Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Michigan

Before Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha Became Famous

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It was December 1, 2012, and I was covering a story about a family reunion at Taza Restaurant in Sterling Heights. While doing a family tree, Dr. David Hanna, PhD, stumbled upon 500-year-old manuscripts that were found in a monastery in one of the villages. The manuscripts were written by Nestorian priests between 1550 and 1800 in Sureth, the various dialects of the Neo-Aramaic language that is still spoken today.

There were over 200 manuscripts worth $400 million and housed in different parts of the world, including the Russian Academy of Sciences. He corresponded with six professors from around the world who taught Aramaic and tried to attain photocopies of these manuscripts from Russia. Through this process, Dr. Hanna discovered that two families from different neighboring Christian villages, Telkaif and Alqosh, in northern Iraq were separated 300 years ago and then reunited here in Detroit.

I sat beside Dr. Hanna’s his wife as I took notes. She and I had a lovely conversation and then her daughter, Mona Hanna-Attisha, came to our table. She knelt beside me and offered her views about the reunion. I’ll never forget how, as I asked her questions, she was also asking me questions, sincerely wanting to learn more about me. When I learned she was a doctor, I was a little surprised because she had a youthful way about her that made her look much younger than her age and she had an unusual humbleness for someone so successful.

Years later, I watched her father continue to do great work and then, one day, I saw her name all over the news. She was the doctor who fought to expose Flint’s water crisis. I was impressed and proud that a woman from our community used her talents and courage to do good in the world, that she would serve not only the people affected by the Flint water, but be an inspiration for others and a great example for our children.

Today I came upon one of the pictures taken that one December night of me, Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her mother. I remembered the doctor’s humble ways and I this quote by Oscar Levant came to mind, “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.”

 

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A Nostalgic Walk through the Arabic American National Museum

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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.

My Lovely New Garden… Inspired by Frankenmuth

My New Garden

My family went to Frankenmuth for Labor Day weekend and the very first day that we returned home I bought a rocking bench to put on our front porch, and the next day, I told my husband that we had to change our landscape. The jungle we had in the front of our house was getting out of control, and it was ugly. And it looked even uglier after I had the opportunity to sit amongst the lovely landscape and floral displays in Frankenmuth.

He said, “Sure, I’ll do it next spring.”

That statement was not promising so I started looking for a landscape gardener.  Within less than a month, my landscape was transformed. I replaced gigantic bushes with lots of colorful flowers, an apple tree and a pear tree.  After ten years of living in this house, I’m finally able to enjoy my front yard.

I always say you don’t need to travel far to find inspiration, and this is a perfect example. A town that’s only one hour away from my home truly inspired me, not only with regards to the landscaping but with its other splendors.

Frankenmuth, nicknamed “Little Bavaria”, has a population of roughly 5,000 people. It’s a beautiful city that has more than three million visitors each year. It is famous for Zender’s Restaurant, which serves homemade Bavarian chicken, and for Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store.

The night we were there, we rode a horse carriage where we saw a house where the same family has lived for over a hundred years. We learned from the horse carriage driver that the owner of Zender’s Restaurant is 94 years old and that she still works every day in the kitchen, except for Monday. Mondays she teaches her grandchildren how to bake. This bit of information made me feel quite young.  Another brownie point for Frankenmuth!

I Authenticate Myself

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The moment we arrived to the Schoolhouse Cottage in Suttons Bay, I told everyone I was going for a walk. I wanted to see the little town that Melissa, the house owner, described over the phone. She talked about the little café’s and art galleries, the wine tasting tours, the hikes and the nearby beaches. We had driven for five hours and I was ready to explore. My niece said she would accompany me. We got to the main street, which resembled a picturesque street that belonged to a small European town with no fast food restaurants or chain stores.

One particular corner caught my eyes. The outside had several metal welded art pieces on its walls and the center of its courtyard:  a bike, butterfly and the body of a women sleeping on her side. I took pictures of the area before I entered a store called Casey-Daniels. It had colorful handmade handbags and matching hats as well as handmade jewelry.

A man greeted us and when I told him we had just arrived for a weekend vacation, he immediately we dove into a long conversation about the town of Suttons Bay. His name was Will and he had been living in this area for 50 years. He made his own jewelry and pointed to a table where he sat all day to do the work. He told us about his neighborhood, the dozens of artists and writers who lived and worked there and the diners that served good food. I asked if I could write about him in my blog and he said, “You can do whatever you want. You’re a writer?”

“Yes.”

“What do you write?”

I told him about my books, including the poetry book coming out in May. He went to a corner and returned with two magazines, handed me one and my niece the other. It was called Exposures 2014, a Leelanau County Student Journal and it had been around for 26 years. He said he was the publisher. I flipped through it and saw poems written by school students along with pictures, paintings and other art work.

“There are no ads in here,” I said. “How are you able to publish this?”

“It’s funded by the schools.”

I frowned and closely observed it. “How did you manage that?”

He opened his eye glasses from the center of the frame and removed them. “We submitted a proposal to the school and they accepted.”

I was impressed. Before we left, he emphasized that we return to his store if we needed anything. The next morning I woke up before everyone else. I made myself a cup of coffee and walked to Will’s store. He and I sat on a bench outside his store, under the sun.

He told me about traveling with his friend every year to countries like Egypt and Ecuador, regions where their wives were not interested to go. He asked me about my work, and after I explained that I write about the Iraqi American experience, he said, “There’s an attitude in this country about the Middle East that is very stereotyped and we refuse to acknowledge that region’s historical literature. We want to group it in simplistic mindset in what constitutes the Middle East.”

