DEARBORN, MICH. -- Ehsan Al-Nassiri hopped out of his plumber's van, toolbox in hand, responding to yet another call to unclog a drain.

Unlike most such calls, the woman at the door refused to usher him in. Instead, she demanded to know his nationality.

He explained he was born in Iraq but grew up right here in Dearborn.

"Then she told me, 'I can't let you into my house. You Muslims bombed our twin towers.' I told her: It wasn't me. I was in high school. And there were dozens of Muslims killed in those towers. You can't judge all of us the same. ...'"

She slammed the door in his face.

Al-Nassiri, 27, recalls that ugly moment from 2004 during a break between plumbing calls this summer. But he insists it doesn't tell the whole story of life since Sept. 11, 2001, as a Muslim in Dearborn, where roughly one in three residents is of Arab descent -- one of the largest concentrations outside the Middle East.

Standing before the splendid new, golden-domed mosque he attends on Ford Road, just down the street from where Henry Ford based his auto empire, he offsets that story with a more recent scene.

In the spring, a pastor from Florida came to Dearborn intent on burning a Qur'an. Al-Nassiri joined a counterrally in front of the mosque.

"It was a moment I'll never forget the rest of my life," he says. "Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, Arabs -- you name it -- all came together. We didn't just hold hands, we locked arms right in front of this mosque. It amazed me."

New meets old

Dearborn's Oakman Boulevard is dotted with stately brick homes, built for Ford executives decades ago, and lined with maple trees along its grassy median. Think Summit Avenue in St. Paul.

On a stone front porch, three sisters sip morning coffee. One wears an Islamic head scarf and a Detroit Red Wings sweatshirt. Down the street, convenience store owner Ednan Abdullah tells of his uncles, who live nearby and emigrated from Lebanon in the 1930s -- just in time to join the U.S. Army in World War II.

While the backlash against Dearborn's Arab-Muslim population is relatively new -- with Newt Gingrich and Florida Pastor Terry Jones among those railing that the city has fallen under Muslim law -- Middle Eastern immigrants have woven themselves into Dearborn's fabric for more than a century. In fact, Henry Ford recruited thousands of Lebanese and Yemeni workers to man his auto plant generations ago.

When 1960s racial unrest prompted many to flee Dearborn and nearby Detroit, Arab business owners moved into the shuttered storefronts with bakeries and Hallal butcher shops. Though new U.S. census figures reveal a staggering 25 percent drop in Detroit's population, Dearborn increased slightly to nearly 100,000 residents, attributed to an influx of Muslims.

"We are good citizens who have earned respect," says Inaya B., a Lebanese-born language and literary coach at a Dearborn middle school, where she estimates 90 percent of the kids have Arab roots. Sitting on a chair in her driveway with a friend originally from Sierra Leone, Inaya enjoys melon slices as the receding sun casts a warm glow down Oakman Boulevard. Up on the front steps, their husbands sit laughing and chatting.

The two women -- who declined to give full names or be photographed, citing cultural tradition to avoid attention -- became fast friends when their kids were in kindergarten together a dozen years ago.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Inaya remembers her four kids, crying, "Why, Mom, why?"

"Peace and harmony are all we want in my house," she says. "I pray for tranquility. It is awful to be stigmatized. We didn't do anything that day."

Across the grassy median, Jan Lawrence has just finished mowing her lawn. She has lived on Oakman for 40 years "and wouldn't want to live anywhere else." She says about half her friends are Muslim.

"This is a nice, peaceful, quiet neighborhood," she says. "Everybody gets along fine."

Well, not quite everyone. She laughed about how the hosts at an Arab friend's recent wedding had to carefully separate some Palestinian, Yemeni and Afghan friends who didn't always see eye to eye. Then there are her two Polish widow friends.

"Sometimes they'll criticize our neighbors for speaking Arabic and not assimilating," Lawrence says. "But then I'll say, 'Hold on. You two like to speak in Polish; what's the difference?'"

Crashing the melting pot

Jones, the Florida pastor, has come to the steps of Dearborn City Hall wearing a bullet-proof vest under a T-shirt that proclaims: "Everything I needed to learn about Islam I learned on 9/11."'

He stands before a lectern with a sign that says: "I will not submit." The song "God Bless the U.S.A." blasts from loudspeakers before he talks about halting Muslim immigration "until we find out what their hidden agenda is." He says President Obama violated the Constitution when he called Islam a great religion.

Across Michigan Avenue, in front of the Arab American National Museum, counterprotesters are chanting: "Dearborn has made it clear, racists pigs not welcome here!"

Most of those drowning out Jones are young, non-Muslim African-Americans. Muslims have largely ignored Jones on this, his third visit to Dearborn this year. Reporters and cops outnumber his supporters and the counterprotesters.

"Last time I got thrown in a squad car for yelling obscenities at him," says Saleh Alihasan, 18. "Burning the Qur'an is free speech, but yelling the f-word at him gets me cuffed?" He wasn't charged, he says, chuckling, because "I would have demanded a jury trial and in Dearborn, you think I'd get convicted?"

Alihasan is Palestinian. He just graduated from Edsel Ford High School and is about to join the U.S. Air Force.

"Growing up here is really cool," he says. "We're one of the most diverse cities around with Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, blacks and all walks of life, including idiots."

Just then, Jones unleashes a remark about the Qur'an and wife-beating.

The pastor has timed this Dearborn visit for the 16th annual Arab International Festival. Streets are blocked off. Families eat falafel and lamb shawarma, roasted on spits. Ehsan Al-Nassiri, the plumber, and his wife push their daughter in a stroller, past a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and carnival games.

At night, the sweet smoke of hookahs fills the air as Middle Eastern music blares and a street dance erupts. Jones marches toward the festival but retreats to a car after counterprotesters surround him. His allies use bullhorns to holler hateful things about the prophet Mohammed and Islam into the festivities.

"Just keep walking, kids," festival organizers prod curious children who wander over to listen to the venom. "Or better yet, turn your backs."

Kassem Allie, a leader at the gleaming marble Islamic Center of America, considers Jones a "ludicrous, self-serving charlatan" with only 50 followers back in Florida. He reminisces after Friday prayers about his grandfather who came to Dearborn in the 1800s.

"I'm optimistic our message of understanding, tolerance and love will overcome any negative messages of hate brought to the table by this pastor," he says.

Sept. 11 didn't help.

"It became more challenging to convince people that there are differences with every faith," Allie says. "Unfortunately, evil people who don't represent us pretend they share our beliefs. It has made it more difficult to fully assimilate with this new cycle of Islamophobia."

Then he smiles and shrugs.

"Slowly," he says, "we are re-establishing trust with the rest of the nation and overcoming all the negative hate."


Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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