Letter From Dearborn | Scenes From the Heart of Arab America

A Jewish American and his Palestinian American roommate take a road trip to Dearborn, Michigan, during a war and before an election.
By | Apr 11, 2024

With additional reporting by Zach Touqan. Photos by Nick Azzaro



The windswept Ohio countryside gives way to industrial urban sprawl as we cross the Maumee River. We’re on our way to Dearborn, Michigan, from our house in Maryland. Zach’s driving now, having switched with me outside Pittsburgh.

“Almost there?” I ask in a half-yawn.

“Yep,” he replies.

“So I’m expecting an incredibly normal Midwestern town,” I say. Zach turns down the car stereo and responds in the affirmative. He’s excited to go home.

Zach and I met freshman year of college, in rural Minnesota. We’ve been friends ever since, nearly ten years, and roommates for the past eight months. He has always spoken warmly about Dearborn, the predominantly Arab-American city just west of Detroit where he grew up. The way he describes it—entrepreneurial, welcoming, ordinary—in many ways contradicts how the city has been portrayed in the news following events such as 9/11, the Iraq War and, most recently, October 7. Michigan has emerged as a swing state in national elections, and the media has framed its Arab-American residents, who make up 2 percent of the state’s population, as a key voting demographic. In Dearborn itself, 55 percent of its 110,000 inhabitants are of Arab descent, and the percentage is even greater among school-aged children. National media coverage of the city has tended to focus on its residents’ anger over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and often reads like reporting from a foreign country. This is one reason I want to see Dearborn for myself.

I’m a little nervous. I’m a Jew. I’m also a Zionist, a designation that, as I understand it, means someone who believes in the continued existence of the Jewish state. And, while I admit I don’t know how to solve a heretofore unsolvable conflict, I hope for a two-state solution. I’m not sure how I’ll be received. Zach, himself Palestinian American, is passively anti-Zionist; he takes a somewhat agnostic position toward the conflict and is generally wary of factionalism. The first time we talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at any length was in November. We disagree on a lot but are both anchored in our analysis by a certain liberal, universalist conception of the world—we each place a premium on human life and individual liberty, while also being skeptical of our own beliefs. Hence, our views are not wholly irreconcilable.

I had floated the idea to Zach of visiting Dearborn with him in the hope of understanding what it’s like to be Arab in America at this moment and with the aim of giving American Jews access to that viewpoint. Zach agreed, in part because he feels that people he interacts with, and American Jews in particular, generally don’t understand Arab Americans. And I suspect he wants me to see that perspective too. Together we prepared a few questions to ask people we would meet in Dearborn.

The horizon grows dimmer as we pass Akron. Earlier it was an inky blue, but now brooding storm clouds swell in the darkening January sky. Soon the dreary green Ohio landscape gives way to Michigan and the miles of pockmarked concrete that characterize metro Detroit.

By early evening, we’re driving up Telegraph Road, the main drag of Dearborn Heights, the quiet suburb just west of Dearborn proper where Zach’s parents live. Telegraph is flanked by small family-owned businesses, each adorned with weather-beaten electric signs in Arabic and English, enticing potential customers.

We stop at a gas station for some caffeine. They have Faygo, the quintessentially Michigan soda brand—although here they say “pop”—often associated with the “Juggalos,” the fan culture of the Detroit hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. I haven’t had any since college. (Zach’s mom later suggests I buy a case at Costco before we head back; it’s a good suggestion.)

While Zach strikes up a conversation with the young man at the register, Mo, an acquaintance from his last stint living in Dearborn Heights, I observe the people entering the station store or pumping gas. Two young men with patchy beards walk in and buy some Takis. A woman in a beige pantsuit and a silky pink hijab fills up her white Ford Edge. So many of the cars are American, here in the heart of the U.S. auto industry.

We pay for our Faygos and drive to Zach’s parents’. It’s a one-story ranch house, like the others in the neighborhood. A Palestinian flag hangs in a street-facing window. The license plate frame on the car parked in the driveway is likewise embellished with the Palestinian flag, as well as with the words “Nablus” and “Palestine.” The vanity plate says “Touqan,” the family name.

“It’s Dianna and Karim, right?” I ask Zach.

“Yes,” he replies, “but you should call them Mr. T and Mrs. T.”

This is my third time meeting Zach’s parents. They are incredibly kind and gracious people. Karim Touqan is a Palestinian American; his family is originally from Nablus and Haifa, though he himself was born in Amman, Jordan, and came to America in his 20s. Dianna Touqan was born and raised in Detroit. Originally of Greek descent, she has come to think of herself as an honorary Palestinian.

Zach and I meet Mr. T and Mrs. T outside for hugs and hellos. The Touqans have a cozy home, full of throw pillows and family pictures. A number of wooden and ceramic toucans—the tropical bird—ornament the walls and tables.

The mantel catches my eye. On and above it are a number of Palestine-related tokens and talismans: small sculptures in the shape of mandatory Palestine, Palestinian flags, Arabic calligraphy. On the wall is a wooden carving featuring a large key, a symbol that represents the hope for a return to Palestine and the reclamation of lost homes and property. It’s an unusual display to someone like me, albeit one with a self-evident meaning—a deep sense of national devotion.