He pointed to a green building across from us. “This building is green, right? But I tell you it’s blue. That’s the audience you’re confronting it.”

We continued to talk about the business of unconventional writing, and in the end, he said, “It’s important to get your foot through the door. Is it relevant which door you get your foot into it? I make weird things. I’m not going to stick myself in art shows. You know why? Because I’m not looking for the approval of others. No, I’m going to authenticate me.  You’re going to authenticate yourself. If I want to put them at a gallery, then I’m placing what I do at the throne of someone else. They stand and say, ‘Oh, that’s this and that.’ And I lose myself.”

With that, I returned home with a whole new perspective.  

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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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Where’s the Doritos?

“I feel so bad for the squirrels,” my sister said. “The trees were not very fruitful this year so they don’t have enough to eat.”

“Oh, that explains why they’ve been gathering at my patio,” I said, and told her how today, for instance, a squirrel came by and fought to open my can of Pam near the barbecue grill. He rolled with it until it fell onto the grass and he jumped after it. Ten minutes later, I found its red lid on top of the swing set.

I also told her how a few days ago my children forgot a bag of Doritos outside overnight. In the morning, a squirrel appeared, sniffing around until he reached the Doritos bag. He ate from it, and then his friends came and ate from it. The next several days, different colored squirrels stopped by looking for food. In the past, I have given them bread, cookies, cereal. But at one point, they started to get too close for comfort, coming right up to my slide door.

“If the trees are not fruitful,” I said to my sister, “how come this year I have seen more squirrels than ever before in this area?”

She pondered on that, but had no answer. I think in America, everyone is fed well, even the squirrels.

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The History of Warren

American FlagThis morning I was doing some research about the City of Warren when I stumbled upon a website that not only had in depth information, but it offered a free book and DVD.  I got dressed and drove to the Village Book Exchange, where a copy of the book was available.

“I can pay something for it,” I told the woman at the counter.

“Nope,” she said. “The author – a professor – wants to give it to people for free.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This is a beautiful gift.”

Professor Wesley Arnold, a historian, compiled over one hundred pages of colorful pictures and detailed information from the time Macomb was nothing but marshland and forests. I have had the chance to go through parts of it, and I can say that so far it is filled with “Love, Peace and Freedom” – the title of his DVD.

For more information, visit macombhistory.us

Obama, Obama, Where Are You?

Obama, Obama, where are you? Iraqi Christians they need you!”

Today thousands of people marched for miles on Ryan Road in Sterling Heights, asking that our President help the Iraqi Christians.

ISIS has started taking children, mothers and fathers to a park in Mosul and systematically beheading them, then putting their heads on a stick.

While it is easier to create a mess than clean it, President Obama, you must help clean this mess! Once it’s cleaned, if it even can be at this point, the next big question should be, “The criminals who helped start this genocide, this bleeding of Iraq, where are you now?”

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Mayor Brenda Lawrence

 Mayor Lawrence

Today the Niagara Foundation, Michigan held a panel discussion “Celebrating Women as Community Builders” in commemoration of Women’s History Month. The three women speakers were Diane Slavens, Michigan representative; Carol Cain, journalist and columnist, and senior producer and host of “Michigan Matters” on CBS 62; and Brenda Lawrence, Mayor of City of Southfield.

The three women shared their stories, of how they started their careers, the struggles and challenges they faced (and still do), how they have balanced work and career, and what advice they would give other women. I was touched and inspired by their wisdom and accomplishments, but I was particularly in awe of Mayor Brenda Lawrence – mostly because of the possibility that she would be one of our congresswomen.

As Mayor Lawrence pointed out, over 50 percent of the US population is women, yet less than 20 percent of congress is represented by women. We complain about how the country is run, and part of the problem is that this country is being run by men.

“Everyone is a unique individual and there’s no one that’s created like you,” she said. “You were created to use your special talents, whatever they may be, not to just suck air out of the room.”

Mayor Lawrence encourages women to push themselves out of their comfort zone in order to achieve their dreams, whether it is to become an artist or a stay-at-home mom. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for 42 years. She brought her teenage granddaughter to today’s event. She does so much without keeping her hands completely out of the kitchen. To me, Mayor Lawrence is the essence of true success. How does she do it?

“It’s hard,” she said. “But anything worth doing is not easy, including giving birth to a child.”

She said for a while it has been said that Detroit needs a woman mayor because the city needs a mother who would not abuse or steal from her.

I say Detroit needs a mother and America needs dozens of mothers.

Coming to this Country 33 Years Ago

Coming to America

Today marks 33 years that I’ve been living in the United States. I remember on our drive home from Metro Airport February 2, 1981, I was in awe at the sight of all the snow that covered the streets. Having come from a land of sand and rivers, I was not accustomed to so much whiteness.

For years, I’ve wondered why I ended up in this country. It was not I who chose to flee Iraq and come to America. My parents made that decision, of course, since I was a child. I’ve oven thought, did they foresee the terrible condition that Iraq and the rest of the Middle East was going to be in in the upcoming decades?

“You are a creative person, and that’s why you came to this country,” one of my mentors once said to me. “You came here to be able to do your writing and to be able to help women of that region which you came from.”

Thank God, my parents were able to foresee the future and bring us to a place where creativity, and not oppression, is what’s encouraged.