Edward Nakfoor – Retail/PR Consultant/Freelance Writer/Cultural Anthropologist (2003)
I typically take for granted the fact that for almost four years now I’ve been working solo, and from home. When someone I’ve just met discovers this, more often than not they comment on how much that they, too, would like to do the same.
Who could blame, them, really? I have the most flexible dress code in town, can throw in a load of laundry between phone calls, and never have to tune into the morning traffic report except on those rare days when I have an early meeting.
But beyond those perks, there’s something far more valuable that even I tend to under appreciate. You see, with so few distractions around here — there’s no falling prey to water cooler gossip or getting corralled into a morning kaffeeklatsch — I have that much more time to think: about what’s happening down the block, across town and around the world. And so it is, with wide eyes and an eager enthusiasm I can often be found trying to figure out the world, which I do with gusto, both locally and globally.
My world begins as a leafy suburb of Detroit. Handsome restored Tudors, sleek modern manses, simple workmen’s cottages commanding CEO prices define Birmingham, Michigan. So does a bustling downtown retail and dining district, a commercial hub for the tony burgs that define Metro Detroit’s North Woodward communities, named for their location along the region’s main drag — Woodward Avenue. Birmingham and its environs are home to established Old Money families, urbane sophisticates and young professionals with kids who vie with each other for the coveted parking spaces in front of their favorite yoga studio or cappuccino café; a luxury SUV is de rigeur.
While most of the swells are encamped in their well-appointed retreats west of Woodward, there’s a pocket of like-minded rather than like-funded individuals, myself included, who have roots, or at least a parking space, east of Woodward where the prices are, relatively speaking, within reach.
My condo is maybe a mile from where I grew up and where my parents still live. That handsome brick colonial — to which I still retreat each Sunday for dinner — has been our family home since my parents, with two older sisters, a maternal grandmother and me in tow, fled post-riot Detroit in the early 1970s.
I have only vague memories of life on Wilshire, our eastside Detroit street populated with young first- and second-generation families of Italian, German, Polish and Arabic descent, the latter of which being my heritage. The neighborhood is now “gone”, to put in local parlance to mean city-proper areas that are hardly recognizable anymore, their landmarks boarded up or razed, their housing stock tired, their trees long ago decimated by Dutch Elm disease.
But, oh, to hear lifelong Detroiters wax poetic about better times. Times when porch sitting was a summer sport and sidewalks downtown were crowded with spiffy shoppers being whisked inside the revolving doors at the city’s temples of commerce that stood cheek-to-jowl in its compact downtown. And if you mentioned, then, the major thoroughfares that passed through your part of town, your ethnicity, if not recognizable by sight or spelling of your last name, was immediately revealed.
My family didn’t necessarily settle on Wilshire to be around a robust Lebanese enclave. In fact, the opposite side of town, in Dearborn to be exact, was, and is, home to one of the largest concentrations of Arabs outside the Middle East.
No, what attracted my parents there had more to do with that quintessential “ethnic” family philosophy than anything else…Single girl (my mother) and her mother share a home with married older sister/daughter (Aunt Rose) and her new husband (Al) and the beginnings of their family.
After my parents married in September 1960, it was unthinkable that my mother and Sito (Lebanese for maternal grandmother) were moving away from Rose’s clan, the David’s. And so it was that we lived five or six blocks apart on the same street. To say that we were an extended family is an understatement, what with each home merely an offshoot of the other, and Rose’s daughters babysitting for us so frequently that these cousins are really de facto siblings.
What’s ironic, however, is that when both families opted for the suburbs, they didn’t sit down together at the table, map in hand, assessing the merits of new cities. Instead, they did the unfathomable, at least in Sito’s mind. My family headed north and west to Troy (adjacent to Birmingham), while the David’s (Rose, Al and five kids) settled in Grosse Pointe Woods, a far eastside suburb and the “youngest” of the five Grosse Pointes whose most famous residents then, as now, are the automobile Ford’s. To this day, I still don’t think my grandmother, who died in 1979, ever forgave her daughters for “breaking up” the family.
Of course, being the Motor City, distance is a state of mind, and the twenty or so miles between the two families was hardly enough to keep anyone apart. Good thing, too, because as much as I would lament all of us knowing everyone’s — and I mean everyone’s — business, I’m so fortunate that these ethnic ties that bind were held together. Thirty or 40 people over for Christmas dinner? Never a big deal. I thought that was what everyone did. Imagine my surprise on hearing my “American” friends, so described by my family elders as anyone not of ethnic i.e., Mediterranean, stock, sharing tales of their holiday meals where no more than eight or nine guests were seated around the dining room table. We were lucky if eight or nine people couldn’t make it.
