American Impressions, Chapter 9: Michigan
I stared at the storefront as if it were the most beautiful sight in Detroit. Actually, it wasn’t even a storefront, but a glass door and a pair of large windows in back of an ugly brick building. Signs advertised kalamata olives, pita bread, hummus, Greek coffee, 50-cents “pop.” A yellow awning said NINE MACK GROCERY, after Nine Mack Drive nearby. It could have been any one of the hundreds of Mideastern stores in the city, where several neighborhoods are more Beirut than Detroit. But this wasn’t any old store. It was a trigger of memories.
Years ago when I was growing up in Lebanon, I remember the torture of having to go to the store, a Stations-of-the-Cross hike down a couple of hills and a cliff that posed as a road. No such conveniences as 7-Eleven in the Lebanon of the ‘70s, certainly not in our mountain home where we summered. We had “Kozhaia” and “Fares,” two family grocery stores named after their owners. They operated side by side, fiercely competing for the town’s allegiance like the three churches staggered one next to the other down the cliff-like road.
I must have been sent to Kozhaia’s (Koz-HIGH-ah) more often because I remember him better. He was tall, like everyone else at the time; he had a mustache, and even though his store seems to have been a dark cavern of goods that vaulted to the ceiling, I remember him always wearing sunglasses whether he stood behind the cash register or drove his 1951 Plymouth, a green Titanic on wheels. Everybody was familiar with his car. It was the town’s fourth church.
Kozhaia tended the store with his wife, Enhaam, who usually had two of her three small children with her. When my mother shopped there (by car) and I tagged along, she and Enhaam would have endless conversations about the nothingness of the day, leaving me and Enhaam’s children looking at each other like roadblocks to our respective mothers’ attention. I never knew their names, not even that their family name was Rahi.
When we left the country to escape the war, I never thought I’d see the Rahis again, and going to the store in Queens, N.Y., wasn’t about to remind me of them. It was much easier. No hills to speak of and the stores in their multinational succession were literally around the corner, although grocery stores with their proximity and abundance became dull. There was nothing to grumble about, and shopkeepers’ small talk was microscopic, as if aways bullied by the chat-busting order to “Have a good day.” Kazhaia had been a poet by comparison.
Four years later, a mid-afternoon phone call. It’s Kozhaia, frantic with apologies and relief—apologies to be bothering us so, relief to find us home. He is at JFK Airport with his family. They’re on their way to resettling in Detroit. The kids are sick, tired, disoriented. He is not calling to ask for a favor, only for a suggestion about where to stay until the morning flight. My father immediately picks them up and brings them home, the kids gushing vomit, Enhaam and my mother gushing tears. They stayed with us one night then headed West. We wondered how, knowing no English, having never lived anywhere but in a mountain village of 2,000 people, they would make it in a place like Detroit.
And again we lost track of them—until the day in November when I found myself staring at that grocery store in Detroit’s St. Claire Shores neighborhood. A letter-size piece of paper scotch-taped to the door listed the hours of business. Above the hours were the words, “Kozhaia Grocery.”
They had made it.
Our doubts about the Rahis’ ability to make it were not ill-intentioned. But they were probably the result of that haughtiness immigrants lucky enough to succeed can inflict toward immigrants who come after them. I’d like to say that the feeling is natural, the way veterans feel superior to rookies. But it’s actually self-serving, or self-preserving. We leave a lousy place for a better one. We think that the wonderful world we found and meshed with can’t sustain more meshing without being spoiled. So we turn on the very sort of immigrants we’d been. I catch myself occasionally wondering with some of the country’s more paranoid conservatives when immigration’s door should be shut before that fabled American way of life is overrun, but there isn’t much difference between that and wondering what it’d be like to wear a white hood at a cross-burning.
It’s easy to be infected by an intensifying national prejudice against immigrants. In the 1920s, Congress passed two laws severely limiting immigration. The laws aimed to keep the face and culture of the nation mostly Anglo-Saxon. Those laws are gone. In 1996, 916,000 legal immigrants were admitted to the United States, three times the average number of immigrants admitted annually between 1820 and 1965. In 2000, the country’s population will have grown by at least 50 million since 1980, largely on the strength of immigrants like the Rahis. (By comparison, just 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island in the 50 years it served as America’s entryway, between 1892 and 1943).
So the Rahis came, but Kozhaia didn’t need to leave Lebanon. His store made money. He owned property. He was happy. But he valued education above all that, and was exasperated watching his three children’s schools open and close on the proclivities of bombing raids.
