The rationing of ingredients for bread, the shortage of basic supplies like toilet paper, the rising number of casualties — when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, it reminded Hussein Siblini, co-owner of Dearborn’s New Yasmeen Bakery, of the civil war he witnessed growing up in Lebanon. “I kept thinking, am I back in Beirut or am I in Michigan?” Siblini says.
His family’s bakery in Beirut, where he grew up, managed to stay open throughout the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 until 1990. But he doesn’t think restaurants and bakeries will be so lucky during this pandemic.
“If someone asks, I tell them, ‘Don’t open up a new food business in Dearborn,’” he says. “Things are too uncertain.”
COVID-19 has upended, and possibly forever changed, the food culture in what is often called the Arab capital of North America. For generations, family-run restaurants have been able to thrive in Dearborn by keeping their prices low and building cavernous dining rooms for massive, multigenerational Arab families to gather. But now, with indoor dining shut down once again in Michigan, restaurant owners tell Eater that profits have plummeted and they fear that Dearborn will look quite different when the pandemic is over. Mini-chains will likely dominate, and the large gatherings that make this city unique — and allow restaurants to be financially viable — might become a thing of the past.
Today, Dearborn is home to the highest concentration of Arabs in America; 30 percent of the city’s 98,000 residents are of Arab descent (although unofficial numbers are much higher). Most live in East Dearborn, and the community is made up of people of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Yemeni descent.
Like the rest of Michigan, Dearborn has been hit hard by the pandemic. While the city’s population is only about 5.5 percent of the Wayne County population, Dearborn makes up around 13 percent of COVID-19 cases, according to the Wayne County Health Department. Because Arabs are legally classified as “white” in America, there is no data to show whether Arab Americans, like other ethnic and racial minority groups, are more susceptible to COVID-19, as some have argued.
Throughout the pandemic, most of the restaurants in Dearborn have been strict about maintaining social distance, but there have been exceptions. Restaurant owners tell Eater that the best thing about Dearborn is also the thing that makes enforcement challenging: Everyone knows each other, especially within the Arab-American community. This can make it difficult at times to nudge customers into wearing masks.
The dissonance between a global health crisis and the experience at some local businesses was clear during a recent visit to an East Dearborn restaurant where few people were wearing masks indoors. Eater reached out to the staff about why they were so lackadaisical, and one person agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “Half of our customers I have known since I was a kid,” the employee said while on a break. “Either that, or my parents know their parents from Iraq. They’re like my uncles and aunts, and it’s hard to tell them to mask up.”
When asked if he knew anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, the worker extinguished his cigarette and put his mask back on. “Yeah, me,” he said.
But Abdullah Hammoud, the Michigan state representative for Dearborn, said the relaxed attitude toward masks is not limited to Dearborn. “It’s a national problem,” he said. He did, though, acknowledge the need for conversations within the Arab-American community about being more careful, especially since some indoor weddings have been reported in Dearborn during the pandemic.
The solution, Ali Jawad says, is to be empathetic with restaurant owners and workers. Jawad is the owner of Taystee’s Burgers, the award-winning restaurant with locations in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights that specializes in tricked-out burgers with toppings like mozzarella sticks and Doritos. It’s a popular hangout spot for high school students and families, who, before the pandemic, packed into the gas station lobby of the Dearborn location like sardines.
At the start of the pandemic, Jawad laid off 90 percent of his staff at their request: They were concerned about contracting the virus and recognized that they could make more money from the government’s unemployment plan and safely stay home. Most of the staff eventually returned, and Taystee’s Burgers managed to bounce back, thanks to an active Instagram presence and online ordering through sites like DoorDash. It helps, of course, that they sell burgers, which are more portable than Lebanese platters with a ton of mezze on the side. In May, June, and July, his two branches set records for profits, and he estimates that this year Taystee’s will bring in “well over $2 million.” Now, Jawad wants to franchise across the Midwest, but he imagines his new locations will be smaller. He’s hopeful that after the vaccine is out, things will return to normal almost immediately. “Give it two weeks,” he says.
His success has come at a price, though. His mother, Lila, who helps run the business, says she is working longer hours than ever before, in part due to the extra cleaning protocols that restaurants open during the pandemic must follow. “I used to put in 60-hour weeks. Now, I easily do 80-hour weeks,” she says.
