Nabeel Abraham, October 31st, 2016
AA: So today is October 31, 2016. My name is Amina Amar, I’m currently in Dearborn sitting with Dr. Nabeel Abraham. Thank you for sitting with me today, Dr. Abraham.
NA: My pleasure.
AA: [laughter] Where and when were you born?
NA: I was born in North Carolina in 1950, and—yeah.
AA: How did your family get to Detroit?
NA: I think we were living in Erie, Pennsylvania for the first five years of my life. We didn't stay in North Carolina apparently, and my father was selling Oriental rugs and other sundry items like linens and tapestries, I think, things like that, and he opened a store in Erie, Pennsylvania. How he got there, I don’t know. I know my father used to live in that area because he was married one time to a woman from that region, not Erie, per se, but Pennsylvania, and I think his nephews, his nephew, rather, moved to Detroit, and they told him, “You know, things are great here,” apparently. I was four or five years old, and so I never understood why, and we wound up here in 1955. So that was a good time for Detroit, post-war, I think the Korean War had ended, too, more or less, so this was a boom time for America, the economy, the car, the automobile was a big thing. So, this was the decade of prosperity, of great prosperity. They did have their boom and bust cycles like 1958, I do recall there was a recession and there was a lot of gloom. Now I’m about seven or eight years old at this point, but I could sense people were having trouble, because in the neighborhood where I grew up there were a lot of auto families that worked in the auto industry, but they tended to be the specialized people, tool-and-die, white guys who got paid more, and a lot of them were from the South, because my kids I grew up with, their fathers were from Tennessee, they came up from Tennessee or Kentucky, places like that. Anyway, so how did we get to Detroit? I think it’s because as my mom would say, my father’s nephew and his kids had moved to Detroit, and I think they kind of coaxed him over, and he opened a store on Michigan Avenue near First Street, downtown Detroit, on the edge of the heart of downtown. And that’s how we got here.
AA: So, do you remember where you were living in July of 1967?
NA: Oh, yeah, definitely. I was still living in Detroit. I grew up, my father bought a house for us in southwest Detroit along Vernor and Central area, and we lived in that house, well, my mother continued living in that house until 1978, so that’s about twenty some-odd years, 1955 to—twenty-three years. ’78. In 1967, when the riots occurred, I was living there, I was in high school.
AA: What was it like being a Muslim Arab growing in Detroit during this time?
NA: It was being virtually unique. Everywhere I went, like in the school system, I was pretty much the only Arab kid. Was in Harms Elementary, then Wilson Junior High, which no longer exists, it turned into something called Phoenix School, and then I went to Cass Tech. At Cass there were a couple probably Arab Americans, but their Arab identity had been really watered down to the point where you really hardly knew they were Arabs. In fact, I can only think of one guy, and he was actually from my neighborhood, his name was Jim Ray, I mentioned him in my essay To Palestine and Back, and Jim, I didn't know he was an Arab American until later. And then I found out that his aunt, who never married, was a very fascinating woman. Her name was Catherine Najor, Najar in Arabic. They were Orthodox, I think Greek Orthodox, and Catherine was a very unique woman, she had a doctorate in social work, I believe, and she had gone to China at one point. She was, I recall, rabidly anti-communist, I remember that part. She was very pro-Palestinian, which was very American in many, many respects, but she knew some Arabic. It turned out her sister had broken with the family and married a non-Arab, a white guy, who I wound up meeting because she was the mother of Jim Ray. And Jim was a tall, big guy. You wouldn't know he was Arab American from looking at him, his behavior, anything. So apparently the father and mother had divorced, so when I met him, we wound up going to the same high school. I met his mother once or twice, and that’s when she identified herself as Arab, and it was a complete surprise to me. And later I learned she was sisters with Catherine Najor, who I knew, and she was on a number of committees that I was active in, so she was very political, very intelligent, well-read woman. Her sister apparently had just taken off with this white guy and got ostracized, and I only put the pieces together many, many years later. And she was living, the sister and Jim, apparently the only son, were living in southwest Detroit. Now at that time in history, it’s probably pretty much still the same and worse, but back then it was a pretty cohesive white, working-class neighborhood. No African Americans, there were some Mexican Americans, on my street there were a Maltese family, there were people from the South, so-called hillbillies, there was a French-Canadian family. We were the only Arab family in that immediate area. Relatives of my dad did live probably about half a mile—actually there were two sets of relatives on my dad’s side were living in the area as well, as well as my mother’s mother, my grandmother, and my uncle and aunt on my mother’s side. They lived with us and then they lived in the area, but I didn't know any other Arab kids. There were no other Arab kids in the area. Jim Ray, of course, did not identify as an Arab at first, as far as I could tell, and I didn’t know him growing up. He went to a different elementary and junior high, so it was predominantly a white working-class neighborhood, it was predominantly strongly Catholic, and Protestant, Baptist, there were some Lutherans, I think, yeah, one of my best friends was of Norwegian descent, white-haired kid, who always his nose bled, his name is Mike Unger, he was a Norwegian. So it was a mixed community, but white, no African Americans. Working class, with a few small businesspeople, my dad being one of them. The Armenians being businesspeople who were near, there were a few left.
