Barbara Aswad, March 25th, 2017
AA: So today is March 25, 2017, my name is Amina Ammar, this interview is for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am currently sitting with—
BA: Barbara Aswad.
AA: Okay. Ms. Aswad, where and when were you born?
BA: I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1937.
AA: Okay. How did your family get to Detroit, or how did you get to Detroit?
BA: How did I get to Detroit—they didn’t. I actually—they moved to Philadelphia when I was seven years old, and we really lived in sort of an Italian community and I thought most Americans were Italian until I found out I wasn’t. But anyway, that was a wonderful experience, I’ll say, to Mediterranean people, and I think it to some degree helped me when I lived in villages in the Middle East and married an Arab from Damascus because I was used to big extended families.
AA: So where did you live in July of 1967?
BA: In ’67 we were in Ann Arbor, my husband and I. We were commuting—I was commuting to Wayne State and we’d both gotten our degrees from University of Michigan, our doctorates. And it was quite a volatile period, the sixties, as you know. I mean, civil rights and anti-Vietnam War period. And I had just started my teaching at Wayne State in 1966. I had just started—in fact, I hadn’t finished my dissertation but I had done my research in the Middle East, I’d studied Arabic and Turkish and lived and done research for a year in the villages on the Turkish-Syrian border inside—just inside Turkey near Antakya. The Hatay it’s called, near Aleppo. And it used to be Syria but the French gave it to Turkey to keep the Germans out of the Dardanelles in 1936, but most of the rural population were Arab speaking.
AA: So what do you remember about Detroit before 1967?
BA: Before ’67? I wasn’t really teaching here. I was more in Ann Arbor and doing research in the Middle East, so I didn’t know a lot about Detroit until I started my job in ’66.
BA: So I do remember it was ’67 and the uprisings in Detroit. I remember I had just started teaching and I looked outside my window and I saw armored guards coming down the streets with their guns and thought it was sort of back in the Middle East where I’d seen guards with guns on the streets, and it was very shocking in the uprising period. It was a period certainly of African American uprising, civil rights movements which we all felt in this area, and I was involved definitely in the anti-war, Vietnam war movement. Started when I started teaching. Started teach-ins against the war. I lived in peasant villages and taught peasant society at the university and I saw how much Agent Orange we were killing the Vietnamese populations with. And so we started teach-ins, which got us in some trouble. As I mentioned before, I ended up on the Red Squad list because, probably, of that. I don’t know, maybe other things. My associates, I’m not sure. But that was sort of a scary kind of thing, and we couldn’t find out for ten years until the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] won the case and opened those lists up, and then in those lists which I saw in about 1980 I guess, I found that there was nothing— it was all whited out and I couldn’t figure out what they had found. And the guy said, “Well”—the police department said, “Well, did you talk about anything foreign?” And I said, “Well, of course, I teach Middle East anthropology at Wayne State.” He said, “Well, that’s why it’s all crossed out.” But I did find that they had followed me to various people’s houses and my license plates—in those days we didn’t have the updated surveillance systems, but apparently they were following a number of us here in this area during the anti-war period, and that was pretty scary. And of course I remember ADC [Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee] being organized which was wonderful, in ’67 after the ’67 War. And my husband was the treasurer for a while. I had been married by that time to Adnan Aswad from Damascus, and he was doing his doctorate in engineering at University of Michigan and he was also my Arabic TA [laughs]. That’s how I met him.
AA: So how did you first hear about the uprising?
BA: Which uprisings? The Detroit?
AA: Oh, the ’67. Yeah, Detroit ’67.
BA: Like I said, I was teaching in the city when they happened. And of course, some of my co-professors wouldn’t come down to Detroit because they were scared. I came anyway. I sort of—maybe because I’d lived in the Middle East I wasn’t really afraid of things. And so I came in—at that time I was still living in Ann Arbor. And it was very obvious what was happening. I mean, I could see it happening in Detroit, and it was worse in Detroit. You have a high percentage of African American consciousness and everything. It was sort of a scary period in the uprisings here.
AA: So how did—you said you were teaching around that time. How did students react and what did you see in Detroit?
