In the famous Soup Nazi episode of “Seinfeld,” customers ordering mulligatawny or crab bisque followed strict rules or left empty-handed. “No soup for you!” the owner yelled, kicking out George for insisting on free bread and Elaine for her Al Pacino impression.
Soup Nazi memories came to mind during my recent stop in Dearborn, Mich., at the Dearborn Meat Market. Customers ordering beef kafta or shish tawook skewers there, it turned out, also run the risk of being kicked out for ordering incorrectly. “Come back another time!” the owner exclaimed, expelling me for ordering too little.
I had stepped up to the counter of the butcher shop — where Hussein Saad and his Lebanese-American family cook up kebabs from meat butchered and spiced in house — and made an innocent order of one kafta kebab.
“How many?” Mr. Saad asked.
I repeated: “Just one, I already had lunch,” I said.
“Not hungry? You have to be hungry, have five!”
“O.K., I’ll order more,” I said.
“No! You’re not hungry! Come back another time.”
I told him I couldn’t as I was heading back to New York the next morning, but he waved me away.
I was spending the day in Dearborn (population, 96,000) during a visit to Detroit, which it borders to the southwest, because I had long been curious about its large Middle Eastern community. Like many, I first heard of the city after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it was often in the news in reports about anti-Arab sentiments and features depicting mainstream Arab-American communities.
It is also home to the Ford Motor Company headquarters, as well as the vast Henry Ford Museum, which I visited. But my focus was on the Arab population, which makes up about a third of the city’s population. First stop was the Arab-American History Museum, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. I was expecting a modest space, but this was a three-level, 40,000-square-foot space with a very friendly admission price of $8. (It’s even friendlier if you download the free D Discount pass from visitdetroit.com, and get two-for-one tickets.)
The most in-your-face exhibit is a huge map of the Arab world on display above the main staircase, part of a display meant to inform visitors just what, precisely, “Arab” means. Visitors can push buttons to light up any of what it names as Arab countries — and I can pretty much guarantee 99 percent of the people reading this cannot list them all.
Did you get Comoro Islands, part of an archipelago off the East African coast? I didn’t. (Nor Somalia.) The display that accompanies the map identifies the Arab world by three components: culture, language and membership in the Arab League — and of course dispels the notorious misconception that “Arab” and “Muslim” are synonymous. There were deeper takeaways, as well: I had to be reminded that there were Arab Jews, which led me to recall that a minority faction of my father’s German Jewish family believes we have roots in Iraq during the Ottoman Empire. That led to a surprising thought: If true, then I may be an Arab-American.
The second floor, which is the heart of the museum, is mostly about the Arab-American immigrant experience; with its oral interviews, plane tickets and letters between family members, it reminded me of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. (I later learned that one of the museum’s exhibitions will travel to Ellis Island next summer.)
There were plenty of surprises in the “Coming to America” section: that World’s Fairs in 1876 (Philadelphia) and 1893 (Chicago) attracted many Arabs and some of them stayed; or that there are records of Arabic-speaking slaves in colonial America. But “Living in America” was at times almost unsettlingly mundane, with a clear message: Arab-Americans are like all other Americans. In a kitchen display, for example, I noticed a cookbook by the New York Times columnist Jane Brody on the shelf. “Pretty sure she’s not Arab,” I thought.
But after the last section, “Making an Impact,” I was no longer sure. The exhibition celebrates prominent Americans of Arab descent, with plenty of unexpected names, including the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the astronaut Christa McAuliffe and one of my childhood heroes, the quarterback Doug Flutie. All have Lebanese roots.
Before I left, I visited “The Youth,” an exhibition with photographic portraits and video interviews with 13 young Somali-American men. (It’s by the photographer Mohamed Mumin and will be up until Jan. 3.) The stress is, once again, on their utter normalness. As one, Ahmed Hirsi, says: “I would love for America to see us as they would see others.” That could be the mission statement for the museum as a whole.
The museum turned out to be a great resource for my next priority: food. A good free map highlighted dozens of local Middle Eastern restaurants, which are mostly but not entirely Lebanese. I decided to go cheap Lebanese for lunch and mix it up with a Yemeni dinner.
I parked my rental car right in front of the narrow, mostly takeout Tuhama’s and knew immediately I had come to the right place: business was brisk. I asked for advice from two customers, including a Lebanese immigrant, and their answers were emphatically the same: I should get the meat shawarma, on French bread, for $4.50. I did, and added a shanina, a refreshing yogurt drink produced and packaged in, where else, Dearborn.
The shawarma was not overloaded in the style a starving backpacker might find on the streets of Europe. Instead, it is a compact sandwich with pickled turnips for crunch, and a garlic sauce for tang, pressed together into a compact packet of deliciousness.
“It competes with anything in Lebanon,” said the Lebanese customer. “If anything in America does, it does.”
He also told me I had to go to that butcher shop on Schaefer Road and order a kafta skewer, so I did. And got kicked out. My rental car was parked right outside and I had just unlocked the door when Mr. Saad emerged from the restaurant and proved he was no Kafta Nazi.
“You go to New York now?,” he asked. “Come back! I give you kafta. No charge!” He showed me to the back, where the kebabs were sizzling over flames, and then handed me one, a richly spiced cylinder of minced meat laced with parsley and onions, wrapped in flatbread. It was, indeed, quite small: You would have needed four or five to make a meal. I began to see why I had been temporarily kicked out.
“You like it?” he said.
“Yes, it’s great. Can I pay you?” I said, being polite.
There went $2.50 down the drain. I spoke to his son, Ali, on the phone later, who confirmed they often refuse to serve anyone ordering one or two kebabs, so they don’t occupy the few tables in the back.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Henry Ford Museum, which is not cheap; with that D Discount Pass, though, I cut $4 off the $20 admission price. Most impressive were the motor vehicles, from Model T’s (obviously) to the bus on which Rosa Parks made her seated stand, to the presidential limousines John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were shot in or near, respectively. (One strange fact on the description of Kennedy’s Lincoln Continental caught my eye: The car was not retired from service upon his death but in fact used by three more presidents.)
I was actually not all that hungry when I arrived at Sheeba, my Yemeni choice for dinner, after the Henry Ford Museum. The menu was full of things I had never heard of, unsurprising because I have never been to Yemen and don’t recall ever going to a Yemeni restaurant. It was a bit expensive for my taste — the dish I was urged to get, the house special lamb haneeth, was $15.95. But I spotted a $9.99 lamb dish that looked just as good — fahsah, shredded lamb and potatoes in a clay bowl, with what they called “clay oven bread.”
It arrived bubbling and way too hot to eat, leaving me with nothing to do but take in the aroma for a few minutes. The steam that rose carried a beguilingly unfamiliar scent. I asked the server what was in there. “Twenty-three Yemeni spices,” he said. Food smells can bring us back to places we traveled to long ago, but this one pulled off a more unusual feat, making me feel I was somewhere utterly foreign, somewhere I had never been before. I leaned over the bowl and breathed in the foreignness for several minutes — it probably looked to other customers as if I had the flu and was trying to relieve congestion — until it cooled down enough to eat.
The manager later came over to see if everything was all right, and told me the restaurant had just opened this past summer. It’s the restaurant’s second location in Dearborn, he said, although the original was in Brooklyn. (A Sheeba staff member later told me that that one had been sold.) I later checked and couldn’t find a Sheeba in Brooklyn, but I did find several Yemeni spots — so it turns out New Yorkers like me don’t have to leave town for Yemeni food. To get kicked out of a butcher shop, however, you’ll need to go to Dearborn.