2. Public Culture in Arab Detroit
Creating Arab/American Identities in a Transnational Domain
The shared economic infrastructure of advanced industrial society and its inescapable implications will continue to ensure that men are dependent on culture, and that culture requires standardization over quite wide areas, and needs to be maintained and serviced by centralized agencies. In other words, men will continue to owe their employability and social acceptability to sustained and complex training, which cannot be supplied by kin or local groups. This being so, the definition of political units and boundaries will not be able to ignore with impunity the distribution of cultures. By and large, ignoring minor and innocuous exceptions, the nationalist imperative of the congruence of political unit and of culture will continue to apply. In that sense, one need not expect the age of nationalism to come to an end.
Gellner made the above prediction in 1983, when the age of nationalism, in scholarly circles at least, was just beginning. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, originally published in the same year, turned nationalism into an anthropological obsession, with the result that modernity—a quality both Anderson and Gellner ascribed to nationalism in the West—was finally recognized as a legitimate object of ethnographic research. The topics that consumed anthropology in the 1980s (reflexivity, political economy, historicity, postcolonialism, and popular culture) were framed, more explicitly than ever before, in relation to metropolitan, Western-derived social forms. The nationalist imperative was never far from view, even if there was always something vaguely “imaginary” about it.
The trend continues. Yet today Gellner’s vision of endless nationalism is often treated as unlikely and uninteresting in roughly equal degrees. Metropolitan intellectuals of all sorts, along with businesspeople and politicians, are now drawn to postmodern, transnational images of community. As a site of cultural reproduction, the nation-state no longer seems big enough; its peculiar resources—industries, workforces, currencies, identities, ideologies—are constantly spilling across its boundaries. This is certainly true of “popular culture,” the vast network of information, narratives, and artistic performances conveyed by television, VCR, CD, cassette tape, film, and print technologies. Among anthropologists the study of popular culture is now identified closely with transnational approaches, a development more unusual than it might at first appear. The media in which popular culture travels evolved alongside the nation-state; indeed, they exist everywhere in symbiotic relationships with ruling elites. According to Gellner and Anderson, these relationships produce shared, literate, self-consciously modern cultures that exist (or hope one day to exist) under the protection of their own national governments.
The kinks in the model are obvious. Elites are not motivated solely by national interests, and the demand for CNN, Rai music, and Hindi films is not limited (any longer at least) to Americans, Algerians, and Indians. Popular culture flows across international borders alongside (and often more freely than) the people who consume, produce, and distribute it. The neat cultural boundaries favored by nationalists are now hopelessly blurred by a popular imagination that, the advertisers and analysts assure us, is virtually global in scope.
David Harvey’s cautionary note—that public culture obscures the means of its own production—is well worth remembering. At a time when prominent advocates of transnational approaches seem to be bedazzled by the wonderful, mixed-up agglomeration of cultural commodities that the global market makes available to them, it is important to realize (1) that commercial goods originate in places, (2) that mass media and international markets are fragile, highly complex forms of organization that connect places, (3) that media and markets are variously secured by, dependent on, and answerable to the power of states, which govern places, and (4) that contemporary states are nationalist in design. Once these conditions are granted, what becomes of the transnational domain in which popular culture circulates so freely? How do we locate it? Is it just another simulacrum, a kind of “virtual reality” that feeds on the global appetites of metropolitan consumers? Is the transnationalization of popular culture a response to political and economic changes that disconnect people (as well as media and markets) from “original” places?
Through the experience of everything from food, to culinary habits, music, television, entertainment, and cinema, it is now possible to experience the world’s geography vicariously, as a simulacrum. The interweaving of simulacra in daily life brings together different worlds (of commodities) in the same space and time. But it does so in such a way as to conceal almost perfectly any trace of origin, of the labour processes that produced them, or of the social relations implicated in their production. (Harvey 1989, 300)
In this chapter I approach these issues by way of Detroit’s Arab community, a large immigrant/ethnic population whose public culture flourishes amid a dense array of (trans)national attachments. In Arab Detroit the relationship between nation and culture is continually rendered problematic by the need to reterritorialize a community that exists across states, between identities, and out of place. The forces that sustain popular culture in Arab Detroit, I argue, are animated by a thoroughly modern, nationalist discourse. In its American forms this discourse is still powerful enough to assimilate, effectively contain, and even “celebrate” the transnational domains that materialize within it.
A Map of Sorts: A Quick Introduction to Arab Detroit
The Detroit area is home to America’s largest, most highly concentrated population of Arab immigrants. There are now roughly two hundred thousand people of Arab descent living in and around the city. Arabs have been coming to Detroit since the late nineteenth century, and they continue to arrive in the thousands each year. The vast majority are from Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq. Initially they were drawn by Michigan’s booming automobile industry; today they are often refugees of war or victims of political oppression and economic hardship. They come to Detroit to live among the large networks of kin and fellow villagers that now exist there. As of 1995 Arab-Americans composed Michigan’s second-largest (and fastest-growing) minority population. Indeed, certain parts of Metro Detroit have acquired an unmistakably Arab aspect. Barbara Aswad’s description of East Dearborn captures the vibrant feel of America’s largest Lebanese enclave:
The area along Warren Avenue—which now has 117 Arab-owned businesses—is only one of several distinct Arab populations in Metro Detroit. Highly assimilated middle- and upper-class Christians, whose parents and grandparents came to America from Greater Syria before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, can be found in Detroit’s northern and eastern suburbs; Iraqi Chaldeans, a close-knit community of Aramaic-speaking Catholics who own the majority of Detroit’s small grocery and liquor stores, live mostly in Detroit, Southfield, and Bloomfield Hills; Palestinian professionals, mostly Christians from the West Bank village of Ramallah, have settled in Livonia; Palestinians from the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina and Yemenis, both of peasant backgrounds, live together in Dearborn’s South End, a neighborhood that lies in the shadow of the Ford Rouge Plant and boasts its own mosque and business district.
As one walks along the streets in the Lebanese Muslim community in Dearborn, one feels transplanted back to the Middle East. Fifty or more Lebanese shops line both sides of a six-block stretch of Warren Avenue, where eight years ago there were only eight. Five bakeries and eight restaurants emit the culinary smells of the Middle East. There are also twelve fruit and vegetable markets, two supermarkets, two beauty salons, numerous doctors, dentists, and a pharmacist, a furniture shop, real estate, insurance, and printing office, auto shops, a clothing store, Arabic bookstores, a publishing company, an Arab social service agency, the Islamic Institute for Knowledge, and a Shi‘i mosque. Signs are in both Arabic and English. There is much activity on this strip. Men sometimes sit at tables on the sidewalk, women usually cover their heads, and many wear Muslim and village attire. Children are seen rushing to religious and Arabic classes at the Institute. (1992, 167)
This broad range of lifestyles and levels of assimilation has made the Detroit Arab community hard to represent, both intellectually and politically. Despite its proximity to the University of Michigan, which houses one of the best Middle East studies centers in the country, very few Middle East scholars have worked in Arab Detroit. It seems too big, too diffuse, too resistant to characterization—too “over here.” The small body of research that accumulated in the 1970s and 1980s took up the difficult task of determining the size, internal composition, and history of Detroit’s major Arab immigrant populations (e.g., Abraham and Abraham 1983; Aswad 1974); it was descriptive in nature, and the patterns it located have since been woven into the popular narratives of identity and experience Arab Detroiters tell the outside world.
A more visible (and generally less accessible) tradition of self-representation is found in the lucrative trade in Arab cultural commodities. Detroit is awash in Arabic-language videos, cassette tapes, television and radio programs, books, newsletters, daily and weekly newspapers, and magazines, as well as “Middle Eastern” grocery stores, bakeries, pastry shops, and restaurants. Non-Arab Detroiters are nowadays quite familiar with Lebanese cuisine, but the trade in Arab cultural commodities has been oriented, until very recently, toward Arabic speakers. It is fragmented along national, village, and sectarian lines in ways most non-Arabs can hardly understand, and attempts to weave this flow of goods and images into a common fabric of Arab-American ethnic identity have been made, by and large, only in the English-speaking sectors of the Arab community.