BA: They were scared too. I mean, it was a scary period. You had—like I said, the National Guard was called in so they were all over the place, all soldiers all over, which we’re not used to. And students were afraid; we were afraid. And we had been involved in demonstrations against the war, so they were also photographing—they had cameras on campus at the university, so they were photographing us. So it was sort of a very fearful period. And I kept teaching for some reason. I guess I’m not afraid of things. And so I kept teaching, but students were afraid. But I had many Arab American students too, some from Dearborn, some from Algeria and the Middle East, and I think some of them had been used to some conditions. But everyone was pretty much afraid during the period of the uprisings. They’re often called riots, but wrongly. They were uprisings.
AA: That was actually going to be one of my questions, was how do you refer to this event? Would you refer to it as a rebellion, an uprising, a riot?
BA: It’s a rebellion. And many of the people who were in it from what I remember had come back—they were African American soldiers who had come back from Vietnam and they didn’t like the way they were being treated in Detroit, so some of them who were spearheading this knew some military tactics. And that’s from what I remember, organizing, the early organizing of the rebellion. And I don’t know what else to say except, you know, driving in and out of Detroit and there was fear among many people, but most of my faculty and my department didn’t come in to teach. They were in the suburbs and they wouldn’t come in.
AA: Okay, let’s switch gears a little. Let’s actually talk about the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. So how did you first hear about those events that led up to the war?
BA: Well, I was finishing up my dissertation, which I finished in ’68, and we had our whole living room full of Arabs and Arab-Americans talking about the war, and I was trying to finish my dissertation at the same time. And I just remember all the conversations and all the discussions and, you know, the—what else—anger at the war, the results of the war. And, of course, I had been in the Middle East, I came back in ’65. So it was very close and very personal to me because I had traveled earlier in ’56 all throughout the Middle East. Five Arab countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and then Palestine and Israel, so I had been there and I knew the area. And so we were following it, of course, very closely, and were—you know, I think everyone was humiliated by the results of it. And my husband was Syrian and they had gone into Israel I guess. They were the one army that had sort of gone into the Golan Heights and that area, and they felt sort of proud that Israel didn’t get to Damascus. But it was—for the Egyptians, they were very angry, and one of the professors that I had helped hire at Wayne State, Doctor Rushdi, to teach Arabic, I know—later—but her husband at that time was a doctor in Gaza, and Israel had gone in and lined up all the doctors and nurses and shot them, and had shot her husband. She later married Hani Fakouri, an anthropologist, but—and she didn’t know about it for a year. I mean, I didn’t know her then, but later I met her and—so many of the experiences were pretty horrific that we were hearing about. And, you know, it was pretty horrible. The war was very terrible. And the fact that, you know, this was—okay, why it was also—that was earlier of course. When I was there in ’56 in Egypt, we had an appointment with Nasser—we were in villages and as a student group of eight of us, went around the Middle East, and we had been in villages and then we had an appointment with Nasser, and he had to cancel it. He said, “I’m sorry, I’m really busy,” and he nationalized the Suez Canal, so we sort of forgave him, if you will. He was busy. But by the time we got to Israel after going through the Arab countries, in ’56 this is—okay—we saw these French troops in Israel in ’56, and we wondered why the French were doing maneuvers with the Israelis. And then we had to leave, and shortly after we got back to America, Israel and Britain invaded—and France—invaded Egypt to take back the Suez Canal. That was in ’56. So that was an interesting experience right then. So I had been at a young age, when I as 19, I had been into the area and, you know, familiar with quite a few of the politics in the area, ever since I was 19. I am now 80 years old, okay [laughs]. So I have a long history of involvement in Middle East politics. Also I might say that because my husband is from Syria originally, Aleppo and then Damascus, we went back often to visit his family as well as doing my research in Turkey and Syria near Aleppo. We went back to Syria many times to visit his family over these years. So we loved Syria and we’re very, very upset over the tragedy that is hitting Syria now.
AA: So do you remember how the larger Arab community or the Detroit community reacted to the ’67 War?
