Monday, October 24, 2005

Arab American National Museum, Dearborn MI

A Mosaic of Arab Culture at Home in America

Edward Rothstein

New York Times 24 October 2005

DEARBORN, Mich. - At the heart of the nation's first museum devoted to the history of Arab-Americans is a mosaic-decorated courtyard surrounding a small fountain, evoking the traditional courtyard of Arab lands. A symbol of hospitality, it is also, typically, a feature of one's home, and this museum is, in its way, a declaration that Arab-Americans really are at home, not just in Dearborn (where some 30 percent of the 100,000 residents identify themselves as Arab-Americans) but in the United States itself.
The surest sign of that may be that, like other groups, they have built this museum honoring their past and their identity. And the 38,500-square-foot, $16 million Arab American National Museum, which opened in May, is, like other museums of American hyphenation, at once an assertion of difference and of belonging, a declaration of distinction and of loyalty. It would be making a political statement even if it weren't directly across the street from City Hall.
The museum was also designed to reflect the interests of its constituency: Arab-Americans. That is a source of its strengths, and suggestive too of its weaknesses: it eagerly wants to celebrate that identity and create a strong political front; it is less interested in reflecting on difficulties and making distinctions. Before the museum was begun, a group of planners, including a sociologist, Anan Ameri, who became its director, spent six months traveling to Arab-American communities, soliciting ideas.
"The museum was built to tell our story," Dr. Ameri explained before leading a critic on a tour. "But before we can tell our story, we have to know what the Arab-American story is."
"People don't know" was a recurring refrain in these consultations, Dr. Ameri said. "People don't know" about who we are, went the complaint. So the museum includes a handsome library and an exhibit chronicling the arrival of Arabs on American shores, including such unusual figures as Hadj Ali, a 19th-century Syrian immigrant recruited by the United States to train camels for the Western deserts.
"People don't know" about Arab contributions to civilization, continued the refrain, so surrounding the central courtyard are display cases summarizing achievements of early Arab civilization; or about everyday life, so another exhibit shows how typically American Arab-Americans have become; or about their accomplishments, so another display shows Arab-Americans in politics (John Sununu), political activism (Ralph Nader), literature (Kahlil Gibran), journalism (Helen Thomas), movies (William Peter Blatty) and opera (Rosalind Elias).
Four Arab-Americans claimed to have invented the ice cream cone. One Arab-American has worked with every presidential administration for 50 years - as the White House Santa.
In all of this, though, the museum, designed by the Cincinnati-based Jack Rouse Associates, hews too closely to its immigrant-museum genre; it seems overly familiar, with only the names and stories varying from group to group.
But this eagerness to construct an overarching Arab-American identity can also be a virtue. It is difficult to imagine a similar museum in Europe, where the hyphenated identities of Arab immigrants are far more troubled. John Zogby, the Arab-American pollster, has argued that one reason for this difference is that it is so much easier to join the mainstream in the United States.
The museum seems to reflect that in its efforts at conciliation and unification. Constructing Arab-American identity means accommodating differences both within the community and with its adopted society. Even on so raw a subject for Arab loyalties as Israel, unusual moderation is evident. Though Palestine is named one of 22 Arab countries on an "Arab World Map" (and is given the boundaries of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), the museum's commentary refers to this Palestinian "state" with objective propriety: "The lack of political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has hindered its establishment."
But there are also problems with the museum's unifying impulse. The commentary on each Arab country, for example, is little more than a travelogue without any discussion of profound problems, at least some of which inspired these Arab immigrations.
Perhaps there was a reluctance to cause offense, because, as the exhibits point out, Arab-Americans have traditionally identified themselves with their village or country of origin rather than with a pan-Arab sensibility. At least three of those nations also helped construct the museum. Qatar contributed $1 million, Saudi Arabia and Dubai $500,000 each.
There are other differences among Arab-Americans that might have been explored. The 2000 United States census counted 1.2 million Americans who identified themselves as Arab-American; a Zogby poll that same year suggested the true number was closer to 3.5 million; the museum cites a later Zogby statistic of 4.2 million. This variation may also suggest the ambiguities of identity. The Zogby poll in 2000 pointed out that 66 percent of Arab-Americans identified themselves as Christian, 24 percent as Muslim. What are the cultural and political differences, then, between recent Muslim immigrations and older Christian waves of immigration, which were largely from Lebanon and Syria? Many disparate communities are embraced in this single label, just as with other hyphenated American identities, like Hispanic or Latino. But the museum's impulse is to incorporate, not to dissect. An effort is even made to be historically accommodating. One label points out that in discussing art, the term Arab-Islamic "does not necessarily refer to art based on religion, but rather based on culture." Judaism too is given a place: "There have been significant populations of Arab Jews in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Morocco," the museum notes. That ancient world (which until the 1940's included more than 900,000 Jews) is represented by a photograph of a Tunisian synagogue - the same one, the exhibit fails to mention, that was bombed by Al Qaeda operatives in 2002. The exhibit also does not mention that perhaps 200,000 of those Arab Jews now live in the United States, creating yet another cultural variation.
Perhaps, as the museum evolves, such distinctions might be more thoroughly explored and other more sensitive issues might be more forthrightly taken on, particularly Islamist terror, which may be having a profound impact on the daily life of Arab-Americans. One exhibit, for example, shows a collage of images of Arab terrorists on television, and asks why a more accurate image of Arabs is not broadcast - one more closely resembling another collage, of smiling children and families. But the reason is not necessarily a reflection of prejudice: Islamic-motivated terror has compelled a rethinking of everything from airport design to foreign policy; smiling families have not.
Right now 9/11 is the subject of just a single panel at the museum, on which is reproduced a November 2001 letter from a United States attorney in Michigan, requesting that the recipient come in for an interview, emphasizing that while "we have no reason to believe" the recipient has any association with terrorist activities, some information might turn out to be helpful. The museum comments that after 9/11 "Arab Americans were unfairly held responsible, yet not a single Arab American was found guilty of any connection to September 11th."
But how were Arab-Americans "unfairly held responsible" for 9/11, except by bigots? Some unfairness undoubtedly manifested itself in the quest for information, but who held Arab-Americans responsible as a group? The second assertion is also phrased so narrowly that it misses the point: some Arab-Americans have indeed been found guilty of financing terrorism, and reasonable doubts have been raised about some others.
Here, surely, the museum would want distinctions to be made, between those holding one belief and those acting on another. But that is something the museum should be doing throughout. Once it can feel secure in its home, it might consider making distinctions as well as showing continuities, describing in all its variety a group that is beginning to celebrate itself and its possibilities, exploring the complications of a hyphenated existence.

