Solving the Riddle that was Dearborn, Michigan Home of Many Arabs
By NR Venkatesh
I first visited London, Ontario, over 20 years ago, as a management consultant. My client, originally from Lebanon, advised me that both London and Windsor in Ontario hosted sizeable communities from the Middle East.
Having lived in Bahrain for 18 years, the mention of the region perked up my ears. I later learned that Dearborn in Michigan is home to the largest Muslim community in America.
Given the close and linear proximity of London, Ontario to Windsor, Ontario (119 miles) to Dearborn, Michigan, (11 miles), it was easy to connect the dots and realize that sizeable Muslim communities resided in all three cities. I was piqued by this interesting clustering.
This riddle lay dormant in my mind for almost two decades until some weeks back, when, on a whim, I decided to visit Dearborn, hoping to understand this phenomenon.
Driving to Dearborn
Setting out from Toronto, Friday, November 11, 2022, morning, I drove to London, Ontario, to re-discover its bookshops (notably Attic Books) and grab shawarma at Tahini’s. I then arrived in Windsor, Ontario, by 4 pm, allowing myself time to check out bookstores there. Some store owners suggested that I visit the fabled John K King Books in Detroit on my visit to Dearborn the next day.
The next morning, I set out early from Windsor to Detroit. Crossing the border over the Ambassador Bridge with my Nexus pass was a breeze. Once inside the US, fearful of accidentally driving into rough neighborhoods in Detroit, I pulled over and input the address of an eatery in Dearborn into Google Maps on my iPhone, to ensure a safe drive. And I was in Dearborn within 30 minutes.
But for Google Maps, my visit to Dearborn would not have been stress-free.
As I exited the freeway to enter Dearborn, the first store sign that I spotted was the huge Arabic lettering of Samra’s Aden Store.
I then proceeded to Al Tayeb (the delicious) Restaurant, a popular Lebanese breakfast place that the New York Times sometime back recognized as one of “the 50 most vibrant and delicious restaurants (that) reflect the rich mosaic of American dining”.
As it was early morning, the restaurant was almost empty. I ordered a coffee and struck up a conversation with a lady staff member clad head-to-toe in black, including a head covering.
After checking with Ali Hamade, the restaurant owner, she provided me with bare-bone insights on Dearborn.
Apparently, the city is nowhere as unsafe as media stories may suggest and its main attraction for potential tourists is the opportunity to enjoy a Middle Eastern foodie experience. Equipped with this information, I decided to wrap up the foodie segment of my visit briskly, leaving enough time to undertake the Ford factory tour.
The prosperity of Dearborn has been joined at the hip to that of Detroit’s automobile industry. The decrepit ambiance of the city speaks volumes.
Today, it is largely a bedroom community boasting limited industrial activity. Residents live off one other’s businesses including grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, and gas stations. Out of a population of approx.110,000, 42% are of Arabic descent.
Today, Dearborn boasts sizeable populations from Lebanon, Iraq (including Christian Chaldeans), and Yemen.
Immigration to Dearborn from the Middle East
Based on conversations with business owners in Dearborn, I got the sense that the first serious wave of immigration from the Middle East was of Lebanese Christians during the intense sectarian strife in Beirut of the mid-1970s. Prior to this, Beirut towered tall as the financial hub of the Middle East, and it was also referred to as the Paris of the Middle East.
The decline of Beirut benefitted Bahrain, where the banks shifted to, and where my family and I spent 18 wondrous years between 1981 to 1999. During this time, I interacted with Lebanese professionals, who struck me as enterprising.
I would speculate that more Lebanese have relocated to America (possibly under family reunification), especially recently, considering Lebanon’s precipitous descent into a failed state.
Dearborn also experienced sizeable waves of immigration, (including, likely, refugees), from Iraq after the start of the Gulf War and a noticeable flow of immigrants from Yemen.
The Seeds of Immigration
There are apocryphal stories that the seeds of Arabic immigration to Dearborn were sowed as early as 1914, after news of Henry Ford doubling workers’ wages in their Detroit plant to five dollars a day, garnered widespread media coverage.
A princely sum, then. There are also stories that Henry Ford was more open to employing Arabs, despite his earned reputation as a racist antisemite.
During my prep work on Dearborn’s large Arabic community, I discovered that Michigan Radio had published a well-researched story in 2014 titled – What explains Michigan’s large Arab American community?
