Book Review: Dearborn by Ghassan Zeineddine

Ghassan Zeineddine’s new volume of short stories is a tragicomic valentine to the city’s diverse Arab American community.
Photograph courtesy of Ghasson Zeineddine

“I tell jokes nonstop. So many of them do not land,” says Ghassan Zeineddine, whose debut short-story collection, Dearborn — which is both moving and funny, tragic and comic — was recently published to great acclaim.

In real life, Zeineddine says, his friends and his wife usually “just roll their eyes” and dismiss his “silly jokes.” But on the page, Zeineddine’s wit is irresistible, even — or especially — when his subject matter is at its most sincere.

Dearborn, which has garnered starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus Reviews and was named a best book of September 2023 by The Washington Post, comprises 10 stories, each based in the city of Dearborn and, in particular, the Arab American community that has made that city its home.

In story after story, Zeineddine displays both humor and a profound sympathy for his subjects, writing with subtlety and nuance from the points of view of men, women, and genderqueer characters, whose sexual orientations and degrees of religious devotion vary widely.

In “Marseille,” a 99-year-old Titanic survivor recounts her emigration from a small Druze village; in “Yusra,” a butcher from east Dearborn spends his Fridays in Hamtramck, where he won’t be recognized, dressed as a woman. In heels, clip-on earrings, and a hijab, he stops for iced coffee and red velvet cupcakes, which he carefully maneuvers past his niqab. “If I’ve got frosting on my mustache,” he says, “no one can see it.”

Most of Zeineddine’s stories focus on Lebanese Americans (his own family background is Lebanese), but Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis also appear.

The book is as diverse as the town. This range of voices and experiences represented in Dearborn was intentional, he says: “I think it’s really important to show that there’s no one Arab American experience.” The book, he adds, is “just a representation of Dearborn, not the representation.”

With his family, Zeineddine recently moved from Dearborn to Ohio, where he teaches creative writing at Oberlin College. He says comedy is his “way of approaching serious matters.”

Zeineddine, who hails from Washington, D.C., says he “mythologized” Dearborn for years. He finally got to see it in person after taking a teaching job at U-M Dearborn. // Photograph courtesy of Ghasson Zeineddine

“I tell my students this sometimes: If you make a reader laugh — and it’s hard to do that — sometimes they might be willing to go wherever you want to take them.”

Zeineddine’s storytelling is so seductive, and his sense of absurdity so acute, he’s able to lead readers in all sorts of directions, many of them unpredictable. In “The Actors of Dearborn,” for instance, we meet Uncle Sam, who years ago changed his name from Samir and festooned his home with American flags and banners stamped with the logos of the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, and Red Wings.

After 9/11, we learn, Samir “nearly lost his mind, chewed his nails until they bled, could hardly sleep anymore, and spent every waking hour terrified that the government would accuse him of supporting terrorist organizations,” revoke his citizenship, and deport him. His new name and his flags are an attempt to prove his “patriotic fervor” to anyone who might be watching — and, as Zeineddine shows, someone is watching.

The story is set in 2019, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were a common sight in Dearborn and a constant source of fear and anxiety for many residents. Zeineddine depicts that atmosphere of uncertainty with tremendous sensitivity. At the same time, though, he seems to gently tease his characters: Against Uncle Sam’s very real fear of persecution is poised the absurdity of his chosen name — and his flag collection.

“I’m able to maybe navigate terrain that might be difficult to navigate if it weren’t for comedy,” Zeineddine says. But, he adds, “I want to make it clear that I’m not romanticizing Dearborn. I mean, I love the city — I’m so deeply obsessed with it, and I find it just so unique.”

Zeineddine, who was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up both there and in Saudi Arabia, didn’t actually visit Dearborn until he landed a teaching job at the University of Michigan Dearborn. In his mind, though, he had “mythologized” the city for years.

“When I was writing these short stories, I really wrote them from this deep love for the community,” Zeineddine says. “But having this deep affection for the community doesn’t mean that you can’t also acknowledge faults in the community. … It’s just a matter of, you’re capturing the atmosphere in the city, and this is what you’re seeing.”

This story is from the January 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.