Eide Alawan, October 3rd, 2016
AA: Today is October 3, 2016. My name is Amina Ammar. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am in Dearborn, Michigan currently sitting with-
EA: Eide Alawan,
AA: Mr. Alawan, could you please begin by telling me where and when you born?
EA: I was born in 1940. Detroit, Michigan.
AA: What brought you and your parents- or what brought your parents to Detroit.
EA: What brought my dad to Detroit. Well, my dad originated out of Syria and came to American in 1910. He left Syria because of the Ottoman empire at the time the Ottoman Empire was very cruel to Arabs- Turks are not Arab. Also, he was Shia, so there was a double whammy. And he left there with his brother and ended up in- or he came to South America- from South America he went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Michigan City, Indiana, and then Detroit, Michigan to find a way to make a living. When he got here, there was an opportunity to work in a factory, earned a measly few dollars as to get started. Eventually married my mother in ’26, ’27. He had a family here of four children. And that’s why he came to America is basically because of the situation with the Ottoman Empire. The Turks controlled Syria at the time as well as being of the Shia tradition, it was a challenge. Not reflecting on Shias in general, just reflecting on the fact that he was in Syria as a minoritist Muslim.
AA: What do you remember about Detroit in the mid-Sixties?
EA: Well, what I remember about Detroit in the Sixties is basically, Detroit was changing. We had changes beginning to occur. Of course, at that time you had the hippies coming around doing things throughout the United States. People were smoking dope, smoking marijuana. They were doing things that were not only un-Islamic but also improper, social improperness. It was a time of change at the time, we weren’t part- when I say we weren’t apart of the change, I was not part of the changes because basically, I came from a very family, conservative, or religious. Religious in the sense that I didn’t look at those things as fun thing to do. It was a matter that we stuck with the community. We were a part of the community in Dearborn. Southend Dearborn had a mosque that was a converted bank. There was another mosque there down the street. The Sixties were kind of a change in social environment; the way people thought. And of course we had the Cuban crisis situation, Vietnam had begun- it started to begin somewhere in the Sixties but things were changing. Different presidents were proposing using the atomic warheads if necessary against Russia- Khrushchev was the head of Russia at that time. The country in general was in a turmoil or a time of question about what the properness of what was happening with our government so on, so forth. But that’s basically what I remember.
AA: Do you remember where you were in Detroit in 1967 when the riot occurred?
EA: Yep. I remember the riots. Yep. At the time we had one son and he was about a year- he was about 16 months old and my wife and I were going to a picnic out at the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds were at Woodward and Eight Mile, which is not there now- Woodward and Eight mile. So we went for a picnic, a Muslim picnic, a community picnic and it was hotter than heck. It was up in the 90s, it was hot. So about 2 o’ clock, I told my wife I don’t like the heat. I don’t take the heat very well so I told my wife lets go home. Not that we had air conditioning at home. It just would have been more comfortable to be at home and just to relax with the baby. We came down Woodward Avenue to Davison Expressway. We got on Davison Expressway – if you know anything about the Davison Expressway, it’s the short – I think it’s the first expressway, if not in Michigan or the United States- very short. I mean I don’t think it’s more than three quarters of a mile long. And we came down there, we went on the express way came up on the surface, Davison to Davison Street and then noticed a lot of people in the streets. And at the time we didn’t have the radio on, windows wide open - you know, trying to catch as much air that you could get in the car by driving. And we came up off the express way, the express way goes right into Davison Road and we noticed a lot of people in the street. And the people were African American people. And I got kind of worried seeing people in the street and then looked over to the sides of the street as we got closer to one of the main streets on Davison and saw that windows were broken, saw a lot of people in the street, people throwing things. I can remember telling my wife to roll up the windows. No power windows at that time we had to roll them up. Roll up the windows, made sure they had their seat belts on. She’s sitting in the backseat with my son and drove carefully through the crowd. Of course I didn’t want to run over anyone. I was scared just like most people would be not knowing what was happening. We had put the radio on even in the morning or on the way to the fairgrounds because they had been talking about the raid they had made on this one location that got the African Americans upset, and caused them to riot. We just drove slowly until Davison, then we came to Oakman Boulevard. Once we got on Oakman Boulevard, we headed into Dearborn and lo and behold we had found out that there had been disruption in the community about what had happened with the police and their invasion of the night club or something of that sort. So it was the beginning of turmoil in the community. Remember also that we lived in Dearborn and Dearborn police were on the lookout. At the time we had a mayor called Hubbard and he basically forewarned black people not to come through Dearborn or they’d be arrested. I don’t know if they arrested anyone or not but I’m sure it was pointed at the African American people. I can remember that day plus a couple more days right after that is, you’d see military trucks traveling up and down Wyoming or Tireman. I can remember I went past a high school probably the next day called – not Wayne State, called Way – no, not Wayne. It was a high school I’m trying to remember the high school’s name at Grand River and