New museum honors Arab-American culture
First-of-its-kind site, opening Thursday, draws on a rich heritage from around the country and the world

Joy Hakanson Colby

Detroit News 4 May 2005

DEARBORN --When the new Arab American National Museum opens to the public on Thursday, the $15.3 million cultural center will get the red-carpet treatment.
Arabian horses in full regalia, a band, jugglers, drummers and dancers will join the 5 p.m. celebration for the museum, the first to exclusively display the rich heritage and achievements of Arab Americans.
A red carpet will start on the steps of the Dearborn City Hall and travel across Michigan Avenue to the museum entrance. Guests at a civic reception will be able to walk across the street for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. with Amre Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League.
The museum is an offspring of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), whose executive director, Ismael Ahmed, is gratified by what has been accomplished.
"There are some 15,000 museums in the U.S., but since this is the first to be devoted to Arab Americans, we had no model to work from. I'm proud that our museum is done in an interactive, engaging way."
As the first of its kind, Ahmed points out that the museum is having an international impact. Contributors to the $15.3 million project include 22 corporations from across the country, hundreds of individuals, the state of Michigan, the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Congressional appropriation and Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai. Grants and earned revenue from memberships, sales in the gift shop and leasing of spaces for special events are expected to provide the annual operating budget of just more than $2 million.
At 38,500 square feet, the building is small as museums go. But it is a jewel box that deserves to be a Metro Detroit landmark. Clad in Canadian marble, crowned by a dome and enriched with panels of cast-stone arabesques, tiles from Morocco and Arabic calligraphy, it is exquisitely finished inside and out.
"The museum is a delicate blend," says architect Brion Boucher of Dearborn's Ghafari Associates. "It required an Arabic esthetic. But it also had to have clean modern lines and be nonconfrontational."
While the Ghafari team is responsible for the building shell, designers and writers from Jack Rouse Associates in Cincinnati gave the interior exhibits form.
"We helped the museum come up with the concept," says Sara Bennett, a senior writer for Rouse. "The client invited Arab Americans from all over the country to bring ideas and tell their own stories. It developed into a very big story that covers history, customs and the diversity of the Arab world."
"There are three main sections," Bennett says. "They cover coming to America, living here and achieving in this country. The clients were passionate about what they wanted to create. We're proud of what resulted."
For her part, Anan Ameri, the museum's director and founder, is satisfied that the building suits her mission very well. "Arab Americans have been written out of the history books," she says. "We want to put ourselves back in history, and this museum is the way to do it."
Ameri, who is of Palestinian heritage, emphasizes that the museum was in the talking stage at least two years before the New York Trade Center disaster of 2001. "So it was not a direct response to September 11," she says. "We always knew the museum was important, but the bombing hit us in the head and made us move faster."
On a recent morning, Ameri guided an impromptu tour through the building, starting on the ground floor.
"This area is designed like a courtyard with a fountain," she says. "Cases around the walls reflect Arabic architecture and contain artifacts representing various fields of achievement like medicine, photography, music, astronomy and mathematics."
Most of the cases have an interactive element you can push to see pictures, read facts or hear music. Ameri says there are more than 100 interactive devices in the museum, most of them ready to delight kids.
Artifacts in the cases were all donated except for a few loans that will come from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. An art gallery for changing exhibitions is located on the west side of the ground floor.
The first show, "In/Visible: Contemporary Art by Arab Americans," will begin May 19 "because we didn't want too many openings on the same day," Ameri says.
Looking up at the dome, which soars 50 feet above ground-floor level, the director answers a question about the calligraphy. "It says Arab American Museum. 'National' was omitted because it doesn't translate well."
Leading the way up the wide central staircase, Ameri points out a giant wall map on the second level. It shows all 22 countries that make up the Arab world. "You can touch this screen and bring up pictures and information about each country," she says, demonstrating with a touch of her finger on Qatar.