The reason I say “these ethnic ties” is because so many others were, in fact, cut, save for the mouth-watering scents of made-from-scratch Lebanese foods that quite often filled our kitchen. And when the dough for baking bread would rise to near-cartoonish portions, a blessing to God was in order.
Sito (my other grandparents died before I was born), all five feet of her, was a formidable force to be sure, and lived between both my house and the David’s. She walked with the aid of a cane, allowing the perfect instrument with which to show her displeasure; I think the slate floor in my parent’s entryway still shows the marks of her many admonishments.
Further, while Arabic was sometimes spoken at home between my parents and Sito, my sisters and I, like so many other ethnic offspring from our generation, were never clued in to that familial tongue. I have countless “ethnic” friends who would be hard-pressed to have a conversation in the Old Country. And if my parents ever spoke Arabic in public, we would cringe with embarrassment lest someone overhear this strange sounding language.
As well, we rarely, if ever, attended one of the Lebanese churches on the opposite sides of town, opting instead for Mass at one of the handful of Roman Catholic churches less than a mile from home. However, when we did visit St. Maron or Our Lady of Redemption, it was usually for a 40-Day Mass, recited in Aramaic, of course, and it always invited confusion as I tried to absorb these spiritual, and foreign, curiosities.
Growing up, my family stuck to clearly defined, oft-stereotypical ethnic gender roles i.e., boys mow the lawn for example, much to my chagrin, yet the mantra then, as when my parents were growing up, was to assimilate. “That’s just what people did then,” they say, going on to explain that their parents were eager to “fit in” and become “American.” After all, that’s why they came to this country in the first place they reason.
In fact, my father tells the story about a cousin of his dad’s. This cousin was always comparing life in Lansing, Michigan, where my dad’s family settled, with that back home in Lebanon. My grandfather, so appreciative of and thankful for the prosperity he’d found for himself and his family here, would quickly tire of his relation’s continued praise of the virtues of “home” he’d left behind. “Then if it’s so wonderful there, go back…who’s stopping you,” my grandfather is remembered as saying in utter annoyance, and disbelief.
Case closed then. We’re here. We’re American. But always we’re Lebanese first. And here’s the rub. Or is it irony? Today, despite knowing only a few choice (read: unmentionable) words of Arabic and never having been there, I can’t seem to learn enough about Lebanon and its diaspora.
About a decade ago, I began reading in earnest any new book published about Lebanon, its tumultuous war years, its rebuilding, its peoples. On a lighter note, usually when the mercury dips below freezing, I ponder why my grandparents left a comfortable climate for one so much more frigid, rather than joining others like them in more favorable climes like those of such places as São Paulo.
It was also during this period that I envied friends who — safely — visited family overseas, seeing the villages from where their ancestors came. I only had the stories told to me by my parents who stopped in Lebanon as part of their honeymoon, or worse, the images of carnage which flashed nightly on the news as the destruction of a country and her people was morbidly chronicled.
From those dark hours, though, light emerged and continues to shine, albeit with a persistent haze on the horizon. It’s with great pleasure that I review the English-language Daily Star (Beirut) online most evenings despite continued stories of political infighting and a sour economy that can make for a glum read. Rather, what I find most remarkable is its social page, chock full of photos of handsome couples of all ages and confessions enjoying a sophisticated reception at some wonderfully citified club or verdant garden setting. From charity benefits to shopping festivals to bidding adieu to a well-liked diplomatic attaché, any excuse to have a party. Speaking of shopping, I’m equally thrilled when I see “Beirut” listed along other chic international addresses on the bottom of fashion ads in glossy magazines; there’s better shopping in Beirut than in Detroit.
Conversely, during the same time, I became a teacher as well, and even more so after September 11th. Prior to that horrific day, I frequently found myself explaining the nuances of the various Arab communities of southeastern Michigan, for example that Chaldeans are Iraqi Catholics, that Iranians are Persian, not Arabs, and that not all Middle Eastern restaurants follow the same recipes.
Lately, however, my lesson plan also addresses the topic that not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arabs. With a Master of Arts degree in public relations and organizational communication, and more than a decade of working in the PR and communication field, not to mention my years as a freelance writer, I’m in a pretty good position to field questions and share ideas.
I’m fortunate to have close relationships with several print and broadcast journalists and we talk about many issues. One subject that had, and continues to, come up is that of Arabs in general. The daily newspapers, and to a lesser extent local broadcast news programs, are awash in stories whose subject matter is the area’s Arab citizenry: are they feeling prejudice after 9/11, what is Ramadan, what are thoughts on the war in Iraq, do they feel “their” religion is being attacked, what’s the history of Arabs in Detroit… .
