Within the first few pages of Ghassan Zeineddine’s debut story collection Dearborn (Tin House, 2023), I recognized my family. A character had decked out his porch with American flags and sports team banners, posturing patriotism amidst the FBI and Homeland Security agents who descended upon his Arab American enclave in the wake of 9/11. This character had changed his name from Samir to Sam, colloquially referred to by his neighbors as Uncle Sam. In one breath, I laughed and lamented—reminded of my Vietnamese family’s ambient terrors of assimilation and safety in a country that never accepted their citizenship at face value. My dad, like Uncle Sam in Dearborn, had plastered our family car with Texan and American flag bumper stickers, and I was brought back to my simultaneous shame and appreciation of his hope for protection through emblems of association.
Across ten loosely connected stories, Dearborn explores the nuanced identities and lives of Arab Americans in the real-life city of Dearborn, Michigan. Couched in humorous antics and poignant remembrances, the book deftly covers themes of assimilation and belonging, generational divides, migration, class mobility, masculinity, and queerness. In one story, a father and son open a cash-only car wash and stuff frozen chickens with untaxed bills; in another, a local butcher crosses over to a different immigrant enclave, where he’s not known, to explore dressing as a woman and praying in the women’s section of the mosque. The stories in Dearborn are linked by subtle images while showcasing a vibrant, complicated community searching for belonging, survival, and joy.
Ghassan Zeineddine is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College and a co-editor of the creative nonfiction anthology Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging (Wayne State University Press, 2022).
I spoke with Zeineddine about Dearborn over Zoom, and our conversation spanned the generational differences in processing displacement, the preservation and losses of one’s homeland in immigrant enclaves, the aftereffects of entrepreneurialism and success, and the atmospheric quality of symbolism.
The Rumpus: Much of the book centers on the Arab American community, particularly the Lebanese residents, in Dearborn, Michigan. What is your relationship with the city and its residents?
Ghassan Zeineddine: My relationship with Dearborn started a while back. I actually mythologized the city for years before actually stepping foot in it. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. My family is of Lebanese descent, but there was a civil war there from 1975 to 1990. We came to the States in 1990, and I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area starting from the age of ten, where I was one of the only Arabs at school. I never really had Arab friends until I entered college.
Years later, I was in a doctoral program in Milwaukee, and I started to research the Arab American experience in depth as represented in works of literature, and Dearborn kept coming up, so I started to research and read about the city. Then, a job opportunity opened up to teach Arab American literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. I jumped on it. My wife and I moved there in the summer of 2018. So, it was years ago between when I first knew about the city and then researched the city and then actually lived in the city and taught Dearborn residents.
Rumpus: In one story, the narrator quips that Dearborn, “with all its Arabic restaurants and grocery stores and mosques, reminded them of home while having the conveniences of America.” To what extent can new immigrant enclaves like Dearborn become a preservation of the remembered homeland versus an incomplete adaptation? What parts of one’s culture do you feel are more easily preserved, and what parts face the most pressure in a new country?
Zeineddine: What’s so unique about Dearborn is that it has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country. It’s so highly concentrated that in East Dearborn, the Arab part of town, you can walk down a neighborhood street and pretty much every single house on either side is occupied by an Arab household. Quite often I’d walk into a store and not know whether to speak in English or Arabic. Even in grocery stores, many products are imported from the Arab world. So, at times you feel like, “Oh, I’m back home in the old country.”
But at the same time, you’re not. You can maintain the language and the cultural aspects of your ancestral land, but it’s not a replica. Currently there’s a huge economic crisis in Lebanon. People are struggling financially. For years there’s been a lack of twenty-four-hour electricity and fresh water. So the everyday life that a Lebanese American is living in Dearborn might feel like Lebanon in the sense that they’re gathering with family and friends who are all speaking Arabic, but at the same time, they’re not experiencing what every day Lebanese are experiencing in Lebanon.
Rumpus: The Dearborn characters, in leaving Lebanon during the civil war, also carry with them the burden of displacement and violence. Some vocalize their trauma while others bury it within themselves. And then there’s a new generation born from these immigrants, who absorb their parents’ stories and struggles to varying degrees. What did you hope to convey about the way displacement filters from the generation that experienced it to the next? How might each generation process displacement differently?