The core exhibit

The rest of the second level is devoted to the core exhibition, which is divided into three sections: "Coming to America," "Living in America" and "Making an Impact." Here's where the exhibit gets personal with pictures and stories of real people, some with local ties.
For instance, one wall is devoted to singers Amer and Sana Kadaj, who were celebrities in the Arab-American community from the late 1940s into the 1960s, when they traveled across the country giving concerts. Their daughter, Lila Kadaj, an artist and teacher who lives in east Dearborn, presented their photographs and microphone to ACCESS several years ago and says she's "thrilled and honored" that the material is displayed in the new museum.
"My parents sang together when they were 12 years old in their native Lebanon," Lila Kadaj says. "Years later, my father got a job singing with a radio station in Palestine. When he was asked if he knew a female singer to work with him, he remembered my mother. That's how they got together."
After they married, Amer and Sana Kadaj came to New York on tour. They stayed on after they lost their home in Palestine when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Eventually, they settled in Detroit, and Amer went into the grocery business.
"I'm excited that the museum is opening," says Lila Kadaj, a graduate of Wayne State University. "It presents our culture to the general public, which knows nothing about us."
Across from the Kadaj display is a sculpture of Ahmad Ifrahim, who also left Palestine in 1948. He settled in New York and is one of the refugees who tells his story in a voice recording.
On every tour, director Ameri directs visitors to the story of the first recorded Arab-speaking person to arrive in America. He came on a slave ship in 1528 and was called Zammouri because he was native to Zammour in Morocco. He died in 1539 after his Spanish captors took him on an expedition to Florida.
Another highlight Ameri points out is a Great Migration display with a 3D version of an Ellis Island officer seated at a high desk and recorded voices of people telling their own stories of coming to America.
"Those voices are very touching," says Elsie Holmes Peck, former curator of Near Eastern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts and a consultant to the Arab American Museum. After a recent tour, Holmes Peck called the exhibit "a wonderful chain of tradition that takes you on a journey of the United States."

'Living in America'

"Living in America" has room setups with strong Arab accents. The kitchen stocks mock containers of such foods as hummus and yogurt and a giant bottle of olive oil. On the counter is a box from Shatila, a favorite local source for Middle East pasteries.
A porch is centered by a backgammon game, an Arab invention that dates back some 5,000 years and continues to be popular. "If you drive through east Dearborn when the weather is warm, you won't see an empty porch," Ameri says. "Arab Americans live on their porches."
The "Making an Impact" section is filled with photographs of familiar faces, among them actor Danny Thomas, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, journalist Helen Thomas, heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, astronaut Christa McAuliffe and a sculptured head of the poet Kahlil Gibran.
This Gibran quote is inscribed near the ceiling of the film room: "I believe that you have inherited from your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America."
While the core exhibit is handsome, entertaining and informative, Ameri is aware of potential problems down the road. "We looked at other ethnic museums in Seattle and Los Angeles and learned that people come once or twice and never come back," she says.
"So we are planning other attractions -- free family days, Saturday classes for kids, changing art exhibits, concerts, plays and lectures. We want to make the museum very accessible to the whole community."
To emphasize their dedication to diversity, the director and her board chose Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's independence day for the opening. While the Arab Americans walk the red carpet in east Dearborn on Thursday, the Hispanic community will celebrate their day on Michigan Avenue in west Dearborn.
10 facts about the musem
1. It is the first of the country's 15,000 museums devoted exclusively to Arab-American culture.
2. Hundreds of individuals, state and federal grants, 22 corporations and even several Arab nations funded the $15.3 million cultural center.
3. It is an offspring of Dearborn's Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.
4. The building exterior blends clean, modern lines with Arabic calligraphy, a dome and cast-stone arabesques.
5. Exhibits contain 100 interactive elements, including a map that covers all 22 Arab nations.
6. Ground-floor cases display contributions of the Arab world to music, mathematics, medicine and law.
7. The second level is devoted to the three-part themed core show: "Coming to America," "Living in America" and "Making an Impact."
8. Museum director Anan Ameri interviewed Arab Americans across the country to get material for the exhibits.
9. Some 500 artifacts that give substance to the displays were all donated.
10. The museum houses a 158-seat auditorium, a library, an art gallery, classrooms, meeting facilities and a museum shop.

