Ghassan Zeineddine’s story collection Dearborn paints an acute and moving portrait of Dearborn’s Arab American community.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“Stories full of humor and warmth about an Arab American community. Inspiring. . . . Masterfully told. . . . What Zeineddine can do with a simple storyline and a few pages is a thing of wonder. A fantastic collection heralding the voice of a major new writer.”
My debut story collection is titled after one of the most unique cities I’ve ever lived in: Dearborn, dubbed the “capital of Arab America.” Ever since the Ford Motor Company started paying its employees $5 a day in 1914, droves of Arab migrants have been making their way to southeastern Michigan, braving the harsh winters to make new lives for themselves. Dearborn now has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country. On the east side, the Arab part of town, the streets are lined with Arabic grocery stores, restaurants, coffeehouses, hookah lounges, and mosques. I’ll often enter an establishment and not know whether to speak in Arabic or English. There’s even a local radio station that plays Arabic pop songs. When I first drove through Dearborn on a warm spring evening in May 2018 (I’d moved to the city for a job), I tuned into this station and heard Melhem Zein, a singer from Baalbek, Lebanon, belting a tune. For a moment I thought I was driving the streets of Beirut, where I had lived for most of my twenties. But no, I was in America, in a blue-collar city with an Arab pulse.
Only after completing my story collection did I realize how much music, both in English and Arabic, had influenced each of the ten stories.
Amr Diab, “Nour El Ein” (“Light of the Eye”)
“The Actors of Dearborn”
In my opening story “The Actors of Dearborn,” Youssef Bazzi, a failed stage actor and census taker, walks the streets of East Dearborn, canvassing the neighborhoods in preparation for the 2020 census. He hears Arabic pop music blaring from passing cars. In writing this story, I imagined one of the songs would be “Nour El Ein,” by the Egyptian singer Amr Diab, who’s one of the biggest music stars in the Arab world. Released in 1996, this song is still played routinely on radio stations in the Middle East and at weddings.
Abdel Halim Hafez, “Asmar Ya Asmarani” (“Dark-Skinned Beauty”)
Abdel Halim Hafez was not only famous for his songs in the mid-to-late twentieth century (he’s still very popular), but he also starred in many Egyptian films. He’s a classic Arabic singer with a deep, melancholic voice. Many of my friends and family members have memorized the lyrics to several of his songs, including those to “Asmar Ya Asmarani,” one of his most beloved tunes. In a scene in “Speedoman,” a group of five middle-aged Lebanese men listen to a mysterious Arab man with long sideburns sing a song by Abdel Halim Hafez inside the communal showers of a gym in Dearborn. (For copyright reasons, I couldn’t include the lyrics to “Asmar Ya Asmarani” in my collection.) At the beginning of the story, the mysterious man appears out of nowhere (he drives a ’70s Volkswagen van with an Arizona license plate) and struts around the edges of the gym pool in Speedos with images of Lebanon printed on the back. Whenever the five men glimpse these images, the ache of nostalgia spreads in their chests. They’re unable to shake off their melancholy for the rest of the day, pining for Lebanon like a lost lover. The longing for a person out of reach is embodied in so many of Halim Hafez’s songs.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
My family and I emigrated from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1990. My parents had wanted to live in their hometown of Beirut, but from 1975 to 1990 a horrific civil war raged in the city and made it impossible. I was raised in the desert only a few miles from the Red Sea. When I started school as a fifth grader in D.C., I had a noticeable accent; my skin was dark brown. My older sister and I were the only Arabs in the school. But I’d soon lose my accent and my skin would pale. In my yearning to connect with my American classmates, I started to listen to music they were fond of. In 1991, when I was eleven and in sixth grade, Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, was released. I liked Nirvana but didn’t love them as much as my male classmates did. At dance parties, whenever the DJ played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the boys would gather in a circle and start headbanging to Kurt Cobain’s wailing voice. I once squeezed my way into their circle and headbanged with them, and although I didn’t know the lyrics, no one cared nor noticed. In “Money Chickens,” the narrator, who was born and raised in Dearborn, adores Nirvana, and in remembering Cobain, says, “If I had possessed a grungy voice or known how to play the electric guitar, I would have aspired to die young as a musical genius.”
Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”
“Marseille” is narrated by a ninety-nine-year-old Titanic survivor named Ayda. Originally from Sofar, a mountaintop village in Lebanon, Ayda, only fourteen at the time, lost her first husband in the sinking. She recounts her story to a young journalist, who is working on an article about the historic ship for the Dearborn Post, a fictional Arab American newspaper. The story is set in 1999, only a few months after the release of the film Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. When I think of the hit film, I often recall Celine Dion’s sentimental song “My Heart Will Go On.” Back in the late ’90s, I owned the soundtrack to the film and would listen to it repeatedly. Since I was a boy, I’ve been obsessed with instrumental soundtracks—I find the dramatic and emotionally driven music inspiring. When I first started writing seriously, I couldn’t write without listening to a soundtrack on my CD player.