”He brought us to America because he wanted us to be educated and knowledgeable about the world,” says Kozhaia’s youngest—and favorite—daughter, Madice, now 29. “His dream was to make his children and wife happy. He succeeded.”
Kozhaia wanted to open a grocery store in Detroit just as he had in Lebanon. First, he and his wife had to make ends meet without knowing the language of their adoptive country. Enhaam went to language school and waited tables for 10 years. Kozhaia became a security guard, but he could not work for long. He had his first heart attack a year after he arrived in the United States. Still, he managed to re-establish the family store in the late ‘80s. It was officially called Nine Mack Grocery, but it remained “Kozhaia’s,” as it did on that piece of paper on the door, for all those who knew the store back in Lebanon.
Many in Detroit did. The city has been the prime destination of Lebanese and other Mideastern immigrants since the turn of the century. Its 220,000 Arabs form the second-largest such concentration on the continent. ( Los Angeles’ 283,000 Arabs overtook Detroit only this decade). The Rahis were not the only ones to emigrate there from their village.
To be in their store for any stretch of time is to be immersed back into the atmosphere of the shop at the bottom of the cliff-road. More than the sweet smells of allspice or thyme or the meats Enhaam is perpetually cooking in the back kitchen, the store exudes continuity. The walls are barely visible behind stacks of products and rows of coolers, and memories displayed on any vacant three inches—backgammon dice, Turkish coffee cups, Virgin Mary calendars and statuettes, Lebanese flags in pins or stickers, 3x5s of the children’s marriages and of the resulting grandchildren, and in the middle of it all, behind the cash register, an arrangement of portraits of Kozhaia in his handsome, assertive prime (no sunglasses).
It is a memorial to a man dead five years.
”By the time we became happy and relaxed, by the time he was supposed to be proud of us and see us graduate form college, he passed away,” Madice says. A heart attack. His fourth. “He died four months before I graduated from college.”
Like the store, the Rahi house in a quiet residential neighborhood of St. Claire Shores is a sanctuary from the past where only the stones have changed. To keep his family’s disorientation down to a minimum when it first emigrated, Kozhaia shipped everything the family owned down to sofas, coffee tables, dishes, linen and the many antiques he collected. And in the garage, still functioning well and still its deep, old green, but now with Michigan tags, the eternal 1951 Plymouth.
The immigrant experience is easy to romanticize. Let’s not, especially not in Detroit, which has always been a city of immigrants in the most sorrowful sense. We think of those immigrants as the Germans, Poles and Irish of the 19 th century, or the Asians, Arabs and Hispanics of the 20 th. But Detroit’s largest groups of immigrants were American, African-American, part of that enormous Southern migration of blacks to the northern cities that began after World War I. They came to Detroit to work in GM’s and Ford’s and Chrysler’s factories, cultivated their own small businesses, and without political power turned the city into a hub of black culture.
The backlash from a once-all-white city was a matter of time. The city’s first riot was provoked by white servicemen stationed there during World War II; the second, in 1967, by white police officers raiding an after-hours black club.
For the duration of my stay in Detroit, I divided my time between Dearborn and St. Claire Shores, both suburbs heavily populated by Lebanese and Arab immigrants, but at opposite ends of the city. To go from one to the other, I drove through Detroit, which is only now beginning to recover from the 1967 riots. The week long riots damaged or destroyed 683 buildings and emptied thousands as residents abandoned the city for the suburbs. Hundreds of charred or empty buildings remain. The population was 1.6 million in 1967. It’s less than 1 million today, and it is the poorest of America’s big cities. Calling it the Midwest’s Beirut is the sort of cliche that led a local entrepreneur to name his indoor war game facility “Lil’ Beirut” in 1988, which offended neighboring Lebanese immigrants.
Detroit’s problems have themselves become cliche, on stand-by whenever the media needs a poster-city of decay. But the real derogatory comparison to Beirut does not apply to downtown Detroit but to the way the 1980s and ‘90s Lebanese immigrants have imported more than sofas and cars to their new life. They have imported old divisions. In Beirut, Christians and Muslims were divided between East and West Beirut, waging endless war over the correct way to worship the same god. In Detroit, Christians and Muslims are again divided between east and west. The Muslims keep to themselves in the Dearborn area, the Christians populate the wealthier sections of Sterling Heights, Warren and St. Clair Shores to the northeast. The Green Line has been replaced by I-94.