Stories of Identity: Dearborn is home to the country's first Arab-American museum, a $15-million source of pride


Detroit Free Press April 24, 2005

Who knew?
That question may pop in your head often as you tour the nation's first museum dedicated to Arab Americans, their culture and their contributions.
From sports figures like Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie to labor leaders like the late Stephen Yokich, Americans of Arab descent have played major roles in shaping the nation. But until now, their stories have been invisible to many. The Arab American National Museum aims to change that.
Scheduled to open May 5, the $15-million, three-story museum -- on the site of a former furniture store -- stands near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Schaefer Road in Dearborn, right across from City Hall. The Islamic-style dome that tops it off is now part of the city skyline, in its own right a striking symbol of how far Arab Americans have come. Despite the difficult climate after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the community was determined to establish a showcase in Dearborn, a city where nearly 1 of out of every 3 residents claims Arab ancestry --the highest percentage in the country.
ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, raised the millions of dollars needed for the museum, much of it coming from corporations and Arab nations (See sidebar, this page), in an ambitious attempt to manifest the history and singular experiences of Arab Americans. But the museum also reveals the American experience in a more general sense: Extensive displays and exhibits depict how Arab life in the United States has always been closely linked to the lives of African Americans, Latinos and European immigrants.
"Anyone who goes to the museum will see their own story," says Ishmael Ahmed, ACCESS's executive director. "The American story is told... this is everyone's story."

But it's not all history lesson. With interactive displays, 600 artifacts, video displays and more, the museum should hold any viewer's attention.
As carpenter Robert Shadbolt of Southgate was installing exhibits on a recent afternoon, he was amazed to find out that activist (and presidential candidate) Ralph Nader; William Peter Blatty, who wrote "The Exorcist," and Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal are all Arab Americans.
"That really flipped me out," Shadbolt said while on a break. "I got a nice history lesson."
Here's a peek at what you'll find inside the 38,500-square-foot museum. Divided into four major exhibits, the facility also has a 158-seat performance auditorium, a library and information center, a roof terrace with views of Dearborn, classrooms and a gift shop.

The Arab World

The lobby on the ground floor mirrors architecture often found in Arab countries. In the center of the rectangular room is a water fountain; gaze upward and you see an octagonal atrium that shoots up through the third floor toward a glass dome scripted with ornate calligraphy spelling out the museum's name in Arabic. The atrium features blue tiles with repetitive, flower-like patterns often found in Islamic design, as well as windows that circle around, flooding the center with sunlight.
Here, you get an introduction to the world of Arabs outside America. Several display cases line the sides of the room, each describing the contributions of Arabs worldwide. The sections include architecture, religion, mathematics and astronomy, medicine, science and music.
Viewing the exhibits, you get a sense of how the Arab and Islamic cultures helped preserve and develop civilization during Europe's medieval ages. One section on language reveals how Arabic has influenced Spanish and English. Using interactive flash cards, you can play a game to learn the roots of some common English words, such as "admiral" and "cotton," that are derived from Arabic words.
As you walk up toward the second floor, you see a massive map of the Arab world. On the second floor, there's a display with panels naming 22 Arab countries. Open any one of them and the country it corresponds to lights up on the map. The display also features modern photos and images of the Arab world.
Too often, people's ideas of the Arab world are based on outdated notions like bedouins or the pyramids, says curator Sarah Blannett. "It was important to show them as evolving, modern, and vibrant places," she says, gesturing toward the giant display.
As you leave this area on the second floor, you encounter the three main exhibits about Arab Americans.

