Thursday, January 25, 2007

An ethnic divide in the Arab capital of the United States

Neil MacFarquhar:

After the longtime mayor, Michael A. Guido, died of cancer here in December, a flock of Arab-American candidates stepped forward in the hopes of claiming City Hall.

But despite the fact that roughly one in three Dearborn residents is of Arab origin, most of the Arab-American candidates had dropped out by mid-January. Poll numbers showed that none of them could win.

Internal rivalries echoing those that beset the Arab world, along with the general electorate’s lingering unease about Muslims, combined to derail what many here had hoped would be the chance to prove that Arab-Americans had arrived politically — at least in Dearborn, their unofficial capital in this country.

“One day, an Arab-American will be in office at the top, but this will not be the time,” said Osama Siblani, the burly publisher of the weekly Arab American News, whose friends tease him about his perennial “this is the time” editorial at every election. “There is no doubt that electing an Arab-American to the City Hall in Dearborn would have sent a strong message to the rest of the country that Arab-Americans are part of the political process. Would we want it? Yes. Is it possible? No.”

Mayor Guido had something of a checkered reputation among Arab-Americans here, not least because his first campaign, in 1985, distributed a leaflet promising to address the “Arab problem.” Things improved somewhat over the years — he visited Lebanon, and Arab-Americans donated heavily to his campaigns.

But last summer, he criticized the “mobs” protesting Israel’s attacks against civilian targets in Lebanon and sent the Arab-American community a $23,000 bill for overtime for police officers and firefighters during the demonstration. The bill, sent to a coalition of Arab-American groups, resulted in a free-speech lawsuit.

When Mr. Guido died, several Arab-American candidates stepped forward, including a well-known local prosecutor and a former North American middleweight boxing champion who recently starred on “The Contender,” a reality television series. An intensive vetting of candidates for the Feb. 27 election was started under the auspices of the Lebanese American Heritage Club so that the entire community could unite behind just one contender.

That did not happen, not least because the front-runner, John O’Reilly Jr., having been president of the City Council for 17 years, knew something about the internal rivalries pitting the Lebanese against the Iraqis against the Yemenis. Mr. O’Reilly, known as Jack, set out to separate the Yemenis from the rest of the Arab community here and succeeded in winning their early enthusiasm.

Arab-American candidates “come to us and say ‘salaam aleikum’ and a few other Arabic words to play on our emotions,” said Nass Al Rayashi, one of the founders of the Yemeni American Political Action Committee, using the Arabic greeting of “peace be upon you.” The committee was formed in March 2005 in large part because the Yemenis felt the Lebanese had dominated civic life at their expense.

The Yemenis, concentrated in the somewhat gritty South Side neighborhood sandwiched between the sprawling Ford Rouge plant and Woodmere Cemetery, want a candidate focused on local concerns. These include a lack of parking at the Dix Street mosque and pollution emitted by neighboring industrial areas including the Ford vehicle factory, which drew Arabs here for work for decades, but where fewer and fewer are finding jobs.

“Don’t tell us you go to Ali so-and-so’s house to eat Arab food,” Mr. Rayashi added. “This is America, this is the melting pot. Our interests should be what is good for us here.”

There has long been a division between the economically better off western side of Dearborn and the eastern side. In the old days, recalled Mr. O’Reilly, whose father was mayor from 1978 to 1985, the division was known as the “cake eaters” versus the “factory rats.”

Now some see it as more like the Muslims versus everybody else.

“People are a little bit afraid of them,” Mr. O’Reilly said, attributing it partly to traditional Christian education that he said had long taught that “their philosophy of religion was ‘convert to Islam or die.’ ”

The fact that Arab-Americans in Dearborn are prone to demonstrations, including protests against last summer’s war in Lebanon and the recent hanging of Saddam Hussein, only adds to the unease, he said.

Although more affluent Arab-American lawyers and real estate developers have gradually integrated the western part of the city, an ethnic divide remains. Abed Hammoud, a lead lawyer in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office and the favorite of the Arab community until he withdrew from the mayor’s race on Jan. 12, said he was met with surprise when he knocked on doors in western Dearborn.

“People reacted like I had come from the moon,” said Mr. Hammoud, 41, a kinetic figure with receding salt and pepper hair who left Lebanon in 1985. “They said things like ‘It’s good of you to come to this end of town,’ or they asked me about the people ‘over there’ and they meant the other side of town.”

The Arab American Political Action Committee, which Mr. Hammoud and Mr. Siblani, the newspaper publisher, helped found in 1998 largely to inspire Arabs to run and vote, commissioned a poll to assess Mr. Hammoud’s chances. They found Mr. O’Reilly, suddenly alone in the non-Arab field, commanding an unbeatable 65 percent lead to Mr. Hammoud’s roughly 30 percent. They consoled themselves with the fact that Mr. Hammoud was likely to do better this time as a candidate than he did in his first mayoral primary, which fell on the unfortunate date of Sept. 11, 2001.

But basically the results suggested that at best he would capture the Arab vote — not enough to win the entire city of 100,000.

Time alone may favor the Arab-Americans here. Mr. Hammoud cited numbers showing that in 1998, there were 60,000 registered voters in the city, 8,500 of them Arab-Americans. Today, it is 14,500 out of 57,000, and at least 60 percent of high school students are Arab-Americans.

“People look at an Arab now, and the first thing that pops into their head is terrorism,” said Tarick Salmaci, the boxer, who withdrew from the race. “We want to change that. Arab-Americans have to become political figures to change that.

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