Diversity in America: A Personal Observation
Diversity in Dearborn
I once knew a man, a Christian teacher, who offered to take me and another friend out to lunch one day. The teacher was much older than us and had traveled the Holy Land in search of answers about faith and humanity. He was a very wise man, and my friend and I trusted him implicitly.
The teacher was the son of a notoriously tough Norwegian sailor. He'd learned how to survive growing up in an immigrant neighborhood of New York City. My friend and I, on the other hand, had rarely left Michigan in our young lives.
For lunch, he took us to a diner in Dearborn, Michigan. I’ve long forgotten the name of it, but it was a working class establishment, filled with business people on their lunch hour. As we entered Dearborn and neared the restaurant, we noticed the Arabic scrawled atop many of the stores and shops. Having lived near Detroit most of my life, this wasn’t news to me; I’d grown up with several first generation Americans who'd lived in households that still clung to their old languages.
The old teacher parked the car and we entered what appeared from the outside to be any other restaurant in America. Only, when we got in, the smells and noise overwhelmed my friend and I. The teacher noticed and smiled. What had been a mild assault on our senses was like coming home to the old teacher.
The restaurant was cafeteria-style. The foods projected odors that were foreign to me. The loud talk and laughter were unheard of where I came from. Americans generally eat in silence, or around quiet talk. One huge man of Arab ancestry, in particular, seemed to enjoy showcasing his booming laughter. Just then, he spotted us. He said something in his language and the other men at the table laughed.
The teacher finally spotted an open booth and led us to it. The table with the big man with the booming voice was a few yards away. It sounded like he was telling his companions a lewd joke in Arabic, the way they guffawed.
A waitress brought us water and utensils. Then we followed the teacher up to the end of line where we would walk past glass cases and decide what we wanted. My friend and I looked at each other and shrugged. We’d never seen nor heard of most of the foods. The signs were in Arabic.
The teacher said, “Do you mind if I just order for all of us.” He always went out of his way to make people more comfortable.
We carried six platters of food back to our booth, after the teacher paid for it, of course. We sat and my friend and I just stared at all of the foods we had never seen before. The teacher walked us through the meal, starting with tabbouleh and hummus wrapped in a pita. He insisted we try some pickled turnips. The waitress brought us incredibly strong coffee at the teacher’s behest.
The large man at the other table eyed us critically. His companions were putting on their coats, getting ready to leave and get back to work. He stood as we tried, and to our surprise, enjoyed, these new foods. He grabbed his leather coat that must have taken several animal hides to make, and walked the few paces to stand beside our table.
The teacher looked up at him and smiled. The man smiled back and said, “David, that looks like a lot of food for three people. They’ll never eat it all.” He looked at us, but now we could see the mirth in his eyes, that he was giving us a welcome, albeit intimidating.
“My dear friend, Fayyad, I just ordered for the three of us what you normally order for yourself. These two told me they were hungry, so I brought them to where they would find the most generous portions.”
The old, white-haired teacher grinned and the big dark-haired man shook our booth with his peals of laughter. He put on his coat and went over to the old man and laid a gentle hand on his back. “Thank you for doing this. We are Americans first, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ourselves, too, eh?”
The old man nodded in agreement and patted the other man's enormous arm.
Some Lessons on Diversity Last Forever
My old teacher is in Heaven now, and I never returned to the restaurant he showed us. The food was incredible, though, and I never forgot the kindness we were shown, not only by the big man, but by everyone there. We never forgot how they treated us as one of their own, which we were. We were all Americans eating lunch.
Years later, when the Towers in New York were brought down by a radical group of Muslims, I was still eating at various Arab restaurants nearer my own hometown. I found one that I particularly favored, and brought my wife there on more than one occasion. I showed her how to build a proper shawarma pita, how to enjoy tiny sips of the strong coffee, and introduced her to what became a favorite of hers, the pickled turnips.
When 9/11 came, my world changed. Anti-Arab sentiment was deployed against anyone who even looked like they had ancestors from the Middle East. The glorious restaurants that I frequented sat empty, their employees sitting around playing cards or cleaning already-clean kitchens.
I thought about my old teacher. How his faith and boldness would have prevented him from taking sides against his own countrymen, regardless of what others were saying and doing. He was the type that would have purposely made a trip to his favorite cafeteria in Dearborn at the height of Anti-Muslim sentiments. So I did my best to imitate him.
I went to my favorite Lebanese restaurant. It was completely empty when I walked in. The employees wheeled around as if my coming to eat there was proof that something was amiss. I could see the pain in the pretty waitress’ eyes when she came to take my order. I was ashamed to be an American that day.
It was my turn. I never left them alone throughout my entire meal. I practically shouted to them as I went on about the food, the Detroit sports scene, everything under the sky but war and hate. I got the waitress to smile at my loud laughter.
A cook came out to talk with me, a young man who would surely be put to the test by a judgmental American public. He looked very much like one of the Egyptian hijackers. He was full American, of Lebanese descent, and spoke flawless American, slang and all. He was probably twenty years old. I asked him if he thought the Pistons would do anything this year, and he rattled off the players names and statistics like he was a pro sports announcer.
My American Friends from a Different Culture
When I first walked in that day, I was nervous, I won’t lie. The whole al-Qaeda mess had made myself, and my country, nurture fears that were sometimes irrational. The twenty year old kid who was a cook wanted to talk sports with me, not wage war on me. The waitress showed obvious relief when I smiled warmly at her. The attacks on 9/11 were on them, as well as me.
Today, as I grow older, and my teacher has been gone for many years, I take a contemplative walk most days. I get out, stretch my legs, and breathe crisp fresh air. It does wonders for me. My trip normally takes me to the corner store. A store owned by men of Arab heritage. I have no idea what their religion is or what language they sometimes speak to each other. It doesn’t matter. When they talk to me, they speak in flawless English, and we talk about everything under the sun that Americans talk about.
They are so kind, they’ve actually opened the closed store for me on more than one occasion. I consider them my good friends. I would be devastated if an act of hate took them out of my life. We don’t even know each other’s names.
But to them, I am My Friend.