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

STORIES OF IDENTITY: Dearborn is home to the country’s first Arab-American museum, a $15-million source of pride


One display at the new museum shows Arab Americans in their role of service in the armed forces.

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.”

Originally published in the Detroit Free Press at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.