So when there’s an interview to be scheduled, or a photo to be snapped, typically it’s off to the streets of Dearborn the media go, pad and pencil in hand, plus camera in tow to find what they’re looking for, or at least what they think personifies Arab-American life. There they’ll find fanciful, if not dusty, storefronts marked with Arabic script, women in traditional Arab Muslim dress plying the streets gathering foodstuffs for supper, and swarthy men fingering worry beads or sharing a hookah in front of one of the area’s many coffeehouses. Come back in the evening to watch the men behind the counters of the kabob parlors slice thin pieces of juicy, spiced meat, the stuffing for popular pita bread sandwiches. That’s Arab-American life.
Well, yes and no. That’s not my life, and I’m an Arab-American. Actually, I prefer to be thought of as an American of Lebanese descent (I’m a big advocate of losing the hyphen, perhaps the topic for another essay), or just simply Lebanese. This is my home. That I live in the United States of America makes me American.
As well, although my, and my family’s, American experience is different from that of our newly arrived Arab Muslim neighbors, and perhaps not quite as exotic in the eyes of the media, my perspective on current affairs can be just as valuable, and hopefully encourage even more dialogue on the subject.
Early on after the terrorist attacks, I implored my media friends to include with their stories a primer of sorts about the Arab and Muslim worlds. “It’s important to explain the Arab world ends at this spot on the map and the Muslim world continues through to here,” I’d say, running my finger along the globe.
And if truth be known, I was concerned about the safety of my family, especially that of my two young nieces who, having a Lebanese mother and Chaldean father, have strong Arabic features. I worried that some uncaring person would approach them in the grocery store, saying something offensive to upset these precious little girls. I even went so far as to shave my goatee, opting for the clean-shaven look through the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002.
Still, that wasn’t enough for me. I phoned ACCESS, a local umbrella organization under which local Arab non-profit and outreach groups receive funding and marketing support, to see if I could
somehow get involved. I wanted to use my communication expertise to help shed a positive light on the Arabic community.
My participation with the group was short-lived, one meeting in fact, as I was decidedly out of place. I had so much hope for what we could do that I had a hard time falling asleep the night before we met. I was thinking big picture…
One of my ideas was to take out space in major national newspapers, much as countries the world over did to express sorrow and solidarity following September 11th. I wondered, where is that message from Arabs, regardless of religion, in this country? After all, like it or not, all of us, Arabs of all types, are in the spotlight now. Guilt by association, perhaps?
Further, where were the billboards in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston or Detroit: “We’re your neighbors, your teachers, your doctors…. We are Arabs and we are Americans…and together weep, together we heal our wounds, together we hope.”… or something similar?
I even offered to be the conduit between a reporter at The Detroit Jewish News, where some of my close friends work, and the deputy chief of ACCESS regarding a particularly sensitive story the publication was running. Their interest in any of what I had to say was, sadly, unenthusiastic.
So I was pleased, then, when sidebars began accompanying newspaper stories, giving readers the backstory, so to speak. Unfortunately, this little victory was fleeting, vanishing almost as quickly as it came. For it was back to the sights and sounds of Hollywood’s Arabia for local TV and newspaper.
I often describe myself as the consummate news and information junkie, what with me subscribing to maybe a dozen magazines and journals, having the major local and national dailies delivered to my home, and perusing about two-dozen national newspapers usually before 9.00 A.M; I enjoy nothing more than being in the know. But this enjoyment is tempered when I learn about the latest round of gunfire or casualty in Iraq, or see the most recent anti-American protest in the Levant, or read about another devastating suicide bombing on a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, or see young Palestinian children on their way to school run for cover when a gun battle breaks out.
I can’t fault the media for wanting local reaction to these stories, or the latest White House warning directed at some Arab government. What I hope for, though, and continue to extol, is that our nation’s gatekeepers, that is its decision-makers, editorial boards, policy strategists, realize the rich history and breadth of Arab life in the United States.
Arab immigration is hardly new, having started at the turn of the last century. Thus, there are countless numbers of Arabs like me, assimilated yet building a stronger connection to their familial foundations and traditions.
That we don’t wear traditional Arab dress, or practice customs more likely to be found in the Middle East than Middle America, doesn’t mean we have less to say. That we were born in this country doesn’t mean we are less qualified to be included in an article. Talking, and educating, and learning, and pondering, and debating is in our blood, the air we breathe, it’s what we — Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians …Arabs — do best. All we need is a willing ear.
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