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Arab American stories interconnect in the new collection, 'Dearborn'

Ghassan Zeineddine, author of the short story collection, <em>Dearborn</em>.
Austin Thomason
UM Photography
Ghassan Zeineddine, author of the short story collection, Dearborn.

Dearborn, just west of Detroit, Mich., is a city often estimated to be at least half Arab American, with a general population of about 108,000. It's where author Ghassan Zeineddine set his debut collection of short stories, Dearborn.

Now a creative writing professor at Oberlin College, Zeineddine drove to Dearborn recently to meet a reporter at a popular Yemeni café over a cup of organic Mofawar coffee made with cardamom and cream. It's right by a Palestinian falafel shop, an Iraqi restaurant and a Lebanese boutique, as well as Arab-owned hair salons and pharmacies. All within a few Dearborn blocks.

Zeineddine, who's Lebanese-American, has a shyly upbeat air and the slightly bulky physique of a former high school wrestler. He lived in Dearborn for three years, when he taught at the local campus of the University of Michigan. "When my wife and I drove to Dearborn to buy a house, we saw all these Arab families," he remembers. "I had never seen that before in America. And I got so excited. I kept telling my wife, we made the right decision to come here. It's a dream come true!"

Zeineddine's short stories are based in an Arab American community more than a hundred years old, filled with hard-dreaming immigrants who came to work in Detroit's auto plants and practice across a broad swath of faiths: Catholics, Coptics, Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Druze and more. Their jobs range from a DJ to a gas station owner to a halal butcher, who we meet on a walk on a hot southeast Michigan summer day.

It's July and I'm walking down Caniff Street in Hamtramck, covered from head to tow in black. I wear a niqab, leaving only a slit for my eyes, and an abaya. My furry hands are gloved. Despite my getup, I worry someone might recognize the way I walk, tilting from side to side like a juiced-up bodybuilder. Though I'm of average height, my massive chest and big biceps make me stand out. I remind myself I'm miles away from my Lebanese neighborhood in East Dearborn. My wife and son would never trek this far in Detroit, nor would my buddies. Lebanese don't come here. I hear Polish folk once ran this city within a city, but now Yemenis and Bangladeshis have taken over with all the grocery stores, restaurants and mosques. I spot a pack of niqabis across the street, and I almost wave to them like we're all friends and haven't seen each other in months.

"He's a genderqueer butcher," Zeineddine explains, adding that his character Yasser has radically compartmentalized his life and, as an immigrant of a certain age from a socially conservative background, would likely not apply the word "genderqueer" to himself. "He feels so torn because he can't really embody Yusra among his family and friends but in Hamtramck, where he's a stranger, he can roam free."

As in many of Zeineddine's stories, the character builds surprising, tender alliances and chooses idiosyncratic paths that exceed easy stereotypes. An irony of "Yusra" is that the title character finds community in Hamtramck, where the Muslim-majority city council recently banned Pride flags from being displayed on city property.

"It's heartbreaking," Zeineddine says. He's quick to point out Dearborn's progressive Muslim leaders who outspokenly support LGBTQ rights. They include the city's Democratic mayor Abdullah Hammoud and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Zeineddine, who grew up around Washington D.C. and in the Middle East, is determined to enlarge the world of Arab American fiction. Currently, he's planning a novel about a peddler based on his great grandfather, who traveled around West Virginia selling goods in the 1920s. But Zeineddine is not quite ready to abandon the abundance of Dearborn's literary possibilities.

"It's not a very pretty city, but I love it," he says affectionately of the wide streets lined with drab strip malls packed with bakeries, hookah lounges and cell phone repair stores. "The vibrancy! I'm obsessed with Dearborn. I cannot stop writing about this place."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.