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24 Hours in Dearborn

Dearborn is where the Middle East meets the Midwest, the Arab-American way

Writer

Amal Abdallah

Photographer

Matthew LaVere

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Dearborn, Michigan, or ‘D-Bo’, as many of its younger residents lovingly refer to it, has the largest Middle Eastern population in the United States. Home to Henry Ford, the world headquarters of Ford Motor Company, and the largest mosque in North America, the city offers decades of history and culture and a comforting blend of old-fashioned Arab and American hospitality.

 

 

Dearborn is a busy city with a neighbourly feel, giving the sense that friends and family are just down the street. The first Arab immigrants came to the city during the early- to mid-20th century to work in the automotive industry, and mainly consisted of Lebanese Christians. Since then, mostly Muslim immigrants from Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, have joined them. Lebanese Americans however, continue to hold the top demographic spot.

The first Arab immigrants came to the city during the early- to mid-20th century to work in the automotive industry, and mainly consisted of Lebanese Christians. Since then, mostly Muslim immigrants from Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, have joined them. Lebanese Americans however, continue to hold the top demographic spot

With so many cultures gathered in one city, one might expect clashes to arise, but walk into any restaurant, bakery or market and you’ll be sure to find that everyone is friendly. The people of Dearborn function as a large, cooperative family. From morning to evening, this city does not disappoint. With an array of Middle Eastern restaurants, institutions and engaging activities to explore, a good time is always just around the corner.

 

 

8:00AM – Shatila Bakery

Whether your preference is bread with zaatar or the ever-famous knafeh, Dearborn’s best breakfast can be found at Shatila Bakery on Warren Avenue. In 1979, Riad Shatila opened the first bakery on Schaefer Road after moving to Dearborn from war-torn Lebanon. With the tagline ‘Sweets of the Middle East from the heart of the Midwest’ decorating its website, Shatila attracts sweets fans from across the state and became an instant hit with Dearborn’s Arab community as well as curious customers. The original location quickly proved too small, with queues constantly stretching beyond the door and spilling into the street.

Once the location could no longer sustain such a high demand, Shatila moved to the bakery’s current residence, becoming one of the highlights of Warren Avenue, with its range of stores and bakeries devoted to Arab products, from fresh falafel to Nido powdered milk. Nada Shatila, co-owner and daughter of Mr. Shatila, describes the passion that made her father’s bakery a success. ‘He had always aspired to open his own bakery. He practised in Lebanon before moving to the US by making pastries himself and delivering them to his neighbours,’ she explains. ‘His hard work allowed him to teach his employees at the bakery how to make each pastry, from baklava to cake, and how to make it unique and delicious. His focus was not on making money at first – it was on creating pastries that satisfied each customer’s taste, and perfecting customer service.’

The bakery offers a wide array of specialty desserts ranging from French pastries and cakes to a variety of homemade ice cream flavours and world-class baklava. Grab a freshly brewed cup of coffee to go with that slice of knafeh, and consider the day successfully started.

 

 

11:00AM – Arab American Museum

The Arab American National Museum (AANM) is the first and only museum in the United States solely devoted to Arab American history and culture. Arab Americans have enriched the economic, political and cultural landscape of American life, especially in Dearborn. The AANM brings to light the common experiences of immigrants and ethnic groups, paying tribute to the diversity of American society.

Opened in 2005 by founding director Dr. Anan Ameri, so far the museum has hosted wide-ranging exhibitions, from ‘A is for Arab: Stereotypes in US Popular Culture’ to the Lebanese-American inventor of the Hawaiian shirt, Alfred Shaheen.

Dr Ameri believes the museum is a pioneer in the Midwest’s cultural landscape. ‘The idea behind it was to present Arab Americans and preserve their contributions in a way that could impact a larger number of people. There are 17,500 museums in the US, and this is the only one where you can learn about Arab Americans,’ she says. ‘It is located in the heart of our community – usually when people want to learn about Arab Americans, they come to Dearborn.’

