In a ceremony Wednesday, Dr. Anan Ameri — founder of Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum — will be inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. The Detroit News visited Ameri at her Ann Arbor home and discussed her family; her childhood in Palestine, Jordan and Syria; coming to America; and launching an Arab-American museum in the wake of 9/11.
Where did you grow up?
After 1948 (when British-occupied Palestine was partitioned and the state of Israel created), my family moved from West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem. I was about 5. Then we moved to Amman, Jordan, and I really grew up there. But holidays and in the summer, we’d go to my grandfather’s house in Damascus.
Was your family Muslim or Christian?
We were Muslim, but secular. My parents didn’t practice religion. And while my grandfather went to mosque three times a week, he didn’t object to our swimming or wearing miniskirts. The Arab world I grew up in was very different from today.
What was your education?
I graduated from the public schools in Amman, and then got a B.A. in sociology at the University of Jordan. I got my master’s at Cairo University, and my Ph.D. in sociology at Wayne State University in 1974.
How did you come to America?
I was working as a freelance journalist (in the Middle East) and was asked to interview an Arab-American activist from Detroit. So I did. And it was love at first sight. This was my first husband. I tell people I came to Detroit to go to school, but the truth is I came for him. At the time, I was 29 and didn’t drive. Detroiters couldn’t wrap their heads around that.
What jobs did you have before the museum?
I founded the Palestine Aid Society of America in the 1970s and was director from 1980-1993. I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1989. Then I spent a year at Harvard on a fellowship, researching the impact of the Oslo Accords (the 1990s peace process between Palestine and Israel) and nongovernmental organizations on the West Bank and Gaza.
How did you come back to Detroit?
I was dating the man who’s now my second husband, Noel Saleh. He’s an immigration lawyer and activist. And he was head of the ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) board of directors. He wanted me to come back, but I said I left Detroit when I left my first husband and didn’t want to return unless I found something really exciting to do.
And did you?
Yes. Noel talked to Ismael Ahmed, the head of ACCESS. They had a cultural arts program and wanted a new director, but I had already accepted a six-month appointment at the Center for Jerusalem Studies in Jerusalem. Ismael said if I promised to come, he’d hold the job for me. So I came back to Detroit in 1997.
How was the museum born?
Cultural arts was a very small program at ACCESS. Within a year, we decided a museum was the right option. We bought a boarded-up store in Dearborn in September 2000 and opened the museum in 2005. I was director until I retired three years ago.
You built the museum in the wake of 9/11. Was that difficult?
Some people thought it was a bad time to build a museum, and others felt it was perfect. I sort of resisted having 9/11 define who we are. I said, “This is a passing event in Arab-American life. And the people who did it were Saudis, not Arab-Americans. Why should we be defined by it?”
Still, it seems like a dire time for such a venture.
There were positive aspects. After the attacks, many people were curious about Arab-Americans, and many in our community wanted the world to know who they were. They felt under attack and thought the museum could help by telling their story.
What did Arab-Americans tell you they wanted in a museum?
There were several themes: No. 1, yes, this museum will be about Arab America, but people should know something of where we came from. People also said Americans don’t realize how long we’ve been in this country, how diverse our community is, what we’ve contributed, or how women are misrepresented here. So I put these themes together.
How successful has your creation been?
It’s a legacy I’m very proud of. I’m happy to see it continue to flourish. We have programs in place, a good staff, a good reputation, museum accreditation, and affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution.
What have you been doing since you retired?
I just finished my memoir actually — it will come out in the spring from Interlink Books. I’m still working on the title, but it’s about growing up in the Arab world. And now I’m at work on my second book, about the immigrant experience.
Do you write in Arabic or English?
English. My Arabic is not so perfect anymore. I always say I forgot the Arabic and never quite learned English.