The differences between Arabic- and English-speaking styles of cultural production add to the daunting complexity of Arab Detroit as an object of study. As I argue throughout this chapter, both styles are tied closely to the idea of national communities. The English-speaking style, however, is more consciously attuned to the themes of ethnicity, multiculturalism, and diversity that circulate in the larger society. Its agenda is the creation of a new identity that is equally “Arab” and “American.” The result is a double-bound (but not quite hybrid) field of public culture that, for all its inherent contradictions, allows a growing number of Arab Detroiters to attach themselves to popular American models of community even as they cultivate what are imagined to be essentially Arab ones.
Before We Go Transnational: (Un)packing Our Theoretical Baggage
There is clearly something in the idea that distance lends enhancement, if not enchantment, to the anthropological vision.
If Arab Detroit is too close, too “in-between” to attract the attention of Middle East area scholarship, it is now suddenly near enough to attract the attention of anthropologists, among whom distance is losing its visionary charms. With the steady growth of global communication and transportation networks, the ethnographer’s ability to move through remote, physically distant worlds is no longer unusual; in fact, it is not even a necessary component of anthropological practice. Today most American anthropologists do their Ph.D. fieldwork in North America (Givens and Jablonski 1995, 11–12); and with the growing appeal of theory and historicism to the discipline, more and more fieldwork is being done in the library, the archive, and (just as likely) the coffeehouse.
As ethnographers settle down, the “natives” become increasingly mobile. They regularly enter—indeed, they suffuse—urban culture in the metropolitan West, where “remote areas,” now unexpectedly near, are sold to us as ethnic villages, cultivated as political constituencies, mined for cheap labor, developed as points of entry into foreign markets, or cordoned off as crime-ridden slums. These new immigrant communities are not bereft of singularity. One could hardly mistake Arab Detroit for New York’s “Little Brazil” (Margolis 1994) or Los Angeles’s “New Persian Empire” (Naficy 1993). Still, it is hard to conceptualize this singularity using the old logic of place. Among Arabs in Detroit, a popular alternative idiom is one anthropologists are leaving behind: “distance.” Coming to America and becoming American are acts that require movement: specifically, movement in an occidental direction. Arab immigrants are often called mughtarabeen, or people who go West, and the Arab community in Detroit calls itself al-jaliya, a term that conjures up images of an ethnic enclave living far from its place of origin.
The idea of an ancestral place—expressed in terms of nostalgia, estrangement, and enduring obligations—is a leitmotiv of immigrant experience. It is especially strong among Arab Detroiters, most of whom trace their origins to about a dozen peasant villages in Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq. The new idiom of transnationalism, however, often seems designed to swamp these imaginative yet somehow too simple communions in a wash of cultural flows, fragmentation, mix-up, deterritorialization, and other splintering metaphors. The rhetoric is relentless; one sees it everywhere, and everywhere it accentuates the same litany of themes.
Clearly, this is a metanarrative. Why, in our postmodern age, does it not inspire greater incredulity? On close inspection the conditions described in this passage are not as novel as they seem. The “new world” they conjure up bears an uncanny resemblance to Henry Ford’s Detroit, circa 1920: a city teeming with immigrant labor, intermingled diasporas, transnational associations, rampant urbanization, and new political identities. Communities of this sort are perhaps more common today, and the global processes that create them occur at a more dizzying pace. But the power globalization rhetoric now enjoys among social scientists, historians, and litterateurs springs from other sources.
Migrations are producing cultural heterogeneity; diasporic conditions for increasing and increasingly large groups of people are redefining geographic loyalties and commitments; rapid and spreading urbanization is transforming traditional social relations and conceptions of selves; the communications revolution is redefining local and global relations, and the constitution of subjects. Identities, in the light of these dramatic changes, are tending increasingly to cut across traditional political boundaries. (Goldberg and Zegeye 1995, 3)
Like most big narratives, the globalization story “has as its latent or manifest purpose the desire to moralize the events of which it treats” (White 1987, 14). The sense of disruption and the lack of closure that mark the transnational metanarrative are positively valued by many of the analysts who invoke them (Clifford 1988; Appadurai 1991; Bhabha 1994), and this celebratory tone reflects the increased tactical mobility Western intellectuals (and the college-educated metropolitan classes) bring to their ongoing management of the borderlands between human communities. Although the most articulate proponents of transnational studies often hail from the “elite sectors of the postcolonial world” (Appadurai 1993, 411)—a quick glance at almost any issue of Public Culture will prove this point—the sudden appearance of the “Third World in the First” (Rafael 1993) has not provoked the latest round of moralistic, transnational storytelling. Rather, it is the relentless spread of metropolitan social forms into postcolonial domains that makes global systems (and narratives of globalization) possible. As the structures, practices, and attitudes that define modernity are imposed on wider territories and larger numbers of people, “new alignments made across borders, types, nations, and essences are rapidly coming into view” (Said 1993, xxv).
But the emerging view is still notoriously fuzzy, with the result that, for the metropolitan intellectual, (1) cultural forms are no longer convincingly old or new—invented traditions flourish alongside cultural schemas of demonstrable antiquity—and (2) human communities are no longer categorically Other. Instead, they can be alien and admissible, remote and near to hand, all at the same time, all in the same place. This has not made ethnography harder to do; nor has it “liberated” anthropology from its traditional fascination with local worlds. In his discussion of advertising agencies in Trinidad, for instance, Daniel Miller (1995a) suggests that local advertisers profit from the demand for global consumer products by convincing foreign companies that imported goods will not sell there unless they are attached to tastes and desires unique to the island. Only commercials produced in Trinidad, they argue, can secure such attachments. This lucrative exercise in “cultural translation,” undertaken on behalf of highly deterritorialized, transnational corporations, is not unlike the work of anthropologists, who profit from their ability to ground knowledge of humanity—itself a metropolitan, highly deterritorialized construct—in knowledge of particular human communities. That is why ethnography, more than most disciplines, is well placed to “reveal the internal contradictions and differences that emerge when one insists that the global form is always to be located also in its specific local manifestation” (Miller 1995a, 9).
The “desire to moralize” that animates critical brands of transnational storytelling has little to do, then, with a Bakhtinian carnival of identities supposedly unleashed by collapsing boundaries and withering states. It alerts us, instead, to new hegemonies capable of (re)bounding local and translocal identities alike. The globalizing logic that Richard Wilk detects in the staging of beauty pageants in Belize is, not surprisingly, the logic behind almost all forms of cultural representation now available to the ethnographer: those made by groups and individuals, by selves and others, in public and in private.
Arabs in Detroit, for instance, bear countless marks of Otherness. Their political and religious beliefs, their ideas about gender and family life, their ways of doing business—all differ markedly from those of the larger society. Yet for all their peculiarities Arab immigrants come to Detroit already immersed in modern institutions: nation-states, public schools, secular universities, consumer-oriented market economies, and the (rather narrow) spectrum of political ideologies that accompany these forms. The result is a disorienting mix of similarity and difference, an open cultural flow in which metropolitan social forms, hegemonic and imperfectly shared by immigrants and locals alike, become the context in which mainstreams are continually re-created. Labor, commodities, and ideas circulate in these mainstreams, which are also called communities. Unlike Said’s “new alignments,” however, which coalesce across “borders, types, nations, and essences,” I argue that Arabs in Detroit use precisely these typological ideas to build communities that cohere despite (and because of) their problematic relationship to place.