West Grand Boulevard. Anyway, at the high school there were tanks, jeeps, military, National Guard basically National Guard. They were camped out on the grass. Excuse me, Northwestern High School it was called. Northwestern High School. They were camped out there. And so on and so forth. I also did go to work that morning. On a Monday morning. And I was talking to someone out in California. I was working for a company called Goodyear Tire Company, rubber company. I was a manufacturer sales rep for them and I was talking to California, and California being three or four hours behind us, they asked us, “What are you doing? How did you get to work?” They had the perception that the city of Detroit was on fire, that there was chaos and the media was different at that time. It didn’t cover it like you would see now. It was a different presentation how they covered it. But I told them it was not a problem and that I, in fact, was on the express way. I was the only person on the express way from Lonyo down to work which was past the interchange. It was unbelievable. I didn’t see any cars, maybe one car, two cars at the most, and got to work, stayed there until three or four o’ clock. They dismissed us, told us to go home. But I stayed around, finished my paperwork and went home and basically had no problem. The confusion or the disruption was happening at a different part of Detroit. But of course, people could have been on the over pass, throwing something over but it didn’t seem to have any problem with that. That’s where I was.
AA: You said the media covered it differently than it does now-
EA: Pardon me?
AA: You said the media covered it differently, could you elaborate on that coverage, what you thought about it?
EA: I think the media seemed to operate on sensationalism. They focused primarily on the rioters. To me it was more of a scare tactic situation and I think it’s a lot different than what it is now. It seems to be more on the scare tactic you know, it was scary then but the media was covering it on all the stations which you’d expect but they were also covering it in a manner that made you fear and of course they showed most of the people in the disturbance were African Americans. Now what you’d see on television some whites joining the African American people of different colors, nationalities it was a first of the kind that I remember. Now my brothers being older than me remember when they had the problem in the Forties when at Belle Isle African Americans were thrown over the Belle Isle bridge. I don’t know if you knew about that. That was happening, I think that was happening, that was ’44. I’m just guessing at the date. So, ’44. There was a disruption of African Americans and whites in Detroit at Belle Isle and they were, my brothers, at that time they were about 14 years old and they remembered that – 16 years old. They remember that African Americans were thrown over the bridge, so that’s the difference. But it was an awakening to us I couldn’t figure out at the time was why during the ’67, why the African Americans were rioting and slowly but surely they talked about the invasion or that the police did on I don’t know if it was a night club or speak easy or whatever it was but that’s what occurred.
AA: Some people describe the event as a riot and others refer to it as a rebellion or an uprising. What term do you think best describes that?
EA: You know, I guess it’s a fine line between a riot and an uprising. Looking back on it I think the African American people, it was an uprising. At the time it was a riot but thinking about it now, I think it’s more of an uprising that they felt that the police mishandled the whole thing. And even now, we’re talking about 30, what 40 some years later and it’s still a problem and what’s a solution for the problem? I don’t have a solution for the problems but there are problems and hopefully that the society can deal with them. There’s always troublemakers in groups even if people are law abiding people, if they want to make a point they will show some disruption of destruction or demonstration or so. And I think the people still at that time, the African Americans still felt the frustration and this raid was a good enough reason to do something of dissatisfaction of how it was handled. I can’t remember exactly all the points they made but the point is they felt it was a disadvantage to the ones that were harmed during the invasion.
AA: So switching gears just a bit, but ’67 was also a big year for Arabs, because of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. How did you first hear about the events that led up to the war and the war itself?
EA: ’67 War?
EA: National TV basically was covering it. The Arab community was the kind of a community that they didn’t know how to take it, where Israel was getting the upper hand after so many days- six or seven days. Their thought was kind of interesting. They thought that quantity is more successful than- what was I going to say- they were thinking that the populist put out to the sophistication and the sophistication is that Israel was a very successful army. And I did not stay home from work but I know several men in the community- in fact one of them is still living right now, that were ashamed of the Arabs losing the upper hand that he stayed away from work for at least a couple weeks. The reason for it was he was just embarrassed because his nationality- being the Egyptians or the Syrians were not meeting up to the Israeli pushback. It didn’t bother me –I mean, it bothered me but it didn't bother me to the extent it did them. And the only way I can figure all this out is being an American born- so what? What can I do about it? But a lot of people who were first generation in this country stayed home, stayed off the streets and were just frustrated with the whole thing. It was a turning point for the Arabs to realize that we had Israel to now deal with. And we’re still dealing with them, still having a problem with our governments. Our governments, Arab governments are not to the expectation that they should be and not that they are going to win any wars with Israel, but the point is they are not doing what they should be doing for their own people.
