In Detroit, the crucible of Henry Ford’s industrial empire, the Arab-American community is finding a voice, and telling stories through its people and its national museum
How Dearborn, Michigan became the heart of Arab America
Two very different buildings stand on either side of Michigan Avenue in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the historic home of Henry Ford and his eponymous motor company.
Built in warm brick and limestone with very English-looking windows and a steeply hipped roof, the Dearborn City Hall was designed in 1921 in a Colonial revival style and built using tax revenues largely generated by the car-maker, whose headquarters and colossal assembly plants still dominate the landscape.
Only 12 years old and funded from charitable donations, the grey building at 13624 Michigan Avenue could not be more different.
Not only is it decorated with ornate turquoise tiles and geometric patterns on its facade, but it is also topped with a very Islamic-looking dome.
To the uninitiated, the building looks like a mosque, but actually it is home to the strictly non-denominational Arab-American National Museum (AANM), the only national institution in the United States dedicated to the Arab-American experience.
At first glance, the buildings have nothing in common, but a closer investigation reveals that they not only share a common purpose, but stand as testament to the changing economic and demographic fortunes of a Motor City that was once the engine of US manufacturing, but has since become a bye-word for post-industrial decline.
In 2016, the City Hall was transformed into a series of 53 affordable live/work units, studios, offices by Artspace, a non-profit organisation that provides affordable housing for artists and their families.
For the coming month, the City Hall’s regular residents will be joined by a temporary visitor, the AANM’s first artist-in-residence, Ayman Yossri Daydban, a Palestinian conceptual artist from Saudi Arabia whose work is included in Epicenter X: Saudi Contemporary Art in Dearborn MI, the new exhibition at the AANM opening on Saturday.
The exhibition, which features the work of about 40 Saudi-based artists, joins the AANM’s existing show, Safar: a Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, an exhibition of vintage film memorabilia from the private collection of the Beirut-based collector Abboudi Bou Jaoudeh.
If the home of American industrialism sounds like an unlikely location for such shows, it shouldn’t, says Devon Akmon, the director of the AANM.
“We exist in Dearborn because it’s the home of our parent organisation, Access, and the centre of Arab-American culture in Michigan, but really because Dearborn is the heart of Arab-America,” he says.
Founded by volunteers in 1971 the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (Access), is a community-focused non-profit organisation that established the AANM in 2005.
Dearborn now boasts the largest and most diverse Arab community in the US, and of the city’s 98,000 residents, more than 30 per cent identify as Arab-American or claim some form of Arab descent.
“There are more than 35,000 museums in this country, but not a single one was telling the Arab-American story in a way that the community deemed appropriate, they weren’t really hitting the mark,” Akmon tells me.
“After 9/11, our founding director embarked on a listening tour across the US, asking communities whether they would support a museum and asking what they would like to see in it,” he adds.
“So we set out to illustrate the diversity of the Arab-American community but also to humanise their experiences, so that even if a visitor isn’t an Arab-American, they can connect with the displays to understand the Arab immigrant experience as an American story.”
The other strand of the museum’s activities, which address Arab communities, adopt a grassroots, community-based approach that focus on culture.
“When we are working with non-Arab communities, we try to position our events and exhibitions in mainstream institutions that can contextualise the events to the wider public,” Akmon says.
“One of the things that we all gravitate to as Arab-Americans is our culture, so no matter if you’re Lebanese or Palestinian, Muslim or Christian, we revert back to that shared commonality of our cultural experiences and try to uplift the community and bring people together, despite their differences.”
The first wave of Arab migrants arrived in Detroit in the late 1880s. Mainly Christians, they left their homes in the Mount Lebanon region following a collapse in traditional silk-weaving industry, a demographic boom in Beirut and the prospect of military conscription.
Palestinian Muslims arrived in the second decade of the 20th century, attracted by the prospect of work on the assembly lines that produced Ford’s revolutionary Model ‘T’, and they were followed by Catholic Chaldeans from Iraq and Yemenis, who began to arrive in significant numbers in the 1920s.
More recently, Dearborn's established communities have been swollen by refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
Inside the museum, the temporary exhibitions accompany four permanent displays dedicated to the contribution the Arab world has made to global culture, the experience of Arab immigrants arriving in America, the lives of Arabs in America and people of Arab heritage who have made a significant contribution to the US.
With Epicenter X, the AANM has joined a growing list of American institutions that have chosen to exhibit major displays of contemporary art from the Middle East, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which mounted Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East in 2015 and the Yale University Art Gallery, which recently celebrated the 175th anniversary of Arabic studies at Yale with the exhibition Modern Art from the Middle East.
When it comes to mounting shows at the AANM however, Akmon insists that the museum’s motivations are quite different.
“Our focus is primarily on Arab-Americans, so when we think about exhibitions that point back to the homeland, so-to-speak, it’s usually with a different kind of message in mind,” he explains.
“Most Americans are not aware that there is a vibrant art scene emerging in Saudi Arabia and that there are some very interesting voices and philsophies emerging in that work, some of which is critical of its own society and some of which is critical of American society,” Akmon adds.
“We are interested in providing space for the examination of that work to happen and for creating a safe space where those dialogues can happen.”