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Dearborn, Michigan: An Arab-American’s Culinary Mecca

Chicken and beef shawarma on the rotisserie | Credit: Mikhail Esteves | Flickr

Toum. Extra toum. 

The request for extra garlic regularly accompanies orders for shawarma in any of the bakeries in Dearborn, Michigan. While my family is Arab-Christian, Dearborn is our culinary Mecca. We make the four-hour pilgrimage twice a year from my parent’s home in Pittsburgh and stuff our SUV with Middle Eastern delicacies to last us the year. Spending eight hours in a car for shawarma made as it is in my parent’s native Syria—with the pungent garlic sauce and patiently marinated in its own fat on a rotisserie—is worth the ride. So is being able to order the beloved street food in their native tongue at most shops, a feature almost exclusive to Dearborn. 

April is Arab-American Heritage Month, and there are few better ways to celebrate the occasion than by indulging in the cuisine. My parents and I visited Dearborn this month, motivated by the visceral longing for Levantine ingredients with Arabic labels, and the pull of our appetites toward the tissue-thin filo dough and saccharine nutty layers of Shatila Bakery’s baklava. 

Dearborn has the largest population of Arab-Americans in the country, and its food selection reflects the local population, which is mostly Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Yemeni, and predominantly Muslim, although there is a growing Iraqi Chaldean population. The first supermarket we go to has its name in both Arabic and English, with newspapers such as The Arab American News stacked in newstands by the entrance. There are mannequins dressed in hijabs that are for sale. My dad jokes that I can say that I visited Baghdad this weekend—it’s the one place in the country where my mother and I are minorities for not wearing hijab, and where signage is almost entirely in Arabic. Like a 17th-century Persian bazaar there are different kinds of bulgur in large burlap sacks side by side. My mother scoops five pounds of brown bulgur for mujadara, five pounds of white bulgur for tabbouleh. Often stocked in small quantities to meet the low demand elsewhere, orange blossom water is a staple that occupies much of two shelves. Priced as a commodity, its floral illustration is a sweet, palatable reminder of the citrus bounty in my dad’s village. Olive oil is measured in pounds, not ounces, and the selection of olives ranges from the kind we keep in stock in our home kitchen (cracked green olives, young and bitter) to Moroccan olives (leathery and bold).  

And like a harem, there is a section of every grocery store reserved for Medjool dates, arranged in plastic containers and ornate gift boxes. Despite the caramel flavor of the shriveled fruit that with age has morphed into a candy as sweet as the Turkish delights a few feet away, no one dare blaspheme Medjool. My health conscious mother insists that it’s a boon to our health. 

Dearborn is an oasis for Arab-Americans, who have been settling in the sleepy suburb since the late-19th century, when they worked as grocers and peddlers. The rise of the automotive industry attracted a significant wave of Arab immigrants in the late-19th centuryA second wave of highly-educated Arabs arrived after World War Two. More recent waves have been Arab diaspora fleeing war, primarily in Iraq and Lebanon. 

Of the 98,000 residents in Dearborn, approximately 30 percent identify as Arab-American or have Arab descent. While the population isn’t religiously homogeneous and includes a sizable Arab-Christian population, 40 percent of Dearborn is Muslim. Dearborn has been the target of spurious accusations, including that it hosts terrorist sleeper cells, or operates under Sharia-compliant law. In 2017, there were anti-Shariah law marches in Michigan, prompting Dearborn’s congressional representative to rebuke the marches for stoking “fear and hatred.”  Zahra Ayoub, a resident, began organizing “Shawarma Law” dinners around the town, insisting that there’s no reason to fear traveling to Dearborn.

Even though there is a Ford factory on its outskirts and freshly cut lawns in front of well-kept homes, Dearborn is still shrouded under a mysticism and a veneer of orientalist apprehension. I live in New York City, where it’s common to see storefronts with signage in Korean, Spanish, and Chinese. But even I was struck by the normalcy of the language popularly spoken among shoppers in stores that offer an abundance of halal options and Silk Road spices one couldn’t find in stores appealing to western tastebuds. Will there ever be an endearingly named Little Lebanon or Syria Town in the United States? Or does political tension—from refugee crises and wars to sectarianism of the Middle East and the stigma of its American diaspora—preclude this from happening anytime soon?

I certainly hope not, if only for the the proliferation of rose water and good tahini; the meat of olives intact with their stems and seeds like they were just scooped from a harvest basket in my baba’s village; argileh hoses and shisha tobacco; and shawarma shops with the vertical rotisseries of meat marinated in cumin, paprika, and turmeric being shaved off and spread onto fresh-baked pita with its yeasty scent wafting from a stone oven.

Food, unlike any other cultural medium, has the ability to communicate the memories and emotions that language often can’t. Eating is primitive, and unlike many other forms of art, is the connective tissue among all of humanity. In Dearborn, I find hope—hope that outsiders will come to know Arab-Americans by our culinary contributions, allowing us to shed any burdens of circumstance we do not control. Ethnic enclaves within the greatest American cities such as New York demonstrate assimilation’s generous welcome and its permission to retain the traditions we’d like to share most while operating in the American forum. I hope that soon, places like Dearborn become a staple for American dining, where non-Arabs can familiarize themselves with Aleppo for its muhammara rather than the cable news headlines that chronicle its trauma; where Lebanon’s diva Fairuz can punctuate the sips of the two-shot Arabic coffee with cardamom in Beirut-themed cafes. 

Until then, Dearborn’s hives of grocery stores and bakeries are my family’s escape, where the flavors of the Arab world are immortalized in its American reliquary. 

Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow at The National Review.

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