BA: Well, there were different approaches depending what countries people came from I think. The ones that were involved directly and—probably the Yemeni, for example, weren’t as affected because it wasn’t in Yemen. But certainly the Palestinians, I mean, this had a huge effect on Palestinians. Because they were conquered and then of course the Golan Heights of Syria was conquered and Egypt was conquered. So it depended what countries they came from, but certainly I think the whole Palestinian issue got more and more dominant in it, and that really consolidated a lot of things which led to AAUG, Arab American University Graduates, which my husband was one of the founders of. And I had always sort of criticized them at the beginning. I, of course, wasn’t Arab American, but that wasn’t my point. My point was I thought they should let students in and they didn’t want to. I thought it was rather elitist to just have us academics as part of it. I became an associate, because now I’m Arab. But I always thought that was a little elitist. In some ways maybe they were right, because the students were also divided and they were very political and it may have disrupted AAUG. I don’t know. They did allow them to give papers if they weren’t members, and that bothered me. I was very happy that they—one of the reasons for AAUG though was that we who were trying to publish on the Middle East, especially on Palestine, found it very difficult in academic circles to get our publications at that time. And AAUG provided a publication and the first book, really, I published on Arab Americans and—on Arab Americans was co-published by AAUG. So it allowed us to get publications which allowed us to get tenure eventually. You had to have publications or you couldn’t get tenure. So an important part of it certainly, of the elitist, academic part of it was publications. And Ibrahim Abu-Lughod very definitely pushed that aspect of it, and he was right. He was the head of the publications for AAUG for a long time, so I appreciated that because it did help me. And I had much—I had many problems teaching on the Middle East. I changed the name of my course eventually from Middle East anthropology to Arab Society because I had trouble with the Jewish community—the Zionist community, I shouldn’t say Jewish. The Zionist community who really didn’t want me teaching on Palestine and Israel. And with Arab society, I could include Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza and not necessarily teach a whole lot on Israeli society or Jewish society. So, I changed the topic, because I had—I had resistance, but when I had been in Israel, when I was 19 at the end of our trip, we had talked to Ben-Gurion and we had talked to Martin Buber who was a wonderful philosopher in Israel, who said he was a Zionist but not a state Zionist. He didn’t believe in the state of Israel, and he’s very famous in Jewish circles, philosophical Jewish circles. And we had worked on a kibbutz for a couple weeks, so I would tell the rabbis who called up to get me out of my position at Wayne, I’d say, “Have you talked to Ben-Gurion? Have you worked on a kibbutz?” And of course none of them had. And I said, “Well, I have.” I had something. I was glad I had been to Israel myself and talked to some of the people there, because it—and we had been to Nazareth, talked to the Palestinians there, and we knew sort of what was going on. Saw the refugee camps. So at a young age I had some background that I could use to keep my position at Wayne. But I think also where I had worked was Turkey, and with Arabs in Turkey, but I said I worked in Turkey, and that’s how I kept my position for a couple years, because my chair was an ardent Zionist and did not want me teaching on that, and probably would not have hired me if he’d thought I’d studied Arabs. So I did study in Turkey, on Arabs. But I said—and my husband’s mother was Turkish, and I spoke Turkish to her, and he introduced himself to my chair as a Turk and it worked for a few years until I got tenure. Then we told him that no, he really was an Arab, because he saw himself—his father was Arab from Aleppo and—anyway, interesting history of the pressures of trying to teach on the Middle East at Wayne State. And by the way, my positions has not been fulfilled for the last ten years and I’m very upset about it. I did get—I’ve been retired for about 15 years, and I managed to get a very successful young man named Tom Abowd to fill my position in 2000, and he wrote a wonderful book just recently called Colonial Jerusalem, and he did his work in Jerusalem. And I told him to try to keep his head down a little while, which he couldn’t do. But there were a number of reasons I guess, but he didn’t get tenure, and since—then they hired somebody for a couple years, but since ’07 there has been no position on Middle East anthropology at Wayne State, which is very distressing considering the largest community in the United States in Dearborn and what’s going on in the Middle East today. I told the president that-- Wayne has gone down in population, he said the state was not—had reduced the funding. They have a new president who impresses me, I like him, but I said I didn’t see that as an excuse. But seven years without teaching Middle East culture or Arab culture I think is inexcusable. I’m so glad that U[niversity] of M[ichigan] Dearborn here is starting Arab studies. I mean, they have had it and it’s good, but we have a graduate program and they don’t and it makes a difference of—in academics.