The global stage does not consist of common content, a lexicon of goods or knowledge. Instead it is a common set of formats and structures that mediate between cultures; something more than a flow of things, or of the meanings attached to things, or even the channels along which those things and meanings flow.…[T]he connections between localities are created by widespread and common forms of contest for the exercise of power over what to produce, consume, watch, read and write. These contests follow channels that put diversity in a common frame, and scale it along a limited number of dimensions, celebrating some kinds of difference and submerging others. (Wilk 1995, 111)
Popular Culture in Arabic-Speaking Detroit: Reflected Images from Elsewhere
In all frankness, the world today has seen the end of military conflict (except for local regions in which the flames of war have not yet gone out). With the end of the Cold War polarization, the contest among nations has become a nationalistic and cultural struggle even before it is an economic one, inasmuch as each nation has returned to itself, deriving its power at the expense of others. From all this we conclude that, as an Arab community, we need urgently to protect ourselves and our place under the sun because history shows no mercy. The means to this end is the preservation of our language, our culture, our heritage…and we are honored to promote this goal and bolster our community’s efforts to protect our place, our future, and our civilization. (Berry 1995a, 3; my translation)
With these words of introduction, Ahmad Berry launched his new magazine, Panorama, a glossy monthly that mixes news of Arab Detroit with that of Lebanon and the larger Arab world. Berry is producer, host, and owner of Arabic Time Television, one of the six local networks and sixteen independent Arabic-language programs currently shown on Dearborn Cable Vision. Arabic Time Television (al-Fatra al-‘Arabiyya) is on the air for two hours, six nights a week, on Ethnic Access Channel 23. In 1995 it was rated the number one Arabic program in a nonscientific, in-house poll conducted by Cable Vision Industries (CVI), and the publication of Panorama magazine, despite the lofty rhetoric of national survival, is Berry’s attempt to capitalize on this success by extending his small media empire into the realm of print. The feature stories advertised on the inaugural cover page of Panorama include the following: “Arabic Time TV Ranks First among Dearborn Cable Programs.” The magazine’s second issue consists mostly of materials recycled from other Arabic and English periodicals (as did the first issue); the space given to advertising is much greater; and the back cover carries free publicity for the moneymaking operation Panorama is designed to promote:
Few would question this wisdom. The Arabic-language TV scene, which draws advertising dollars from Metro Detroit’s pool of five thousand Arab-owned businesses, is by far the most lucrative arena of popular culture in Arab Detroit. Berry’s success in this market is based on his keen entrepreneurial spirit, but it also depends on more peculiar factors: (1) the tradition-oriented, conservative—or, more exactly, conservationist—agenda he endorses in his Panorama editorials; and (2) his ability to build media networks that subsist on materials that are recycled and copied (often without permission) from state-financed, government-controlled media sources in the Arab world. Berry’s career is made in the transnational domain. Like Arab Detroit’s other TV impresarios, he profits from his access to Arab national media and, more important, from his location outside the jurisdiction of the Arab governments that control these media.
Advertising with The No. 1 Arabic Time Television Is A Wise Choice
Arabic TV in Dearborn: How It Started and the Shape It’s In
When Cable Vision Industries came to Dearborn in 1981, it had fifty-four channels—far too many to fill. According to Jackie Kaiser, CVI program manager, the idea of an ethnic access channel was originally floated with Dearborn’s Italian and Polish communities in mind. No one expected Arab immigrants to use the service. Yet the Italians and Poles, for all the proddings of CVI and Dearborn’s Italian mayor, failed to put together viable programming. It was Lebanese and Chaldean programmers who eventually monopolized Ethnic Access. Today all of the channel’s shows are in Arabic. The Arabs surprised CVI management again by producing their own, Arabic-language advertising, thereby turning a nonprofit community service channel into a very healthy cash cow. CVI altered its format accordingly. Today the 5:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. time slots are leased. Shows scheduled between 1:00 P.M. and 5:00 P.M. are broadcast free of charge. The sixteen afternoon shows are supplied by local mosques, religious associations, and Lebanese social clubs; in the evening the six networks, all produced by individuals, take over. I have been watching Arabic television in Dearborn since 1990, and I am still fascinated by three qualities of the programming that, I would argue, are broadly characteristic of popular culture in Detroit’s Arabic-language “mainstream.”
(1) With scattered exceptions, all programming is in Arabic. The monolingual nature of Arabic TV might seem commonsensical at first, but it runs counter to linguistic patterns dominant in the community. The majority of Arab Detroiters are bilingual; many Chaldeans are trilingual (speaking English, Arabic, and Aramaic); and tens of thousands of Arab Detroiters speak only English. The latter population is an obvious growth market, but no local programmers are attempting to cultivate it as an audience. Arab Detroit’s two most successful newspapers—the Arab-American News and the Chaldean Detroit Times—went bilingual in the 1980s, and the parade of small Arab journals and magazines that march in and out of print are mostly English/Arabic ventures as well. Ahmad Berry’s Panorama, for instance, is bilingual. The programming on his Arabic Time Television, however, has not yet been affected by this trend.
(2) All the shows are locally produced, but they consist almost entirely of imported programming. To call the programming “imported” is a courtesy. Much of it is pirated, and copyright law (as understood in the United States) is thoroughly ignored by the impresarios of Arabic TV. In an average night of viewing, one might see a Syrian soap opera, an Egyptian movie, a Lebanese variety show, an Iraqi sports program, and several shows in which a local host introduces footage from overseas. The material is copied on videocassette, and the granular, jumpy quality of the tape suggests that the duplicates are themselves nth-generation copies. But techniques are steadily improving. Berry’s Arabic Time Television, for instance, has lately become a time-delayed version of Future Television (Talafiziyun al-Mustaqbal), a popular Lebanese network. It is commonly said in Dearborn that Future Television employs one of Berry’s relatives, who sends high-quality videocassette copies of network programming to Detroit. Before Berry airs this material, he superimposes the Arabic Time Television logo over it. Whether this practice is (or is not) as illegal as it looks—Berry assured me that Future Television approved of his borrowings—it is standard operating procedure on Ethnic Access.
Recycled material is not the only fare available to Ethnic Access viewers. Occasionally the impresarios appear on-screen to interview Arab celebrities and political dignitaries who visit Detroit. Some programs have local anchormen who present summaries of Middle Eastern news, most of it derived from Arabic media abroad. TV Orient, a Chaldean network, regularly features interviews with people important in the local Arab community: school administrators, candidates for public office, bilingual teachers, doctors, and social workers, among others. TV Orient also produces Afrah al-jaliya (Community Celebrations), a popular show that consists of video highlights from local Chaldean weddings. The Detroit-based shows are low-budget affairs, and they account for a small proportion of programming in CVI’s leased time slots. The impresarios make their profit from videocopying; indeed, their programs could not survive without it.
(3) Programming is overwhelmed by, and virtually incidental to, advertising. Commercials take up half the airtime on local Arabic networks. Indeed, commercials are what makes the programming local, and the top three networks in Dearborn—Arabic Time Television, Sada al-‘Arab (The Arab Echo), and TV Orient—make their money by shooting commercials for Arab-owned businesses, which they aired at a market average of $300 per business per month in 1995. According to CVI monitors, spot checks of Arabic programming show that commercials consume about twenty-seven minutes per hour (compared to an industrywide average of twelve minutes per hour). In a CVI telephone poll many Dearborn viewers stated that they enjoyed the commercials, and I have been told many times that the commercials are more fun to watch than the regular programming, which is only in part a criticism of regular programming. In a community heavily involved in small business, the ads on Ethnic Access are a means of competition and a measure of accomplishment directed at the audience that counts most. The people who appear in the commercials are well known to the community—they may, in fact, be fellow villagers or even kin—and the conclusion the Lebanese or Chaldean viewer draws from watching the ads is often a reassuring one: I am surrounded by a robust economic community of people like myself; almost all my needs (food and clothing, health care, aluminum siding, floral arrangements, and cellular phones) can be met within this community.
A Special Relationship: The Impresarios Win a Transnational TV Turf War
Though I have never been able to obtain reliable figures, the financial arrangement between CVI and the Arabic media impresarios is no doubt mutually favorable. The power of the impresarios became clear to everyone in 1995, when they kept Arab Network of America (ANA), a Saudi-backed subscriber station, out of the Dearborn market, lobbying for Dubai TV instead. Dubai had no desire to solicit local advertising, whereas ANA did. Moreover, ANA officials hinted that, should they enter the Dearborn market, they would sue local producers who videocopy and illegally broadcast ANA programming, a course of action that would quickly drive the impresarios out of business. After complex negotiations, CVI opted for Dubai TV, thereby protecting its local leased programming even as it added hundreds of monthly subscribers to its new Arabic satellite service.