My mind produces the portmanteau “Paleshrine” to describe the display. I tell Zach about it and he is not amused.

Mr. T and Mrs. T


The next morning, Zach drops me off outside Black Box, a coffee shop/art gallery near Michigan Avenue, a West Dearborn street lined with swanky restaurants, and goes to park the car. Waiting for us is Mustapha Hammoud, a Dearborn city councilman. Mustapha, 29, wears his black hair short, his beard neatly trimmed and a silver-and-turquoise hamsa—the palm-shaped amulet, also known as the Hand of Fatima, worn by people of many religions and cultures across the Middle East—around his neck. He’s wearing a light blue sweater under a dark blue jacket. He is enthusiastic about our idea of reporting on the perspectives of Arab Americans for a Jewish audience and sees it as a noble cause.

Mustapha Hammoud

The Black Box is an understated modern place with paintings by local artists on the walls. The councilman introduces me to the owner, Lisa Alcodray, who’s working the register. I tell her I’m writing a story about Arab Americans.

“Oh, don’t get me started on Arab men,” Lisa says sardonically. Mustapha laughs. “I’m married to an Arab man,” she clarifies.

While we wait for Zach, I order an Americano. Mustapha says that’s his go-to. Lisa corroborates; she’d already assumed his order and tempts him with a lavender chocolate-chip cookie, one of his favorites. It seems like everyone we encounter knows the councilman. We get our coffee and head to the room’s solitary table.

Mustapha outlines the trajectory many new immigrants to Dearborn take. They come fleeing war or seeking economic opportunity. Their descendants become educated, accrue generational wealth and move to successively more affluent parts of the city. It’s a narrative I will hear again and again.

Zach comes in and he and Mustapha develop an almost instant rapport. Zach has a certain charisma—a buoyant affect belied somewhat by his imposing bulk and multitudinous tattoos—which particularly shines when he’s with fellow Arab Americans.

Mustapha, an electrical engineer for the Ford Motor Company—the council job is part-time—knows a great deal about the origins of Dearborn’s Arab community. Starting in the 1920s but surging in the 1950s, he says, Ford began hiring Arab immigrants—Christians from Lebanon in particular—to work in its factories. Ford also hired Muslim Arabs from places such as Syria and Palestine.

Mustapha partly attributes this to Henry Ford’s teetotaling and the tendency of Arab immigrants to abstain from alcohol.

Today, he explains, some 40 percent of Dearborn residents speak Arabic at home, with 15 percent speaking it as their primary tongue. (Zach later tells me the actual figures are likely much higher.) Despite this, Mustapha says that the city did not offer Arabic language forms or services until just the past few years. He blames this in part on racism in previous Dearborn administrations. “A lot of past mayors have wanted to ‘solve the Arab problem,’” the councilman says, explaining how the mayors used their power to stymie the growth of Dearborn’s Arab population and maintain the town’s white character. But in recent years the city government has changed thanks to a young Arab-American mayor, Abdullah Hammoud (no relation to Mustapha), and new, similarly young council members, many of them Arab Americans.

“Hey, Ray!” Mustapha looks up and calls out to a middle-aged man walking by. Ray Alcodray, Lisa’s husband and co-owner of Black Box, has silvery gray hair and a silvery gray beard, both tinged with black. He walks up to our table and we introduce ourselves.

The councilman turns to us. “This is the guy you want to talk to.”

Ray Alcodray

Ray’s family story exemplifies the narrative Mustapha described earlier. Ray’s grandfather served with the Allies during World War I. As a result of his service, when he returned to Lebanon, he was offered U.S. citizenship for himself and his family. His sons, including Ray’s father, jumped at the opportunity and came to Dearborn to work in the automotive plants.

Ray smiles wistfully as he recounts boyhood memories of marching in picket lines with his father, a longtime Ford employee. “My dad loved the union,” he reflects before lamenting the slow death of U.S. manufacturing since the 1970s. “If you don’t manufacture, you’re in decline.” As for President Biden, Ray is not a fan. “Talk is cheap,” he says. Biden is not pro-union, he argues, and shouldn’t claim to be.

“If you could say one thing to the American Jewish community, what would it be?” Zach asks. Ray pauses contemplatively. Then he says that the most important thing he would like American Jews to know is that they are his brothers. He goes on to add that Jews should return to the teachings of Abraham, lamenting the conflation of political Zionism with Judaism.

I ask, “As an Arab American, do you feel like you belong, like you’re accepted?” He sighs, and says, “I don’t think completely, but much more than as a kid.” Today, he reflects, there are more Arabs in Dearborn than there used to be. And beyond that, the city’s Arab residents have revitalized its economy, he says, citing the significant economic success Dearborn has achieved in the past few decades.

We’ve kept Ray for long enough. We thank him and leave, piling into Mustapha’s truck to tool around West Dearborn for a while. He asks if we’d mind making a stop before he drops us back at our car, and we pull into the parking lot of the Dearborn Fresh Supermarket on Colson Street, a local halal grocery store. According to Mustapha, there are two Dearborn Fresh locations. “This one’s a little more working class,” he remarks. “The other one is kind of like a Whole Foods.” At the butcher’s counter, Mustapha orders chicken—in his eagerness to show us around town he’d forgotten he’d agreed to make fusion tacos for a party that evening.