Zeineddine: I think that the notion of displacement has a lot to do with notions of home. Some characters maintain this idea of Lebanon that they grew up in before the civil war. It’s an image that they want to keep and retain. In the last story in the collection called “Rabbit Stew,” the narrator’s mother reminisces about her golden years in Beirut before it was destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War. She’s preserving that image of Beirut and imparting that to her children, including the narrator. It also deals with this desire to return to one’s ancestral land. When you’re displaced, you’re kind of ripped out of your homeland. Sometimes what happens is cities evolve over that time.
For quite a lot of the first-generation characters in the story collection, their idea of home is kind of mired in a particular time. Their vision of the country and the city they once grew up in is not true anymore if they were to return. The second generation grows up on these stories of Lebanon without knowing this reality, given they may not have ever traveled to Lebanon. The stories they hear may not always be that authentic if they’ve been romanticized.
Rumpus: There’s also so much hope in the stories too. The characters in Dearborn reminded me of the community of Vietnamese refugees that I grew up around—at least from my understanding—both groups often exhibiting entrepreneurialism and savvy in the face of working-class drudgery. Why was it important to you to highlight the characters’ enterprises—both successful and not—at upward mobility?
Zeineddine: Dearborn is such an entrepreneurial city. Small, private businesses really thrive in the city. I think the desire for upward mobility is not only to stake a ground in America, but it’s also to stake a ground back in one’s ancestral land. There are a lot of expats who build these huge mansions in Lebanon because they want to have a presence in their home country even though they may not visit that often. These mansions are empty most of the year. I think it’s a matter of building one’s prestige back in the home country too.
Also, as in earlier in our conversation about the Lebanese economic crisis, a lot of Lebanese families are just surviving from money that Lebanese Americans are sending home, so there’s always that tie-back. It’s something very circular that once you leave Lebanon doesn’t mean that you just cut off your ties with the home country. There’s always this idea of return that underlies the pursuit of upward mobility.
Rumpus: Some characters in the stories conflate monetary success with assimilation. Money sometimes smooths over memories of being othered. In the book, there are situations in which successful, longer-tenured Arab Americans exhibited disdain for new Arab immigrants, who are building their own enclaves in nearby towns. What can be done to avoid desensitizing ourselves to the real struggles and difficulties of new migrants?
Zeineddine: In the collection, I tried to touch on the tensions between the different Arab ethnicities in Dearborn—between the Lebanese, Iraqi, and Yemeni communities, for example. The Lebanese traditionally have been in America the longest, from the late nineteenth century, and have been so well established in Dearborn that there’s a sort of hierarchy system, which is really unfortunate but still exists.
There’s colorism that goes on too. I saw with my own eyes that a lot of Lebanese were leaving Dearborn and moving further west because of more Iraqis coming into the community. There’s a lot in common that we have as Arabs, but each Arab country has its own different historical and sociopolitical legacy. I think what helps is sharing and being aware of one another’s stories in the sense of being aware of each other’s journeys. It’s one way of making people aware of the immigrant experience, especially the civil strife in places like Yemen and Syria, where people were forced to leave their homelands and won’t be able to return to the place they had left. There’s racism between Arabs, but it’s a national problem too.
Rumpus: Definitely. Despite the Dearborn characters’ citizenship and Americanness, their identities as Arabs and Muslims often subject them to the presumptive prejudice of American law enforcement. Deportation raids and targeted tax investigations pepper the stories. How can this ambient danger affect one’s psyche and personhood?
Zeineddine: It makes one really anxious. Arab Americans are gaining ground in local and national government and building thriving private businesses, yet there’s still the fear of federal agencies. You always question your idea of citizenship. You feel that you belong, you feel that you’re American, but at the same time, the government is singling you out. They don’t necessarily see you as an American; they see you as a Muslim or Arab. This brings a feeling that you’re always targeted. It was the anxiety that I tried to capture in the story collection because I felt it myself.
No matter how successful you are, how patriotic you are, you’re going to be singled out and made to feel that you’re just a visitor here. There’s still traces of anxiety from after the attacks of 9/11. Especially during the Trump years with the infiltration of FBI and ICE in the community and also the surveillance of Arab Americans, there’s still residue of the anxiety that has persisted.
Rumpus: The characters, as those in real life, have to straddle multiple identities—not just with law enforcement but also with one’s parents, elders, and friends within and outside the community. There’s constant context switching. In what ways can these layers of performed identity serve as a helpful or pernicious adaptation?
