Near the brown plastic deer and white swans in front of the Hawatmeh house, an American flag and a big placard reading “God Bless America” greet visitors. It’s a tranquil Sunday afternoon in Warren and inside, Sabah Hawatmeh, a 45-year-old mother of four teens, rummages in the kitchen. Her husband, brother and father recline in the living room, watching images of war on Arabic network television.
Virgin Mary icons adorn the house. The Sacred Heart of Jesus image sits atop the refrigerator, near a brightly painted bust of baby Jesus and Mary. A huge rosary hangs on the wood-paneled walls of the family room; another large set of the prayer beads hangs in the formal sitting room, among white Victorian silk couches, French paintings and golden antiques.
It’s Lent, so Hawatmeh — whose Catholic family emigrated in the 1970s from Jordan, which borders Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia — is preparing a meatless, dairy-free meal of salmon with toasted almonds and rice, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, olives and sweet potato soup.
“We can have fish. Because, you know, in the Bible, there is the story about the fish and the bread, how Jesus made them into enough for everybody with a miracle,” she says. “This soup, I took the recipe from the Internet.”
In the living room, the men are absorbed in TV news. The Arabic station is showing images from inside Iraq, images of Iraqi dead, of an American general apologizing for troops who replaced an Iraqi flag with an American one and of an Iraqi official who says American reports of surrender are false.
“CNN, they are not broadcasting everything,” says Nabil, Sabah’s husband, who’s wearing an American flag pin on his suit lapel. “They should show everything. People’s opinions about the war would change if they saw everything.”
Sabah’s brother, Awni Safadi, plays with his 10-month-old son, Matthew.
“I hope it’s not going to be World War III,” he says.
The family is upset, for the day before, Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language network they watch on a 52-inch screen, showed footage of a young Iraqi boy with his head blown half off. The network displayed the bloody mess and brains.
Today, the network broadcast chilling shots of American prisoners, dead and alive, drawing the ire of the U.S. government.
“If you see how they die, you feel so bad,” says Sabah. “They are kids. Even the soldiers, they are young. You think they want to die? I’m a mom. I love my kids. I don’t want them hurt. As a mom, I don’t like to see kids killing kids. It doesn’t mean I’m against Bush.”
Politics and hummus
The family — grandmother and grandfather, kids, two sets of parents — pray for peace and sit down for dinner. They talk politics. The dad says nothing’s changed. The active Republican Party member is against the war, but supports Bush.
The war is killing innocents, he says, and “will cause chaos for Jordan.” He’s concerned Israel will expel thousands of Palestinians into Jordan, further destabilizing it, and that the region could erupt into warring factions.
Indeed, it’s tough being Arab-American these days.
“You have Arabic heritage in your blood. But you are a citizen of the United States. You are angry, and you don’t know what to do,” says Nabil.
“I am Jordanian first, American second,” says Sabah’s brother, Safadi, who’s also Nabil’s cousin.
“You cannot live here and say, ‘I am Italian. I am Arabic.’ You are American,” says Nabil.
“You cannot lose your dignity, your heritage,” says Safadi.
“You are Arab-American,” insists Nabil.
“That’s what they call us,” Safadi retorts. “My nationality and my birthplace is Jordan.”
The grandfather chimes in, in Arabic, “You are American first.”
Safadi says the Arabic world has long been the victim of European colonization, and now it’s fighting to resist U.S. control. When U.S. soldiers replaced the Iraqi flag, it showed that the U.S. military is trying to conquer, he says.
“They should liberate and leave. They should maintain the dignity of the country’s flag,” says Safadi.”
Nicola, Sabah’s 17-year-old son, says, “They apologized! They took it down!”
The grandfather says, in Arabic, “The American flag should stay up until the war is over.”
Nabil explains the family and Jordan’s history. Most of the Hawatmeh family has been in the United States since 1975. The grandfather was a gunsmith in Jordan. The family — upper-middle-class by Jordanian standards — left the country along with most Christians, heading to America or elsewhere, looking for a better life and to escape religious tensions. The country is now mostly Muslim; some 50 percent are Palestinian.
Jordan traditionally has been one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, ruled by a monarchy. Now it’s become somewhat unstable and relies on foreign aid. Just this weekend, Jordan became the first Arabic country to expel Iraqi diplomats following requests by Washington to do so. King Abdullah was rewarded, according to the Jordanian press, with as much as $1 billion in aid from the United States. Violent, pro-Iraq protests broke out in the streets of Amman, Jordan’s capital.
Sabah is serving people, filling glasses with juice and water. She’s the consummate American mom: involved in the PTA, works in the lunchroom and as a teacher’s aide for Macomb County’s Head Start program. She keeps a picture of her favorite student, an angel-eyed African-American girl, perched in the plastic tree near the dinner table.
The trim mother is modern and gregarious. Her kids say she’s involved in every aspect of their lives, for better or worse.
“Now, the Arabic woman changes,” says Sabah. “We have to go outside of the house all the time. If you sit at home, you’re not going to know nothing about the world or your kids.
“But you have to be really friendly. I’m not shy. And everybody loves me. They [Americans] treat me so nice. They are really nice. I am serious.”
For a while, she was angry because Americans after Sept. 11 bunched all Arabs together, and she’s a proud Christian. She was mad at Muslim terrorists for killing innocent people and worried terrorists would take over the country. She says she’s not angry or worried about that anymore.
