I visited the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn last week with some friends and colleagues. Although I had been to the museum many times since it opened in 2005, to attend conferences, watch movies and concerts, and to participate in forums, this was the first time I took a tour of this three-level, 40,000 square-foot building. The experience was quite nostalgic for me, especially after walking through the second floor, called Living in America.
Our tour guide, Petra Al Soofy, said that every person who took this tour, regardless of their background, at the end of the tour said, “That’s the same story my family told me.”
The land people came from is different but the story of immigration is basically the same.
“This community is a very vibrant, successful immigrant experience,” said Hassan Jaber, chief executive officer of ACCESS, a nonprofit organization which started the museum project. “Before 9/11, Arab Americans were individually successful. After 9/11, that shifted completely and a debate arose of why is this happening to us in our name and how do we correct this, how do we care for each other and deal with issues that affect us on a daily basis. It became more urgent to find our place in society and to tell our story.”
Many organizations, such as the Jewish Federation, were very supportive of the museum and helped it come to fruition. This type of support and the staff’s hard work and optimism has led the museum to recently be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which is truly impressive since only 6 percent of the America’s 21,000 museums are accredited.
“The Japanese American museum was one of our strongest supporters,” said Petra. “They helped make this museum happen because, given what they had gone through, they saw that history was repeating itself.”
One exhibit on the second floor had various size luggage, or trunks, from different eras and personal items that people brought along like a pair of beaded shoes from 1923. Photos of people’s journey and pictures of their naturalization papers were framed on the wall. Rana Abbas, director of communications and marketing at ACCESS, pointed out a long list of names of the Arab Americans who died on the Titanic, two of whom were her relations.
We learned about the first Arabic speaking slave, captured probably in 1511 when Portugal invaded his city in Morocco. He was brought to the U.S., where he eventually became a famous healer, interpreter and explorer.
There were endless fascinating stories about this community, including on how Arabs ended up being classified as “white” but they are too many for me to recount in this post. My friends and I agreed that we needed to have a second tour to fully digest the stories available at the museum. We then took a nice stroll to Sheba restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious Yemeni cuisine.