On the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, you can count on hearing the Arabic language at least five times a day. From its telltale location on Ford Street, the Islamic Center of America broadcasts its calls to prayer from a loudspeaker, calling out to the city’s Lebanese, Yemeni, and Iraqi residents in the language which unites them.
The Islamic Center of America- the largest mosque in America- and the Arab-American Museum are testimony to what any visitor to Dearborn would probably quickly gather by way of the Arabic signs throughout the city- Dearborn is the heart of Arab-America.
Part of the mission of the brand-new museum- the first of its kind- is to educate people about the role that Arab-Americans have had in our country since its founding. Most people are not aware that it was Henry Ford to first call the Arabs to Michigan. According to the Ford Motor Company, “Upon landing in America, many immigrants were not headed for Detroit, but changed their paths when they heard about Ford Motor Company’s wage of $5 for a day’s work.” Many of the immigrants who came first to Highland Park- the site of Ford’s first factory and the birthplace of the Model T- and then to Dearborn’s South End to work at the Ford Rouge plant- which with its 90,000 employees would soon become the world’s largest industrial complex- came from Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the rise of many Lebanese Maronite Christian churches in the area as well as what were perhaps the first Muslim Mosque and Chaldean Catholic Church in the United States- the former in Highland Park in 1921 and the latter in Detroit in 1947.
Arab Christians far outnumbered the Muslims among the early immigrants and aside from professing different faiths, the immigrants from the large area generally known as the “Middle East” had linguistic differences as well. The Levantine dialects of Arabic spoken in Lebanon and Syria are quite different from Yemeni Arabic even though many of the immigrants would have also spoken the Modern Standard Arabic which linguistically unites the Arabic world. The language of the Chaldeans, on the other hand, Christians from modern-day Iraq, is an eastern dialect of Aramaic, the “language of Christ,” although many- especially modern-day refugees of the Gulf and Iraq Wars- have learned Arabic at school.
The Chaldeans, not a well-known population anywhere in the world, are an important part of the Detroit Metropolitan Area, which is now home to “the largest single concentration of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs in the Western Hemisphere,” estimated to be from 100,000 to 120,000 strong. Chaldeans are Detroit’s merchants- they own 75 of the city’s 84 supermarkets.
Interest in the Chaldeans’ ancient language- a form of which many Americans may have heard in Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ– is palpable in the Detroit area. Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church offers Chaldean language courses from the basic (101) to the advanced fluent (501) level- free while the University of Detroit- Mercy offers courses in Aramaic open to any and all college students. Chaldean.org evens offers tips on how to teach the language to the family pet.
The Chaldean language is an important part of world history and a source of pride for the Motor City. Oppressed for millennia in the Middle East, the Chaldean community has flourished in Detroit. Practicing a Christian faith has made their integration into the city’s fabric much more seamless than that of their Muslim brethren, who are nonetheless a crucial part of Michigan’s present, and future.