Video series spotlights how Dearborn's 'Halal Metropolis' has responded to COVID-19

As health care providers, community leaders, law enforcement, and business owners, the Muslim community has been on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis in Dearborn and across Metro Detroit. A new project called "Zoom in on the Halal Metropolis" endeavors to tell those community members' stories through a series of video interviews on Facebook and Instagram, now numbering over 70.


"These are Americans," says organizer Sally Howell. "They're part of the American narrative. Nothing emphasizes this more than hearing this array of diverse voices ... and all the different ways in which they're applying their talents."


The series represents a pandemic-era pivot for Halal Metropolis, a project started in 2018 by Howell, an associate professor of history and director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan (U-M)-Dearborn; Osman Khan, associate professor and director of the MFA program at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan; and documentary photographer Razi Jafri. Howell originally set out to examine "the connection between the mosque and the marketplace" – the way Muslim businesses and mosques support and interact with one another.


She found kindred spirits in Jafri and Khan, and the three obtained grant funding to organize a series of art exhibits examining Metro Detroit's Muslim community – including one show at U-M Dearborn whose run was interrupted by the pandemic. Khan says the trio "felt a responsibility" to continue documenting the Muslim community while working with the limitations the pandemic had imposed. That initially took the form of conducting Zoom interviews with community members who had been scheduled to participate in public panel discussions accompanying the art exhibit in Dearborn.


"We decided to convert those from these in-person panel discussions to Zoom interviews, and it just grew from there," Jafri says. "We decided there are all these other interesting people we should talk to - frontline workers, health care providers, entrepreneurs, business owners, grocery store owners, politicians. And it kind of went from there."


The interviews have been posted almost every day, and often twice daily, since April 2, and they've included a wide range of Dearborn's Muslim leaders. The series has served in part as a chronicle of Ramadan under the shadow of a pandemic. Muslims observe Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, through prayer, fasting, and community, the last of which has been particularly challenging to create during stay-home orders.


However, Howell says community members have "really risen to the occasion" – particularly through stepping up their charitable giving. Interviewees like state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud have discussed ways for the community to give back during Ramadan.


"Ramadan is a time of giving anyway, but people are going above and beyond and they're always thinking about how to serve others, how to help others, and how to create a sense of community through this," Howell says.


Jafri says he's been particularly impressed at the way leaders have been working to keep their communities mobilized and engaged during the pandemic. For example, Ghida Dagher, director of appointments for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, discussed coordinating the governor's volunteer efforts for the pandemic. Zaineb Hussein, deputy chief of staff for the Michigan Department of State, discussed the challenges facing this year's census and elections.


The series has also chronicled the way artists in the Muslim community have responded to the pandemic. For example, Dr. Diana Abouali, executive director of the Arab American National Museum, discussed how the museum has pivoted to offer programming online. Khan notes that artists may not be on the frontline of the crisis, but they will be "important in the fourth or fifth wave" of response.


"There are more important things to happen on the front line," he says. "But at some point, the cultural worker has a place to reflect on this."


Howell says the Halal Metropolis team will take a bit of a break from producing new videos after Ramadan ends on May 23, potentially pivoting to other projects like a podcast that may take a deeper dive into topics of interest to the community. But the series will still continue in some form, and it'll likely play a role whenever the Halal Metropolis team can mount physical exhibitions again. Khan envisions some sort of kiosk where exhibition visitors could watch or listen to "Zoom in on the Halal Metropolis" interviews.


"Hopefully it'll be kind of a pleasant reflection, in that things have been resolved, but to understand how the community did come together and all the things they did to get through it as a community," he says.


Organizers agree that they want the project to create a historical record of the Muslim community's response to the pandemic, while also creating an informational and uplifting product for both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences in the present.


"For people who are not Muslim who are watching these, the takeaways might just be insights on how the Muslim community has been dealing with this and how it's responding to this tragedy," Jafri says. "For the Muslim community, it should just serve to be affirming in a time that's unstable for us, emotionally and socially."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere