DEARBORN, Mich.—In the shadow of global terrorist attacks, a new museum pays homage to the lives of Arab Americans—a group as varied as any other.
“We think there is a story here. It’s the American story,” said Ismael Ahmed, who helped get the museum off the ground after more than a decade of planning and fundraising.
Among the brightly colored mosaics and interactive exhibits are the likenesses of entertainer Danny Thomas, race car driver Bobby Rahal and longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas. But the Arab American National Museum is more than a few famous faces.
“We think that everyone will look at it and see their story, whether they be Italian or Irish. It’s the immigrant’s story, not that of the rich and famous,” Ahmed said.
The 38,500-square-foot museum opened in May and is believed to be the first Arab American museum in the United States. Although plans were in the works well before Sept. 11, Ahmed said that fear and misconceptions caused by the attacks gave new meaning to the project and pushed it forward.
It’s only fitting that Dearborn is home to the museum. Southeastern Michigan has an Arab-American community of about 300,000, with Dearborn as the unofficial capitol of the U.S. Arab population.
Many immigrants who settled in Dearborn came from Lebanon to take jobs at Ford Motor Co. factories in the early 20th century. In the years since, the community has flourished with Middle Eastern bakeries and restaurants, clothing stores and travel agencies.
Located across from Dearborn City Hall downtown, the museum’s welcoming area features arches, columns and mosaics reminiscent of the architecture found in Arab countries.
“We hope that as guests walk in, they will feel the hospitality of the Arab world,” said Anan Ameri, the museum’s director.
From the welcoming area, visitors are able to look up through the open second and third stories—decorated with Moroccan-style tile—to the highlight of the building’s design: a large Islamic-style dome that forms part of the museum’s roof. The inside of the dome is decorated with calligraphy that repeats the museum’s name in Arabic.
The museum’s first floor focuses on the contributions of Arabs through time in religion, medicine, science and art, among other areas. A large interactive map hanging over the main stairway allows visitors to light up the different countries of the Arab world by pressing different pads. And by touching the screen of a computer, visitors can bring up pictures and information about the different countries.
On the second floor, the focus changes to the waves of immigration of Arabs, starting with the first known Arab immigrant, an escaped slave who was brought to North America from what is now Morocco in 1528 and ending with those who emigrate after the first Gulf War.