After a brief conversation in Arabic, the butcher hands Mustapha his chicken. But before we make it to the exit, Mustapha stops to introduce us to one of the managers, an older man with white hair and a white mustache. He turns out to be Mayor Abdullah Hammoud’s father.

Later, when Mustapha drops us back at our car, he inquires if we are free tomorrow. “I’ve still got a lot of the city to show you,” he says with a smile. We agree to meet again in the morning.


Back at the Touqans’ I get the opportunity to talk to another member of the family, Amal. (This is not her real name—she wants to speak anonymously because a friend of hers was recently doxxed and had a job offer rescinded due to her social media posts about Gaza.) Amal graduated from college a few years ago and is now a graduate student at a nearby university. She’s wearing a dark green T-shirt and glasses with translucent frames. Her brown hair is bound in a loose braid, bifurcated by a streak of dark purple dye on the right side.

“Now that you’ve lived somewhere else,” I begin, “what’s it like coming back to Dearborn?”

“I love it and I hate it,” she says. She elaborates that while being gay can be complicated in the often socially conservative community, when she’s away from it she misses the food, she misses her friends and she misses being able to wear her keffiyeh without people eyeing her with suspicion. She has, however, become more visibly queer in recent years, which has made coming home more difficult. “But to be honest,” she says, “ever since this stuff in Palestine, while I might get weird looks because of the way that I dress or the kind of makeup that I wear, or my haircut or the fact that I hold my girlfriend’s hand in public, once they see my Palestine necklace, they don’t care.”

Amal recounts how, when she first left Dearborn for college, her main identity went from being queer to being Arab. And she’s been surprised by the ignorance she encounters about the Middle East in progressive circles. It’s the little things, she says, like when she tells people that her dad is going overseas to Jordan, generally considered one of the safest countries in the region, and they ask, “Is it safe there?”

She’s also bothered by the way people she meets assume that the Arab community is misogynistic. She pauses, considering, and then says, “I want to be honest about maybe the faults of my own community, without giving white people ammo to attack brown people.” Similarly, Amal explains, she dislikes the assumption that most Arabs are anti-American, going on to say that she, partially because of her lighter skin, is often not subjected to such stereotyping.

At this I diverge a little from my prepared questions and ask if she feels like she’s seen as “one of the good ones.” “Yeah, I hate that phrase so much,” she says, explaining how insulting it feels to be complimented on fitting into whiteness. “That just tells me that the way you care for me or love me or respect me is conditioned on how much I’m willing to forgo my cultural identity. And that to me is really sinister.”

“I mentioned it because that’s a phrase that’s often applied to Jews as well,” I explain.

“I was actually going to bring that up. I feel like Arabs are also often accused of dual loyalty,” she says, adding wearily, “We’re not secretly plotting the downfall of America. We’re not all undercover terrorists.”

Amal decries the brutality of police officers in response to pro-Palestine demonstrations on her campus and the apathy from the administration. “My professors don’t give a shit about me,” she says, tearing up, “my classmates don’t give a shit about me.”

When I ask her to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in her own words, she doesn’t hesitate. “Seventy-five years of colonial violence,” she begins, “and the West not just turning its face away, but putting their grubby little hands in and endorsing it, and paying for it.”

Mural at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn. Photographed by the author.

Amal laments being constantly asked, as an Arab, to condemn Hamas, something I’m surprised I don’t hear more during my time in Dearborn. “‘Do you condemn Hamas? Do you condemn Hamas?’ Okay, I’m sorry, but if a state that was backed by the entire world bombed and killed my family, sequestered me off in the largest open-air prison in the entire fucking world—95 percent of the people in Gaza right now are experiencing extreme hunger and famine—I’m a lesbian, bro; I’m not like, ‘I love Hamas.’ But Hamas and these right-wing, reactionary militant groups don’t come out of nowhere.”

As for Biden, she never had any faith in him. Even Bernie Sanders was a supreme disappointment. “They’re all performers.” She bemoans what she sees as apathy or indifference, even contempt, citing Biden’s casting doubt on casualty numbers coming out of Gaza. Moreover, Amal argues, Biden and fellow Democrats talk down to Arab voters, responding to their pleas with dismissive arguments that Trump would be worse.

Amal believes that Biden’s handling of the crisis will cost him dearly, and not just with Arab-American voters, or just in Michigan, but with young voters, Black voters and leftist voters throughout the nation. And not just for his positions on Palestine but on COVID, the Southern border and student loans. The president’s response to Arab Americans in particular—so many of whom are disgusted and frightened by his actions—is anger and attitude, Amal says, “like a petulant toddler.”

She has very clear opinions on what needs to be done to protect Palestinians. “The only solution, I think, is the model of what happened in South Africa. I don’t think the two-state solution works.”

That’s not to say that Jews should be pushed out of the country, she adds, but walls and checkpoints should be dismantled to end apartheid. Most Palestinian leaders, she tells me, are calling for one state where Palestinians are given stewardship of the land. “I’m not exactly sure how it would come about,” she ponders, “but I feel like that’s the solution to bring the occupation to an end.”