She leaves the room. She comes back holding a cord. “You never do anything,” she says to her husband. “I am serious. I wanted to tape the dinner, and look, the camera, it’s not recharged.”
She looks around, incredulous, “Never do I ask him to do anything and he does it. Americans, they know what to do. I do dinner, you wash dishes.”
“We don’t do that,” her husband says, smiling, shaking his head. “Nag, nag, nag, that’s what women do.”
“If men would listen, we wouldn’t nag,” says his sister-in-law. Her husband, Safadi, says things are changing. He says he cherishes staying home with the kids so his wife can work as a hospital lab technician.
“I would not trade it for the world,” says the father of three. “It’s beautiful. I love it.”
“You want ’em, you got ’em,” says his wife with a wink.
Nicola is late for dinner. He’s been at work.
“A lot of people would be surprised I work for a Jewish jeweler,” he says. “It’s a lot of responsibility. I love it. I make a lot of money. I’m the top salesman.”
Sabah’s mother is mostly quiet, speaking only a little English. She explains that her sister is Nabil’s mom — the husband and wife are first cousins. Everyone says this is quite normal, and they explain how they’re related. It’s complicated. Simply speaking, everyone’s a cousin.
“That’s how they do it in the Middle East,” says Nabil. “The countries are small. You know everybody. Your family looks around [for a spouse] for you. Not so much anymore. Our kids, they refuse to do it.”
In the kitchen, Sabah cleans the dishes. She asks Nicola to get the Bible, and makes him read from Revelations 16 and 17, which, she says, predicts war and devastation in Iraq.
Nicola Hawatmeh wants George W. Bush’s job. The president once joked with the Arab-American teen, at a rally, “When are you going to take my spot?”
In fact Nicola is somewhat obsessed with Bush. For Halloween, he dressed as the president, and he carries a business card from a presidential aide in his wallet. His room is covered with Republican Party posters. He’s vice president of the local GOP association and second vice-chair of Michigan Teenage Republicans. His dad is a charter member of Bush’s Presidential Victory Team 2004, but Nicola, not yet old enough to vote, carries his father’s Republican National Committee identification for him.
His mother displays big glossy pictures of Nicola posing with Bush, and the boy cherishes his memorabilia. “I paid $350 to frame this, and it was worth every penny,” he says of his collection, including an autographed Red Wings T-shirt.
“I’m determined to make it in American politics,” says the A student, who drives a black Chrysler 300M with black leather seats. “People think I’m spoiled,” he says. “But I appreciate everything I have. Everyone in my family works hard.”
The high schooler pops a videotape into the VCR. It shows a clip of him and his parents greeting President Bush at a local GOP gathering. The boy bounds to the screen as the clip starts to roll, pointing to where the action will take place.
“I get goose bumps every time I see this,” he says, pacing, excited.
“See that, he patted my back! I shook his hand. I told him he was my idol; that I want to be just like him. He touched by mother’s arm and said if you listen to your mother, you can be just like me.”
“He’s very handsome in person,” says Sabah. “He looks different on TV.”
“Yes, he’s very handsome in person,” agrees her husband.
“We should call him and say we’re behind you, but we’re against war,” she says.
The father sits back on the couch.
“We were front row, so close to him,” he says. “It gives you an idea of what is possible in this country. He took time. He asked me, ‘After September 11, are people treating you with dignity and respect?’ I told him we were having no problems. He said ‘If anyone gives you trouble, let me know.’ It touched me personally.
“I fell in love with him that day, and ever since.
“It is what this country offers. America is a jewel of the world. We vote. We have freedom, democracy. You can make a difference. It’s amazing.”
After dinner the family gathers in the living room. Sabah serves sweet hot tea, cookies and a pastry called kunafa.
Nicola turns on Fox TV. His father and uncle scoff. A debate about the media ensues.
“The American media is controlled by the Jewish,” says Nabil. “They allow you to see what they want you to see.”
“How do you know this, Dad?” says Nicola. “You are so sure. What is your proof?”
“It’s true. CNN, they don’t have much to see,” says Sabah.
“There is biased stuff in Al-Jazeera. CNN is biased for America,” says Nicola. “It’s all emotional on Al-Jazeera. I’ve never once seen them side with the Americans. It’s all about the Arab people killed.”
“No,” says Nabil. “I have been living for 46 years. You forget. I lived in the region.”
“You have such a narrow-minded view on this,” says Nicola. “Once you see something on Arabic TV, you think it’s true. They are putting on there what they want you to see from the Arabic side.”
“Not true, not true,” say Nabil and Safadi.
The debate is animated. “There is propaganda on both sides,” Nabil says.
“I don’t trust it. It’s not true,” says Safadi, watching Fox. “I voted for Bush. I voted Republican. Never again.”
Nabil says, “If the public saw everything that was happening, the people killed, they would change their mind about the war. I’m telling you.”
Sabah’s father, Elias Safadi, 70, picks up a voice recorder from the coffee table and turns it over. He’s concerned about the family getting interviewed.
“We are Arabic, there is fear,” says Sabah. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
She says she’s terribly conflicted, hating the war, loving America.
“We’re never going to find a country like this,” she says. “American people, they are my family too. They love my cookies. I am serious. Every time there is a function at the school they ask for my cookies. I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. I’m from here. I cry for both sides. I’m behind Bush 100 percent. I will stand with my son and with my country.”Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]