Usually when people want to learn about Arab Americans, they come to Dearborn

Dr Ameri recently retired as full-time director of the museum, but plans to continue working part-time in the autumn. Over the years, the museum has acquired a great collection of artwork from various artists, as well as permanent exhibits such as ‘Coming to America’, which traces rural and urban immigration to the country, and a community courtyard devoted to Arab culture.

One of the most spectacular parts of the museum is the design of the building itself. Created by Dr Fayeq Oweis, a well-known mural artist, the designs of the structure radiate with Arabic culture and symbolism, making the museum a piece of art in its own right, alongside the treasures it houses behind its doors.

Tip: The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so make sure to plan your visit accordingly.

 

 

2:00PM – Famous Hamburger

After enjoying the Arab American National Museum, reward a pesky appetite with a visit to Dearborn’s beloved Famous Hamburger. The story of Famous Hamburger is one that truly depicts the white picket fence ideals characteristic of the American dream. The Hider family once ran a popular fast food joint in Lebanon before making the move to Michigan, where the old family business became a modern day success in the US. The menu serves halal hamburgers alongside Arabic staples, making it a true example of Arab-American fast food.

In July 2005, Famous Hamburger relocated from its original home in Detroit to Dearborn. What sets Famous Hamburger apart from other similar establishments is the overall experience and service. Mohammed Hider, co-owner of the restaurant that is endearingly referred to by regulars as ‘Famous’, insists that the restaurant is truly special. ‘We are full service, casual dining, 100% halal American cuisine with a twist of Mediterranean taste. Customer service is our number one priority. You will always see an owner or a manager talking with the customer and asking how everything is.’

Narghileh connoisseurs need not look any further. ‘Famous’ is also famous for its specialty tobacco water pipe. The restaurant welcomes visitors from all over Michigan, the country and even the world. A new menu with healthier options will be offered in the near future, for anyone who is actually willing to forgo that famous hamburger for a salad. The restaurant has a separate dining area for visitors wishing to enjoy a side of narghileh with their fries.

 

 

5:00PM – Islamic Centre of America

Once you’ve digested the colossal Famous Hamburger, take a drive down Ford road to the Islamic Center of America (ICOFA), the largest mosque in the country. This is one of the United States’ oldest Islamic institutions. Established in 1963, the centre provides for the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and social needs of Muslims in the greater Detroit area and throughout the US. It has an extensive, rich past that represents the American Muslim community’s search for and success at finding a sense of belonging. In 1949, Imam Jawad Chirri came to America to assist a small group of people who were seeking Islamic guidance. The centre was created to cater to this growing need.

In addition, the centre offers Arabic classes and attempts to educate American society about Islam and Arab culture. It houses a library, auditorium and community space, offering its facilities to community members for engagements, weddings, baby and bridal showers, fundraisers, funerals, birthday parties, and many other special events. It’s also home to the Muslim American Youth Academy. Visiting this one-of-a-kind place of worship to learn about the Muslim community and further understand the culture of the city is definitely worthwhile.

ICOFA offers tours of its facilities and the mosque – anyone interested can fill out the inquiry form online.

 

 

8:00PM – Michigan Arab Orchestra

To wind down after a busy day exploring Dearborn, enjoy a performance by the Michigan Arab Orchestra. Founded in 2010, the Michigan Arab Orchestra is a nonprofit organisation that celebrates Arab culture and its music through educational outreach and performance. Michigan Arab Orchestra performs the classical and contemporary traditions of Arabic music, and showcases a diverse range of Arab music. Founder and music director Michael Ibrahim has performed in many concert halls around the world throughout his life, and has shared the stage with prominent western and Arab musicians. He believes that each concert is an unbeatable memory for all of the members each time they perform. ‘The most special thing about the MAO is the people involved. Each person on board with the MAO has a different background and story. We are truly a diverse group that reflects the American culture, having many non-Arabs who perform with the orchestra or serve on our board, we really hold true to our motto, “culture through diversity.’”

The Michigan Arab Orchestra typically rehearses once a week. It performs throughout the year and recently participated in the 2nd Annual Gala Event at the Music Hall Center for Performing Arts in Detroit, held on June 1st 2013. Anyone interested in learning about upcoming performances, Michigan Arab Orchestra news or events can sign up for the e-newsletter on the orchestra’s website.

 

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