In 'Dearborn', Ghassan Zeineddine tells bittersweet tales from Arab America capital

Author's debut collection of short stories is set in the Michigan city where he lived for many years

In 2021, the city of Dearborn voted in its first Arab American and Muslim mayor, Abdullah Hammoud. AP
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In 2018, Ghassan Zeineddine landed a teaching position at the state university in Dearborn, Michigan. The city with the US's largest concentration of Arab Americans was to be his home.

“Never before had I lived in an Arab American community, and for the first time in my life I felt that I truly belonged,” Zeineddine tells The National.

Before his move there, he had experienced cultural dislocation. Born in Washington DC, to Lebanese parents, he was then raised in Jeddah until the age of 10. Later, as civil war raged in his parents’ hometown of Beirut, his family decided to relocate to America.

“My challenges navigating a multi-ethnic identity weren’t anything unusual in Dearborn as most other Arab Americans had the same struggle,” Zeineddine says. He drew on those experiences, and those of his neighbours, to produce a set of stories about the city.

Dearborn, his debut collection of bittersweet tales, follows the lives of a variety of multifaceted individuals. Some are trying to fit in and settle down, such as Samir who, in the wake of 9/11, changes his name to Sam and Americanises his family to avoid being deported.

In other tales we meet characters who hanker for their homelands – a group of couples grow nostalgic when a mysterious stranger starts showing up at their swimming pool dressed in Speedos printed with images of Lebanon; a father saves for his family’s return to Lebanon by stashing his earnings in frozen chickens.

Ghassan Zeineddine's Dearborn features a series of stories set in an Arab American community. Photo: Ghassan Zeineddine

In Madame Ayda’s poignant tale, she reveals how she lost her husband, Nabil, on the Titanic. Some characters are refugees who have fled violence. One woman endures it at home. Several Dearborn inhabitants are plagued by FBI agents rooting out “bad apples” or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents hunting for illegal migrants.

Zeineddine still remembers the presence of ICE agents in Dearborn in the summer of 2019 and the anxiety that spread in the immigrant community.

“A couple of agents demanded that the manager of a popular Lebanese diner hand them paperwork on all his employees for the past three years. Knowing his rights, the manager refused.”

Zeineddine says that several stories examine how Arab Americans grapple with their sense of belonging when their Americanness is questioned by misinformed and often bigoted people, or federal agencies.

“The opening story traces the life of Lebanese American Youssef Bazzi, a failed stage actor who has assumed the role of census taker. In this story, I interrogate notions of US citizenship by dramatising Youssef’s rejection of his official racial category as 'white' and also by depicting ICE’s intimidation of community members.”

Dearborn is home to the US's largest concentration of Arab Americans. Photo: National Arab American Museum

Zeineddine’s characters are reluctant to be labelled. In one story, a man travels from Lebanon to visit his relatives in Dearborn and tells them they have become American. “We’re Lebanese and American,” his sister replies. “You can be a Beiruti and a Dearbornite.”

“This instance speaks to the notion of transnationalism,” Zeineddine explains. “That one’s identity can transcend national borders and be a product of more than one geographic place. For many of my characters, they are just as much Arab as they are American.”

Some of Zeineddine’s younger characters feel Dearborn is small and provincial, and yearn to leave for bigger, more multicultural cities. Older characters are happy to stay put: “The world outside of Dearborn is an ugly place,” warns one man.

After a while, Zeineddine found Dearborn to be insular, and developed a love-hate relationship with the place.

Ghassan Zeineddine says many of his characters are 'just as much Arab as they are American'. Photo: Tin House Books

“On the one hand, the strong presence of Arab Americans makes one feel a part of a vibrant community that shares similar cultural values and practices,” he says. “On the other hand, the conservatism of the city can be suffocating, and I don’t think this is related to a generational conflict. Many young Arab professionals I met who were born and raised in Dearborn exhibited conservative views on social matters.

“I also encountered young Arab professionals who didn’t want to leave Dearborn because they felt safer from anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hostility and more at home in an Arab American enclave.”

Zeineddine captures these voices and many more in what is a supremely accomplished debut. He hopes that other books by writers like him will see the light of day.

“We need more publishing houses to accept work by Bipoc [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] writers, including those who identify as Arab American,” he says. “There’s a dearth of American fiction about Arab American communities, but a few books do exist, such as Joseph Geha’s Through and Through: Toledo Stories and Susan Muaddi Darraj’s The Inheritance of Exile.”

Although Zeineddine now lives in Ohio, Dearborn continues to inspire him. He is working on more stories set there, as well as a comic crime novel about the city. “I write about my obsessions,” he says, “and right now I’m obsessed with Dearborn.”

Updated: September 06, 2023, 7:34 AM