AA: So what do you remember about Detroit in the mid-1960s?
NA: In the mid-sixties? Well, I started high school in 1965, which meant that I had to go downtown to Cass Tech. That was a bus ride – two buses actually – or a bus ride and then a walk to school from the bus terminal, the City Bus Terminal, which was open-air, really, and then you walked across, I think it was at that point Fort Street, a couple big streets, Woodward, it was at that juxtaposition of Woodward and I think Fort Street and a couple others. We had to walk maybe fifteen, twenty minutes. Now, back then, nobody thought anything of it, that kind of walk. I think today people are afraid to walk that distance. Well, the downtown was still bustling, Hudson’s was the store, it had satellites, there was Northland, there was Southland, I think there was Eastland, and maybe a Westland by then, but Northland was the big opening of almost a suburban style mall, it was one of the first in the country. I remember my geography teacher at Wayne talking about this; he worked on it. So, Detroit, to a kid who was 15 years old, Detroit looked like a bustling city. We rode buses to school, I got a ride with my aunt for the first year, because her factory was a small factory in the GM area, which is now called, well, it was called Newtown or New Center, where the Fisher building is, and GM headquarters used to be, now it’s a state government building. And so she’d drop me off at Cass High School, and she’d go up Cass to her job, which was another five, ten minutes up the road, and on the way home I’d take the bus. I hated the bus, but it was nauseous, it was slow, and it’s Auto City, you know Detroit was unchallenged at cars. There was no Japanese competitors to speak of, there was no even German competitors. Volkswagen—Jim Ray had a VW Beetle, but it was a rare thing to see. People bought American cars, and they bought big American cars. There were the small ones, like the Falcon, the Ford Falcon and some others, but mid-sized and big cars cars dominated Detroit, and that’s what boys like myself growing up, we dreamed of having a car. Generally a fast looking car. You know, a Mustang. Mustang came in in 1964, so boys my age would salivate on a Mustang or its competitor, the Camaro, the Chevy Camaro, things like that. So, 1965 Detroit was still bustling, but underneath, underneath people were leaving quietly. How do I know this? Just from my own experience as a 13, 14, 15 year old. I had several Armenian friends, and they were, as I said, tended to be businesspeople, professional people still living in this predominantly working-class neighborhood. One of our neighbors was a white guy who was an engineer but most people were somewhere on the factory floor, usually at skilled labor, but not always. So what happened was slowly my Armenian friends started leaving. So Charles Nahagian, whose parents owned a dry-cleaner on Vernor Street, near Sammy’s Pizzeria, which now is something else – I was in the neighborhood not too long ago, by the way, so some of this is fresh in my mind – but the Nahagians had a dry-cleaning business, and they had one son, and that was this Charlie kid, who was in my elementary, we were school classmates, and they took him to Disneyland, I remember all the things I wished I could do, because Disneyland at that time was only one, it was in California, so they took him there, and he’d tell me about it. They moved. They kept the business going for a number of years, but they moved out into the newer suburbs, or the expanding suburbs. Another friend of mine, Greg, he was a twin with his sister, Greg and Sharon Arvegian, their father worked at Ford as an accountant, but then opened his own business, and it’s still on Michigan Avenue near Telegraph. Arvegian, I’m sure the dad has long, long since passed, but his son took over that business, the accounting firm, and they moved out to Dearborn Heights, probably around 1965, ’66, because I remember we went together to a Rolling Stones concert in 1965, and then shortly thereafter, the family moved to Dearborn Heights, and they picked me up one time and took me out to the place, and I thought Dearborn Heights was out in the middle of nowhere. So, this is 1965, and there were all these new suburban houses. I had no clue, and I remember this kind of house which you know, today, in my mind, is a colonial house, but back then, and no trees, I remember there weren’t very many trees, that was a startling thing, whereas my neighborhood, where I grew up, the house that we lived in had been built in 1925, so here we’re moving in in 1955, so it was thirty years, but there were fairly big trees, et cetera. And then the streets were narrow, you know, city streets. So another Armenian family I’m trying to think of also left, so you could see just from my little narrow, I wouldn't even say window, my little peephole, at the history, you could see that the professionals that I at least knew, the few with, more businesspeople, were already leaving the area. So when the 1967 riot occurred, of course then there was a stampede of a lot of other whites leaving. But there were whites, too, I remember a gal in my junior high, her family moved out to Flat Rock – well the father, I think, probably worked for Ford or something, and you know, Ford Motor Company built a factory out there, it’s still there. I remember when she said, we’re moving out to Flat Rock, I didn't know where Flat Rock was. Now I had been out of the area with my dad on a road trip in 1963, I was 13, so I got to see parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania and a little bit of Western New York state, but I didn't see or notice, let me state, these new suburb-type things, treeless suburbs until later in life. I saw like established small town, middletown cities, and I always thought they were charming. So you asked me how did Detroit appear to me in the mid-sixties. Well, it was on the surface still bustling and vibrant, but there were anomalies taking place, to my mind. People were moving out. Not clear why to me at that time.