In two generations the old-country divisions will be forgotten. But it isn’t as if earlier immigrants have graduated away from self-segregation. Older-generation Arabs to whom more recent arrivals aspire are in the thick of the prosperity that rims Detroit’s inner city. They’d never for a moment dream of letting the two sides mesh. They like the police patrols that intercept suspiciously colored cross-overs from Detroit to their neighborhoods. Victims of slurs like “camel-jockey,” “towel-head,” “terrorist” and “sand-nigger,” they are not above just as viciously reversing the verbal sniping on blacks or Hispanics, let alone Jews.
It is not an “Arab thing.” Detroit’s Germans in the 1880s boasted of eight German-language newspapers but no political representation. The Irish wouldn’t let them have any. Hatreds have since merely changed color. Arabs simply joined the fray, learning to let sectarianism give way to the more current means of feeling superior. It happens to be racism.
LOVE FOR AMERICA
”Why do people go all over the world and return to their country?” Enhaam asks me. “They go to Africa, then go back. They go to the Far East, then go back. But they come to America and never go back. Why? It’s that way since ever.”
And for an hour, as frantic about her love for America as she is about the stuffed grape leaves she is preparing, Enhaam tells me why it is so, the familiar tale of immigrants who have relocated happily to a land that is as demanding as it is rewarding. She loved Lebanon. She hated its mentality—the favoritism, the corruption, the hierarchy of status, above all the inequality between men and women. She is not unaware of the prejudice around her, or even her own.
But she has fought her battles. Now, she wants to revel in her American successes, an enduring legacy of Kozhaia’s vision for his family—the store, her three children’s college education, the relative security of her neighborhood streets. I can’t blame her. Let a younger generation—mine—take up those battles. Her 26-year-old son, Sam, lives and works in Detroit as an officer in a police force that has changed from being the most feared, all-white institution in the city in the 1950s and 1960s to one of the few respected, effective instruments of integration as a mostly black force headed by a black chief. Consciously or not, Sam is doing his part.
We are interrupted by a Lebanese man she knows well who, on being told of my intention to write about Detroit’s Arab immigrants, began to boast about his militia days in Lebanon, how he’s carried an M-16 since he was 13 (“I’ve got a picture!”), how “if the war started today in Lebanon we Christians would take back the country in two days,” and how Lebanon was the greatest thing since the days of the mighty Phoenicians. He threw in a couple of slights at Jews in Israel and in America, as if for good measure, but he wouldn’t say why, with so much greatness beckoning in Lebanon, he stayed in America.
When he left, Enhaam shook her head and gestured with both her hands after him, as if chasing old demons out the door.
MICHIGAN IN BRIEF
Total area: 96,705 sq. miles (rank: 11).
Population (1997): 9,773,892 (rank: 8).
Economy: Manufacturing, services, tourism, forestry.
Nicknames & Motto: Great Lakes State, Wolverine State; “Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice (If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you).”
Entered union: Jan. 26, 1837.
Notable facts The Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex is the largest industrial city in the world. Michigan has more public golf courses than any other state in the nation. The world’s first mile of concrete was laid in Detroit in 1909. Michigan ranks first in 20 manufacturing categories including motor vehicles and cereals.
The state in quotes: “I guess most people found it hard to believe that Elvis Presley didn’t die after all but instead is alive and well and shopping at Felpausch’s Supermarket, in Vicksburg, Michigan. I know I did when I read about it in The New York Times last fall. The Times wasn’t on record as saying, ‘THE KING LIVES,’ or anything like that, but it did report that a Vicksburg woman named Louise Welling had said she’d seen him the year before, in the supermarket’s checkout line.”—Sue Hubbell, from “The Vicksburg Ghost,” a 1989 essay in The New Yorker.
Books: The literature of immigration, both in fiction and nonfiction, is endless. Recent titles include Peter Brimelow’s “Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster” (available in paperback from Harperperennial) and Roger Smith’s “Civic Ideals: Conflicting Views of Citizenship in US History” (Yale University Press, $35). Specific to Detroit and the Arab community, Alixa Naff’s “Becoming American: The Early Arab Experience” was published in 1985 (Southern Illinois University Press). Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” (Noonday Press) may have nothing to do with Michigan directly, but it is one of America’s universal classics of the American immigration experience. First published in 1934, it is the story of a Jewish family of immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side.
Kozhaia’s: Should you be visiting Detroit and have a taste for Mideastern food, Kozhaia’s Nine Mack Grocery is at 23415 Nine Mack Dr., St. Claire Shores. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. except Sundays. Phone: 810-774-7297.
* Detroit: www.visitdetroit.com
* Dearborn: www.dearborn-mi.com
* Michigan links: www.michiganlinks.com
* Tourism: www.michigan.org