The decision to do business with Dubai TV reinforced other trends as well. It ensured that Arabic programming in Dearborn would remain overwhelmingly monolingual (relatively speaking, ANA has more English programming than Dubai TV, but neither has much). Since Dubai TV has no American-produced programs (whereas ANA has several), the decision also continued the tendency for popular culture in Detroit’s Arabic-speaking mainstream to be state generated, tradition cultivating, homeland oriented, generally disengaged from the society that surrounds it, and inaccessible (or simply unappealing) to the English-speaking children and grandchildren of Arab immigrants.
The Impresarios Talk Back: Ahmad Berry and Nabeel Hamoud Explain What They Do
The trends I discuss above are recognized and widely criticized by the viewers of Ethnic Access, by CVI officials, and (oddly enough) by Arab media impresarios themselves. There is general agreement, for instance, that the shows on Ethnic Access are imitative, poorly made, cut to pieces by advertising, and insufficiently attuned to community life in America. “Everybody watches it,” a Palestinian friend responded when I asked him about Ethnic Access TV, “but nobody likes it. The Lebanese and Chaldeans feed us garbage. We eat it. There is nothing else.”
Such remarks are colored, quite obviously, by nationalist prejudice. Yet even among Lebanese immigrants, there is a strong tendency to describe the impresarios as sham operators (ghishshasheen); certainly the impresarios describe each other this way, and the accusations sting. In the second issue of Panorama, Berry responded by claiming the high ground for himself, loudly criticizing the “deceit and scamming” (al-kidhab wa-al-shatara) that infect the business community he serves. “The word of honor,” he complained in his editorial, is “a thing of the past” (Berry 1995b, 4).
In Arab Detroit media talk is morally charged. During my interviews with Berry and his principal rival, Nabeel Hamoud, producer of Sada al-‘Arab TV, I was struck by the idealistic, often judgmental language they used to describe their careers, their audience, and the constraints their audience imposes on their work. It was a surprisingly uniform idiom. When I asked Hamoud and Berry how they got into the TV business, for instance, neither said anything about learning to use a camera. They were eager, instead, to explain that they were litterateurs by nature and training. Nabeel Hamoud writes poetry, song lyrics, essays, and plays; Ahmad Berry does likewise. Both men called my attention to their college degrees, which were not in communications.
The point was clear: it is membership in the intellectual elite—not experience on the set or in the studio—that qualifies these men to “transmit” Arab culture, even if their efforts are focused on the somewhat plebeian medium of television. Both men present themselves as teachers who must educate an immigrant community that, in their eyes, is unsophisticated and ill prepared to compete in the “contest among nationalisms” (al-sira‘ bayn al-qawmiyyat) that defines identity in the modern age. Television is simply the most effective pedagogical tool available to them in Detroit. According to Hamoud,
The community, as Hamoud imagines it, is Arabic speaking. Its unity and strength are part of the unity and strength of the Arab people. The reality that is gradually taking shape before Hamoud’s eyes—that of an English-speaking Arab community that flourishes beyond and (in many ways) apart from the Arab world—is hard to confront. The TV impresarios, in their role as “educators,” are understandably averse to this Americanizing trend. When I asked Berry and Hamoud why they did not provide more English programming, they found the question unsettling. Did I really expect them to compete with American TV, with its superior variety, quality, and advertising revenues?
We [Lebanese in Dearborn] are from a rural background. Most of us do not like to read. The old people are illiterate. People from Bint Ijbayl or Tibnayn [villages in South Lebanon] don’t buy newspapers and books. They like images and sounds and music and singing. Television is the way to influence these people. That is why I created Sada al-‘Arab. It is the best way for me to serve my community. My message has been the same since I began in 1984: to make our Arab community always united and stronger. Media is like education. It never ends. As long as I’m capable, I will do this work. My responsibility is to the community and my own work and to provide better Arabic media for this community. Whoever has a talent, I would expect the same of him.
“If you want English programs, you can watch them anywhere,” Berry told me. “If you want Arabic shows, you watch the programs we produce. Arabic is what I offer my viewers. We have tried English programming in the past,…but in our experience, no one wants to watch English programs on Arabic Time TV. We are 95 percent Arabic, and I think it should stay that way.”
I suggested that Arabic is not the only link to the audience. Shared experiences in Detroit might also provide a basis on which to build a viewership, and much of that shared experience, especially among the young, the second- and third-generation immigrants, the U.S. educated, is conveyed in the English language. The English-speaking market is growing, I argued, and Arabic TV could benefit greatly by tapping into it. Nabeel Hamoud agreed that the dominance of English (and the ongoing loss of Arabic speakers) is a fact of life in Detroit, but he did not think it was right to exploit this trend, thereby speeding it along.
The Arab family in Dearborn stands as a metaphor for the Arab community in America; it can be held together by its commitment to a shared, ancestral language. The official ideology of the Arab media impresarios invariably upholds this nationalistic fusion of culture and language. For Berry and Hamoud, the loss of the Arabic-speaking market means, quite simply, the end of what they do.
The people in charge determine something like this. Sada al-‘Arab TV specifically is playing a great role in making the younger generation attracted to Arabic television. We have special shows for kids: cartoons, kiddie shows, educational shows. We concentrate on upbeat music from the Arab world, directed at teenagers. We also give the older generation some oldies from Egypt, like Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Wahhab. So all members of the family have something in Arabic that is appropriate for their age.
Yet beneath the urgent appeals to cultural preservation, there are more practical reasons for the absence of English-language programming. First of all, the impresarios would have to produce this programming themselves, and (as we have already seen) they are slow to produce original programming of any kind.
“The TV networks in the Arab world,” Berry told me, “are supported by the government and advertising money from very big companies. Private ones. National ones. They can afford to produce serials and movies and news shows. I do not have this kind of support. I am one man.”
The financial argument seems compelling at first glance, but Hamoud attributed the dearth of locally produced programming to other causes. When I asked him if anyone had ever tried to put together a Lebanese-American soap opera based on daily life in Dearborn, he took a document out of his bottom desk drawer. It was a tattered copy of a script called “Jaliyatna al-‘aziza” (Our Dear Community). Hamoud wrote it several years ago, and he has not yet succeeded in producing it for television. The reasons for his failure are not financial; they are rooted, he explained, in the very nature of the diaspora community his play was designed to represent.
The moral universe Hamoud describes has been laid out for me countless times by Arab Detroiters, most of whom come from peasant backgrounds. It turns on a commonly felt sense of deficiency, a belief that Detroit’s Arab community is only a fragment of the Arab nation in its proper fullness. The best in Arab culture, says the common wisdom, is always found elsewhere. It flourishes under the patronage of the Arab states, which give their prestige and financial backing to a popular (yet properly sophisticated) culture that transcends the limits of peasant sensibilities.
I am reluctant to say this, but I must tell the truth. The Lebanese here are villagers. They are very conservative and religious. The sophisticated people do not come to Detroit, just the peasant people. And this means our community does not have enough talent to produce artistic programming. We lack writers and actors. I have seen this myself. I tried to produce “Our Dear Community,” but no one would come to rehearsals on time, and they all kept fighting for more money. This is the peasant way. I gave up. I could not tell the truth in my play because our people cannot hear criticism. Do you want to discuss the problem of drugs, or sex, or not respecting parents? The community will forbid you; they will say, “Why are you making us look bad? People in Lebanon will see this. The Americans will see this and say we are criminals.” And for us, acting is dirty work anyway. It is shameful. No family wants their sons or daughters to be actors. In Dearborn, everyone knows everyone. Everyone talks. So it is difficult to put real life on television.
This, in a nutshell, is Gellner’s model of nationalism, with its necessary relationship between nation making and the emergence of popular culture. Yet in Metro Detroit the Arabic-speaking mainstream is not held together and standardized by centralized agencies of the state. It exists between states and (to a surprising degree) beyond legal systems. In the absence of direct government control and investment, Detroit’s Arab media impresarios can finance their nationalizing projects through advertising alone, and this requires a symbiotic relationship with local businesses built on a parasitic relationship with the media products of Arab states.