AA: How did you first hear about the unrest that became the riots, rebellion, wherever?
NA: I don’t know how I first heard about it, you know. So, this is July 1967. I have to back up and just tell you that in June of 1967, June 5th to be precise, war broke out between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries, Egypt and Syria in particular, and that was on my mind. We can talk about that at another point. That was foremost in my mind. And I kind of was, at the end of that, the stunning defeat of the Arab countries, the so-called Six Day War, as the Israelis like to call it, left me demoralized, feeling as an Arab American, a Palestinian American. So here comes the riot [laughter] of nineteen—I’m going to call it riot, even know I know people like, and for years I referred to it as rebellion, and you could say I think it started as a riot, turned into a rebellion. I don't recall how I heard about it, maybe people, you know, kids in the street, somebody said, something’s going on, and then you go inside and turn on the TV. I think probably that’s how it went, but I don't have a clear recollection of how the news hit me. Because we didn't see anything. You know, southwest Detroit, at least the corner that I lived in, we didn't see or hear anything. It was too distant from the areas that were impacted. Which, you know, Twelfth Street, which would have been about five or six miles down the road, and then you have to go up, if I go east on Vernor, it would take you to Twelfth Street eventually, if you’re heading toward downtown, and then the areas up that way to the north of that area, I think were the primary areas that experienced the bulk of the activity, the police and the public clashing. The looting that also occurred.
AA: So, do you remember anything that was said at all?
NA: Well, I remember we watched on television, like anyone around the world, really. We watched on television buildings burning, people running, people looting, cops shooting, that kind of thing. It was all black and white then, there was no color. So whatever images I saw, it was in black and white. Now, the National Guard did position itself in Patton Park. Patton Park was west of where I lived. If you took Vernor Avenue which ran all the way down to downtown – actually, it ran all the way to the other side of town, the east side there’s a Vernor, too, but it breaks up downtown. If you took Vernor west from my house, you'd come up to the Dix mosque, right? And just before you got to the Dearborn boundary, there’s a park there named Patton Park, named for General Patton, and that was the edge of Detroit city limits, where at that point it meets Dearborn from the east-west. Of course, there are other areas around Dearborn that interlock with Detroit, right? North and so forth. So anyway, we went down, kids, the boys, my brothers and other friends, we’d go down and take a look and see the, I don’t think they had tanks, per se, but they had armored personnel carriers and you know, camouflage or green military stuff. We’d just look kind of awestruck by the—wasn’t a lot, but there were just enough, at least that we were allowed to see or saw. You know, looked like it was serious stuff, and I think we didn't go to work, because I used to work near the Ambassador Bridge at that time, and I had a girlfriend, a girl I was dating, rather, on the east side of Detroit, a German American. So, I think we were kind of like unable to go to a lot of places toward Detroit, like the Eastern Market, obviously, downtown, those places, nobody went. I don't know if the buses stopped, because I wasn't riding the buses at that point, I had a car. So we did see some of the National Guard posted there, and the neighbors, the rumors among the white neighbors, especially the Southerners, were that they got their guns out. I didn't see their guns, but you know, talk was, the rumor was these white neighbors got their guns, quote “The African-Americans, the black people,” and they probably used the N-word “have gone crazy.” People were panicked. I never felt panicked. I mean, maybe there was a whiff of it at first, but I thought, yeah, it’s kind of crazy, we don't see anything, we don't hear anything. Now, I told you I did work on the Bridge, near the Ambassador Bridge at a liquor store selling duty-free liquor. One of the guys there, I had sold him the car I got from my dad, it was a ’59 Ford. I’d sold him this car, and my dad had bought my brothers and I a Mustang, which I really wanted. I mean, this was kind of crazy, but you know when you’re 16 