Skip to content

On Identity and Partnership – A Conversation with the Center for Arab American Studies

    by Maya Barak, Sally Howell, and Mohamad (Moejay) Jafar

    This spring, A Zine About Students As Partners sat down with Mohamad (Moejay) Jaafar, UMDearborn alum and Communications Specialist with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), and Dr. Sally Howell, UM-Dearborn Professor of History and Director of the Center for Arab American Studies (CAAS), to learn more about CAAS’ Halal Metropolis exhibit and Seen Jeem podcast.

    Sally Howell: I’ve been working in the Detroit Metro area for over 35 years now doing research on Arab and Muslim communities in our region. That’s what got me interested in the project that would become Halal Metropolis. This community had this long history, but there didn’t seem to be a good way of sharing that history with the public and most people didn’t know it. I was looking at all these new spaces in the metro area that Muslims are moving into, like Hamtramck, where suddenly they’re becoming visible even if they’ve been there for a while. We have a mayor and a completely Muslim city council in Hamtramck. Obviously, in Dearborn the political accomplishments of the Arab community have recently taken this huge leap forward.

    So I was interested in looking at how Muslims are transforming these places around Detroit, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Hamtramck, and the Downriver area. They’re taking areas that had been distressed and they’re really turning those spaces around and making them very economically successful. There’s a very positive story to tell here.

    As I was documenting these transformations I found other people, artists in particular—like Razi Jafri, who’s a documentarian, and Osman Khan, who’s a visual and installation artist—who were exploring similar themes through their documentary work and their art. The three of us got together and came up with this exhibition series to document the past and present and then look at imaginings about the future.

    As part of the Halal Metropolis installation we began hosting thematic gallery talks with artists, entrepreneurs, fashion designers. We needed someone who was media savvy and technically savvy to help us document these talks and make short films out of them. I initially heard about Moejay from the Social Science department where he was working. It was really the other students on the team, though, who knew him and said, “Oh, he’s great, you would really like working with him.”

    Seen Jeem podcast creators at UM Dearborn.

    When we started working together he became, I mean, I keep telling people I have this person who is my right arm! That I’m like an octopus—I have a bunch of right arms, but Moejay was so reliable, so competent, so confident, and so pleasant to work with. His role with us started off small. He was just supposed to show up, help us document things and then maybe edit the video for us. But then he just became an instrumental part of the team and, so much so, that he’s still working for us with the Seen Jeem podcast—our follow-up to Halal Metropolis—even though he has a full-time job somewhere else.

    Mohamad Jaafar: It really has been such a journey for me these past two years. In a more traditional academic setting there’s a lecturer and students. The relationship is very clear. You can adjust your curriculum, but there are the learners and there’s the teacher. The difference in these transformative spaces, like Halal Metropolis and Seen Jeem, is we’re all sort of entering with a seat at the table as collaborators—1,000%—all learning something from each other, all teaching something to each other.

    I think that a lot of younger students, Gen Z folks, we really struggle with that transition from the university to professional world. It’s opportunities like this, where you’re working in a department or project on campus and you have access to great mentorship, that you’re able to grow as a professional. You learn how to communicate on a team. You learn how to do project management. You learn how to lean into the skills that you have. You learn how to engage in a critical discussion, how to take feedback and apply that feedback—even how to push back when you want to push back.

    Collaboration is so powerful because we all bring something to the table. I had the hard skills of video and audio editing, podcasts, social media, advertising, communications. But I also had the pleasure of working with this team, all of whom brought something so special. For instance, Sally has been doing research on these communities for forever. I am Muslim and Arab and I’ve learned so much from every team member about these communities that I’m a part of—things I didn’t know before. There’s such a diverse Arab and Muslim community here in Michigan and I was exposed to this diversity through this project.

    The official logo for the Seen Jeem podcast. Visit their site here.

    Sally Howell: We were representing a really diverse population. I’m the only non-Muslim member of the team, but even for the Muslim members of the team it’s like, how do we represent what’s really happening? How do we make sure that we’re getting as many voices as possible in the conversation and ensure that we’re representing all these different voices?