Not long after, I’m sitting at the dining room table with Amal and her girlfriend while Mr. T is in the adjacent kitchen. At Zach’s behest, Mr. T is making musakhan, a Palestinian dish of roasted chicken, baked onions and toasted almonds over taboon bread, with copious amounts of sumac. Zach, who is on the couch on the other side of the room with Mrs. T, explains that it’s often considered the national dish of Palestine.

“Can you pass the controller?” asks Mrs. T. It takes me a moment to realize she means the TV remote control. I turn in my seat to look for it, accidentally brushing Mr. T’s Glock G19, which he often leaves on the table. I’d forgotten I was in the Midwest. “No, that’s my controller,” says Mr. T from the kitchen. This is met with a communal eyeroll. I find the remote and hand it to Mrs. T.


We’re supposed to catch up with Mustapha at 9:00 a.m. It’s warm for January in Michigan, in the high 30s, but it’s snowing, and wet sludge blocks the driveway and sheets our car. The shoveling is quick work, but it’s still coming down in rhythmic white curtains.

“You OK to drive in this?” I ask, half joking. Zach proffers an incredulous eyebrow.

We arrive before Mustapha at the appointed place, a trendy eatery on Michigan Avenue called The Great Commoner, and find seats at the coffee bar. I pull out my copy of In the Land of Israel, Amos Oz’s collection of vignettes from a series of interviews he conducted throughout Israel and the West Bank in the early 1980s. In it, Oz captures the realities of life for Israelis and Palestinians and explores the existential questions facing the two peoples. I’m captivated by the book and want to use it as something of a stylistic template for the article. The cover is camouflaged: I’ve switched out its jacket for that of the doorstop fantasy epic The Way of Kings.

In the passage I’m rereading, Oz is speaking with Yisrael Harel, an Israeli journalist and prominent leader in the settler movement who immigrated from Ukraine in 1947. Harel describes what he sees as the difference between Jews and Israelis: Jews, he says, live in accordance with the Bible, while Israelis want to be Westerners, merely paying lip service to their heritage. I’ve observed that Arab Americans we talk to have a similar instinct to distinguish between Jews and Israelis, although their definitions differ from Harel’s.

When Mustapha shows up, I quickly put the book away. Today he’s wearing jeans and a black hoodie. He greets us and chats familiarly with the baristas. Zach, characteristically boisterous, asks, “What’s your favorite thing on the menu?” Mustapha recommends the breakfast burrito, so we all order it.

“You didn’t have any trouble with the roads?” I inquire.

“Two inches is nothing,” he says. “Not to sound like a hardcore Midwesterner, but call me when it’s twelve.”

A young woman in a gray scarf and winter hat walks by, does a double take, then comes over to chat with Mustapha. He really does know everyone.

The waiter brings our food. The burrito has beef bacon in it, ubiquitous here due to the halal dietary restrictions of many Dearborn residents. Zach says that if a menu says bacon, you’re pretty safe to assume that it’s beef bacon.

As soon as we’re done, we pile into Mustapha’s truck. The snow has stopped, and while he drives, the councilman catches us up on recent happenings in Dearborn politics, in particular how Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and Biden’s communications people were “run out of town” over their response to the Gaza crisis. He also mentions a positive development. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, herself Jewish, recently appointed Arab Americans to positions of power within the state’s Justice Department. “It’s not quite as sexy a story to talk about people getting along,” he remarks.

As we pass the old red brick city hall, now a mixed-use residential-commercial development, Mustapha tells us his family’s story. His father, Abed, originally from South Lebanon, moved here in the wake of the country’s civil war. An attorney, Abed Hammoud served as a legal adviser to the State Department at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, then as an assistant U.S. attorney in Michigan before finally settling into private practice; he’s spent much of his career advocating for Dearborn’s immigrant community.

We come to a neighborhood of large, single-family homes. “These are relatively new developments,” Mustapha explains. “Originally it was all white, but now more Arab people are moving in.”

That’s occurring because the city’s new generation of leaders are no longer using restrictive zoning laws to keep out Arab Americans. Another neighborhood we pass though is densely packed with uniform residential homes, all frosted with the heavy, wet snow. Mustapha explains that this is the Ford Homes Historic District, which was originally built specifically for Ford employees.

Zach wants to know about the city’s finances, so we learn that Dearborn had a budget deficit a few years back but now runs a healthy surplus. We stop in front of a big construction project near the Ford Rouge Complex, one of the original factories from the 1920s and still a significant manufacturing hub. Mustapha explains that the state is making renovations to a major bridge, courtesy of the Biden infrastructure bill.

Next is a cluster of red brick buildings along the Rouge River. This is the Salina Intermediate School, where many of the city’s new immigrant students are enrolled. Dearborn, we learn, has an enrollment crisis; the city’s struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of population growth caused by immigration from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. On the back wall of the school building we see a mural with a woman and a young girl in hijabs surrounded by playing children, blooming flowers, precariously stacked teacups and a polychromatic jaybird.