Zeineddine: Among Arab Americans, you may experience the feeling of being an outsider in either community, Arab or American, and you’re kind of always caught in the middle of that. There’s always this push and pull of how much of your identity that you can reveal. In one story, “In Memoriam,” a character wears the hijab in the community, but when she wants to date, she actually leaves Dearborn and takes off her hijab so that no members from her community will recognize her and report back to her parents. Part of her identity exists while she wears a hijab in Dearborn, and it’s heartbreaking that part of her true self can only be accessed when she leaves the city because she’s scared of all those watchful eyes.
And in the story of “Yusra,” a butcher named Yasser sometimes dresses up in a niqab and abaya that covers his head and body while he wears a dress underneath because he sees himself as Yusra. But he can only be her in a disguise because if he were to embody Yusra in Dearborn, he fears he would be rejected by his friends and his family. He even keeps it from his wife. He doesn’t dare mention it. So there’s always this push and pull of how much of your identity you can reveal, and that goes back to the conservative nature of the city and how open the city is to certain aspects of one’s identity. There are a lot of constraints on the expression of one’s identity and how much you can reveal of yourself.
Rumpus: Like you conveyed through the covering of the niqab and abaya, there’s a magic to the physical details in these stories. Something as everyday as a cigarette or a billboard can serve as a quiet metaphor for a relationship’s evolution or a barometer of success. How do you conceive symbols to represent the emotional and narrative core of your stories? Do you start from the symbol when you write, or does the symbol make itself known as you write it?
Zeineddine: I see the symbol as part of the atmosphere of the community. In the case of a story called “Speedoman,” it follows the points of view of five women and their husbands. They’re at this community center swimming pool, and there’s this mysterious man who appears wearing Speedos, on the back of which are images of Lebanon. Those images, for the men in the story, spark nostalgic memories of their homeland. But for the women, it sparks something else. I don’t consciously look for symbols while I’m writing; they come to me from being in the community.
I sometimes also like to make a subtle connection between stories. I mentioned this story before called “In Memoriam.” The narrator is dating a guy from her creative writing class, and she goes into his sister’s bedroom and sees a poster of the Titanic. That is a subtle nod to another short story called “Marseille,” which is narrated by an Arab American Titanic survivor. So in a way, I also wanted certain symbols to be like faint echoes, making subtle links between the stories through imagery.
Rumpus: You mentioned “Speedoman,” which is one of my favorite stories in the collection. It switches effortlessly from the husbands’ and the wives’ point of views. It’s written in first-person plural. How did you encompass the thoughts of the collective without flattening their identities as individuals? How did you go about writing that story?
Zeineddine: When I think of first-person plural, I always think of some sense of community. In 2018, my wife and I visited the Ford Community Center where this story took place, and I saw five Arab men in the jacuzzi and five Arab women in the pool area. I thought about how these spaces are so gendered—I knew from cultural habits that the Arab women weren’t going to go into the jacuzzi unless all the men left it first. That really stuck in my mind, and I wanted to tell a story about these men and women in the swimming pool, and I wanted to capture their voices in first-person plural. But I needed a link between the points of view, and that’s where the character of Speedoman came into play.
It was important to me that the voices of the five men and their five wives were very distinct, and I wanted to show tensions between those two different first-person plural points of view. To show how they clash and also to show this gendered sense of community.
As far as craft, every now and then a character is going to have an individual action where they have to be singled out as an individual but not break away from the point of view. So in certain instances, I pinpointed one character to do an action but kept the same point of view. I made it so that the voices were very distinct from each other and then made them clash to produce narrative tension.
Rumpus: From our conversation earlier, it sounds like you’ve studied the short story form extensively. Were there other authors or bodies of work that you saw Dearborn in conversation with?
Zeineddine: I love the short story cycle—you know, a collection of stories that are linked either by recurring characters or common themes and settings. I’ve actually been teaching a course on the ethnic American short story cycle for years and have been so inspired by earlier short story cycles like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Newer collections like Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez and Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You inspired me too. There are just so many beautiful ones. I’ve been fascinated by this form because it’s not simply a sum of its parts. It’s kind of a communication between the parts to produce this intricate mosaic that affords us the ability to tell several different stories about the same community in the same setting.
Author photograph courtesy of the author