Our driving listening repertoire has been varied. I finally listened to Hamilton, maybe the last person in America to do so. And we have also listened to a lot of NPR and podcasts. (Haven’t made it to any audiobooks yet.)
One podcast we listened to is Hidden Brain, which examines different aspects of human behavior. We listened to several episodes, and one in particular that stands out is called “The Edge Effect” about diversity and creativity. In short, it discussed how rather than sticking with people who were similar to us, it is deep interactions with others unlike us that breeds the most creativity.
This was fitting for the trip in general but in specific as we made our way through Michigan. I had known that the Detroit area had one of the largest Arab American populations in the country, and it was not until this trip that I was able to visit and experience it.
As we were making our plans to stop in Ypsilanti, MI–near Ann Arbor and outside Detroit–to visit with more family, Yohanna’s aunt suggested visiting the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, where the Arab American population was centered. It was a beautiful and well-done museum, with exhibits first on Arab history and culture, and then moving to the Arab American experience including topics like immigration and settlement, challenges and successes, and contributions by Arab Americans to the American experience.
There was also examples of contemporary Arab and Arab American art, including a photo series titled Magnetism I-IV by the artist Ahmed Mater, which recreates images of the Hajj in Mecca using magnets and iron filings.
The exhibits were informative, thorough and engaging. I learned a lot, and, without discounting the specific experience documented, was also struck at the parallels to the Jewish American experience. Some of the exhibits, with some change of detail, could have been found in a museum about American Jews. A display about Arabs immigrating to the US and becoming peddlers, for example, roaming the west and eventually settling down and opening shops, could have just as easily been about Jews. (And we Jews love holding up other Jews who have made contributions to America.)
But it wasn’t. And the Arab experience has its own narrative which is important to learn. Yes, it is important to find similarities among experiences, that is how we develop familiarity, empathy, and compassion. And at the same time, it is also important to hear the individual stories and honor the differences among us. That is also how we develop appreciation for diversity, for others, for new ideas that challenge our preconceived notions.
Another learning point for me was how the museum told the story of Palestinians in the US, recognizing the displacement of Palestinians after the establishment of the state of Israel, of activism among Arab Americans on behalf of Palestinians, and, at the same time, noting how Palestinian immigration to the US began earlier under the Ottoman Empire.
Museums exist to educate and inform, and if we are willing to enter into them with a spirit of inquiry and openness, then we are able to be changed for the better.
It prepared us for the next stop of the day, Shatila Bakery. After driving past Arab groceries, mosques, and real estate offices with Arabic on the signs, we arrived at the bakery and cafe with a large central seating area and display case upon display case of sweet and savory treats.
For me, this was a greater learning experience than the museum. Here we were immersed in it, not knowing what many things were, or what they were called, or even the ingredients. We asked questions, pointed to the case, and tried new things. We sat down with a pot of Turkish coffee and a variety of treats to taste and enjoy.
At the end of the episode of the Hidden Brain, the host Shankar Vedantam says,
Consider this. The United States, a country that accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, has won about 60 percent of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. From the motor car and the airplane to Facebook and Google, from the telephone and the Internet to Hollywood and Wall Street, scientists, entrepreneurs and entertainers from the United States have powerfully shaped the world in which we live. Could some of this outsized creativity have to do with the extraordinary diversity of America, the waves of immigrants who arrived here over the centuries? I’d like to think the answer is yes.
I tend to agree. And especially if we put ourselves in uncomfortable and vulnerable situations, and not be afraid to ask questions and point to a display case, then that’s how we grow as people and draw closer to one another.