AA: Do you have any particular moments or memories about the war and how it was covered in the [United States] that you would be willing to share?
EA The coverage was coverage. Of course it painted a bad picture for the Arab side of it. When I say it painted a bad picture, I didn’t say that it wasn’t truthful but we got our butts kicked. It’s interesting the statements that it takes only one Israeli to turn off a light switch but you need ten Arabs to turn off a light switch. I mean the sophistication was just better. They had an army but the point is the army wasn’t as sophisticated as the Jewish, Israeli army. I mean it even proves it right now- we’re talking about almost 50 years later and we still don’t have the sophistication. Even if you have the weaponry, you have to have the sophistication and the strategic manner of dealing with a war. But we’re still in it together as Arabs or Muslims.
AA: Is there anything you feel we haven’t discussed that you want to add to the interview?
EA: Not really. I think we need to deal with history and be realistic with history. I’m talking about Muslims or Arabs. When I say Arabs, most of them are Muslims. I don’t know about Christian Arabs- have you interviewed Christian Arabs yet?
AA: Not yet. No, not yet.
EA: You should get their point of view. I think there was a different slant there. I’m not sure if they felt as badly as Muslim Arabs because they probably had a feeling like, “Well you know that's what it is.” They have been mistreated in Arab countries for years and maybe they were happy with it. It’s just with the frustration- I don’t worry about the Middle East. My focus is on Muslims in this country. We have to overcome something which is this Shia and Sunni situation and the best place to do it is here in this country. There was a group here just before you came- 70 people were here. When I tell them that Muslims are good people, they [Muslims] get frustrated at times just like anybody gets frustrated. But Muslims need to get out into the community and they need to partake. You’re getting an education; they’re going to see you in a different light than they saw people back in the Sixties that were from the old country. All of our parents came from the old country- either all of them or both of them. We as Muslims, through education, will prove that we have the ability to be educated, sophisticated, and knowledgeable. That’s what we need to do. We can’t live on what happened 600 years ago. One of the big things as a Muslim is that we need to come together as brothers and sisters. We can’t continue- and it’s not happening right now, it’s changing right now. Shias and Sunnis need to come together on the basis that we are one Ummah. Muslims talk all the time about the Ummah. It’s almost a make believe place in our minds. But to me, it isn’t a make believe. It is: we are one family. We gotta act like one family. My focus is that I don’t care- when I say I don’t care what happens in the Middle East, I do care about the people in the Middle East. But I can’t worry every day. My concern is about the Muslims in this country. I have a young daughter married to my son- in- law, he’s of the Sunni tradition and supposedly she’s of the Shia tradition. And we have two granddaughters from them. And I call them sushi granddaughters. Have you heard of that terminology?
AA: No, I haven’t.
EA: So it started about eight or ten years ago when we were referring to mix marriages as sushi marriages. I don’t know where you see it, but I can tell you my next door neighbor, and people I know are that inter-married. They are both Muslims, they both have in their religious traditions: prayer, Salah, Seam and all the things. I think America is going to give us a chance as Muslims to be the Ummah that we talk about that, that we dream about. And that’s more important to me than being an Arab. You know, I’m proud of my ancestral background. My dad came from Syria, Arabic heritage. But my dad even changed it to being more religious rather than the ethnic part of it. We, Muslims, need to come together. We’re doing our best now- either through marriages or through events, that we’re coming together. That’s a priority. I don’t care about the Middle East. I can’t do anything about the Middle East. I feel sorry for the people living there that are being hurt and taken advantage of. Is your family from Lebanon?
AA: They are.
EA: People just came back from Lebanon, Beirut in particular, and they tell me the streets are terrible. People throw paper- we have a little of that here in Dearborn. The point is, I can’t worry about them. They are going to have to solve their own problems. But my concern is the Muslim people. My nationality- I don’t care about my nationality. I live to support my faith of Islam, with my brothers and sisters and the Muslim tradition- that’s what it’s all about. Hopefully, the young people will continue this. It’s the greatest gift that an Arab could have- if he’s Muslim or he’s not a Muslim, he’s Christian, he still has a gift of practicing his or her faith. My Arabism is [hand gesture] like that.
AA: Thank you so much, Mr. Alawan, for sitting with me today and having this interview.
EA: Well, thank you.