The final stop on our tour is the Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in North America. The massive white building is imposing against the suddenly sunny blue January sky. Mustapha leads us in through the side entrance rather than through the great wooden front doors, and we follow a high-ceilinged marble corridor to an atrium. Inside is a circular wall enclosing a cavernous main sanctuary with a domed ceiling encircled by lavish glass chandeliers. Removing our shoes, we slip in. Since it’s a weekday morning only a few middle-aged men are praying, facing an eastern wall adorned with Arabic calligraphy. The three of us pause to admire the room and then leave the way we came in.

Not long after, Mustapha drops us off near The Great Commoner. We thank him profusely for his time, both of us clasping his hand in succession as we exit the car. He thanks us too and drives off. Pretty cool guy, we agree.


It snows again the next day, and the slush looks a pallid gray under the dark sky. We find a spot in the downtown parking structure, exit the car and walk toward District 12, a local halal burger chain, to meet its owner—a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

“Any predictions?” I ask Zach.

Nasser Beydoun

“I don’t know,” he replies. “He’ll probably act like a politician.”

When we arrive, the glass door of District 12 is locked. Zach calls the man we’re here to see, Nasser Beydoun, and he opens the door. He’s tall, really tall, taller than Zach, who’s 6’2”, and has thick black hair, a prominent nose and intense brown eyes. He’s wearing a dark blue Canada Goose down jacket. We make our introductions. He has a firm handshake and a smooth, measured cadence.

Nasser gestures to a table near the front of the empty restaurant. The chairs are still stacked, so Zach and I each grab one, and Zach also sets up one for Nasser, who sits down at the head of the table between the two of us.

Being Arab in America has its ups and downs, Nasser tells us. There are times when it’s great but others when you’re accused of supporting terrorism merely for expressing your opinion. When Zach asks if the past few months have been particularly bad, Nasser replies that they’re the worst he’s ever seen.

“Worse than post-9/11?” I ask.

“Worse than post-9/11,” Nasser confirms, “because it seems that in America, if you attack the United States, you can overcome that.” He furrows his brow. “But if, forbid, you attack Israel, it’s much more volatile and repressive. You have media trying to label you as a terrorist. Once you have the pro-Israel machine—”

His phone rings. “Excuse me, I have to take this. It’s a reporter I’ve been waiting on.” He takes the call and we listen as Nasser tells the reporter, Carol, how sick and tired he is of politicians being controlled by special interests, of money spent to support genocide, of the Israel lobby. “I think the Chinese said it best today,” he continues. “They said it’s like two bowls of poison,” two bad choices between Biden and Trump. He explains that this is a real dilemma for Michigan voters. So many have lost someone, or know someone who has lost someone in the onslaught in Gaza.
After some comments about his family and his opponent, Nasser hangs up. “Sorry about that, guys.”

I flip through my notebook to choose a few questions. “What about negative stereotypes?” I ask. “And are Arab Americans worried about threats of violence?”

“Threats to jobs,” Nasser replies. Arabs and non-Arabs alike are getting canceled for their speech and social media posts critical of Israel, he says. “I think Israel, with its genocide, has lost a lot of support in this country. And this is the only time we’ve seen where you can go after the pro-Israel lobby and not worry about their labeling.”

Zach asks if Biden can win Michigan in November.


“Care to elaborate?”

Nasser takes a short breath and then says, flatly, “I don’t think Biden can win the presidency again. He’s lost.” A lot of people who voted for Biden the first time, he argues, simply will not in 2024, and not just because of his administration’s actions in the Middle East.

“What should Jewish Americans know about their Arab compatriots?” I ask.

“I think that they should know that we aren’t against the Jewish community,” he says, adding, “We were cousins prior to Zionism. Jews and Arabs and Muslims coexisted for centuries. And actually—”

His phone rings again. He turns and answers it. “Hey, Ed, can you reschedule it? That’s fine. Alright. Thanks.”

Nasser looks back at us and I repeat the question. “We need to come together, work for peace,” he says. “I think that the only solution would be one democratic state. And that would negate Zionism because I think that from what we’ve seen with the war, Zionism is a ruthless, fascist, genocidal ideology.”

He finishes by telling us that, in order to end the occupation of Palestine, what he calls the “occupation of Congress” by Israeli money must also be ended. If Jews and Arabs join together against the Israel lobby, there can be peace.

We all stand. Zach and I thank Nasser for his time, wish him luck in the primary and leave.

“So what’d you think?” I ask as we round the corner to the parking complex.

“Seems like a politician,” Zach replies. I agree.


The Islamic House of Wisdom is three minutes from the Touqans’. Zach parks in the middle of the slushy lot and we hop out.

Inside is a small lobby. On the right is a reception desk behind a glass barrier. We walk up to the desk, where a woman in a hijab and a light gray dress is sitting.

Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi

“Jacob Forman and Zach Touqan. We have a two o’clock with Imam Elahi,” I tell her.

The receptionist leads us into a meeting room and leaves. We settle into seats at the end of a conference table and look around. To our right is a tapestry depicting the Kaaba, the black stone building in the middle of the Great Mosque of Mecca, the holy city rising behind it beneath a twilight sky. Intricate Arabic calligraphy is woven along its edges. I ask Zach what it says. He can’t read the script but thinks it’s the Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran and the first line recited during prayer.

