SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A visit now, through the gift of literary fiction, to a town near Detroit. Magic? Detroit? Give us a chance here. Suburban Dearborn is home to America's largest Arab American community. "Dearborn" is also the name of a new collection of short stories set there. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the author.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Author Ghassan Zeineddine no longer lives in Dearborn. He teaches creative writing at Oberlin College in Ohio. But when he lived here, he liked to write at this Yemeni coffeehouse where he drove to meet me over a latte brewed with cinnamon, ginger and cardamom.
GHASSAN ZEINEDDINE: When I used to come here, I'd always get the Yemeni dessert.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
ZEINEDDINE: It's very sweet, and you put honey on top.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right? - with cream cheese.
ULABY: Zeineddine's short stories are based in an Arab American community more than a hundred years old. Immigrants came to work in Detroit's auto plants. His characters are Coptic, Catholic, Sunni, Shia, Druze, and their jobs range from DJ to gas station owner to a halal butcher who we meet on a walk on a hot Southeast Michigan day.
ZEINEDDINE: (Reading) It's July, and I'm walking down Caniff Street in Hamtramck, covered from head to toe in black. I wear a niqab, leaving only a slit for my eyes, and an abaya.
ULABY: Zeineddine reading from his short story titled "Yusra."
ZEINEDDINE: (Reading) My abaya sticks to my bulk. My underwear is soaked. My feet are blistered, and my knees are sore. And with my face covered, I keep smelling my stale breath. But I'm walking free as Yusra.
ULABY: Yusra is not biologically female. Her family knows her as a man named Yasser. But under her long black veil, Yusra can be unhidden. Another irony of the story is that Yusra finds community in a town near Dearborn called Hamtramck that elected the first Muslim-majority city council in the U.S. It's not been LGBT-friendly.
ZEINEDDINE: It's heartbreaking. Just recently in Hamtramck, there's been a law that bans the LGBTQ flags from being publicly displayed.
ULABY: Zeineddine is quick to point out that conservative Muslims are much like conservative members of other religious groups when it comes to LGBT rights. And many of Dearborn's progressive Muslims outspokenly support LGBT people. They include the city's Democratic mayor and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Arab Americans are no strangers to negative stereotypes. But as we hop into Zeineddine's car for a ride around Dearborn, we - both of us from Arab families - concede one stereotype is richly deserved.
ZEINEDDINE: I'm always careful when I drive but especially in Dearborn.
ULABY: Arab drivers - notorious even among other Arab drivers. In one of Ghassan Zeineddine's short stories, this comes up with a character who's a Lebanese real estate agent.
ZEINEDDINE: She's driving in Dearborn, and she's just cussing out everyone. So we're taking a right on Warren. There's, like, Rafic (ph) Falafel. We used to get falafel sandwiches from here all the time.
ULABY: We pass Arab hair salons and pharmacies and legal offices and day cares and a popular bakery.
ZEINEDDINE: It's Palestinian-owned, if I'm not mistaken. And that's Arbeel (ph), an Iraqi restaurant, which is really popular. There is a place called Fayrouz, named after the famous Lebanese singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FAIRUZ: (Singing in non-English language).
ULABY: And there's a hookah joint called Sky Lounge, where author Ghassan Zeineddine's fictional real estate agent likes to spend her time.
ZEINEDDINE: There's this one scene where she's just smoking a hookah and drinking a cup of Turkish coffee while she's researching different houses that she might consider purchasing.
ULABY: Zeineddine grew up in a Washington, D.C., suburb where there were not a lot of Arabs. Moving to Michigan was a revelation.
ZEINEDDINE: When my wife and I drove up to Dearborn to buy a house, we drove actually through these neighborhoods. And you just saw all these Arab families out on their front porches, walking the streets. And actually, I'd never seen that before in America. And I just got so excited. I kept telling my wife, oh, my God, we made the right decision to come here. This is a dream come true.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)
ULABY: Back in the Yemeni cafe, author Ghassan Zeineddine says his next dream is a novel plumbing his own family history and the history of Arab American peddlers like his own great-grandfather in the 1920s.
ZEINEDDINE: And he peddled goods up and down the mountain roads in West Virginia. So that's one idea, but - and yet, I'm still writing short stories about Dearborn. I'm just so obsessed with the city.
ULABY: Even though he's now teaching hours away at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, Ghassan Zeineddine keeps coming back to Dearborn. The coffee is so good, the stories so abundant.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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