AA: So do you remember any particular moments about the war and its coverage in the United States?
BA: The ’67 War?
AA: Yeah. That you’d like to share?
BA: Well, it was pro-Israel. What can you say. We were supporting and have been and always have been supporting Israel in this country, with millions and billions of dollars. And our media was that way. There was not an objective view that I could find in our media then. I really couldn’t. It was very one-sided. And it always has been until today. One of the facts which a lot of Americans are not aware of is that you can get members of the Jewish community, typically also, many of them—give money to Israel and it’s tax exempt. It’s the only country in the world that you can give—only foreign country you can give money to and take it off your taxes. You may not have known that. A lot of people don’t know that. And it’s unbelievable. I mean, the power, the political power is incredible. I even worked down in Washington for a short time after my B.A. in anthropology. Couldn’t find really a job, so I worked for Senator Hart, Phil Hart from Michigan who was a wonderful man and had Senate Hart office buildings named after him because he had such a conscience and he read all his legislation, which many of them don’t. A wonderful man. But, you know, on Israel, he had worked in World War II—fought, and was pro-Israel. Wasn’t Jewish, but was pro-Israel, and we would have these discussions and I just couldn’t—at that time, ate with Kennedy before he was president—and, you know, it just seemed to go nowhere. And I was very glad to come back to academia, because the politics in Washington I didn’t like. And I was mistaken in not knowing the politics of universities, I thought that this would be merit—you know, a merit, and didn’t realize how political universities can become too. But that was a very short time actually that I worked in Washington. Came back, did a doctorate. But it was an experience and I didn’t like it. But just to show at that time the feelings, even of very sensitive, very liberal kinds of people were just pro-Israel. It was, you know, from World War II. Hangover, really, for many of the older people, and understandably because the Holocaust was so horrible. And then, of course, many of them got very rich and they could put their money into supporting Israel, and it just got worse and worse until we have today, with Palestinians getting, what, 23 percent of the land or something that they had in ’48. I went back to Israel and Palestine about seven years ago with a group of older people from California, and the director was—he’d been head of the YMCA in Jerusalem for 40 years, he was Palestinian Christian, and of course knew Hebrew and Arabic and everything, and about thirty of us went from a retirement center out in California. And, you know, having been there earlier and then coming back, showing the differences. We were driving on Jewish-only roads, all these apartheid situations that separated Arab towns and villages that used to intermarry and could hardly do that anymore. Went to Bethlehem and the Wall. I mean, it’s just outrageous what I saw, and that was seven years ago and it’s gotten worse, much worse, even since seven years ago. And I had a very hard time getting out of the airport because of my name Aswad. And the lady didn’t want to let me out. She said, “Where did you get your name?” I said, “My husband.” She jumps up, looks around, goes, “Where is he?” I said, “He’s in Los Angeles.” “Well, where was he born?” And I said Turkey, which was true. It was Syria, and he was born in Antioch, but I said Turkey. “Well, what languages do you know?” I said Turkish. I wouldn’t say Arabic, I do know Turkish. “Why? Why do you know Turkish?” She knew my name’s Arab. I said, “Because I studied it in college.” She’s sitting there with her machine gun, she said, “I’ll take it to my commander,” and she runs off. And the rest of my airplane is getting on the plane and, oh boy, here I am, stuck in Israel. Finally she comes back and sort of throws it at me and says, “Go on.” But it’s just, you know, it’s the harassment, even for someone who’s Anglo like myself, with that name. I might mention my Anglo name was Black, which if you’re an Arab, Aswad means black. So Adnan said he married in the tribe [laughs]. Sort of an unusual combination. But it was a very scary period, and those of us who knew the Middle East, had lived there, it was scary and just horrifying the way America supported Israel. I was very happy in ’56 when Israel invaded Sinai with France and Britain, because—it was Eisenhower, I think, then, and he wouldn’t go along with it. America did not defend Israel on that, and he said they should get out. And they had to get out, primarily because we did not—Eisenhower would not support them, and they did have to leave the Suez Canal in ’56. But certainly in ’67 we supported them, with military—our military, what do we give? Six billion now? Something like that. Military the highest of any country in the world, and they don’t need it because they have the nuclear weapons, two or three hundred of them. When I was in Israel the first time too, we did go to Dimona which is their nuclear area with the