I stand up and walk over to the middle of the room to examine a framed document hanging on the opposite wall. At the top, it reads “Declaration of Peace Between Muslims and Christians,” then, squeezed into the margin in black sharpie, “and Jews.” I smile and point it out to Zach. He grins.

About ten minutes later the receptionist returns. “Imam will see you now.” She takes us up a flight of stairs to his office. Diplomas, tapestries and several cabinets heavy with books line the walls. In the center of the room are four high-backed chairs with rich purple upholstery positioned around a low marble coffee table set with plastic bottles of water and bowls of mixed nuts.

A thin, middle-aged man with a dark beard, wearing a brown robe and a plump white turban, emerges from behind the glossy desk at the back of the room, adjusting his glasses as he approaches. After we shake hands and introduce ourselves, Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi tells us to take a seat. He sits opposite us and invites us to try the nuts on the table. The pistachios and the almonds, he says, come from his native Iran.

Imam Elahi is a soft-spoken man with a lot to say. He opens with the 1993 peace process, and how optimistic everyone was back then. Now, he says, people don’t want peace. Once, Benjamin Netanyahu’s political perspective was a minority one. Now, the imam reflects, “it seems like there are millions of Netanyahus.” And victory, as far as the Israeli prime minister is concerned, means the total destruction of Palestinians.

He continues at a rapid pace. Gaza has become a slaughterhouse, a cemetery, he says. And the IDF is stealing organs. (I’ve read the same thing online about the Russians in Ukraine, the Chinese in Xinjiang and Americans, well, everywhere.)

For decades Imam Elahi has been involved in interfaith work, and I ask him if he knows Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a prominent Michigan rabbi I had spoken with earlier in the day. “Rabbi Asher?” he asks, sounding regretful. “Yes, I know Rabbi Asher.” They haven’t talked in a few months.

He’s tried to tell his Jewish friends that Israeli actions in Gaza are a crime against Judaism itself. But he says his words have fallen on deaf ears. “They won’t even support a cease-fire. They’re talking like the IDF. Like Bibi.” And then, “We are watching a slaughter. It’s not even a genocide, it’s a holocaust.”

That morning Rabbi Lopatin had told me that Muslim-Jewish relations in this stretch of Michigan have been strained since October 7, although he remains optimistic those relationships will eventually heal. The rabbi ascribes this chilling to more radical elements of the Muslim and Arab-American communities intimidating religious leaders. But I don’t get the impression that Imam Elahi is particularly radical or easily intimidated.

“What are you hearing from your parishioners?” Zach asks. Imam Elahi says that, like him, they watch the news, and they feel dread and confusion, some of the same feelings he has himself. The imam, who often addresses the war in his Friday sermons, has a clear vision for the solution. “Justice,” he says. “The war must be ended by applying justice. If it helps Hamas, so be it. The Quran says that justice shall be pursued, even to one’s own detriment. Justice is an integral part of Judaism. Stand for that. And then, when you have justice, you will have peace.”

Zach and I rise from the deep purple chairs, walk around the coffee table, and each shake his hand and say, “Thank you so much for your time, Imam.” We leave his office, head down the stairs and walk back into the January chill.


The tobacco store is one big rectangular room with a long rectangular counter made up of small rectangular display cases. On one end are silvery pouches of rolling tobacco and lavish arrangements of incense sticks and cones. On the wall are hundreds of cigarillos in colorful plastic sleeves. There’s also a gray card table stacked with discounted water pipes and incense burners. I take a moment to appreciate a particularly ostentatious porcelain burner in the shape of a cartoonish green dragon. There’s an indent for incense sticks in its nose, and a divot for cones set into the castle rampart the dragon’s wrapped around.

The man behind the counter is the owner. He’s in his mid-30s, has olive skin, a shaved head and dark brown eyes. He’s chatting with a customer in a blue Detroit Lions letterman jacket. They’re talking about the NFC Championship game; the Lions gave up a lead and lost in the fourth quarter. The store owner describes how he made the trip to San Francisco for the game, pulling back the left side of his unzipped gray hoodie to reveal a 49ers patch on his white sweatshirt underneath. “I was sitting with mostly Lions fans and suddenly they all went quiet. It was awesome!”

The two men exchange some gentle ribbing and the Lions fan buys a carton of Pall Mall menthols and goes on his way. We’re up next. Zach introduces me; he knows the owner from back when he would buy cartons of Marlboros for Mr. T. We tell him about the story we’re working on and ask if he’d be interested in talking to us. He demurs, his voice low, with just a bit of gravel. It’s tricky, he explains, as a business owner you really have to watch what you say, customers can be very temperamental. We could use a pseudonym, Zach suggests. He’s receptive to this idea and we decide to call him Daoud.

I ask Daoud if, as an Arab American, he feels he faces any discrimination. He lets out a contemplative hum and then says, “No. It’s less discrimination. More prejudice maybe.” He talks about post-9/11 hysteria and associations of Arabs and Muslims with terrorism. He sees it occasionally in his customers. Sometimes they’ll say derogatory things to him, not realizing he’s Arab. “The other day this guy comes in talking about how he saw a bunch of ninjas on his drive over,” he offers as an example. The customer had been referring to Muslim women in black burkas. I cringe.