After leaving Al Tayeb Restaurant, I headed to Qahwah House (coffee house), a popular Yemeni outlet, and ordered a coffee. It was fascinating to see the spices used in the preparation of their coffee and they serve it so hot that I scalded my tongue.
I then headed to Shatila Bakery and Café, a popular bakery in Dearborn. Catering to Arabic palates, their pastries were, however, too sweet and syrupy for me.
Memorable – Ford Factory Tour
I then headed out to experience the Ford Rouge Factory Tour and visit the Museum of American Innovation. Containing Henry Ford’s huge collection, it is a visual treat and a fitting tribute to American genius, innovation, and enterprise.
The one-of-a-kind attraction here is the walking tour of the Dearborn Truck Plant. Without exaggeration, this was the highlight of my visit to Dearborn.
After purchasing my ticket, I boarded the tour bus and was dropped off outside Ford’s Rouge Factory in Dearborn, where the popular F-150 trucks – Ford Rouge Plant Walking Tour | The Henry Ford.
Photography was not permitted in most sections of my visit.
The tour started with a 13-minute audio-video presentation in the Legacy Theater, where one learned about the genius that was Henry Ford. He was a transformative figure, who catalyzed the industrial revolution from a concept to a moving story.
Given the outsized role that automobiles and their associated technologies play in our lives today, I believe that Henry Ford’s contribution to the modern world is not acknowledged, let alone celebrated, enough.
Henry Ford was a visionary who conceived the unthinkable and transformed it into reality. He was a quintessential innovator, an architect of the assembly line, and an early proponent of the five-day 40-hour workweek. Without exaggeration, this AV presentation was one of the most impactful experiences in my life.
This was followed by a short experiential demonstration, replete with a host of special effects, inside the Manufacturing Innovation Theater, where they show you how the F-150 truck is built, starting from the drawing board.
You are then directed to Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant where their popular F-150 truck is assembled. Walking on the elevated walkway constructed about 50 feet above the real factory floor, you get an up-close experience of the plant’s state-of-the-art assembly line.
Trucks, in varying stages of completion, slowly move along the serpentine conveyor belt from one assembly post to the next, where women, men, and robots assemble the trucks, rolling out one truck every minute. The F-150 enters the factory floor as an empty shell and leaves it, fully tested and ready to be driven off.
Allow yourself a full hour to soak in this not-to-be-missed experience.
Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn
I then had to take the tour bus, which runs at frequent intervals, to visit the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Robert Tate, the Automotive Historian, and Researcher consider this museum “one of the most innovative and spectacular museums in the world”.
Founded in 1929 and spread over 523,000 square feet (the largest indoor-outdoor museum visited by over 1.7 million people, annually), the facility houses hundreds of iconic exhibits that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder.
Exhibits include automobiles, airplanes, steam locomotives, and Presidential limousines. Including the Model T, the Rosa Park bus, the JFK limousine, and the first 1958 Edsel (named to honor Henry Ford’s son, Edsel).
Returning from the Ford facility, I got myself a burger at the famed Taystee Burger, which originally opened as a food counter in a gas station. While I enjoyed my burger, it wasn’t anything to write home about. As if to add salt to injury, to Taystee Burger’s reputation, I noticed a steady stream of customers walk into Jersey Mike Subs located next door, while I was the sole customer at Taystee’s.
The Bookstore Experience
I then headed to John K King Books to have enough time for a leisurely visit. The bookstore represents the passion of one man, John K King, who, incidentally, lives in California. It is situated in an old but spacious building, spread over four floors. And it houses several thousands of used and rare books on every topic under the sun.
While the books are cataloged and the store is organized, sections of the store appear cramped and ill-lit, especially for seniors. If you need to ride the elevator to one of the higher floors, you will have the opportunity to ride a rickety relic at, perhaps at your peril. But it will need to be operated by one of the store’s friendly staff, who will voluntarily provide you with the number to call if you need a ride on the way down.
I consider it a reflection of my frugality and not of the quality of the bookstore, that I picked up just two books costing fifteen dollars. I’d like to visit the bookstore, again, on my next visit to Detroit.
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2 thoughts on “Discovering Dearborn, Michigan”
Over the years, I have read many of Ven Iyer’s travelogues describing his globe-spanning tours. Never once have I failed to be educated and offered new insights into people I would never have met, or places I would be unlikely to visit. Ven is a cosmopolitan, witty, informed and observant tour guide to the world. If you are unable to visit a place, the next best thing is to read one of his accounts.