years old, 16, 17 year old guy, you want the latest. And so I had this new Mustang, and I had sold this ‘59 Ford to a guy named Bill, I think, Bill Conley, who was, you know, a middle-aged guy, he was a middle manager at the store where I worked, and he had lent the car to his brother, who was a Dearborn—Detroit police officer and that car wound up going to the war zone, so to speak. And he told me, “You know, that way I lend it to my brother, but he was having trouble staying running or something so he poured honey in it, in the engine,” and I thought, why would you do that, and he was trying to blame me, insinuate that I had sold him a bum car, I said, look, the car only has one hundred thousand miles on it. Back then, that was considered a lot of miles. Today, a good running car, a hundred thousand miles is nothing. And he said it stalled in the riot or something, and you know, I just shook my head, why in hell are you telling me this? I sold you the car, it was at a decent price, it was running, what your brother did with it is beyond me. And so, I remember that, when they opened up the freeways, I went to see this German American girl from my high school on the east side. So that means you’ve got to go down I-94, Edsel Ford Freeway, to go down, say, to Cadieux and then, we went, she, I, and maybe some friends of mine, we went and toured some of the burned down areas, and I still don't have a vivid memory of what I saw. You know, it never did just stay with me, but I remember taking her home and her German mother, her parents were from Germany, and when she found out that I’d taken her daughter into these areas, she was completely, she lost her mind. She started, you know, “How dare you! How could you go into the area, the riots!” I said, “That stopped! Everything calmed down.” But, you know, it was my first lesson in how panicked people are. So, there are my little vignettes of what I remember of what happened. And then, of course, there was a lot of talk about the Algiers Motel incident, and that went on for quite a while, but to tell you the truth, I was torn between dealing with the repercussions of the Arab defeat, the humiliating defeat of ’67 only the month before, having a new car and turning 17, and my sex hormones active, very busy at this job on the weekends, and just trying to stay in school, so this is the perspective of a 16, 17 year old kid. It wasn't that I didn't care about politics, but I was more into international politics, foreign affairs, because of my Palestinian background and you know, my parents, that was their concern, too. So, what happened in Detroit really didn't make any sense to me until I started becoming politically radical after that, like in the next year, when I started developing a political philosophy that went beyond, “Arabs should recover Palestine.” That was basically kind of a nationalist thing handed down to me. Now, I’m developing, you know, a worldview based on class struggle and injustices to African Americans, and Indians of course, Native Americans, so forth. Well, I didn't have that consciousness during the riot, rebellion, what in the beginning we all called a riot. Then I later learned, well no, people were rebelling against gross injustices that had actually been going on for several centuries, and, you know, you start learning all that. As you progress, you start putting your head where your feet are, and that is in the United States, in Detroit. I was always concerned with international affairs anyway, but now I broadened my understanding as well as my scope to look at the United States. Now, the other thing that’s going on at this time, too, is of course the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is kind of picking up speed, we are kind of aware of it, I was aware of it even in junior high because I remember in social studies, which was a favorite subject of mine, the teacher asked the kids one time, you know, “What are the countries that comprise Indochina?” And I was the only one who raised his hand. And he said, “Well, what are they?” And I said, “Well, Vietnam, you know, North and South, Cambodia, Thailand, what else, Laos.” And he was like flabbergasted. How did I know that? Well, cause that’s what I was paying attention to. I wasn't paying attention to Detroit so much, other than the geography of where the girls were in my high school, which was later, right? Because I went to a unique high school. The kids that came to my high school were from across the city, whereas, had I gone to my local high school, which would have been Western or Southwestern, kind of we were bridging the two high schools. They were terrible schools. We wound up at Cass. Well, Cass you wound up knowing people from the east side, the north side, the west side, international students, even, and it was a whole different world, and so I learned the geography of Detroit from dating girls from different parts of the city. So ’67 kind of like came and went, and my consciousness was basically tied to my neighborhood, which was, we didn't say African Americans, although we had exceptionally good relations with one African American teacher at our elementary school and I’ve written about her a little bit, Mrs. Colding, who was friends with my mother, but that’s another topic. Cut me off if I’m talking too much.
