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According to the 2000 census, 70,000 Arabs live in New York City. That’s more than double the number recorded as living in Dearborn during the same period. Yet, for me, Dearborn feels significantly more “Arab.” A reason for this must be the concentration of so many of them in a relatively small area. I think of my family’s house: to the right lives an older Arab woman, and to the left, an Arab family. Across the street and over the back fence, there are more Arab households. In fact, I would have to walk past several blocks of houses before arriving at one in which an Arab does not live. In New York City, I could go days without seeing an Arab. In Texas, where I live now, if not for a handful of friends and a few students at the university where I teach, I could go weeks, even months, without running into an Arab.
When I fly into Detroit, I take I-94 home. I head east. The twelve-ton, eighty-foot tall Uniroyal tire on the side of the highway still brings a smile to my face. When I pass Telegraph Road, I think of the summers I worked at Jack Dunworth Memorial Pool, where Dearborn’s families — Arab and otherwise — dropped off their kids for hours at a stretch. I continue down the Ford Freeway and pass the exit to the Southfield Freeway, which I took countless times to Fairlane Town Center, where I got into my fair share of trouble as a kid. Across from the shopping center, on Evergreen Road, is Henry Ford Community College, where I taught for a semester and where, for the first time as a teacher, I had Arab students. My family’s house, where my sister still lives, is on Dearborn’s eastside not far from Hemlock Park, which for a while went by the nickname “Yemlock” because of the Yemeni boys and girls who played there. I go past the house and park and I take Miller Road and keep driving until I reach Warren Avenue. I pull into the parking lot of Al-Ameer Restaurant.
Al-Ameer may not be the best Middle Eastern restaurant in town, but it is still my favorite. I used to eat there two to three times a week. Usually, I sat in a window booth. I liked to see people coming and going, and I was constantly running into friends or acquaintances. The waiters and waitresses knew me — if not by name, then by face or by what I ate. For years, I ordered the same three items off the menu: a shawarma sandwich, a plate of hummus, and a cup of coffee. On one of my visits not long after I’d moved out of Detroit, a former student from HFCC who’d been working at Al-Ameer for some time waited on me. I recognized her immediately, and vice versa.
“Professor,” she said, “You want a coffee, right?”
“And a shawarma and hummus.”
I smiled and nodded. She turned to walk away, and I stopped her. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.” She told me, and I greeted her again. “One other thing I don’t remember … ” I hesitated a moment but finally asked, “Did I give you a good grade?”
She thought about it a moment and then returned the smile I had given and walked away.
A short while later, I invited her to sit with me. I had shown up just before the lunch rush, but the restaurant was mostly empty, and I was the only customer seated in her section, so she agreed. We chatted for a while. She was still a student but had transferred to Wayne State University. She was also applying for admission to pharmacy school. She had a daughter, a little girl, about to enter grade school. She was a single mom. I learned more about her in those five minutes than I had in an entire semester.
“What about you,” she said. “Where are you now?”
I began telling her about New York but before I got very far a customer showed up and was seated in her section; soon enough the restaurant started filling up. We talked a bit more but only when she came by to refill my coffee — nothing more than chitchat.
In 2004, my father moved back to Lebanon after living in the States for nearly forty years. With him gone, I went to Detroit less and less. Suddenly, I had been away for sixteen years. I still go to Al-Ameer first thing when I visit, and the last time I went, I showed up at dinnertime. The place was packed. I waited close to fifteen minutes before being seated. I asked about my former student — she’d quit a while back, and no one at the restaurant knew what had become of her. I imagined her in a hospital or a pharmacy wearing a lab coat. As for the wait staff, they were entirely new to me. A few of the cooks looked familiar, but I couldn’t say for sure if I knew them or if they knew me.
I ordered the usual, and while waiting for my food to come I took a good look around. At nearly every table in the restaurant was a man or a group of men who could have passed for the ones I saw on TV or read about in the papers, those accused of masterminding terrorist plots right under our noses. The thought ran through my mind again: They just might be terrorists. Something felt different this time — not for a second did I believe that thought. I realized, too, that any one of these men I was looking at could have stopped what he was doing and looked up and had exactly the same thought about me — He just might be a terrorist — and of course, he would be wrong. For all I knew — for all I know — any of us, any day, could be accused of something sinister. More than ever before, the monumental differences between people and my perceptions of those people were becoming clear to me. Just as meaningful, I also realized, was being in a community as opposed to looking at one from the outside. I’d known this my whole life — I relied on it to make my way through the world. I was ashamed for having forgotten. There, in Al-Ameer, I vowed to go back home as often as possible, if only not to forget.
I was living in Detroit during the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. On that day, February 26, 1993, I was scheduled for the lunch shift at the Soup Kitchen Saloon, a blues bar now long gone. I showed up to work just as news of the attack was being broadcast on TVs and radios across the country. I walked into the Soup Kitchen and one of the bartenders, a burly, middle-aged man who liked to joke about everything, stopped me and looked me dead in the eyes. Shaking his head in disgust, he said only, “You people.”
I am pretty sure he meant Arabs, but he could have also meant Muslims. It was also possible he assumed these to be one and the same.