Among Us: Arab American National Museum

Visit the Arab American National Museum's "Coming to America" exhibit and one of the first things you'll see is the story of Zammouri, the first recorded Arabic speaker in North America.

Za-who? you ask.

Zammouri was captured in Morocco around 1511 by invaders from Portugal. He lived as a captive for 16 years and was taken to Florida as part of an expeditionary force in 1528. So much for Arabs being "new" immigrants.

He led an expedition 6,000 miles inland, deep into the American southwest, reportedly learned six different native American dialects and was a sought-after translator.

So an Arab-speaking man lands in North America almost 100 years ahead of the Pilgrims, leads explorers deep into the wilderness 275 years before Lewis and Clark, yet you've never heard of him.

It's enough to make you wonder what else you didn't know.

Welcome to Dearborn's Arab American National Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to the experiences and contributions of Arab Americans.

The two and a half-year-old museum gets 50,0000 visitors a year and already has an official affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, a designation shared by just three other institutions in the state and none in Southeast Michigan.

National in scope from the very beginning, its founders spent two years talking to Arab Americans in more than 20 major U.S. cities, collecting their artifacts and their stories.

On Dec. 15 WXYZ-Channel 7 will air an hour-long documentary on the Detroit Arab American community, part of the Ultimate Detroit Documentary Series created by producer/celebrity chef/ former Survivor castaway Keith Famie.

"I think what struck me, and what would strike anybody, is the impact the Arab American Community has had on the world - not just Detroit - the world," said Famie. "They've made an impact in so many different arenas - medicine, art, music, right down to the alphabet. Not only does the museum capture the essence of the local story but it tells the much bigger story as well."

Famie used the museum as a backdrop for his documentary, in some cases telling stories that seemed to have stepped right off its walls. Famie interviewed United States Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Baadani, an Arab American who was born in Yemen, in front of the museum display that includes his own uniform.

"I think is it's very important for Arab Americans at this juncture in U.S. history, when we're stereotyped and depicted in a very negative way, to feel proud. People should feel proud of who they are and where they come from," said museum director Dr. Anan Ameri. "The other message is that we have been and are part of the fabric of the United States. The Arab American story is really the American story, as is the story of the Italian, the Greek, the Jewish, the Irish."

The 38,500-square foot museum sits at 13624 Michigan Avenue, across the street from Dearborn's City Hall in a part of town that's still trying to find itself. The vast mosaic of blue tiles above the museum's main entrance radiates vitality - in sharp contrast to the boarded-up Woolworth store that consumes a nearby corner.

East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority executive director Michael Boettcher says the museum has been part of a subtle, ongoing shift in attitude in this part of Dearborn.

"They're a great anchor in the neighborhood," Boettcher said. "They, of course, bring busloads of students in frequently, but I've also been stopped on the street by people asking where the museum is, or coming out and asking, 'Where can I go for lunch?'"

The museum itself grew out of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS)'s cultural arts program – grew out of it quite literally, in fact.

ACCESS, a social service organization established to help the Arab immigrant population, started in a Dearborn storefront in1971. It now serves more than 50,000 people and has a $12 million annual budget. The cultural arts program used to be housed in a space at one of ACCESS's offices, but as board members talked about expanding the program, it became clear they needed more space.

"As we talked about what would be the best facility the idea started to snowball," said Ameri, who was director of the cultural arts program at the time. "There was an old, boarded-up furniture store that we thought was an ideal location."

In 2000 ACCESS bought the old, four-story furniture store on Michigan Avenue. For two years members of an advisory team met with people from other cultural museums and with Arab Americans from all over the country.

Ameri, working with then-ACCESS director Ismael Achmed (now director of the Michigan Department of Human Services) and ACCESS CFO Maha Freij, traveled to more than 20 major cities collecting feedback, advice, artifacts and stories.

"We wanted to find out how can the museum be reflective of the community's vision," Ameri said. "There's no community that really speaks with one voice; people come to these things and they are very passionate. But we tried to find what is the common ground."

The museum rose out of the foundation of that common ground – a desire to break stereotypes, to remind people of the diversity and cultural contributions of the Arab world.

Stories and donated everyday objects – a suitcase, a child's toy, a pair of shoes – help the visitor relate to the Arab American experience on an individual level. This could be your story, or your grandparent's or your next-door neighbor's.

The museum was well underway when the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks brought everything to a screeching halt. When the committee regrouped a few months later, Ameri says, the museum's founders were determined not to let Sept. 11, as tragic as it was, define the Arab American story. It did affect the museum's story, though. Some Iraqi and Palestinian families decided not to share their stories, afraid of backlash if they said anything against U.S. policy or against Israel.

"I had certain people say to me that it was not a smart thing to build an Arab American museum at this time," Ameri said. "There was fear in our community, and that fear affected the way we had to deal with the community. We had to work harder, especially with newer immigrants."

The museum – from the mosaic tiled fountain in its courtyard to the ceiling dome high above - cost $16.8 million to build and $2.5 million a year to operate. Like cultural institutions across the state it's looking at meeting that budget in the face of shrinking state funding. But the longer-term challenge, Ameri says, is sustaining interest.

The museum, which includes an extensive library, strives to be the source of information on Arab Americans, but it also reaches out to other ethnic groups, embracing the idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants

Ford/Comerica Global Thursdays run year-round, bringing international performers to the museum's 156-seat auditorium each week. The museum also celebrates Cinco de Mayo with Detroit's Latin American community.

"It's a double-edged sword when you say you want to build an ethnic museum," Ameri said. "You want to highlight what's different, but also it's not about us, it's about the diversity of our nation. We should celebrate that and see it as a source of strength and power."

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. Her previous article for metromode was From Plot To Plate: SE Michigan's Urban Gardens.


Ceiling Dome - Arab American National Museum - Dearborn

Courtyard and Fountain -
Arab American National Museum - Dearborn

Keith Famie breaks from editing at Kinetic Post - Southfield

Dr. Anan Ameri -
Arab American National Museum - Dearborn

Current Exhibit: "Threads of Pride" -
Arab American National Museum - Dearborn

Main Entrance off of Michigan Ave. -
Arab American National Museum - Dearborn 

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni

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