There is something vaguely unsatisfying about this transnational relationship, for viewers, impresarios, and CVI officials alike. Each party suspects the others of impropriety or low standards. Yet all are willing to defend the status quo, since the Ethnic Access channel effectively turns a community into a market. It does so by appealing to the immigrant’s sense of distance from an original place. When the impresarios claim to be fostering “our language, our heritage, and our civilization” in Detroit, few accept the rhetoric at face value. Like the videocopies that show up on their TV programs, the Arab culture the impresarios advocate is a second- or third-order reproduction, a display of something that by all accounts lives “authentically” (and better) elsewhere. Popular culture in Detroit’s Arabic-speaking mainstream is marked, at every turn, by its vexed relationship with place: do we belong “here” or “there”? Hamid Naficy, reflecting on the exilic condition of the Iranian community in Los Angeles, suggests that questions like these are not easily answered:
All cultures are located in place and time. Exile culture is located at the intersection and in the interstices of other cultures. Exile discourse must therefore not only deal with the problem of location but also the continuing problematic of multiple locations.…Exilism is doomed to failure unless it is also rooted in some form of specificity and locality, even essentialism of some strategic sort. This distinguishes exile from other cultural expressions that are based on difference. Without such rootedness, exile discourse, like all other oppositional or alternative discourses, will be co-opted and commodified through defusion and diffusion. In the cultural domain, as in literature and film, specificity, locality, and detail are all. (1993, 2–3)
The Arabic-speaking mainstream in Detroit confronts the problem of location by imagining itself as a jaliya, a word that (in Detroit) is always incorrectly translated as “community.” It actually signifies something akin to “colony” or “ clave,” and it serves to position Arab Detroit between a larger society to which it naturally belongs (the Arab world) and a surrounding society to which it is external and alien (America). This model of the Arab community, which is dominant among newly arrived immigrants, sustains the twenty-two Arabic-language programs on Ethnic Access. It cannot sustain the identities of Arab Detroiters who no longer feel alien or external to American society, who express their alienation and externality in characteristically American terms, or who feel especially strange only in the company of newly arrived Arab immigrants. These individuals belong, by and large, to Arab Detroit’s English-speaking mainstream, and the popular culture they create is radically at odds with the goals of the Arab media impresarios.
Public Culture in Arab Detroit’s English-Speaking Mainstream: Playing to a New Audience
ACCESS is a human services organization committed to the development of the Arab-American community in all aspects of its economic and cultural life.
Our staff and volunteers have joined forces to meet the needs of low income families, to help newly arrived immigrants adapt to life in America, and to foster among Americans a greater understanding of Arab culture as it exists both here and in the Arab world.
To achieve these goals, ACCESS provides a wide range of social, mental health, educational, artistic, employment, legal and medical services.
ACCESS is dedicated in all its efforts to empowering people to lead more informed, productive, and fulfilling lives.
Whereas public culture in Arabic-speaking Detroit is made beyond the reach of centralized, state-controlled agencies, its production in Arab Detroit’s English-speaking mainstream is increasingly dominated by a single, government-funded organization: ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, located in Dearborn. The Arab community’s successful entry into Detroit’s ethnic arts scene in the late 1980s was engineered and overseen by ACCESS staff. As the manifesto above suggests, the cultural politics underlying this move were framed by the assumption that Arabs are part of American society: they must adapt to it, and they must help Americans to understand Arab culture by explaining how that culture is shaped both “here” and “there.” The rhetoric is consistent with every trend in the popular shift toward multiculturalism, diversity, and pluralism. It is consistent because, unlike the jaliya-based nationalism of Detroit’s Arabic-speaking mainstream, ACCESS is part of the complex ideological machinery America’s business, political, and intellectual elites use to manage and incorporate the nation’s “special populations.”
A Brief History of Access: How a Little Bureaucracy Can Be a Good Thing
ACCESS began in 1971 as a storefront operation run by laid-off auto workers and activists who wanted to provide social services to Arab immigrants in Dearborn. By 1995 ACCESS had grown into one of Metro Detroit’s largest, most effective nonprofit human service organizations. Its annual dinner, which regularly draws two thousand people, is the biggest of any Arab-American organization, and the familiar signs of mainstream acceptance are abundantly on display there: U.S. Senators Levin, Riegle, and now Abraham frequently attend the event, as do the mayors of Dearborn and Detroit, their respective superintendents of schools, corporate bigwigs from Ford, GM, and Chrysler, candidates for public office, and a bevy of lesser notables on the local chain of command.
The admittance of ACCESS into the political mainstream was originally based on the organization’s ability to turn a community into a constituency, with political support being traded for social welfare dollars. Today almost all of ACCESS’s $5 million annual budget comes from state and federal funding sources, with additional contributions from Michigan-based corporations, the United Way, and a community telethon. In 1971 the founders of ACCESS were leftist radicals. The current executive director, Ishmael Ahmed, was a Maoist; other staff and board members belonged to a mix of communist, socialist, and anarchist groups. The demands of mainstream politics have long since pushed ACCESS away from the revolutionary fringe, but the close association between ACCESS and the dole remains a source of stigma in the Arab community. For many years a common criticism of ACCESS (made both in and outside the Arab community) was that it “gets Arabs hooked on welfare” and that its progressive ideals translate, in the final analysis, to the distribution of U.S. government surplus cheese.
The critics failed to see the radical impact ACCESS’s administration of government programs was having on its character as an organization. Within a decade ACCESS had been bureaucratized and professionalized; it had cultivated institutional alliances and networks of political patronage that no other Arab community organization could match. In the late 1980s, when ACCESS expanded its programming into the public arts realm, it was well placed to exploit the scant federal, state, and corporate funds set aside for cultural programming in America’s minority communities.
Access Cultural Arts: How To Succeed in the Representation Business
When discussing ACCESS’s public arts programming, the operational strengths of the organization must be kept in mind, as these are frequently overshadowed by the personal reputation of Sally Howell, founder of the ACCESS Cultural Arts Program and its director from 1987 to 1995. Howell has a degree in Middle East studies; she has lived in Israel, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan; and she speaks Arabic. She is not an Arab, however, and for this reason her success is commonly attributed (by Arabs and non-Arabs alike) to all the qualities Arab immigrants are said to lack. I am often told by Arab friends that Howell has “organizational skills” that Lebanese (or Palestinians, or Yemenis, or Chaldeans) do not; that her vision of the community is holistic, not clannish or sectarian; that she has a firsthand understanding of the methods and standards of “white people”; or, more intangible still, that she has a sense of possibility that extends beyond “big talk, dreaming, and scheming.”
I asked Howell how she interpreted this way of talking about her success. Her answer, an impromptu analysis of the “cultural representation business,” served both to confirm and deny the validity of her image in Arab Detroit.
If these observations are read simply as the opinions of a non-Arab (and identity politics demands such a reading), they will be easily misunderstood. The same views, more strenuously expressed, can be heard among Detroit’s Arab-American activists and intellectuals. The mainstays of the “cultural representation business,” grant writing, interpretive work linking heterogeneous communities, the creation of funding relationships between “special populations” and institutions of the larger society: these are projects Detroit’s newly arrived Arab immigrants are rarely equipped (and seldom concerned) to handle. It is American-born Arabs and their non-Arab allies who dominate the cultural representation business, and they do so using the skills and intellectual habits they have acquired as members of the (same) metropolitan, English-speaking, college-educated, managerial class. If Sally Howell’s prominence within this stratum of identity brokers is often ascribed to her non-Arabness, the perception is an optical illusion. More significant by far is her ability to “tap into” the multicultural agendas of America’s dominant funding agencies.
I think the thing I bring to this job which gives me a clear advantage is the fact that I can write a good, competitive grant. Very few people in our community can do that, and if they could, they wouldn’t be working for my salary. They’d move into the mainstream. That leaves WASPy “do-gooders” like me, who have this volunteeristic mentality which a lot of people in the community find utterly bizarre. But that’s good, because a lot of the big granting agencies are run by people like me. I speak their language. I can tell them what they want to hear, as well as what they need to hear. That’s incredibly important. In the [immigrant] Arab community, I’ve noticed that most people just don’t know how to represent their culture to a non-Arab audience. It’s likely to come across as arrogant, or defensive, or second rate, or just weird. A lot of people [among Arabs] just assume that no one [among Americans] would want to know about them, right? Or they don’t know how they are different from most Americans—or if they do, they don’t want to talk about it in public—so they haven’t developed effective ways for telling Americans what’s unique or special about Arab culture. That’s the biggest disadvantage. Because really there’s this huge opening right now for effective cultural representations of almost any “special” group. Schools, museums, city and state governments, companies—they all want to develop new audiences or deal with new immigrant populations. I just tap into that agenda.