AA: No, not at all. Okay, so just to be clear, how would you describe the event: as a riot or a rebellion?
NA: I think it started off as probably a riot and then became a rebellion. I think the anger of African Americans had been building at least for decades, in the case of the people there on the ground. The discrimination, the housing, being boxed in, the lousy jobs, last hired, first fired, all the things that one learns about and much, much more, the policy brutality, all those things add up to make a powder keg, and people just say, “something starts it,” and then it ignites into a rebellion. I think there are people in these moments of crisis, there are people that take advantage of them and go get some groceries or whatever they want. You know, it’s called looting. There are others who say, We are really angry about big things, and they're demonstrating, they're manifesting their anger at that. And then, of course, the police and law enforcement, and the political class are compounding matters by declaring all of them looters, and shooting to kill, injustices and so forth, and so they're adding, actually, more fuel to the fire. You know, they beat people, shoot people, so people do fire back, which apparently happened. But I’m no expert on that event, even though I lived on the edge of it. It’s amazing how much you can miss, just by being outside of it, and not being pulled by the currents.
AA: Okay, so let’s go ahead and talk about international politics.
AA: So how did you first hear about the 1967 Arab-Israeli war?
NA: Well, the thing had been building up. There’s at least a month to two months of buildup in the news. It was a showdown between Egypt and the Israelis, and I think Gamal Abdel Nasser, the President of Egypt had ordered I think the UN peacekeepers out, if I’m not mistaken. This part is a little fuzzy to me, because I never really studied the ’67 War. There’s some excellent books on the subject. I just never got around to them. But he closed the Straits of Tiran, T-I-R-A-N, that goes into the southern reach of what is Israel, Eilat, the Port of Eilat, and the Egyptians also controlled the Suez Canal. Well, the Israelis, backed by the United States, turned this into a Causa belli – a cause for war. The Israelis cleverly aided the buildup, the propaganda buildup of this thing by saying Nasser was going to attack them, the Arab country’s going to swoop in, when, a point of fact, they were the ones who started the war, and they were the ones that ended it. I mean, they controlled the whole thing, because they had the superior military force and they were resupplied by the United States. But in the newspapers, it looked like the Arabs were the belligerent group, and that they started it, when they didn’t. In fact, Nasser was bluffing, and they used his bluff, to out-maneuver him. The Jordanians held off the Israelis in East Jerusalem for a while but the king of Jordan had no stomach and didn’t really – he just pulled out
How did I hear about it? Well, as I say, it was building day to day, in my high school English class, the teacher was Jewish, forgot his name now, but he would bring in a newspaper everyday to class, and I think he was reading at that time the Manchester Guardian, which is today called the Guardian, the London Guardian, he’d come, really tissue paper. And he’d open it up and show us, “Look at this, this little country, this tiny little country of Israel, being surrounded by all these Arab countries, 20, 21 Arab countries,” and you know, they’d do a little diagram with the armies in each country, you know, and you add them all up and you got, you know, a hundred to one, a thousand to one. Well, that’s on the paper. In reality, not all those armies joined in anyway, and had they, they would have been tripping over each other, because you just can’t throw armies together like that, spur of the moment, no unified command, I mean anybody, you don’t have to in the military, you just know enough about how things work. So the whole thing in bogus. It would be like saying some big country is beating up on a little country. Well, if that little country has a very organized military and the big country is poor and doesn’t, the little country is going to beat it. It’s not a question of size. It’s a question of how effective your force is. So, it was building up every day and every day. Then Israelis decided to start and they did. They bombed all the airports, the military installations, so the Arab armies had no air force to speak of and they surprise attacked them. They had a plan and the Arab side really didn’t have much of a plan, apparently, and they got creamed.
