East.

In the early 1920s, most of the workers on the Ford Model T assembly line were of Arab descent. And when Henry Ford moved the factory to Dearborn, many of his employees followed suit.

The move transformed the peaceful village of 2,400 inhabitants into the site of the largest industrial plant in the world. And, most importantly, it allowed Dearborn to become home to the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States.

In the 2020 census, 54.5% of the city’s approximately 110,000 residents said they were originally from the Middle East or North Africa.

According to Center for Arab Narratives director Matthew Jaber Stiffler, as more Arabs and Arab-Americans moved to Dearborn over the decades, a community network emerged that encouraged more people to come from that region.

“Doctor’s offices, restaurants, grocery stores began to appear, until an enclave formed,” he says.

“And unfortunately in the countries of origin – especially Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq – there have been permanent disorders (civil wars, American military invasions) [que] forced people to emigrate. Therefore, Dearborn continued to continuously receive new migrants, because [já] there were people [daqueles países] This way.”

Amanda Saab’s family has a similar story. The Lebanese-American chef was born and raised in the city.

His parents immigrated to Dearborn in the 1970s when they were children. Like so many other people, Saab’s grandparents were attracted by the promise of good wages in the auto industry, and other family members already lived in the city.

“[Dearborn] it’s always been this kind of lighthouse, this center, this fortress,” he says. “Everything that really connects us to faith and community, to me, is in Dearborn.”

In 2015, dressed in the hijab (Islamic veil), Saab was the first Muslim woman to participate in the reality show MasterChef USA. And, with the war between Israel and Gaza, she founded Chefs for Palestine, a dinner series bringing together some of the region’s best chefs to raise money for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund and the Palestinian American Medical Association.

Saab explains that many current Dearborn residents have faced conflict in their home countries. Therefore, they moved to the city in search of a better life.

For Arab Americans, Dearborn has served not only as refuge and hope, but also as a point of support for those with family members suffering abroad.

“Dearborn is one of the most hospitable, kind and generous communities [que existem]”, says Saab.

The conquest for the stomach

Currently, the strong Arab-American presence in Dearborn is perhaps most significant in the food sector. Food lovers come from all over the American Midwest to visit its grocery stores, cafes and restaurants specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine.

“Dearborn, in itself, is a gastronomic adventure,” says Saab. And he recommends some of his favorite places.

For snacks, he recommends AlTayeb, a popular spot that serves typical homemade Lebanese breakfast dishes, such as full (freshly cooked chickpeas and broad beans); hummus topped with minced meat or pieces, your choice; tahini factsh (chickpeas topped with garlic yogurt, tahini, fried pita, toasted almonds and cashews) served with meat; and other highly rated dishes.

Shawarmas are also common in Dearborn, but Saab’s favorite is the chicken shawarma on French bread from Tuhama’s on eastern Dearborn.

Shatila Bakery is famous for its baklava. A journalist from Bon Appétit magazine once declared that this is the best baklava which he has already tasted. But Saab also recommends its “fantastic” pistachio ice cream and Ashtaa type of Arabic cream.

For dinner he suggests Butcher’s Grille, a casual steakhouse that treats traditional Middle Eastern cuisine with a modern twist. She thinks of shawarma on spring rolls and as a side with french fries.

Saab also loves grilled meat skewers. “The hummus is delicious!”, according to her.

Middle Eastern culture may bother you in Dearborn, but there’s also a lot to see.

In 2005, the Islamic Center of America opened a 120,000-square-foot mosque on Ford Road, just two miles from the Ford Motor Company headquarters.

In addition to being the largest mosque in North America (with room for 1,000 people during prayer), it is also the oldest Shiite mosque in the United States.

The mosque welcomes people of all religions. Tourists can visit it and admire its golden domes, its immense 33 meter high minarets and the elaborate Islamic calligraphy inside.

On the south end of Dearborn, the American Muslim Society is also open to visitors and offers tours for all.

Built in 1937 and expanded over the years to include an auditorium that hosts guest speakers on weekends, it was the first mosque in the United States authorized to broadcast the adhan via loudspeaker.

Religion is a central part of the lives of many Arab-American residents of Dearborn. But its history is much more varied: this is what the National Arab-American Museum wants to show.

The organization describes itself as “the first and only museum of its kind in the United States dedicated to recording the Arab-American experience.” In his exhibition he tells the stories of Arab-American immigration Coming to America and highlights important contributions of Arab Americans in the exhibition Create an impact.

In addition to the central galleries and annual events (such as the Arab Film Festival), the museum also opened its Al-Hadiqa Arab-American Heritage Garden in 2023.

On the museum’s terrace, one of the community’s historians, Shatha Najim, displays plants in various stages of growth, from structures that support budding vines to strong, freshly harvested Egyptian onions.

It says the garden opens for the season on June 8. It was created as a result of material she collected for the museum’s oral history collection. Many of these stories describe the experiences of people who left their homeland.

“I think one of the best ways to really connect with your homeland is through plants,” she says. “Growing food and herbs from your own land here is like creating a new home, a new environment that feels familiar.”

Najim says these oral histories form a fuller picture of life in the United States. For Arab Americans, “sometimes much of the narrative is told to us rather than by us.”

But Dearborn is different. “Live with people who are familiar to you, from your culture,” she says. “They may not be from the same country, but they share a lot of similarities with you.”

“All of this creates a new sense of homeland, existing in a new place and forming a beautiful new home. Maybe not everyone intended to end up here [mas fizemos o melhor possível].”

“AS [a expressão] “Arab-American”. We feel connected to both of them.”

Read the original version of this report (in English) on the site BBC Trip.

Source: Terra

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