Coming to America

Where did your family come from?
In this exhibit, that question is above a sprawling map of the world hanging on the wall, with colorful magnets spread out on different countries. Arrows from all corners of the globe point toward America
"Find a magnet with a color that corresponds to the area on the map where your family comes from.," the display reads, "then move the magnet over to the U.S."
The point is to place the immigration of Arabs in the context of America as a land of immigrants from all over the world.
Another exhibit gives visitors the experience of an immigration center at Ellis Island, where thousands of Arab and other immigrants came to America. As you enter a small room, an audio loop hounds you with questions that an immigration officer would ask of newcomers to America.
So who was the first Arab American in the United States?
The answer may surprise you. An exhibit notes that he was from North Africa, an Arabic speaker from what today would be Morocco. Originally named Zammouri, he was enslaved, renamed Estevancio, and brought to America in 1528 by a team of Spaniards exploring the South. The exhibit notes that in the following centuries, there were Arabic-speaking Muslims among the millions of slaves brought to America.
This section also includes features on Palestinian immigrants who fled to America after the creation of the state of Israel, and it deals with the "brain drain" experienced in many Arab nations -- the emigration of skilled people from their homelands looking to use their talents in America.
But the museum also showcases the lives of all Arab Americans, rich and poor, professionals and farmers, in an attempt to show how diverse the population is.
One part features a life-size statue of a Palestinian immigrant, Ahmad Ibrahim, sitting on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone. "In 1948, he and his family were forced to leave their home and farmlands following the declaration of the state of Israel," the display reads.
Other displays talk about immigrants from Yemen who struggled alongside Mexicans in the farms of California. Nagi Daifullah, a farm worker who was clubbed to death by police during a labor protest in 1973, is remembered in a display that mimics the interior of quarters that Yemeni farm workers lived in.
In a nearby room, the effects of Sept. 11 are also dealt with, though briefly. On one wall is an enlarged copy of a letter that the U.S. government mailed to hundreds of Arab men in the fall of 2001 asking them to be interviewed as part of terrorism investigations.

Living in America

Right next door is an exhibit that focuses on the ordinary lives of Arab Americans: The first thing you see when entering is an Arab teenager flying high off a skateboard ramp.
A striking choice, but it shows how intertwined Arab Americans have become with American culture and life, yet bring something unique as well.
Open a refrigerator in this exhibit and you spot falafel sandwiches and rose water, items commonly used by Arab immigrants. Sit down on a makeshift porch and listen to stories of Arab Americans over a speaker. In front is a display of the diversity of Arab-American media. One section notes that the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting went to Anthony Shadid, a reporter of Arab descent with the Washington Post.
As you move into a darkened room, you spot stereotype after stereotype of Arabs in popular culture. In everything from Daffy Duck cartoons to Hollywood movies, Arabs have been portrayed negatively as sinister, violent, fanatics. Media commentators who have espoused anti-Arab American rhetoric are portrayed.
But nearby are the smiling faces of ordinary Arab Americans, a reminder that the media is not always the best place to find out the truth about Arabs and Muslims. Another part of this section tells the remarkable story of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who moved to North Dakota as homesteaders between 1890 and World War I. Sometime between 1927 and 1930, they established a mosque there that was one of the first in America.
Who knew?
Further along in this section, you can dance the dabke with an interactive exhibit that plays Arabic music, and you can watch videos of interviews with Arab Americans from across the country.

Making an Impact

Exiting the section, you enter an exhibit that focuses on notable Arab Americans.
The entrance features a large mural of Stephen Yokich, former head of the United Auto Workers, speaking to a crowd during the Detroit newspaper strike. Yokich, partly of Lebanese descent, is an example of the influence of Arab Americans in the labor movement in Michigan. As you pass the mural, you enter a section that is divided into several parts, showing Arab Americans who have made names for themselves in activism, science, creative arts, academics and sports.
Here you can see the racing helmet used by driver Bobby Rahal, a sneaker from basketball player Rony Seikaly and one of the first copy machines by Kinko's, which was founded by an Arab American. You also learn about activists like Nader and former South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, who founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, as well as Arab-American scientists like Michael DeBakey, inventor of the heart pump. A billboard advertising Casey Kasem's Top 40 music show is also on display.
It's a lot to take in.
"More than you can see in a day," says Thomas Massey, who is overseeing the installation of the exhibits. Massey has worked on a number of museums, from ones on science to those on African Americans, but he was struck by how interesting this one is.
"They had a major impact on the U.S.," said Massey. "It's really surprising."


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