How did I first hear about it? I don't recall. Obviously, probably just the news in the morning, you know, the TV news, which was far worse than it is today. You had three stations, ABC, NBC, and CB[S]. That’s it. There was no cable, not that that is really making much of a difference today [laughter]. And we could get on occasion the CBC, the Canadian broadcasting from Windsor. You didn't have any other sources. There was—radio news was bad, there was WWJ, WXYZ, they were basically just appendages of the TV stations. There was no National Public Radio, not that that’s much better; in my opinion, it’s deceptive. But your sources of news were very limited. There was no Internet, of course. You could get news, maybe somebody call you from New York and say something to you. So, your sources of news were limited, the newspapers were horrible, but most news came by the newspapers. But it was always dated, right? I mean, when you get the printed newspaper, it’s already late, because things have happened in the last twelve hours, especially in a fast-moving war. So, you had the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, and we’d get the Christian Science Monitor by mail, and my father would go down to the train depot, and we’d run in and get for a quarter at most, maybe fifteen cents, you would get the New York Times that came shipped by train, off the train that sold there. Well, that was late, too, but a little more extensive. There was an Arab weekly program, run by a woman named Josephine Fadul, who was a Lebanese Maronite, so her news was always kind of, nobody believed it on the Muslim side, and I think Faisal, I don't know if he had his station yet, he was an Iraqi Chaldean, he had a reliable station, I don't think it went back that far, I could be wrong, but you know, that was once a week, kind of a roundup of news. Well, they had local events and music, people listened for the music, usually. How do we know? Probably by TV. You know, you turn on, probably back then the dominant station was NBC, or CBS, Walter Cronkite. And there would have been a morning show, like The Today Show. The news came on at 6:30 Detroit time, where Walter Cronkite would give his half hour, interspersed with commercials. And the others had their main person, and everybody seemed to trust Walter Cronkite, because he sounded more honest, but you know, that was it. That was your main sources. So, we probably heard it in the morning, because they would have started, you remember, there’s a time delay, so if they started, the Israelis bombing at five in the morning Egyptian airfields and the Syrian airfields. It would already, you know there’s a time lag, we would be sleeping then. You’d hear about it in the morning, well it’s already late afternoon there, so a lot has happened.
AA: So do you remember what the sources said?
NA: Oh, well you know, they were completely, I mean implicitly, if not explicitly, but certainly implicitly, that they saw the war from Israel’s side. They may have had a correspondent in Cairo or Damascus and probably in Beirut. They would have had a correspondent in Beirut, maybe Cairo, possibly Jordan, but most of the news was given from the Israeli side as it always has been. “Miraculous” and “The Israelis have overcome odds.” I mean, they set this up so that the Israelis are the David and the Arab states, the Arab governments are the Goliath. So, they set that equation up and the rest fell into place: “Goliath is winning now”, “Goliath is overcome.” There are studies of this. I think one of the best is a trilogy by David Neff who was a reporter, I believe, for Time magazine for many years in the region. And he did one on the Suez war of ’56, the ’67 War, and I think he did one on the ’73 War. Another guy was Stephen Green did a coverage of ’67. The Neff series, I’m told by reliable sources – I kind of just glanced at them because my interest was always going more contemporary than the past – is considered one of the best. It may be in this library [in the Arab American National Museum] in fact. You can probably find them. But for me again, just having turned 17 years old, no, actually I was still 16 at that point, it was really devastating, because I had, I’d grown up believing President Nasser of Egypt, who was the spearhead of Arab nationalism, was going to save the day and recover Palestine, and that was the thinking of a lot of people in the Middle East, and I felt, “Man, this is, what the hell happened, you know,” so I kind of just stepped back away from my Arab nationalist side at that point. I was just like, “These people are a bunch of losers,” you know, and it was hard to be an Arab at that time – an Arab American – and have any consciousness, because it was very humiliating to listen to the news. You know, you were made to look like a jackass, Arabs couldn't do anything, they were humiliated. It’s like, imagine the home team, football team, winning against its rival, say, Michigan versus Ohio State or even Michigan State, and winning the Rose Bowl, and if you're on the other side, how humiliating it is to go into school, if you’re with the other side so you're the definite minority, and everybody’s