Our Economic Diversity: Where Middle East Meets Midwest

When driving east on Ford Road in Wayne County, there's little doubt when Dearborn is nearing. Businesses offering halal foods and hookah lounges begin to crop up as early as Garden City and increase exponentially as the last suburb on the way to Detroit gets closer. But the concentration of Middle Eastern businesses leading to the center of the region's Arab American community wasn't always such a gradual progression.
"There was a major difference between the cities," says Sam Keaik, owner of Elite Pizzeria in Canton. "There was a major difference between the east and west sides of Dearborn. You could drive down Warren and the signs were in Arabic, you'd go into the stores and they spoke Arabic. But then you'd cross Telegraph and everything would change."
While Telegraph used to serve as the outer edge of the Arab American economy in the region (a 2007 Wayne State University study found it contained the largest number of people of Arabic ancestry in the U.S.), that line is both expanding westward and blurring. With 162,318 Arab Americans in the four-county Detroit area supporting 99,494 to 141,541 jobs and contributing $5.4 billion to $7.7 billion in wage and salary earnings, the community isn't only a vibrant and impactful piece of the regional economy, it's also a growing one.
And a new generation of Arab American entrepreneurs at the helm of that growth is setting the community and its economy in a new direction. 
"The Dearborn community started out on the south side of Dearborn, where all the factories are," says Keaik, 24, whose pizzeria is Canton's first halal pizza and burger restaurant, "and then they moved to the east side, and then Dearborn Heights, and now they are moving to Canton. So I wanted to get situated before they all get here."
What Keaik has found after two years in business is that he's attracting a far wider fan base. 
"I'm getting a mix, which is what I wanted," he says. "I didn't want just one type of clientele. It's funny because the first thing a lot of customers do is ask the meaning of the halal, and they might be sort of suspicious, but when we explain it to them, that's the end of it right there." 
In fact, Keaik says many of his new non-Arab customers appreciate the special treatment of halal meats, considering it a luxury item on par with organic or kosher foods. 
Elite Pizzeria's crossover appeal makes Keaik a part of the new Arab American economy that is becoming increasingly seamless within Metro Detroit.
"I feel like I'm part of both," Keaik says, "Pretty much everything I get is from Arab American businesses, because that's where I can find the halal stuff. But I feel part of the overall Metro Detroit economy because I don't just depend on the halal crowd."
The integration of the two economies is just one of multiple ways in which the Arab American economy is evolving. In Dearborn, the heart of the culture's economy is changing as well, even if a non-Arab American observer might not easily notice.  
Case in point: Hija.Bee. The fashion-forward hijab boutique in Dearborn was borne of Lama Habhab's desire to see more of herself in the local retail options. 
"There are a lot of other scarf stores, but nothing for younger people," Habhab, 23, says. "A lot of it is outdated. We wanted to do something younger and hipper, but modest. I wanted someplace where a younger person could find what they're looking for, not just buy something because it's all that's available."
According to Keaik, generational differences like this are changing the Arab American economy from the inside out.
"The newer generation is a lot more educated than the older generation," he says. "They used to live in Dearborn for the [auto] plants. But now the new generation are better educated and able to afford a little better house in Canton, Novi and Livonia." 
Habhab is a prime example, living in Brownstown despite opening her shop in Dearborn. She's not alone in choosing to locate her business in the city that remains the center of commerce for Arab-centered businesses - even as those businesses change.
"A lot of things have been opening for younger people recently," Habhab says. "Most that are being opened for younger business are being opened by younger people." 
Entertainment venues, such as the Sky Lounge and Midnight Café in Dearborn are chief among them. 
"The entertainment is different than anywhere else," says Habhab. "Somewhere else, somebody would go out for a drink or to party. If you go out in Dearborn, you go out and listen to music and smoke the hookah."
Even service businesses, such as Dearborn's Salon Pure, Habhab explains, cater specifically to the younger generation's sense of style while preserving the Muslim tradition of modesty, with no men allowed inside and no windows with a view of customers with their hair uncovered.
"I would sometimes rather go someplace in the Dearborn community because it caters to Muslims," Habhab says. "If I went to a restaurant outside of Dearborn, it's harder for them to understand what we eat. In an Arabic restaurant, you don't have to question anything."
At Elite Pizzaria in Canton, on the other hand, questions abound. But Keaik likes it that way. 
"I'm in a strip mall with about ten other stores and I'm the only Middle Eastern business," he says. "A lot of my neighbors have taught me a lot about their culture and we've taught them about our culture."
So goes the mingling of the cultures, as does the blending of the Arab American economy into that of Metro Detroit. With their population increasing by 43 percent in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties between 2000 and 2005, it stands to reason that the opportunities to grow, change and integrate these two sometimes separate, sometimes alike economies will continue to increase. And both the economic and cultural investment the new generation of Arab Americans have made in Metro Detroit seem to indicate that this is a very good thing. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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