Oasis of Arab culture sits comfortably in Dearborn, Michigan
BY JEFF KAROUB August 6, 2011 8:08PM
The Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., which chronicles the history of Arab immigrants in the United States, includes this Islamic-style dome. | AP
IF YOU GO
ARAB AMERICAN NATIONAL MUSEUM: 13624 Michigan Ave.; (313) 582-2266, arabamericanmuseum.org.
FAMOUS HAMBURGER: 5808 Schaefer Rd.;
(313) 945-0002, famous
ROUGE FACTORY TOUR: Tours of the historic and refurbished Ford Motor Co. factory complex are operated by the Henry Ford organization, which includes the Henry Ford museum and Greenfield Village. Buses depart regularly from the museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., at the corner of Oakwood and Village Road; (800) 835-5237, thehenryford.org/rouge/index.aspx.
SHATILA BAKERY: 14300 W. Warren Ave.; (313) 582-1952, shatila.com.
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:23AM
DEARBORN, Mich. — With a massive mosque, minarets and scores of Arabic-signed stores and restaurants, parts of this city look like the Middle East.
But Dearborn is a lot closer than Beirut, Damascus or Cairo. And while this Detroit suburb may be better known as the hometown of Ford Motor Co., it’s also where the Mideast meets the Midwest.
A third of the city’s 100,000 residents trace their roots to the Arab world. Originally, these immigrants came here to work in booming auto factories. Today, they have created corridors of culture and commerce unlike anywhere else.
Warren Avenue is the epicenter of Arabic life in Dearborn. It’s grown over the last few decades from a few Arab-owned establishments to a road bustling with Middle Eastern restaurants, markets, boutiques and bakeries.
One of the most prominent and popular is Shatila Food Products, whose website boasts of “sweets of the Middle East from the heart of the Midwest.” The bakery, founded in 1979, ships its desserts nationwide. Its distinctive, round retail store draws customers from across the state and beyond.
Amal Shatila, the bakery manager and sister of owner Riad Shatila, came from Lebanon in 1989 and joined her brother in the business.
“I came, running away from war,” she said. “I came to visit and stay away for a while — then I ended up staying for good.”
Shatila has expanded as other Middle East businesses have built up around it.
“The community is growing up — everyone has their own business,” she said.
Some earlier immigrants also were entrepreneurs, but many opted to work in the local auto plants. That included Dearborn’s sprawling Rouge complex, used for manufacturing since 1917.
As those jobs dwindled, more immigrants opened their own businesses with the help of extended family. Still, automaking is inextricably linked to the community: Ford has employed Arabs across all positions, from line worker to executive.
Visitors can get a firsthand look at the refurbished Rouge complex through public tours operated by the Henry Ford organization, which includes the nationally recognized Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village and receives more than 1 million visitors annually.
Another must-see museum on the Mideast in the Midwest tour is the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. It’s the first national institution of its kind and documents the collective Arab-American story through interactive exhibits and other programs. The domed structure featuring a traditional Arab fountain opened six years ago.
“People don’t understand to what extent world cultures feed and learn from each other,” said Anan Ameri, director of the museum. “America is a country of immigrants. It has been shaped by these immigrants and the immigrants have been shaped by living in America.”
Even Dearborn’s local Walmart has hundreds of food and retail staples geared toward Arab-American shoppers, such as a date-filled, whole wheat cookie called Mamool and an assortment of grape leaves, olives and chickpeas.
Ameri said it was natural to house the museum in the Detroit area, which has one of the nation’s largest Arabic populations, and particularly Dearborn, where the community is among the most concentrated.
She said that while immigrants from other countries like Greece, Ireland, Italy and Poland came in large numbers at one time and then declined, “the immigration from the Arab world never stopped.”
She added: “While maybe people become integrated and assimilated in a larger society, there’s always this infusion of immigrant blood that keeps that culture alive.”
For a twist on that Mideast-meets-Midwest vibe, check out Famous Hamburger in Dearborn.
At first glance, it’s an American hamburger joint. But while Western-style burgers are the main course, hummus, pita wraps, and fattoush and tabbouleh salads are on the menu along with nachos and fries. And everything is halal, meaning the meat and other items have been prepared according to Islamic dietary rules.
The restaurant also has a unique cross-cultural history. It started with Hussein Hider, who came to the United States in 1914 from Lebanon, then decided his homeland needed a real burger joint. Inspired by a certain Midwest chain, the elder Hider returned to Lebanon and opened Little White Castle near Beirut in 1969.
A year later, seeking a safer location as the civil war in Lebanon intensified, Hussein and his son Feisal moved the restaurant to downtown Beirut and renamed it Famous Hamburger. In the late 1980s, Feisal moved to the United States, opened restaurants in two small locations, then in 2003 opened the current eatery on Schaefer Avenue in the largely Arabic east side of Dearborn. His son Mounir Hider, 32, an automotive engineer, is now part of the third generation to work in the family business.
“It’s a burger that went to the Middle East and came back with a little more info,” said Mounir. “We can assimilate and at the same time we can offer something. We can select the best of both worlds.”