enjoying their victory. It’s very hard to deal with, especially if you're a young person and you didn't know all that much. So, I remember, and I wrote about it in the piece you mentioned, when Jim Ray pulls up in his Volkswagen where I was working, and he’s got a towel on his head and a belt for the hatta agal, the headdress, the traditional Arab headdress, and he’s playing Arab, and it was kind of felt humiliating. Now, I know he was just having fun with it, but people would say to you, “What the hell’s wrong with the Arabs?” Now there was still some anti-Semitism that was palatable, you could still feel it and hear it. People say, “A bunch of Jews, can’t you guys beat Jews?” it was this kind of racist, because to them Jews, to a lot of white Americans, German Americans and others, Jews were the little scrawny guy with the round-rimmed, wire-rimmed glasses, was a pushover. The football players, “how is it,” you know, they’re thinking Israel is Jewish, the Jewish state of these scrawny, little, nerdy kids, that they knew or people they knew in their world. They didn't know much about Arabs anyway, and they're saying, “How is it you Arabs can’t beat up a bunch of Jews?” Well, you know, it’s not about a bunch of Jews, it’s a nation-state that happens to be Jewish, it could be Irish. If it’s that well-organized and that well-armed, and it’s an extension of Europe and ultimately of the United States versus third world countries and governments, of course it’s going to win. South Africa was a hell of an opponent to the neighboring African states, you know. Rhodesia, under a white minority government was a terrible, powerful military adversary to its neighboring African states which had just come out of the colonial era. It has nothing to do with scrawny little white guys, nerdy white guys at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus beating up a country of fifty million Africans. The country of fifty million Africans or Arabs is undeveloped, and its military is not that organized, and you have to have a certain education level in your military to make it work, with modern technology, firing missiles, everything, it all depends on math and calculus and timing and organization, leadership, and weaponry. It’s not just the fact that, the size of the guy in the room matters. Doesn't matter all that much if you’re firing a missile at somebody. It’s your training and your weaponry. So, but it was humiliating, you know, for a 16, 17 year old, it’s very humiliating, and I had put a lot of stock into the image of Nasser’s Egypt being forward-looking and thinking and progressive, and you know, the Russians were arming them, and so forth, and I remember my dad saying, “You know, Arabs can’t really handle this, this is something for big powers.” He says, “Nah, they can’t do it.” I was always dismayed that he didn't have confidence in Arabs being able to do it. Now, just for the record, we’ve seen, when Arabs get organized and do something, they can do things too. They can stand up, and I think of the one best examples is Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. They stood up to the Israelis. They’re not a state. They don’t have the open support that Israel has around the world and they stood up. The Palestinians have occasionally stood up. A bit rag-tag, disorganized, so what. If people are given a chance to organize, they can do something. Now, I’m not advocating war. I would really like to see this conflict resolved peacefully. But I’m just saying for the point of argument that it’s not something genetic with Arabs or Africans. Look at what the Vietnamese were able to do against the United States, the most powerful military force in the world. Now, the United States destroyed Vietnam, there’s no question about it, they killed a lot of people in Indochina, some estimates are as many as five million people. So, the United States can do an awful lot of damage, Israel can do an awful lot of damage, but that doesn't mean they’ll necessarily win against a very determined, organized opponent. So, it’s not a question of genetics, it’s a question of organization, leadership, and having at least some level of weaponry to fight back. So, but you asked me about the ’67 War, and how I felt. It was devastating, devastating to my ego, to my identity, and I kind of withdrew for a while.
AA: Were you able to get in contact with any family members overseas who may have told you anything about the war?
NA: You mean at the time?
NA: I don’t think so. I wasn't in contact with anyone overseas, of course, I was too young and I didn't know anyone. I did hear that my mother’s, one of her family members, was [unintelligible] Jericho, and he was fleeing across the Jordan River and they were napalmed, their car was napalmed, and I think he died in it, or was seriously, seriously burned. So, we’d hear things like that, but that was after things settled down. You remember, communication was not as quick. People were writing letters still back in those days, or picking up news from a traveler, you know, who went back and forth, but I don't remember much, hearing much about that.
AA: So how has this war impacted your family?
NA: The ’67 War?