During her tenure at ACCESS, Howell oversaw roughly $2 million worth of public arts programming, most of it supported by grants from government agencies, big business, and private foundations: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Michigan Humanities Council, the United Way, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, the Ruth Mott Fund, Dayton Hudson’s Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and others. Unlike the “one man” approach that prevails among the Arabic TV impresarios, Howell used these resources to build a programming infrastructure whose upkeep is shared by dozens of local scholars, Arab artists, community volunteers, and mainstream institutions. The ACCESS Cultural Arts Program oversees the Museum of Arab Culture, teacher workshops and curriculum consulting for Detroit area schools, artist referrals, a performing arts series, the Aliya Hassen Library (with its five thousand books, periodicals, and videotapes on the Arab world), and ongoing ethnographic and historical research projects on Arab Detroit.
In 1991 Howell gave official shape to her informal network of volunteers and consultants by establishing the Arab-American Arts Council (AAAC). The council consists of about thirty members, Arab and non-Arab, most of whom are English-speaking, college-educated professionals. It specializes in events typically described as “high profile,” most notably Fann wa Tarab: An Evening of Art and Musical Ecstasy, a biennial event featuring leading Arab-American musicians, visual artists, and poets. Fann wa Tarab is always held at a prestigious venue—the Detroit Institute of Arts, for instance—and the flurry of newspaper articles and radio interviews that accompanies the event is designed, quite specifically, to celebrate Arab musical, literary, and artistic achievement in America.
Whether high profile or low, ACCESS cultural arts programming has had a considerable impact on the popular image of Arabs in Detroit, who, even in today’s climate of “diversity,” are widely viewed as a politically suspect minority that can and should be excluded from public discourse. This relentless experience of marginalization leads many Arab-Americans to doubt it is actually they who are being recognized when inclusion finally comes.
“If you told me ten years ago,” said ACCESS executive director Ahmed, “that we would be doing joint projects with the Detroit Institute of Arts, I’d have said you’re crazy. That wasn’t even a fantasy for us back then. Sally made us realize it was possible and…it wouldn’t have happened without her. A lot of these big-time organizations aren’t comfortable working with Arabs, but they can work with Sally; so that gives ACCESS an inside track.”
Yet movement down that track is being funded and sped along by the most mainstream elements of American society: big government, big business, and the educational establishment. Without ACCESS as an institutional base, Howell’s programming ideas (and her role as “white cultural ambassador” for Arab Detroit) would hardly impress these benefactors. Excellent programs have failed to attract funding in the past. In the early 1980s several Arab cultural organizations sprang up in Detroit—most notable among them, the Arab-American Media Society (1980–86), which produced high-quality musical performances, lectures, poetry readings, and a nationally distributed radio program, “Arabesques.” Unlike ACCESS, however, the Arab-American Media Society could not institutionalize itself within the domain of American identity politics. It was not tied to important patronage networks in the state or federal government, a condition that forced it to court the erratic largesse of the Arab Gulf states; nor (with a part-time staff of four people) could it organize, stand for, or administer a critical mass of Detroit’s Arab community. Despite the obvious quality of its work, the Arab-American Media Society eventually fell apart. In Arab Detroit, as in other American immigrant and ethnic communities, the big funders of public culture expect a specific range of payoffs for their investment. Their support goes to institutions that interweave audiences, constituencies, markets, and identities in consistent, ideologically useful ways. This logic can be seen in every facet of ACCESS cultural arts programming.
How Access Spends the Money: Programming Patterns and What They Mean
The Rockefeller Foundation
Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation (PACT)
This Request for Proposals
In communities across the United States, changing demographies and increasing local diversity are leading to more contact across racial and ethnic groups. Daily, through public conversations and the media, Americans hear that they are ill equipped to contend with this contact, that divisiveness and confusion are fragmenting the American experience. Yet their actual experience often contradicts this message, as communities struggle, with varying degrees of success, to discover, understand and engage the multilayered differences that characterize contemporary life in this country. The exploration of who America is—and will become—is informed by the energy and drive of communities tapping into deep reserves of concern and creativity to make a better life. Often the power of the arts and humanities is facilitating transformations within these communities.
Against this backdrop, the Rockefeller Foundation announces its second Request for Proposals for PACT: Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation. This round of PACT is focused on issues of race and ethnicity, whether explicitly and directly or as embedded in community issues such as education, economic opportunity and violence prevention. PACT is designed to identify, learn from and affirm the work of communities that are developing new ideas about America, about changing concepts of American identity and democratic values in a society increasingly defined by multiple pluralities rather than majorities. Specifically, PACT seeks efforts that engage culture and the arts to understand deeply rooted hopes and fears, discover and articulate shared values, stimulate and sustain change and mobilize diverse forces to transform communities.
Whether “newly arrived” or “native born,” Arabs are encouraged to play a very particular brand of identity politics in Detroit’s public spaces. This politics is often described as “inclusive”; it is driven by relentless appeals to diversity and pluralism, yet its ultimate goal is the “appropriation” of Otherness, an end that can be achieved only if the differences that set Others apart are somehow naturalized, normalized, muted, consigned to another time, or linked to a place and way of life the Others have left behind. The Arab-American identity ACCESS fosters through its cultural programs bears all the markings of this assimilative process, and the success of the Cultural Arts Program depends on the following tendencies, all of which buttress the interlocking (and largely unstated) agendas of the American funding establishment.
(1) Most of its programming is designed, carried out, or packaged in English. As with the monolingualism of Arabic TV in Detroit, the anglophone tendency in ACCESS cultural arts programming is not as obvious as it seems. The turnout for ACCESS events is heavily Arab-American, and many in the audience can speak (or at least understand) Arabic. Indeed, Arabic is spoken by more Detroiters today than ever before. The growing reluctance to use it (or Aramaic) at readings, workshops, festivals, art shows, and museum exhibits is attributable to the unquestioned link between English and the idea of a “larger public.” ACCESS cultural arts programs are meant to educate and impress this public. To be effective, to improve the pervasively negative image of Arabs in American society, these programs must be conducted in English.
“The granting agencies put a big emphasis on education and developing new audiences for traditional art forms,” Howell told me. “The new audience for Arab culture is the non-Arab audience, or the assimilated Arab-American audience, and both groups speak English. From my perspective as a grant writer, I’d say the whole multicultural arts movement is oriented toward English speakers. Basically, English is the language all the groups have to communicate in if they want to be heard.”
The performance of Arabic song and the use of Arabic calligraphy in painting and other visual arts are important exceptions to this rule. But song lyrics need not be comprehensible to have emotional effect; and Arabic script need not be understood to have iconic power. When lyrics and letters are posed as “literature,” and their aesthetic impact is based on what they mean, ACCESS programming quickly reverts to English. The Arab-American poets and novelists who read at ACCESS events do so in English. By contrast, the singers at ACCESS concerts perform only in Arabic, even though the introductions, the program book, the banter between songs, and the advance publicity for these concerts are in another language entirely. In both cases the same message is being sent: the audience ACCESS seeks to educate and impress speaks English, and the Arab-American identity it celebrates is constructed within (and as part of) an English-speaking discourse.
(2) Although Arab culture is showcased, its American context is always dominant. The idea of a “general audience,” in whose presence Arabs must represent themselves, functions as a backdrop against which immigrants (and other marked groups) must consciously imagine America and attach themselves to it. This ideological exercise reveals itself clearly in the design for “Creating a New Arab World: A Century in the Life of the Arab Community in Detroit,” an ACCESS lecture series and research project funded by the NEH. In accordance with NEH guidelines, the grant proposal for this project emphasized the need to make Arab immigrants part of the “American story,” even though many Arabs and Americans would find their inclusion in that story coercive.
