WORD MAN

A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an

By Yousef Alqamoussi

Mama, Baba, and Me. 1990

Part 2 of 9

My parents had no idea where to live in America. They spoke little English, and feared that the move to a Western country would dissolve their children’s bond to the language, religion, and heritage of their homeland. Friends of my father recommended a town in metro Detroit called Dearborn, which was known for its large Muslim Arab population. Lebanese and Iraqis lived there, including one of my grandfather’s friends from Iraq. He generously offered to receive us and help us get settled. 

Our first stop in America was New York’s JFK International Airport on Friday, July 20, 1990, just days before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait sparked the Gulf War. My mother recalls the hot, stormy evening, and often recounts our first exchange with an American. Noticing us lugging our possessions across the terminal, a man kindly offered to help. My father obliged. But once we reached our next gate bound for Detroit, the man gestured for a tip. Newly arrived from Wales, my father had nothing in his pocket but British coins. He placed a fistful into the attendant’s hand and braved a flurry of violent curses in return. We rushed off, fleeing the man’s “and F’s,” as my mother puts it. That wasn’t our only British faux pas in America. Weeks later, at a Pizza Hut down the street from our Michigan Avenue motel in Dearborn, we realized we were the only ones eating our pie with forks and knives. You might imagine our bewilderment at the KFC across the street when we ordered “chips” and were told they didn’t serve “chips,” even though we were staring at a heap of them in the fryer behind the counter. 

We arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport sometime before midnight. My grandfather’s friend and his son received us at the gate. We stayed with them for a couple of nights, and then moved into the motel on Michigan Ave where we spent our first two months in America. Other Arab families were also staying there. Two Lebanese families were immigrating from Sierra Leone to Canada and were finalizing the process in Detroit. Another family had arrived from Kuwait, to my mother’s elation, and we quickly became friends during their brief stay. 

In our first month, we had no kitchen in our room, so we had to frequent nearby restaurants to get our meals. This was a challenge, since our diet was restricted to halal food, so we got by eating at Big Boy, Pizza Hut, and La Shish, the only nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. We also had to walk. Without a car for weeks, I absorbed the streets of my future hometown from my stroller, pushed along through the midsummer heat by my mother, who was carrying my soon-to-be American brother in the womb. 

We also witnessed our first tornado. We were startled one evening by a wailing that overcame the city, followed by a knock at the door. My parents were instructed in obscure English that they had to leave immediately. After much confusion, they eventually figured out that they were being temporarily relocated to a basement to seek shelter from some kind of storm. As for the wailing, these were warning sirens from the city. 

During the second month, my parents managed to upgrade to a room with a kitchen and stove. Mama was cooking mujaddara one evening when the aroma captivated the neighbors, drawing a crowd to the door. With instinctual hospitality, she diced up some tomatoes and cucumbers, laid out some pita bread, and on that warm summer night, we all sat around outside the motel room laughing and sharing mujaddara sandwiches. 

As her pregnancy matured, my mother needed medical care. She was directed to a center called ACCESS, a social services provider for immigrants and community support. They connected her with a doctor and a hospital in nearby Lincoln Park. For transportation, they recommended a taxi service. The first cab we called to take us to the hospital had a white, or “American,” driver. He got lost along the way, to the ire and panic of my parents. The second cab was driven by an Arab man. He was kind and welcoming. 

“Where are you from?” he asked. My parents knew from his accent that he was Lebanese. 

“We are new to America from Kuwait,” my mother said. “I’m Lebanese.” 

I’m Lebanese!” exclaimed the driver.

“And my husband is Iraqi.”

“My sister’s husband is Iraqi! And she’s Lebanese!”

The driver dropped us off at the hospital and insisted on waiting for us. On the way back, he made this offer: “I’d like to introduce you to my sister today. I’ll drive you to her house. I can pick you up after my shift is over.” 

As promised, he met us in front of the motel that afternoon and drove us over. His sister and her family lived in a lower-level flat across town, near Wyoming and Tireman. She was called Umm Mustafa, since her son’s name was Mustafa. Her husband, predictably, was Abu Mustafa, thereby honoring the familiar Arab tradition of referring to parents by the name of their eldest son. By this tradition, my parents were known as Umm Yousef and Abu Yousef, respectively. 

Our families hit it off that day. Umm Mustafa introduced us to other Arab families in Dearborn. We were also told about an Islamic center called the majma’ which held prayers, sermons, and community functions. Near the majma’, there were Arab grocery stores and restaurants that served halal meat. 

Throughout that sweltering August, my pregnant mother would pack me into a stroller and walk the two miles across town from Michigan Ave to Warren to get her groceries and attend the majma’ services. Those days coincided with the Islamic month of Muharram, in which the Ashura commemoration was held. The majma’ offered two daily sessions: The first was held after noon prayer and was for women only. The second was held before evening prayer and was open to all, but seating was segregated. Women were seated on one side of the hall, and men were seated on the other. As a child, I could attend both sessions and sit on either side, so my mother would take me with her in the afternoon, and then we would go back with my father in the evening. The typical program was delivered entirely in Arabic. It began with a recitation of the Qur’an, followed by a sermon and elegy commemorating the events of Ashura, and concluded with a prayer. I found the lectures boring, and I’d grow restless, so my parents used to bring a notebook and some markers with them so that I could draw and color during the lecture. But whenever the sheikh assumed the podium to recite the Ashura majlis or the incantations of the Qur’an, I would perk up and listen intently, mesmerized. The magic of their voices and the passion behind their words inspired me to do the same one day before a congregation of my own. 

As the name suggests, the majma’ was truly a community center of congregation. This is where we met many of the families that would become our friends in America. My father recalls one of the first friends he made there. He overheard a man nearby speaking to his daughter in an Iraqi dialect. 

“You’re Iraqi?” my father asked.

“I am Iraqi,” the man replied.

They chatted through the requisites. Where are you from? How long have you been here? Are you married?

“Yes,” my father replied. “My wife is Lebanese.”

The man beamed. “My wife is Lebanese.” His name was Abu Israa.

We met many families that year. We would converge at the majma’ or invite each other to our homes. Some families were Iraqi, such as Abu Reda and Abu Baqir’s. Others were Lebanese, such as Umm Hassan and Umm Ali’s. Many were Iraqi men who were married to non-Iraqi women. Like my father, Abu Yaseen, Abu Israa, and Abu Mustafa’s wives were Lebanese. Abu Ali and Abu Ahmed’s wives were white “Americans.” Abu Jawad’s wife was Filipino. Abu Hadi’s wife was Costa Rican. 

In the fall of 1990, we moved to the flat on Appoline Street, near Warren Ave. We spent those warm fall days walking around the neighborhood and splashing in a plastic wading pool, and those stuffy nights sleeping on the floor of the living room, since the bedrooms were too hot. My father bought his first car and got his first job as a gas station attendant at a 76 in Detroit. We bought a couch, some beds, and a television. The flat on Appoline was our first home in America. 

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