For other local businesses, the transition to online ordering and promotion has been more challenging. “We’re down about 70 percent in business,” says Hasan Alzergani, the owner of Arbeel Kabab, a restaurant specializing in Iraqi cuisine. He worries that Dearborn’s food scene may soon be dominated by only the most well-heeled restaurants and that relatively newer restaurants, like his, which opened in 2018, will not be able to make it.
Looking visibly distraught, Alzergani says that prices have increased on supplies like meat. That increased cost has been compounded by the need to pay for necessary and expensive personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and sanitizer. Alzergani, who was born and raised in Iraq, says he would have welcomed government assistance, but he did not know how to apply.
Hammoud, the Michigan state representative, said that “around 200 restaurants” in Dearborn received support from the government and that more did not apply “perhaps because of language issues.” He added that “more can and should be done” to support small businesses like Alzergani’s during this ongoing economic crisis. Unfortunately, support still remains out of reach as Congress continues to bicker over a new round of relief.
But many in the restaurant industry here say that the past few years have pushed them, and their relatives back home, to the limit — and not just because of the pandemic. There was the massive blast in Beirut this summer, as well as an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Then, of course, there are the lingering effects of Donald Trump’s presidency and his travel ban, which targeted countries like Yemen and Syria. In 2019, there were rumors of ICE raids on restaurants in Dearborn.
“People may not say it, but they are really hurting,” says Madiha Tariq, the deputy director of the Community Health and Research Center at ACCESS, a Dearborn-based social services organization. Unemployment is up, as is housing insecurity, and rates of domestic violence have doubled during the pandemic, according to ACCESS.
At a COVID-19 drive-thru testing center in Dearborn on Tuesday, November 17, organized by ACCESS and Wayne State University, around 500 halal turkeys were passed out and a booth was set up to help residents find employment. “The lines of people requesting help are only getting longer and longer,” Tariq says.
Dearborn is, in a lot of ways, a city of survivors, and what bonds it together is not just shared culture, but also the trauma many endured either before they moved to the U.S. or while living in the U.S. Restaurants, bakeries, and cafes here are a way to recreate what was lost or what is missed.
This is why Beirut-born Zeinab Cherkaoui started her business. She’s the co-owner of La Gelati, which specializes in desserts such as ashta, a Lebanese ice cream made of clotted cream, orange blossom, and rose water. Although her business has been down around 30 percent this year, she is confident it will make it through to the other side, if only because what Dearborn offers is something people can’t get anywhere else in the United States. “I mean, who else serves these kinds of flavors?” Cherkaoui says. “You’ve got to come to Dearborn for this.”
Cherkaoui says that the ambience at Dearborn restaurants and cafes is a big draw. A large proportion of Dearborn’s residents are Muslim, and when they go out to eat, they don’t have to worry about alcohol or pork products being served, and they can openly wear hijab without worrying about being hassled.
It’s the thing Ibrahim Alhasbani, the founder of the popular Yemeni cafe Qahwah House, loves most about running his coffee shop: the community. Taking out his phone, Alhasbani pulls up a photo of his shop from a year ago. “You couldn’t move in here, and there was even a line to get inside, too,” he says, his voice rising in excitement. Before the pandemic, they would get around 150 customers a day.
Getting back to that point — the time prior to the pandemic when restaurants like Al Ameer might have multiple groups of 20 or more dining together in one communal space, past the winter and through the shutdown of indoor dining, when vaccines are available to the broader public — is not going to be easy.
At the popular butcher and kebab shop Dearborn Meat Market, a handwritten sign was recently posted on the door announcing that it was temporarily closed. At the bottom of it, in small letters, were the words “F. Covid.”
Zahir Janmohamed was the November artist-in-residence at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the co-founder of the James Beard-nominated podcast Racist Sandwich.
Razi Jafri is a Detroit-based documentary photographer and filmmaker. His work focuses on race, religion, immigration, and the changing cultural landscape in America. His projects include a documentary photography series entitled “Halal Metropolis,” and the documentary film, Hamtramck, USA, which explores democracy in America’s first majority Muslim city, Hamtramck, Michigan. The film was selected for a world premier at the SXSW Film Festival in 2020. He is currently a graduate student pursuing an MFA in visual art from the University of Michigan.
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