Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Dearborn

A Nostalgic Walk through the Arabic American National Museum

Museum

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.

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Unique Relationships Serving Communities

As I watched Laila and Georgia, the 6th episode of the Intersection of Faith and Culture short documentary video series, I thought, “I know these people!” Laila has been quite supportive of my work and Georgia is the wife of Stephen Coats, a filmmaker I met at a journalism conference. We sat on the same panel and since we have followed each other’s work. But, I had no idea Laila and Stephen’s wife are such close friends.

Laila is a Syrian-American journalist who works incredibly hard, acting as an powerful and influential mouthpiece for her Arab Muslim community within the broader American culture. Laila’s friend, Georgia, is Greek-American, and has been a longtime companion of Laila.

“When I came to this country I had no one,” said Laila with teary eyes. “Georgia and her husband Stephen took me in like I was family.”

Over time, the two women have become like sisters to each other.

“I believe that life is deeper and richer and more spiritual when I know and love people who are different than me,” said Georgia, who moved to Dearborn just before the 9/11 attacks. The next day, on September 12th, she was teaching a class, English as a second language, to primarily Arabic-speaking women.

Before moving here, people warned Georgia not to go to Dearborn, which has a large Muslim population, because it’s considered dangerous. But she put her trust in God and figured, she just came from Colorado where in the 1999 the Columbine High School shooting occurred.

“How is this place safe to be, and Dearborn isn’t?” she said. “We don’t know where the dangerous people are.”

When the controversial Pastor Terry Jones wanted to have a protest in front of the Islamic Center of America, the community of Dearborn came together in opposition to his agenda.

“There’s a verse in the Bible that says in the end, there will be people worshiping God from every town, every tribe, every nation and every language,” said Georgia. “That’s what I believe.”

Laila and Georgia are of completely different backgrounds, but they have more similarities than differences – they are both mothers, both spiritual, and they serve their communities in wonderful ways.

Having survived cancer, Georgia shares her journey as a cancer survivor, a wife and mother through her blog http://thecrazyedamommy.wordpress.com/ Laila Al-Husseini is one of the most famous Arab anchors in the United States and is known for her popular show US Arab Radio. The program broadcasts Tuesday mornings, live on WNZK 690 AM to audiences in Michigan, Toledo, Ohio, and Windsor and for audiences in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland, the program broadcasts on WDMV 700 AM.

It makes you wonder why Pastor Terry Jones’ desire to burn Korans and not Laila and Georgia’s example of peaceful relationships get the media’s attention. And what role, do we the audience, play in that?

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The Clearing, a Magical School

Jens Jensen

A week ago I went with my sister to the Henry Ford Estate, to watch the documentary screening of Jens Jensen: The Living Green. We parked our car and to reach the house by foot, walked through a dense woodland area which was created by Jens Jenson, a Danish American landscape architect, known for his “prairie style” design work. He designed the gardens at the Henry Ford Estate and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

I loved the character of this man, who considered himself an artist, not an architect. Jenson saw a connection between the performing arts and nature. He was called a Native Nature Poet. He summed up his philosophy by saying, “Every plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out tis full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping.” He believed that only when we leave the beauty of nature alone, as God created it, would we really have democracy.

At 75 years of age, Jensen, who wanted to create harmony between the hand of man and the hand of nature, established a school in 1935 called The Clearing in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. It taught environmental citizenship and sought students Jenson thought would “study profoundly… do things worthwhile… not for oneself but for others.”

Jensen died in 1951, at the age of 91. But the school he founded is pretty alive. The Clearing offers year-long educational opportunities in three programs: the Summer program, the Workshop Program and the Winter Program. All programs offer a wide range of classes (which are taught in a relaxed and informal style), including painting, writing, quilting, birding, wood carving, poetry, rustic furniture making, photography, poetry, fine wood-working, music, weaving, philosophy, stained glass, metal work, nature study and paper arts.

Sounds like we have in our country more magical programs than Harry Potter ever did. The only thing is we need to discover them.