As the Curator of Education and Public Programming at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan, I am tasked with finding ways to intellectually engage visitors with our exhibits in an effort to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions, and to tell our story. Our mission is simple; we exist to document, preserve and present the history, culture and contributions of Arab Americans.
During my tenure at the museum, I have engaged in numerous dialogues with visitors on issues of identity as they relate to Arab culture and religion. Topics include the politics of belonging to the Arab and American identity, its relations to Islam, and how much Islamic culture informs Arab culture and vice versa.
However, there is one space in the museum that challenges visitors’ assumptions of religion and race in ways that provide insight into the intersection of mainstream expectations and Arab American culture—our Coming to America permanent exhibit. It is in this space that we discuss the political transformations concerning immigration laws in the 1900s, the construction of whiteness, religious diversity, and how Arabs sought to redefine and become American.
We begin the story of coming to America with “Zammouri”, the first recorded Arabic speaking black man from Azamor, Morocco to come to North America by way of Spain, as a slave in 1528. It is illuminating to see how introducing Zammouri as a slave and an Arabic speaking black man can disrupt ideologies of race, ethnicity, and representation.
One of our partner institutions, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, presents Zammouri, also known as “Estebanico”, as the first African to come to North America. It raises a number of questions, such as who has the power to legitimise the construction of his identity? Is he the first African, Arab, or Arabic speaker? Was he Muslim or Christian since Spain had banned Muslim passage to the Americas? Moreover, why must we investigate his faith, and negotiate and contest his identity to tell his story?
As an anthropologist and an educator, I use Zammouri’s story to disrupt notions of Arabness and its conflation with Islam, blackness and its threat to an Arab identity. Through the process of navigating racial identities, his story offers a way to discuss intersectionality. Ultimately, it leads us to interrogate the marginal whiteness of Arab American Muslims in Coming to America.