Left: Henry Ford Centennial Library. Right: Henry Ford II World Center, also known as Ford World Headquarters.

I ask Daoud what he thinks of Trump. He likes him, and not just because he is himself a businessman, he says, but because Trump isn’t bought. As Daoud sees it, all politicians are bought by corporations, except for Trump, who gets criticism from both sides and from the media too. Incidentally, he adds, the media is not to be trusted. Daoud says he’s usually inclined to believe the opposite of what the news reports.

A woman with long black hair walks in followed by her son, maybe ten. The boy announces he’s selling chocolate for a fundraiser and Daoud replies enthusiastically that he’d love to buy some. As the boy comes up to the counter, Zach and I step back toward the cigarillos. A colorful lighter catches my eye; it’s covered with raised red vinyl roses.

When the boy and his mother leave, Daoud spreads the chocolate bars he just bought across the counter in an arc and gestures for us to help ourselves. I ask Daoud about the Ford Motor Company. As it happens, his dad was a Ford employee for 30 years. It had a big influence on him. “It’s good to have a union,” Daoud muses wistfully.

“And if you had every American Jew in front of you now, what would you want to say to them?” asks Zach. Daoud pauses. “Aside from all the labels, the nations and races that have separated us over time, can we really say we’ve advanced as a society when we’re still killing people?” he asks. “We should be working as one species. It’s like how we judge people from history, you know? I wonder what they’ll write about our time in 1,000 years.”

I shut my notebook and hand him the rose lighter. Daoud smiles and rings me up. We stay a little longer, chatting about Maryland, football and business. Then we thank Daoud and walk back out into the snow.


I save Mr. T for last. It’s the night before we head back to Maryland. This isn’t the first conversation we’ve had, but it will turn out to be the longest. He taps a pack of Marlboro Red Labels against the palm of his hand, extracts a cigarette, puts it in his mouth and lights it. He sets the pack down on the table.

I ask Mr. T about Dearborn—is it special? Of course it’s special, he says, it’s got the highest concentration of Arabs in America. He takes a well-practiced puff, exhales and says, “Now, I’ll give you, if you want, my personal feelings about Dearborn. I do not like it.”

“Really?” I ask.

“Arabic people…” he begins and then stops to note that he himself is proud to be Arab—he’s actually something of an old-school pan-Arabist, I learned in an earlier conversation. He says Arab people in Dearborn are lost. They’re not quite Arab and they’re not quite American. On the issue of sexism, for example, he says Arab parents might treat their sons and daughters differently, affording the former more freedoms and privileges than the latter. OK, he admits, maybe he’d afforded Zach and his eldest son a little more freedom than his daughter.

Mr. T also says there’s a reluctance by many immigrants to learn English, because they don’t need to be able to speak it in Dearborn. Yet at the same time, they don’t teach their kids the old customs. “A lot of kids don’t know their culture,” he says. “They know, okay we are from Syria, we’re from Lebanon, we’re from Palestine.” He pauses. Maybe things are a little different for Palestinians, he muses. There’s something about the national narrative that’s immune even from American integration.

I ask him to describe what’s happening in Gaza in his own words. He says that October 7 was inevitable. “It was expected,” he says, “I was expecting it myself.” He ashes his cigarette in an Arizona Tea bottle to his right. The Israeli response too, he says, is nothing new; October 7 only gave them the excuse to escalate.

“And what do you think the Israelis’ goals are?” I ask. He drops the smoldering butt of his cigarette into the sludgy tea. “I don’t think Netanyahu is trying to kill all the Arabs in Gaza. I think he wants to push them all into Egypt. He doesn’t care where they go as long as they’re not there.” But, he says, even if the Egyptians opened the border, nobody would leave. “The Gazans, they’re saying ‘This time we’re not moving. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to live here or die here, regardless of the destruction.’ I have never seen anybody with such strong resolve.”

I ask why. “It’s a result of generations of suffering,” he responds. “You get to a certain point where nothing matters anymore. Nothing. It’s only one life. It’s only one death. That’s it. So there is no changing our faith.”

He pulls out another Marlboro and lights it. I ask him if I can bum one. “Sure, you can bum anything you’d like,” he replies. I take a cigarette and spark it with the lighter I bought from Daoud.

“You’ve been there, to Palestine, right?” I ask. He went for the first time in 2016. Mr. T tells me a story about entering from the Jordanian side, how there were two lines, one for Westerners and one for Arabs. He chose to stand in the Arab line, but when he got to the front, the authorities there saw his passport and insisted he go to the other one. As an American citizen, he explains, he can go almost anywhere. Still, he was detained and questioned by Israeli customs officials. He recounts them asking, “Why are you here? Where are you going? Who are you meeting?” He answered, “I’m a tourist. I’m going to Nablus. I’m from there originally but I’ve never been there before.”

Left: The Islamic Center of America. Right: A shopping strip off of Michigan Avenue.