Using the language of diversity and multiculturalism, ACCESS posed a solution to the problem that it hoped the NEH would fund.
Many Arabs, especially Muslims, feel that their culture and religion distinguish them significantly from European immigrants, who came to America as members of the dominant Judaeo-Christian civilization. This latter view, though rooted in a sense of cultural exclusion that is real, ignores the extent to which local varieties of Islam and Arab identity have been shaped by life in America and are, for that reason, uniquely American. The difficulty many Arabs and non-Arabs face in making Arabs part of the American story is amply reflected in the local media. Every three years or so, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News run multi-page articles on the Arab community, and in each bout of reporting—usually provoked by political troubles in the Middle East—the Arab community is presented as if it were a novelty on the American landscape. The fact that Arabs have lived in Southeast Michigan, and elsewhere in North America, for the better part of a century has not yet been fully realized by most Americans. (ACCESS Cultural Arts 1994, 2)
Despite the rhetoric of boundary breaking, the themes on which “Creating a New Arab World” fastens are located squarely within America’s discourse about itself. The objective is to make Arabs an audible part of that discourse, a goal many Arab Detroiters enthusiastically support. The NEH was supportive as well. In 1994 it gave $85,000 to the project, making ACCESS the first Arab-American organization ever to receive NEH Public Project funds. One might argue that boundaries are falling down; one might as easily argue that Arabs are being encouraged (with generous government assistance) to imagine themselves in explicitly American terms.
The project we envision is committed to breaking down these well-established historical and cultural boundaries. It will address the challenge of identity and diversity by exposing Detroit’s Arab-Americans (and members of the non-Arab community) to the unique society local Arabs have created through their experience as settlers in a new world. By focussing on a few central themes—family, faith, work, language, food, and the artistic heritage—we will attempt to tell the story of a living community that exists in a continual state of transformation.…On the basis of fieldwork done in Metro Detroit, twelve humanities scholars will present lectures designed to enable lay audiences (1) to situate the Arab-American experience in relation to larger world events; (2) to show the interaction between various American and Middle Eastern notions of family, morality, society, religion, and self; and (3) to point out how the outcomes of these cultural interactions have changed over the course of a century. (ACCESS Cultural Arts 1994, 2)
(3) The Arab artistic traditions presented are mostly folkloric or classical; the modern products of Arab popular culture, as they exist in Arabic mass media, are generally avoided. When Howell approached the NEA in 1987 with ideas for cultural programming in Arab Detroit, she was immediately referred to the Folkarts Division. When she contacted the Michigan Council for the Arts, she was referred to specialists at Michigan State University’s Folklife Museum. And so on.
“I learned from day one that Arab artistic traditions are categorized as folklore, at least for funding purposes,” Howell told me.
A lot of funding agencies are interested in authenticity. They want proof the artists we present are part of a tradition. When it comes to Arabs, they don’t support what we would think of as modern or Western-influenced art forms. We’re much more likely to get money for the creation of a performance ensemble that uses ouds, qanoons, nyes, and durbekkes [Arab traditional instruments] than we are for one that plays the same music on electric guitars, synthesizers, and drum pads. There’s actually a greater demand for modern instrumentation in the community, but folkarts panels only want the traditional stuff. You can fund a dabki [line dance] troupe, but you can’t fund a theater group, because theater is not considered an authentic Arab tradition. It’s funny. When we want to present modern music, like Asmahan or ‘Abd al-Wahhab, we have to pitch it as Arab classical music—to prove it’s authentic—which is exactly the way Arabs talk about it.
The same logic can be seen in the ACCESS Museum of Arab Culture—originally called the Arab Folk Heritage Museum—whose carefully prepared exhibits highlight traditional dress, weaving, jewelry, cuisine, coffee paraphernalia, embroidery, traditional housing (both urban and rural), oral tradition, and (at the classical end of the spectrum) Arab variants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Muslim contributions to science, and the Arab-Muslim tradition of education. What the Arab world might look like in the modern, national era is only faintly sketched out in the museum, which is toured by more than six thousand visitors (mostly students) each year. The museum’s newest exhibit, A New Arab World, focuses on life in Arab Detroit. Unlike the exhibits in the older wing, A New Arab World represents a community that is committed to tradition yet at the same time is historical, diverse, adaptive, and a natural part of the modern world. Given the close juxtaposition of these two very different representations of Arab culture, the visitor might be forgiven for concluding that Arab Detroit is historical, diverse, and adaptive because it is American and that the Arab world is traditional and slow to change because it is Arab. This view, be it said, is widely endorsed in both the Arabic- and English-speaking sectors of the Arab community.
(4) Programming is concerned to position Arabs within American culture, not outside it, and this internal position is consistently marked as “ethnic.” Much of ACCESS cultural arts programming involves collaboration with other nonprofit arts groups, and with very few exceptions these groups are identified with Detroit’s ethnic and minority communities. With Casa de Unidad, ACCESS put together Andalusian Legacies, a concert showcasing Spanish/Arabic musical and dance traditions. In tandem with New Detroit, a race-relations alliance dominated by big business and the African-American community, ACCESS organizes the annual Concert of Colors, a daylong world beat concert featuring Arab, African, Asian, Native American, jazz, and Latin performers. ACCESS poetry readings are often interethnic collaborations as well.
Blendings of this sort are based largely on programming expediency—they mirror political coalitions and can therefore be easily organized—but they also represent a way of marketing diversity that is supported by corporate, municipal, state, federal, and private funding agencies. The polite language, according to Howell, is one of “building audiences for ethnic and minority arts,” but the rhetoric is easily translated into an idiom of “building markets” (for corporate sponsors) and “building constituencies” (for government sources). Diversity and multiculturalism are treated as means to these ends, and an organization’s ability to expand programming beyond ethnically uniform audiences is always an important part of program evaluation. The following statement, which Howell inserts into a wide range of grant proposals, is addressed specifically to these themes.
This image of vibrant heterogeneity is somewhat misleading. The programming policy Howell is trying to appease is one that attempts to locate “new audiences,” label them, and turn them into manageable, mutually compatible units. In practice, ACCESS need not reach an audience that reflects the true ethnic diversity of Detroit—most of its events (like the events of other minority and ethnic arts groups) are effectively in-group affairs. Rather, ACCESS needs to build working relationships with the government agencies and corporate interests that, for reasons of their own, are trying to reach Arab Detroit.
ACCESS has been successful at integrating Arab-American and non-Arab audiences. In recent years, the Cultural Arts Program has branched out from its earlier efforts to provide performances of traditional Arab dance in the community, or to teach traditional instruments and crafts to Arab-American youth. By assembling the Arab-American Arts Council in 1991, a volunteer advisory board made up of artists and arts patrons from all corners of the Arab-American community, ACCESS has been able to attract internationally known artists and writers such as Simon Shaheen, Jihad Racy, Foday Musa Suso, Bernie Warrell, Pedro Cortez, Anton Shammas, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mona Simpson, and Diane Abu-Jaber to perform for audiences that reflect Metro Detroit’s true ethnic diversity. Our ability to collaborate with artists and arts organizations both within and beyond the Arab-American community has enabled us to transcend homogeneous crowds and attract new audiences. As we continue to serve the most traditional elements of the Arab community and to reach out to non-Arab Americans, we are forced to be flexible and responsive.