Weizmann Institute. We went way down and saw the nuclear things. That was ’56, they were doing nuclear things then. And people here never talk about it, and they don’t talk about it today. You will not find in newspapers anything about Israel being a nuclear power, and that it hasn’t signed the nuclear proliferation treaty. And neither have we, and we’re forcing, of course, Iran to do that. And so much of our politics is still run by Israel. [President] Obama and much of the Democratic party, they gave in to this. Certainly Hillary [Clinton] did, she didn’t say a word about it. She’s highly funded by AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. Good thing for me, anyway, as an older person that’s seeing groups like JVP, Jewish Voices for Peace, which I belong to and support heavily. Just to see the young Jewish people coming and being on campuses, things like this, it’s wonderful. J Street, another Jewish sort of moderate organization had a meeting just recently. They still won’t let Jewish Voices of Peace come to their conferences, which I think is very interesting. So, obviously within the Jewish community there are a lot of different views, and certainly not—they’re not all Zionists. And in Israel they’re not all Zionists either. I mean, I was glad and still am I have relations with Israelis. Jeff Halper who has ICAHD, which is Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, takes Jewish and Palestinian young people out and they rebuild home after Israel has demolished them. He’s an anthropologist like myself and he’s a good friend and he’s been in jail 13 times. And of course they’ve only managed to rebuild one percent of all the homes that Israel has damaged, but it’s a wonderful effort to bring the two groups. And then the Women in Black, and I have friends in Israel who are Jews who are very progressive. So it’s a country like any country, where you have progressives and fundamentalists. But we are supporting their policies. They couldn’t do it without us. They couldn’t do what they’re doing now. They couldn’t be the threat, they couldn’t be the nuclear threat. We didn’t give them—France, I guess, they got their nuclear weapons from. But, well, we support them militarily. And now they’re having relations with Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, so things are changing. And not for the good, because those are very not progressive states.
AA: Is there anything you feel we haven’t discussed, or should be added to the interview?
BA: Well, I know you were wondering maybe where I get my radicalism, and I mentioned before my mother was very much part of this. She was a feminist which, in the twenties, was somewhat unusual for a woman, although not totally but that’s where it started. But it was—and she was a history teacher, and I always described her as a closet socialist because she would—I mentioned we were raised Baptist. Her mother had died when she was 23 and she went to the Baptist church. Before that had never been anywhere, but she needed help. Emotional help. And so I was raised, and she would take us to black Baptist churches in the forties which, believe me, no whites did this. And she’d take us out to farm workers who were picking pickles and all this to show us different classes, and my father went along with all this. And so I grew—I was very lucky in growing up, and she showed us models of Indira Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt when we were young girls to, you know, sort of say look what women can do. So that helped me, always gave me strength. She always—my family always supported me. And then as I said, I got into—went to a place called Bucknell University because I had a Baptist scholarship and I really wanted to play field hockey. That was my main interest in going to college, which doesn’t sound very good, but we had moved from Philadelphia to Michigan again and there were no girls’ sports and I’d played field hockey in Philadelphia and I loved it. And so I came back East to go to college, and I had some money as a Baptist, and Bucknell is a horrible school. It’s quite a good university, but they had sororities and fraternities, and my roommate was Chinese. I got invited to all the sororities, she got invited to none. So I started fighting the sororities and then—what am I doing at the university? I’m not supposed to – I came here to learn something. And I don’t know, some of us got in trouble, and a Soc[iology] prof then said, “Would you like to apply for this grant to go to the Middle East?” Which I knew nothing about except the Bible. And I said, “Sure.” And landed, of course, in Midan Tahrir in the villages of Egypt, and it was quite a tour. It changed my whole life, and I ended up—didn’t want to come back to Bucknell so I went to Edinburgh University, met a bunch of anthropologists there, some of whom have become very famous like Talal Asad, and thought, well, that’s a good profession. I can study the Middle East and do something interesting. And sort of became a Quaker in Ramallah I remember, gave up this Baptist business and became a Quaker, because Ramallah has a big school, big Quaker school, and that impressed me that they didn’t talk much but they did a lot of