Dearborn, Mich. has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. The Arab American News
, the largest and oldest Arab American newspaper in the country, is published there. The city's police chief, Ronald Haddad, is Arab American.
Without question, Dearborn is the center of Arab American culture.
It's no surprise, then, that the preeminent museum dedicated to documenting and preserving the Arab American story is located in Dearborn. The Arab American National Museum
(AANM), the only Smithsonian Affiliate in Southeast Michigan, will celebrate its ten year anniversary this May. As part of the milestone, the museum will roll out a year-long series of events and renovations.
Devon Akmon, director of the AANM, says that the community-based museum wouldn't exist without the support Arab Americans everywhere. "Most museums formed around a collection of wealthy patrons that had amassed material, but we're different," says Akmon.
The AANM's founding director, Dr. Anan Ameri, travelled the nation, visiting different Arab American communities and asking how they would like a museum to represent them. She also asked for contributions, and she got them.
Personal photographs, belongings, and stories are found throughout the AANM's permanent exhibits, which are centered on themes of migration, settling, and contributing to the American way of life. One section of the museum showcases Arab American home life with its distinctive cuisine and emphasis on hospitality. Another focuses on entrepreneurship, which is an essential part of the Arab American story.
Coming to American exhibit at the AANM
Narrative is an important feature of the museum. Woven through the diagrams and displays of sweeping trends in immigration are individual stories of struggle and success. It begins with the remarkable tale of Zammouri, first Arabic speaker in America, and finishes with celebrating the lives and contributions of notable Arab Americans such as Ralph Nader, James Zogby, and Helen Thomas, who personally visited the museum and donated her typewriter.
"My first hope is that when individuals visit our permanent exhibit, they connect to the stories," says Akmon. "The Arab American story is similar to every other immigrant story. It's about building empathy and understanding and sharing in what's really the American experience."
Documenting this experience is crucial to the museum's mission, but education is also a major priority.
On a guided tour of the museum, one of the first questions a docent will ask visitors is, "Who are Arabs?" This deceptively simple question has a nuanced answer. Identity as Arab is part-genealogical, part-linguistic, and part-cultural. For instance, a common misconception is that Iran, a country with a majority-Muslim population, is an Arab country. While Islam is also the predominant religion of Arabs, most Iranians are in fact ethnically Persian. Arabs represent the majority population in 22 countries and are religiously diverse.
"Arabs are not a monolithic block," says Akmon. "We want to accurately tell the Arab American story and thereby dispel stereotypes." He says that this was one of the driving forces in opening the museum.
The need to dispel stereotypes became especially acute following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The AANM reflects that day's significance for the country and its effect on the Arab American community.
On one wall hangs a copy of a letter sent by the United States Department of Justice in the weeks following 9/11 to Arab Americans with visas "from a country where there are groups that support, advocate, or finance international terrorism." The letter requests information related to the attacks and its language implies, at minimum, association with terrorists.
Another exhibit is a series of wall-length collages with portrayals of Arabs in television and film. It's easy to identify an alarming pattern in the images of angry, mirthless men with jagged eyebrows holding scimitars and assault rifles, or submissive, completely veiled women.
To combat these unfair caricatures of Arabs in the American media, visitors can watch a video illustrating the variety of life in Arab American families and communities, and also hear candid comments about being treated with suspicion after 9/11.
Museum Docent Zainab Chaaban, originally from Palestine, considers visitor education to be her primary task. "I want to make our society more open-minded towards the Arab world," she says. "Hopefully by the end of the tour, visitors won't see themselves as very different from us."
On this particular day, Chaaban leads a tour comprised of Blue Cross Blue Shield employees, none of whom are Arab Americans -- just the kind of group Akmon would like to attract. Chris Crawford, an accountant at Blue Cross Blue Shield, admits he didn't know many specifics about Arab Americans before visiting. "I like history and wanted to learn more," he says, "especially since Dearborn has such a strong Arab community. I wanted to know how and why they came here. Also, you hear a lot of stereotypes -- I don't believe them, but you hear them."
Visitors in the courtyard of the AANM
Beyond the permanent exhibition's goal of preservation and education, Akmon and his staff continually look to expand the museum's scope, reach new audiences, and better integrate it with the local and national community.
The AANM organizes a culinary walking tour
along Warren Avenue in Dearborn, hosts the Arab Film Festival which they hope to grow by collaborating with the Cinetopia Film Festival, and has travelling exhibitions that they present through partnerships through various museums and universities, and the Smithsonian Institute.
"These are huge institutions that tell the American narrative and we're always striving to include the Arab American story as part of this larger discussion," says Akmon. "We're based in Dearborn, but we're a national institution."