I ask him if there’s a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “No,” he replies flatly. “The Arabic people you talked to, they make a distinction between Israelis and Jews, right?” I nod. “Jewish people,” he says, “were there for a long time. Jewish people, they’re fine. They’re good friends. They’re neighbors. They’re this, they’re that. But Israelis, they’re the people who came and stole the land, who stole the goods. That’s what I’m talking about.”

I tell him about one of the vignettes from In the Land of Israel. Amos Oz is at a cafe in Ramallah talking to three Arab men who make a passing mention of this Jews vs. Israelis framework. Despite their reluctance, Oz pushes them to elaborate. They say something similar to Mr. T, that the Jews were harmless, and then became conquerors, the Israelis. Mr. T nods. But then, I explain, the men in the cafe say the difference between the Israelis and the Jews is that the Jews pretended to be weak and tried to get the world on their side, while the Arabs were uncompromising and had the power. The Israelis don’t pretend. Now they’re uncompromising and have the power. And the Palestinians have to pretend they’re weak and try to get the world on their side.

Mr. T disagrees. The Jews in Palestine never pretended to be weak, he says. They never needed to; Jews and Arabs lived as neighbors for centuries.


The next day, after many warm goodbyes, Zach and I head back onto the highway for the return trip to Maryland, along with the leftover musakhan and our Costco case of Faygo.

I’m driving on the Pennsylvania turnpike. Zach’s sitting in the passenger seat. It’s dusk and the orange glow of the twilight sun frames the Appalachians bordering our Western flank opposite the coal town sprawled in the shallow valley below.

I ask Zach about potential endings for the article. What could I write that would be cathartic, satisfying…final? “Why does it have to be any of those things?” he replies. He’s right, I suppose.

It’s a remarkable sight, but I have to shift my eyes to keep from being blinded by the glaring brights of the cars rushing by me on the darkening interstate.

While Zach stares out the window, I think back on my conversation with Mr. T from the night before, in particular the Jews vs. Israelis paradigm. In many ways I think it sums up how pretty much every Arab American we met on our trip views the conflict. There’s a sense of bewilderment, of betrayal, of frustration, but also a desire to separate fellow human beings, and fellow Americans, from those they see as the source of Palestinian dispossession and their collective national tragedy. Likewise, almost everyone we spoke with was eager to draw a distinction between Judaism and Zionism.

I wonder how the campaign to vote “uncommitted” in the Michigan Democratic Party presidential primary, spearheaded in part by Dearborn’s mayor, will impact the state’s Democratic primary on February 27. It will turn out that 13 percent of party voters, some 100,000 people, will abstain from supporting Biden as a sign of protest over the administration’s handling of the war in Gaza. Biden will win the primary, but in November, 100,000 votes could be crucial. And while the president is making efforts to ameliorate the concerns of his left-wing and Arab voters, most Arab Americans Zach and I spoke to insisted there was nothing Biden could do to change their minds.

I ask Zach about potential endings for the article. What could I write that would be cathartic, satisfying…final?

“Why does it have to be any of those things?” he replies. He’s right, I suppose.

I reflect that there’s nowhere else in America quite like Dearborn, and nowhere else quite as American. Zach agrees, although he already knew this to be the case.

The car stereo is playing a podcast episode from the popular commentator Lex Fridman. It’s a debate between conservative media personality Ben Shapiro and liberal YouTube pundit Steven Bonnell, who goes by the mononym Destiny. When their discussion turns to Gaza, Zach and I share a knowing glance; we’ve heard enough about the conflict this past week. He pauses the episode, reclines his chair, closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep.

It’s finally dark. I spare a glance at the GPS; about three hours to go. I turn on the cruise control and watch the mountains pass us by, now just boxy shadows underlining the blueish nighttime sky.

Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases. 

3 thoughts on “Letter From Dearborn | Scenes From the Heart of Arab America

  1. Sara says:

    The piece was comprehensive in describing the Arab=American point of view. I understand why Zach did not challenge many of these folks on some of their comments on their home turf, but it would have made for much more complete discussions. Why did he not ask of their knowledge of the decades of attempts to create a 2 -state solution? Why did he not address the fact that Israel left Gaza in 2006 in the hands of the Palestinians? They could have created a peaceful Palestinian land . But their only goal was, not to create a Palestinian domain, but to destroy Israel? Hamas received$$$$ to help them achieve a safe, independent territory and used the money to weaponize and destroy Israel.

  2. Lisuan Poh says:

    This story is so old and so Arab and now extended to muslim majority countries which are not even Arabic – you must separate the Jews from Zionism. What a bunch of crap. what can they compromise ? there is never going to be a two state , they want it all. why didnt you ask the hard questions ? what if you cannot separate Zionism from Jews – what is the solution?

  3. carol mukhopadhyay says:

    I find it curious (or perhaps not) that you with one exception (a lesbian woman) all the people you interviewed were men.
    And that the people you interview seem to have adopted the racial language and paradigm of the US……….
    Islamophobia is not about racism but religion…..and xenophobia.
    Especially since Arabs are historically and currently classified as “White” (and sure don’t look african ancestry).
    Of course, these categories are ridiculous…. cultural, historical creations by Blumenbach, Linneaeus and other Euro-Christian males.
    Sad…tragic…….thousands of years of patriarchal collective male violence and ideology……..on all sides

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.