    Moejay has been talking about the hard skills he brought to the table, but I think he had all of those soft skills, too. I’ve just watched him mature, watched him really coming to clarity on how to do this important work of representation in this multiple minority context. The respect I have for him today is not just because he has the editing skills or knows how to use Facebook. It’s because he understands the power of the platform he’s wielding and he really helped the rest of us understand it better, too.

    Mohamad Jaafar: I think it’s really about creating that safe space because, especially when you’re younger, you might want to push back or you might want to dive into a critical discussion, but you might not feel like it’s going to be well-received. Working on Halal Metropolis we had a lot of uncomfortable discussions about our project, how to make it as inclusive as possible. Keep in mind that we were working on this when Black Lives Matter really took off. There was a lot of discomfort there that we had to address. There’s anti-blackness. There are different sects of Islam. There’s all types of things. We all honored each other’s perspectives on this project. We were all open to learn. I never felt like—because I was 22 at the time—my opinion wasn’t being considered. I felt very heard and seen, very much so.

    Seen Jeem podcast creators at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI.

    Sally Howell: It’s hugely important for the campus, where we’re located physically in Dearborn, which has a history of anti-Black racism and segregation that went on for generations. You can still see it in the demographics of the city. And, there has been a history of political exclusion of Arabs in Dearborn too, and perhaps on our campus as well.

    These projects are also important for the region. We do this work because we know, working in Dearborn and living in Dearborn and perhaps being an Arab Muslim, we know that Arab Muslims are just local people. The way the media has stereotyped and maligned this population—these diverse populations—for so many years, even predating 9-11. The political consequences of that kind of stigma and discrimination—it just it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to live in a world where those stereotypes still exist. Our job is to help people reframe the conversation about who Arab Americans are and who Muslims are and really what a difference they’re making in this region.

    Mohamad Jaafar: This is a funny story. A couple months ago my mom picked up a Dearborn city calendar for 2022. Each month had an illustration. I looked at all 12 months and there was nothing there that had anything to do with the Arab identity of Dearborn—not a single month. Even in our institutions, even in Dearborn, we aren’t always represented. As an Arab American, as a Muslim American, I want to hear those stories.

    I grew up in Dearborn. I went to Dearborn public schools. I think about the readings that we did—I mean, really great classic readings: Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird—all these traditional high school readings, but never, never ever, anything about or from an Arab American writer. I didn’t even know that existed. You really compartmentalize your life, your identity.

    I remember editing the Seen Jeem podcast late one night and listening to one of the writers, Dunya Mikhail. She described her experience leaving Iraq during turmoil and having to reduce her life to a suitcase. I thought about my parents, how that was my parents’ experience. They had to reduce their life to a suitcase and move to an unfamiliar place. That wasn’t my experience, but it was theirs. I just felt so moved. I was able to understand, to gain some empathy for them. It was very powerful. I’ve experienced so many powerful moments working with CAAS. I feel like I’ve gained another degree.

    Seen Jeem podcast creators at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI.

    That’s the value these CAAS projects bring—they amplify the Muslim story, the Arab American story. What’s been so successful about CAAS, and so powerful, is that it’s really a pipeline to go into research, nonprofit and museum work, etc. We have multiple examples of that on our team. What CAAS is doing is equipping and empowering young Arab Americans with the skills and experience to go out into the world and tell their own stories.

    Sally Howell: I really appreciate hearing you say that because that’s exactly why the projects exist. To try and tell the story, share that story, make it accessible, both to the Arab community and to the non-Arab community. That’s why CAAS exists, so it’s wonderful to hear you say that it’s having that kind of impact in your life. That’s beautiful.

    Mohamad Jaafar: In the end, we’re all very proud of the projects, very proud.

    Sally Howell: Well, we’re not done. Now we’re creating another podcast and a very elaborate website with searchable archival material and story maps from the Halal Metropolis exhibit. We’re also generating some online storytelling for the project and we’ve got some documentary video that’s coming. We’re already planning some events for the fall. So, the project is not over, not yet.

    To learn more about Halal Metropolis, Seen Jeem, and all that CAAS has in store, visit:

    The official logo for Hala Metropolis.