Michigan museum devoted to telling Arab-American story

Sunday 18/12/2016
AANM daytime exterior in May 2015. (Credit: Doug Coombe)

Washington - A 19th-century bell, adorned with the sym­bolic US eagle, may not carry much significance at first sight but in the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, Michigan, it serves as a reminder of the deep-rooted connections between the Arab world and the New World.

“There is this misunderstanding that our community is a new one,” said Jumana Salamey, deputy di­rector of the AANM, “but we have been here for centuries.”

The bell was worn by camels of the US Camel Corps, an unit in the south-western United States in the 1800s to explore using camels to deliver goods in desert envi­ronments. The initiative involved camels and camel drivers from Arabia and today’s Turkey. The bell and Camel Corps story are part of the rich mosaic the AANM uses to present the American roots of an Arab community seen as outsiders by many in the United States.

“We have been part of this larger story for many, many years,” Sala­mey said of the Arab Americans from 22 countries who live in the United States. The museum is an effort to counter misconceptions, which proliferated after the Sep­tember 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, while also serving as a place for Arab Americans “to celebrate their culture”, she said.

The AANM, which opened in 2005, traces the history of Arab Americans and serves as a stage and community and exhibition centre. It is no coincidence that the museum was built in Dearborn, a city 14km from Detroit in which about one-in-three residents is of Arab descent.

Starting with the story of the first Arabic speaker to arrive in North America, a man called Zammouri who was taken to Florida by Span­iards in 1528, through the arrival of about 100,000 people from the Levant in the late 19th century and the wave of war refugees from Iraq and Lebanon in the late 20th centu­ry, the museum presents migration trends and explains the reasons be­hind them. It includes belongings those new arrivals carried on their long journey, including a trunk from Syria and shoes dated to 1923 from Lebanon.

The role of Arab Americans in the US military, the life of Arab-Amer­ican farmers, peddlers and trades­men are told in words, photographs and exhibits. The museum features three permanent exhibits that fo­cus on the Arab immigration expe­rience in the United States and the lives those of Arab descent have built there while highlighting tra­ditions from their home countries that are passed from generation to generation.

One of the permanent galleries is devoted to the idea of making an impact and celebrates the influ­ential role of Arab Americans such as Ralph Nader, a consumer-rights activist and former US presidential candidate of Lebanese descent; the late Helen Thomas, a legend­ary long-time member of the White House press corps whose parents also immigrated from Lebanon; and renowned heart surgeon Dr Michael DeBakey, who was born in Louisiana to Lebanese immigrants.

Among the museum’s exhibits is artwork by Leila Abdelrazaq, a graphic novelist of Palestinian de­scent from Chicago. In Baddawi, Abdelazaq traced the life of her fa­ther, who grew up as a Palestinian refugee in camps in Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s.

The museum, built with support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and US com­panies such as General Motors and Chrysler, welcomed 52,000 visitors in 2015 and another 75,000 people visited exhibitions the museum mounted elsewhere. The combined number of visitors and exhibition guests was expected to increase to 200,000 in 2016.

A current AANM exhibition, Lit­tle Syria, NY, at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigra­tion near New York, presents the history of New York’s first Arab- American community. Visitors rep­resented “a healthy mix” of Arab American and non-Arab people, Salamey said.

The museum’s history is closely connected to the Arab-American experience. In the middle of the discussion about building the museum, “9/11 happened”, mu­seum Director Devon Akmon told Monocle magazine. “So then the question was: Can we build a com­munity-based museum?” he said. “Would people in fact support it? And they did.”

The museum has “become a platform to bring communities together”, Salamey said. While the museum has not been subject to negative responses or attacks, the Arab American community in Dearborn has been targeted by an­ti-Muslim hate speech, she added. As a reaction, the museum has re­ceived messages of support from other communities.

The AANM has developed into an institution that can provide a “safe space” to groups struggling to make their voices heard, Salamey said. In one example, the museum enabled the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) commu­nity to have events on its premises.

“They have really set a model for other museums about working in the local community… It’s not just about collecting objects and creat­ing exhibits but it’s about sharing the objects, the exhibits, the space and the experience with the local community to serve everyone’s in­terest. I think they’re doing a spec­tacular job in that regard,” Harold Closter, director of Smithsonian Af­filiations, a national outreach pro­gramme of the Smithsonian Insti­tution, told the Detroit Free Press.