Are We Transnational Yet? (Un)packing Our Theoretical Baggage, Again
We need to think ourselves beyond the nation. This is not to suggest that thought alone will carry us beyond the nation or that the nation is largely a thought or an imagined thing. Rather, it is to suggest that the role of intellectual practices is to identify the current crisis of the nation and, in identifying it, to provide part of the apparatus of recognition for postnational social forms. (Appadurai 1993, 411)
I began by suggesting that anthropology’s move away from nationalism as a focus of inquiry and its avid pursuit of global perspectives are rooted in (1) the worldwide spread of modernity and modern social forms and (2) a resulting increase in the tactical mobility enjoyed by the metropolitan, managerial classes who imagine and administer human communities. This is why transnational approaches seem always to advertise themselves with appeals to (or critiques of) the transcendent, the cosmopolitan, the privilege of movement, and the collapse of space and time. We should expect as much. The people who produce, distribute, and consume the transnationalism rhetoric most devotedly belong to the academy, the corporate elite, and government—social bodies that, in their modern forms, are designed to exceed the limits of any human community they can imagine. Arjun Appadurai’s call to “think beyond” the nation is standard fare in this brave new world of expansionist discourse. As a manifesto, its cutting-edge pretensions are overblown but essential: Appadurai is asking us to invest—intellectually, emotionally, politically—in postnational formations even he cannot yet pin down. Our investment will pay off, he tells us, because the idea of nation “is now itself diasporic. Carried in the repertoires of increasingly mobile refugees, tourists, guest workers, transnational intellectuals, scientists, and illegal aliens, it is increasingly unrestrained by ideas of spatial boundary and territorial sovereignty” (1993, 413).
When one looks closely at public culture in Arab Detroit, however, transnational forces are everywhere tied to the nation-state in obvious and ironic ways. Arabic TV impresarios like Ahmad Berry and Nabeel Hamoud flourish by copying material from media networks controlled and sponsored by Arab governments, and they can do so because they live beyond the reach (and attention) of those governments. They operate in a transnational domain, but contrary to Appadurai’s vision, this domain depends for its survival on “spatial boundaries and territorial sovereignty.” Moreover, the multicultural, hybridizing, diversity-based rhetoric so often associated with transnationalism is alien to the Arab impresarios and their political sensibilities. In its place one finds a jaliya-style nationalism that is conservative, inclined toward cultural authenticity, and unabashedly chauvinistic.
In Arab Detroit’s English-speaking mainstream, one finds public arts programming that is avowedly multicultural, diversity celebrating, and transnational. Yet this programming functions, in practice, to make Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, and Iraqis into Americans of a recognizably ethnic sort. The ACCESS Cultural Arts Program is part of a loosely coordinated national strategy addressed to a perennial American concern: how best to manufacture new citizens who can participate smoothly in America’s public institutions, markets, and politics. Whereas the Arabic TV impresarios are nationalists making Arab identity in a transnational domain, there is nothing effectively transnational about ACCESS programs at all. They reflect, instead, the ability of Americans to imagine themselves as the world and to celebrate cultural diversity even as they work (often unwittingly) to streamline it in manageable forms.
If Arab Detroit tells us anything about local experience in a deterritorialized world, it is that the social imagination, even in a global age, cannot remain deterritorialized for long. Using a language (Arabic) that is strongly associated with another place, Arab immigrants try to attach themselves to Detroit by attaching Detroit to an original, ancestral homeland. Using a language (English) that is more local and more universal at once, Arab-Americans stake claim to an ethnic identity that, in many respects, is already mapped out for them. Both strategies rely on the imaginative and financial resources of the state, and this dependency, Michael Herzfeld suggests, is something most people are unwilling to relinquish:
Before wandering into the open (and possibly empty) spaces along the postnational frontier, cosmopolitan ethnographers—whose agendas are shaped by borders as well as crossings—will have to confront the constant relocation of identity that even the most transient attachment to nation-states makes necessary. Limited though it may seem to us now, this way of building political boundaries and popular cultures shows little sign of fading away.
Whatever the specific historical reasons, the prima facie evidence of rampant nationalism at the very end of the twentieth century, just when everyone “logically” thought its time was past, suggests that nationalism is indeed the place to explore the question of how people—those embodiments of local interests—find their way around in a world still felt to be too large to call home. (1995, 124)
This essay is based on five years of work and residence in the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. Warren David, Jackie Kaiser, Abe al-Masri, Nabeel Hamoud, Ahmad Berry, Sally Howell, Ahmed Chebbani, and Ish Ahmad shaped my arguments during numerous conversations, though none of them would necessarily endorse my conclusions. Lila Abu-Lughod commented on an earlier draft of this paper, which was presented at the 1995 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Nabeel Abraham, Roger Rouse, and Paul Dresch offered insightful criticisms of later drafts. The essay was written at the Institute for Advanced Study, where I found the intellectual detachment I needed to make sense of my experiences in Arab Detroit.
1. There are notable exceptions to the transnationalizing trend. Lila Abu-Lughod’s special issue of Public Culture, “Screening Politics in a World of Nations,” explores the nationalist dimensions of television production in postcolonial states. Yet in 1993, when the issue appeared, theoretical trends were already headed elsewhere, and Abu-Lughod offered a mildly apologetic foreword to the issue. “It might seem surprising,” she notes, “to privilege the national when the transnational character of television programming has been so frequently commented on” (1993a, 465). As I write this in 1996, Abu-Lughod’s rather modest fallback position—that “the nation-state remains crucial for the deployment of mass media” (1993a, 466)—can easily be read as a critique of “postnational” approaches to popular culture. For a sketch of recent trends in transnationalism and anthropological theory, see Blanc, Basch, and Glick-Schiller 1995. [BACK]
2. The figure, which debuted in Abraham and Abraham 1983, is probably much too high. It is lower, however, than the 250,000 estimate commonly cited in the press, by social service agencies, and in academic circles. The latter figure has become a “social fact” of sorts, but its refusal to change (up or downward) during the last ten years of steady immigration suggests that 250,000 is a quantitative symbol of Arab Detroit’s immense size. [BACK]
3. This claim circulates widely in Detroit. It originated (I am often told) in the Michigan Department of Social Services. Hassan Jaber, assistant director of the Arab Community Center (ACCESS) in Dearborn, vouched for the claim’s accuracy. Anyone familiar with the ethnic/racial demography of Detroit would find little reason to question his judgment. [BACK]
4. This figure was provided by Ahmed Chebbani, owner of Omnex, an accounting firm that balances the books for almost all the Lebanese-owned businesses on Warren Avenue. [BACK]
5. For critical takes on celebratory transnationalism, see Asad 1993, Harvey 1989, and Hannerz 1992, all carefully attuned to the oppressive potential of metropolitan cultural forms. For critiques that identify themselves more explicitly with the concerns and interests of the new transnationalism literature yet resist a “celebratory” tone, see Basch, Glick-Schiller, and Blanc 1994; Rouse 1995, 1996. For an extended consideration of ethnography’s role in constructing global and local knowledge, the reader should consult the 1993 ASA Decennial Conference Series, especially the volumes edited by Strathern (1995), Fardon (1995), and Miller (1995b). [BACK]
6. This figure was provided by Abe Osta, executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce–Michigan. [BACK]
7. The six networks are TV Orient, Arabic Time TV, Sada al-‘Arab, United TV Network, Arab World TV, and Middle East TV. The sixteen public access programs are Islamic Message, Islamic Center of America, Islamic Council, Islamic Speeches, Voice of Unity, Abundant Life, Islamic Teaching, The Secret Place, Lebanese-American Club Program, Lebanese Cultural Center Program, Islamic Mosque of America, Sundays Journal, Insights from the Holy Quran, Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, Education and Life, and Islamic Institute of Knowledge. [BACK]
8. I use the phrase “Arab culture” because people in the community use it. I do not think it describes a uniform, bounded object. Neither do most Arab-Americans. Instead, it is shorthand for “manners,” “customs,” “traditions,” “heritage,” “way of life,” and any number of related concepts. [BACK]
9. The predicament of the Arab-American Media Society was shared by many Arab-American organizations in the 1970s and 1980s, when the public space available for Arab self-representation in the United States was minuscule. Funding was hard to generate, and reliance on money from the Arab Gulf kept many Arab-American organizations from developing practical, grassroots coalitions that would enable them to engage effectively in domestic politics. For an intriguing discussion of marginality and its effects on Arab-American political culture during this period, see Abraham 1989. Because it provided social services to America’s largest population of Arab immigrants—a task of considerable benefit to the “host society”—ACCESS was brought into local (and national) political structures almost from its inception. [BACK]
10. For detailed analyses of the corporate, political, and class interests underlying American multiculturalism, see Rouse 1995; Dresch 1995. [BACK]