Nancy Ajram, “Akhasmak Aah” (“I Will Upset You, Yes”)
“I Have Reason to Believe My Neighbor is a Terrorist”
Badria Sadek, the protagonist of “I Have Reason to Believe My Neighbor is a Terrorist,” is a middle-aged woman who has lived in Dearborn for over thirty years. Her adult children reside in Ann Arbor, and her husband works at a convenience store. She spends most afternoons at home or visiting her neighbors, but when her next-door neighbor’s wife, Lulu, arrives from Lebanon to start a new life in America, the two quickly form a bond. Lulu is only eighteen, the same age Badria was when she emigrated from southern Lebanon. Lulu tells Badria that she’s always dreamed of visiting Las Vegas. Back in Lebanon, she says, when she’d gather with her younger sisters in the evening in their shared room, she’d entertain them with songs. “They’d sit on their bunk beds,” she says, “and I’d stand in the middle of the room and sing Arabic pop songs, imagining myself on stage in Las Vegas.” I pictured Lulu singing Nancy Ajram’s pop song “Akhasmak Aah,” which was released in 2003, a couple of years after the main events of the story. This song made Ajram famous.
Mona Haydar, “Wrap My Hijab”
I can’t get enough of Mona Haydar’s “Wrap My Hijab,” a hip-hop song released in 2017 that celebrates women’s choice to wear the hijab. With its infectious beat and chorus, the song inspired “Zizou’s Voice”: I wanted to write a story that incorporated hip-hop music about the Arab and Muslim experience. As a comedic writer, I had fun with this. Haj Huss, a minor character, manages an Islamic recording studio called “Halal Records,” and produces albums by bands such as the Islams, the Real Osamas, New Muslims on the Block, the Bearded Bards, and Hijabi Hipsters.
Fairuz is one of my and my wife’s favorite singers. We often listen to her melodic and heartfelt voice in the mornings or on long car drives. She’s not only a Lebanese singer; she’s a global star. In “Shadi,” the speaker of the song reflects on a time in her youth when she and a village boy named Shadi would play in the woods and in the snow, sing together, and carve stories into rocks. But when fighting breaks out nearby and Shadi approaches the sounds of violence in the valley to see what’s going on, he disappears forever. As the years pass and the speaker ages, in her memories Shadi remains a boy playing in the snow. Although “Shadi” was released in the 1970 album Ya’Eesh Ya’Eesh (Long Live the Leader), five years before the start of the Lebanese civil war, I can’t help but think of the civil war whenever I listen to the song. A hundred thousand Lebanese civilians were killed. Like Shadi, so many children never had the chance to reach adulthood. In writing “In Memoriam,” I thought of Shadi’s tragic fate. My story is about a young woman who grew up listening to the tragic death stories her parents and her parents’ friends would share at evening gatherings. She eventually becomes an obituary writer at the Dearborn Post and launches her own social media page that presents video obituaries of those who died tragically.
Haifa Wehbe, “Bous El Wawa” (“Kiss the Boo Boo” or “Kiss the Owie”)
Although the music video of Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe’s 2006 song “Bous El Wawa” depicts the relationship between a mother and her toddler son, there’s a lot more to it than that. In all the shots, Wehbe is dressed in seductive lingerie or clothing, and her expressions are often flirtatious. On the surface, the video and song are about a parent kissing their child’s boo boo so that they feel better. But the subtext is entirely different. It’s as if Wehbe is asking the adult viewer and listener, “Would you like to kiss my boo boo?” Like Wehbe, the protagonist of “Hiyam, LLC” embraces her sexuality. Hiyam is a twice married middle-aged woman who runs a real estate company and drives a black Escalade with tinted windows. She’s not afraid to cuss out bad drivers in Arabic. She dyes her hair black and never leaves the house without putting on makeup. Although she flaunts the curves of her body in public, she wears a hijab and a long-sleeved dress in the privacy of her home when she prays to Allah.
Umm Kulthum, “Alf Layla Wa Layla” (“A Thousand and One Nights”)
The Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum, is a towering figure in twentieth century Arabic music and a cultural icon of the Arab world. Some of her songs are well over an hour long. When I lived in Beirut, I’d see her unmistakable portrait—black hair pulled back, heavy black framed glasses—spray painted on city walls. At her funeral procession in Cairo in 1975, four million mourners supposedly appeared in the streets. Although I admire Umm Kulthum’s deep, powerful voice, I’m more of a Fairuz fan. However, I love her song “Alf Layla Wa Layla,” which was released in 1969. The narrator of “Yusra,” a genderqueer butcher, reminisces about an afternoon when he was a boy and waxed his mother’s legs, wishing that they were his own, as they listened to Umm Kulthum on the transistor radio.
R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”
Set in 1991, “Rabbit Stew” explores a nephew’s relationship with his shady uncle from Beirut. There’s a scene where the uncle and nephew drive into Detroit and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” is playing on the radio. Although the nephew, who narrates the story, loves the song, I never did and still don’t. But I associate the song and the band with the early ’90s. As my family struggled financially, we couldn’t afford cable, but I got to watch plenty of it at my grandmother’s house in D.C. on the weekends, where I consumed MTV. Whenever the video to “Losing My Religion” came on, I changed the channel.
Ghassan Zeineddine was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the Middle East. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College, and co-editor of the creative nonfiction anthology Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Ohio.