work. And—but then I have ADD and I couldn’t sit for an hour without people talking, so I sort of quit the Quakers too. Later became a Unitarian, who are often called noisy Quakers [laughs]. Unitarian, and then of course I married a Muslim, and they will take people of any faith in Unitarians, or no faith or whatever. But—so my background has been fairly progressive and had wonderful experiences abroad meeting different people, and that’s what anthropology’s all about. Studying other cultures and respecting most of them [laughs]. Not all of them, but having respect for them. So I consider myself lucky in many ways, even though it was a fight trying to teach objectively on the Middle East at Wayne State. But it worked. Had wonderful students, and now you can see all these wonderful papers being produced, which weren’t then—we didn’t have something like the Arab American Studies Association. I did join MESA, Middle East Studies Association, in ’92 I was president of Middle East Studies Association. And that was quite an experience. Initially we couldn’t—well, that’s why AAUG was founded really, because we tried to present papers at MESA and we couldn’t on Palestine, so that really is what pushed AAUG to get publications and everything and a place we could talk about Palestine. And I think that was the first paper I ever published—no, second one, that had to do with Palestine. And it was published in an AAUG book by Naseer Aruri who was one of the presidents, and it was really refreshing for Arab-Americans to be able to have their own organization where they could say what they wanted. So it’s always been a struggle with Zionism. I won’t say Judaism, but Zionism. And now in California where my husband and I are retired for the last 16 years, in a way because of the horrible bigotry and discrimination going on under the Trump administration, it’s very interesting because we now have—we are close to San Bernardino where there was a very bad tragedy. And there’s a lot of fear of Muslims, and the mosque in Clairmont was threatened. There are three mosques threatened with bombs in California, southern California. And what has been wonderfully amazing, it has brought the Jewish and Christian communities together with Muslim communities. A couple weeks ago, about a month ago we had rabbis at the Friday one o’clock sermon in the Islamic mosque. We’ve had Muslims going to the synagogue. This would never have happened before this administration that I know of. I mean, maybe it did, I don’t know. I’m on some interfaith committee, and maybe that did happen but not the way it is now. And we’ve had marches. And in 2012 – when the bombing in New York —and the mosques were again threatened, the Christian ministers formed a blockade around the mosque and said, “Any attacks on the mosque is an attack on our churches.” So in a way these crisis kinds of things do bring groups together, and there are marches, interfaith marches, and it’s wonderful to see. So there is some counter—counter Trump things going on. And Bannon, the push on white Christian nationalism that’s going on today, which is very scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen right now, but it’s a very fearful time to me. It’s a very dangerous time. Emphasis on militarism. As an anthropologist studying way back in many civilizations, all empires have ended. Maybe this is the beginning of ours. I don’t know. But I will say one thing: I have always been critical of much in this culture, especially the genocide among, I guess, Native Americans and of course the way we treat African-Americans and other minorities and now Muslim-Americans. But I have now after all these many years begun to realize we really have some really good things in our democracy, and the free press is so important. Not that it’s always free, but there is Rachel Maddow and some of these people who are still wonderful people, and we’re able to say these things. So I almost—it’s like, wow, we really do have wonderful things here we have to support. And unfortunately the contemporary budget has cut—seeming to cut all those good things. Evening affecting this museum we’re in here. NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities], NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], UN [United Nations], all these things that are, you know, being cut by our country, by our regime, or are trying to be cut. The health benefits. California’s a little more—it’s nice to be out there, because they’re trying to go for single-payer now, health [insurance], which I don’t know if they’ll get there but it’s been there before and it may go. They want to be a sanctuary state. I don’t know if that’ll happen, but the pushes there are very progressive. Very progressive Governor Pratt and the Senate and the House are all very strong in California against—they’re pushing back against the administration very strongly now. I don’t know the outcome, but it is good to see organizations like this, Arab American Studies Association, all these papers and all the real pushback against the current administration. That’s about all I have.
AA: Well, thank you Doctor Aswad for sitting with me today.
BA: You’re welcome, and thank you for the interview.