Even in a crowded downtown area, a museum is usually a giant concrete-and-marble palace set on what seems like an acre of land. Getting to the front entrance is supposed to be a sort of metaphysical journey, like a trip down the aisle to an altar. The idea is that by the time you’ve walked yards deep into the landscape and up several flights of stone steps, finally getting to the wrought-iron mouth of the beast (it takes at least a few minutes), you’ve reached a higher level of consciousness. Most of us just feel kind of light-headed.
That’s not the case for the new Arab American National Museum, celebrating its grand opening Thursday, May 5. The 38,500-square-foot institution, which also includes a library, auditorium, community center and gift shop, is set practically on top of Dearborn’s main drag, across the street from city hall and in front of a Kroger.
The museum is a contemporary structure with traditional Islamic flair, and the atmosphere is as bright as the peacock flying over the front entrance. Mosaics of arabesque design — vegetal motifs and calligraphic inscriptions of the Quran — stretch sideways across the walls in glazed tiles of lapis blue, green, purple, orange, white and yellow. The interior really opens up in the center; looking up at the glass dome inspires vertigo and a euphoric sense of the infinite.
The arrival of the Arab American National Museum (AANM) is overdue, but that means nothing. As part of a town square, it is a place defining other locations in the city as near or far, a place where memory, pride and wisdom converge.
These days, cultural institutions are barely able to make ends meet. But it’s no surprise that Dearborn’s Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) got funding for such a project. Museum Director Dr. Anan Ameri, an activist and Harvard scholar, says, “This really is a community’s museum — 1,600 individuals donated over 700 artifacts.” More than 22 countries are represented. There are cultural ephemera, like old dolls that made the trip over here under the arms of children, as well as crafts, such as ancient musical instruments and hundreds of photos and documents.
Arab-American history, for the most part, begins around the late 19th century, although there are artifacts from the early 16th century, when some Arabs came to the country as slaves. AANM’s second floor currently features three exhibitions: Coming to America, Living in America and Making an Impact. Director Ameri wants to make sure the public understands this is not a museum for Arab-Americans only; it’s for everyone.
“I was talking with a woman who visited here and she said, ‘I saw my mother and I cried.’ I was thinking to myself, we don’t have anything from her mother. But she was speaking metaphorically,” Ameri says.
Because ACCESS is a community-run organization, it has obtained a remarkable number of personal artifacts, and the stories that go with them. Walking through Coming to America, for example, visitors can read about a Yemeni man named Mohammad who came to the United States with $7 in his pocket. Upon his arrival, he went to a coffee shop in New York City and met anther gentleman from his country who gave him $500 on the spot. Later, Mohammad met a Mexican-American woman named Irma, and spent all but $30 on their wedding. But as a wedding present, he received $4,000 from another friend. That’s a common way that life is built here.
But the stories aren’t always of people who stayed. Kahlil Sakakini came to the country in 1907. After struggling to make a life in Brooklyn for three years, he returned home. Here’s a letter he wrote to his fiancee during that rough period:
In my wakefulness, during the day as I go about doing my daily chores, walk in the streets of New York, listening to the din of speeding trains, and of trams on the ground and above ground, and the sirens of ships and the deafening clamor of people piercing my ears, and the bustle of streetcars and carriages and the glitter … I only come around soaring in the skies of Jerusalem, over the school, over the house that I love, and often over Artas and Kalona, Ein Karem, and Beit Jala. And when I go to sleep it is not because I am sleepy, but because I wait for slumber to overtake me. Not to sleep but to get rid of the pains of wakefulness, hoping to get rid of my heaviness, and hoping to get rid of my body — to leave it in America, and to fly in dreams to Jerusalem.
Living in America walks visitors through Arab-American homes. There’s a re-creation of a contemporary kitchen and a porch, two important cultural spaces, the latter of which reflects the sociable nature of Arab-American lifestyle. Around the corner, in a space fashioned as a bedroom, a small television shows Arab-American teenagers sounding off about their young ethnic lives. One teenager talks about his deceased father. He says after the Sept. 11 attacks, some strangers came into his father’s store and killed him in an unjustifiable act of revenge. Another teenager in cap and gown gushes into her cell phone: “Hi Mom? I did it! I walked up there! And they pronounced my name right!” But one girl says it best: “We’re not, like, so deeply Arabic that, like, you’d walk into our house and think it is different, or something. We’re, like, a normal American family.”
Making an Impact is an exhibit divided into spheres of influence, featuring prominent Arab-Americans who have contributed in a big way, be it in politics, activism, science or the arts. This gallery showcases a rocking chair by Sam Maloof, a craftsman who is known as “the soul of hardwood,” the only furniture maker to receive a MacArthur “genius” award. The exhibit also honors the life of James Abdnor, a South Dakota senator who fought for the rights of Native Americans, and Moustapha Akkad, executive producer of the classic slasher flick Halloween, as well as several NASA scientists.
There are so many names and faces to absorb in this room, but the image that is most striking is one we see everywhere, every day: the Stars and Stripes. A small sign on a flagpole instructs museum visitors to give it a tug. Upon this effort, a little-known fact pops up: Tony Ismail is founder and president of the Alamo Flag Company, the largest flag retailer in the nation. The American flag is made by a Palestinian man.
Opening reception begins at 5 p.m., May 5, at AANM, 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn. 313-624-0200. Free and open to the public. Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]