When I was in Morocco for about a month in 1981, I learned not to speak to the women there — especially women who wear the head covering called the hijab. Maybe it was because I was a stranger, but I had some vague notion that religious Muslim women were not allowed to talk to men who weren't their relatives. This wasn't just on the street. I stayed with a family in Rabat and all communication with women went through the man of the house.
I carried that feeling with me for many years, avoiding speaking to women in hijab. I thought they didn't want to talk to me, and I respected that. Then, a couple of years ago, on a school trip with my daughter, I found myself sitting at a table with a group of people directly across from a woman wearing the head scarf. After being uneasy for a while I told her that I was having a hard time talking to her and recounted my Morocco experience.
She found my attitude amusing and told me that she was born and raised in the United States, and had chosen to wear the hijab as an adult. She also told me there was no reason not to talk to her.
Since then, I've been making the effort to speak when I find myself around women in hijab. Recently, I was picking up some takeout from my favorite Arabic restaurant in Dearborn. The middle-aged woman at the cash register — there is usually an older man there — was wearing the hijab. After we finished our transaction I said "shukran" — the Arabic word for thank you. She replied, "I was born here. You can speak English to me."
We chatted for a few moments. Something I wouldn't have done in the past.
"I think it's great that you told that woman that you were uncomfortable," says Zeinab Chami, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. "That is a really good point to start a dialogue. Sometimes people are surprised when women who wear the headscarf are friendly. People just see the headscarf as something foreign. It's not foreign; it's organic. That's part of this country's freedom of religion."
Chami was born here, and didn't start wearing the hijab until she was 20 years old. When she changed the way she dressed, it didn't make much difference to the people she knew. But strangers approached her differently.
"People started making assumptions," she says. "The first question I get is, 'Do you speak English?' Or, 'Where are you from?' I don't get offended. I find it interesting."
Chami is from Dearborn, which has one of the largest Arabic communities outside of the Middle East. Dearborn has been getting a lot of scrutiny since 9/11, and recent Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle put the spotlight on Dearborn again when she claimed that sharia (Islamic law) was taking over in Dearborn.
"I laugh at that just because it's so ridiculous," Chami says. "The best way to combat this is by educating ourselves. The truth has a domino effect. It's really the best that we can do. You also have to look at who's saying that. Sharron Angle knows nothing about us." Then Chami pulls out the trump card with a tone of self-satisfaction. "She lost the election."
I wrote recently about Angle's ignorance and outright hate talk raised against Dearborn and its Arabic population (30 percent in the 2000 census). That column generated enough online comment that I felt the need to revisit the subject. Chami found humor in Angle's misguided pronouncement. She's got company in Dearborn.
"I can almost belly laugh at that," says Warren David, founder and publisher of ArabDetroit.com. "It reminds me of a Saturday Night Live parody. There's no such thing as sharia in Dearborn. I don't even know where it came from. I've never heard the word mentioned in 30 years that I've lived here."
David, a third-generation American of Syrian-Lebanese descent, was raised an Antiochian Orthodox Christian in Pawtucket, R.I. He moved to the Detroit area in 1979.
After 9/11, David and Siham Awada Jaafar created an annual Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans diversity workshop. This year's workshop on Dec. 2, the eighth, is called "The New America: Mom, Apple Pie and Arab-Bashing." Helen Thomas, the groundbreaking woman journalist born in the United States of Lebanese parents who raised her as a Greek Orthodox Christian in Detroit, is the keynote speaker.
She retired as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers in June after a controversial statement that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to "Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else"; she later apologized with a call for "mutual respect and tolerance" as the only path to peace in the Middle East. Her appearance is sure to catch some media flak.
"We are hoping that it doesn't get to that point," says David. "The woman is 91 years old. She's very frail. We're really in the spirit of diversity and cultural understanding. That's our goal, nothing more than that. We're very proud of her accomplishments over the years."
It will be a good moment to start a dialogue. I'm guessing that someone in the conservative blogosphere will take note of Thomas' appearance in Dearborn and heap more abuse on the city and its Arabic residents. But those are probably people who don't know Dearborn.
Michael Albano, who writes occasional columns for the Dearborn Press and Guide, does know Dearborn. He lived there for some 35 years, moved to California for 25 years, and returned recently to care for his parents.
"When I left in 1983, the east Dearborn business districts were really run-down," says Albano, who is of Italian descent.
"They've pretty much rejuvenated Warren and Michigan Avenues. It's never been as nice as it is now. It's incredible what they've done. I don't have any fear going through the neighborhoods and the streets. I have nothing but praise for what they've brought to the city. ...
"I see people in Dearborn getting along, I'm not saying that there aren't differences, but it's nice to see a woman in a store wearing a hijab that speaks to me."
Hey, maybe there's something about this talking to each other that makes sense. There also seems to be something to not taking things too seriously. Yes, there is injustice in the world. Yes there are probably some bad Muslims in Dearborn — and some bad Christians and some bad Jews — but you are going to find that in any population. We do have serious issues of all kinds to work out and clear up. But the only scary thing under a hijab is a brain that doesn't think like yours. And if that's a problem, it's laughable.
While in Morocco, I mostly traveled by bus. One day, as we rode through the desert, we came upon a solitary woman standing by the side of the road waiting for the bus.
It wasn't a crossroad. It was the middle of nowhere, with only sand and a single black ribbon of road visible in any direction — no buildings, no people. I wondered how she got there and why she waited for the bus at that particular spot. She wore a hijab and the long loose clothing you would expect there. But down low she wore a slamming pair of spike heel shoes.
Now that was funny.