NA: Well, okay, my dad is from a village outside of Jerusalem called Beit Hanina. Beit Hanina was part of the West Bank, so in 1948, when Israel was established and grabbed as much as they could at that time of British Mandate Palestine, that area, where my dad’s village is, was outside the area that they took. In other words, the Jordanians retained that part in the West Bank. So, my dad had some property there with his relatives which was not impacted at that time. My mother’s family and she lived in what was called traditionally New Jerusalem, which now the Israelis refer to as West Jerusalem. So it was that area of Jerusalem that fell to Israel in 1948, so my mother’s family, much of her family were impacted directly by 1948 and were made either refugees or they wound up living on that side of Jerusalem that stayed with Jordan until 1967. So, 1967, all of British Mandate Palestine is now under Israeli control, that would be the West Bank, Gaza, so those two parts were part of British Mandate Palestine, part of the mandate Britain was given over Palestine in 1919, so Israel takes control of those last two pieces, and those are called the occupied territories. Israelis call them Judea, Samaria, and stuff, but legally they’re the occupied territories in the UN. They also took part of the Syrian Golan Heights. So, my family was then therefore impacted–my father’s side of the family was impacted by the ’67 War, because now their town, village, it’s now a town, it’s actually a suburb of Jerusalem now was impacted directly by Israeli rule. So that was the main thing, and in the case of my mother’s people, those that were outside of the Israeli jurisdiction now became part of Israeli jurisdiction, and those that were under Israeli jurisdiction, probably some of them have Israeli citizenship, and therefore have probably more privileges, slightly more than those who are in the occupied areas who don't have privileges.
AA: So, did you feel like there was an impact from this war on the Arab American community in Detroit at all?
NA: Well, the Palestinian part of it were impacted pretty much along the lines that I just described for my family. It was large for the rest of the Palestinians, those who were from the ’48 areas, now felt themselves pushed even deeper into history, and then those from the ’67, West Bank, Gaza, we didn't have many Gazans here, none that I can recall, but the West Bankers, they were now becoming directly impacted, so there were a lot of those people, Ramallah, Beit Hanina, Al-Bira, Deir Debwan, those are the villages in this area from the West Bank that are living here among other places in the United States and elsewhere, and so all of them were impacted. The Palestinians tried to do, and did make, organizations. Some were existing pre-1967, like the American Arab Congress from Palestine, and then a number of those after 1967. So, 1967 forms kind of a boundary between old and new, so we used to talk about the refugees of 1948, and now we’ve got refugees in 1967, some 1948ers are now refugees twice over, because they fled parts of the West Bank – even in Gaza they fled – and went to neighboring countries, so they’re twice over refugees. And then there are some new refugees, and then there are those that are just now new rulers, which would be the Israeli military. And then the organizations pop up, but my recollection is the big things start happening in 1968, with the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement. It’s at that point that hope is re-instilled in people and there’s a flourishing of organizations here in North America and elsewhere, you know Europe, South Africa, South America, everywhere. People are connecting kind of like they go down to the pit of depression and despair in ’67, and they bounce up in 1968 with the news that there’s a Palestinian resistance, the Battle of Karameh in 1968, where the Palestinians allegedly held off the Israelis for a while, not quite clear exactly what happened, frankly, but it was enough to reignite the hopes of Palestinians and Arabs in the future.
AA: Do you want to elaborate on the activism that happened? Here in Detroit, or America?
NA: Well, I can’t speak for the rest of 1967 very much because I don't think I participated in very much, but by ’68, we’re starting to see the rise of activism on the part of people that were frustrated, I think. For example, the Arab students, the foreign Arab students, organized usually under the umbrella of the Organization of Arab Students, OAS, they became reignited with the rise of the Palestinian movement, and it took great publicity and canard. Then there were non-student organizations that got started by supporters of the Palestinian revolution, if you will, or by people who were inspired, I’m trying to think, some of the groups—there was the United Holy Land Fund, but that was just a fundraising group, there were solidarity committees, I guess, but the students really led the way. Another group that led the way was the Association of Arab University Graduates, AAUG, which I worked with for a while, but there were mostly university professors, researchers, academics, in the despair after ’67 started an organization, which got buoyed by the Palestinian resurgent nationalism, if you will. It was a main focal point for many years. The students and the university graduates were the two main focal points, and then there were these support groups, supporting different factions of the Palestinian movements, unofficially, officially, clandestinely, quasi-clandestinely, they were all over the place.
AA: Is there anything you feel we haven't discussed about these two events you’d like to add to this interview?
NA: Offhand, I can’t think anymore, I’ve got to tell you, I’m giving it from the perspective of a late adolescent, you know, early-adult version.
AA: Well, thank you for sitting with me today, Dr. Abraham.NA: Yeah, my pleasure. Did you get what you were looking for?