Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Special News Bulletin

A Bridge of Understanding

The Arab Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with several presenting partners, hosted the 14th annual Dearborn Arab International Festival June 19-21, 2009. This three-day celebration of Middle Eastern food and culture drew crowds of over 250,000 people from across the country, one of the largest Arab gatherings outside the Middle East. As an American Christian with a presenting booth at the festival, I have to say that I have never been more impressed with the hospitality, openness and warmth of the organizers and the Arab and Muslim people I met at the festival.

The purpose for my participation at the festival was to give out complimentary copies of my Arabic murder mystery novel, The Witness. Over 1.5 million copies have already been distributed throughout the Middle East in 13 different languages. I was inspired to participate in the festival in response to Hajja Subhia Abu Elheja’s declaration that “Now more than ever it has become important to bridge the gap of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Hajja is the executive producer of the remake of Mohammed: The Messenger of Peace.

The negative reception I feared receiving before I went to Dearborn was completely dispelled by each person I met. I expected great hostility towards my Christian viewpoint, but instead received gracious hospitality. I anticipated cold rejection, but instead experienced warm reception. More than 3,600 festival participants went out of their way to enter my booth to request a personalized autographed copy of The Witness. Not once in that entire three days did I encounter hostile arguments – not one point of conflict, not one raised voice in heated debate. What developed at the booth was an atmosphere of appreciation and understanding. In addition, several hundred people came back to personally thank me for the novel. One woman sat in the parking lot and read the entire book in three hours!

Among the comments from the 30 participants who attended the Festival with me was a businesswoman who said, “I came with fear; I left with joy.” Another person remarked that, “I came with trepidation; I left with love in my heart.” In fact, if everyone in America could experience this festival and meet the wonderful Arab and Muslim people that I encountered, America would be a better nation.

I was very impressed with the level of organization and professional treatment we received from the festival organizers. I visited Dearborn two months before the festival to meet with Ahmad Chebbani, the director of the Arab Chamber of Commerce; Ronald Haddad, the Chief of Police; the Reverend Haytham Abi Haydar of the Arab Christian Church; Imam Hassan Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America; along with Bassam Mourad, editor of the Alhadath Newspaper M.A.T. It was my desire to personally deliver to each one of them the two books we would be distributing. I wanted to assure them of our respect for the festival guidelines and rules, one of which was the limiting of literature hand-outs to designated areas. We accepted this as a legitimate means of avoiding crowd congestion and maintaining the free flow of patrons and freely handed out our literature at our booth!

My experience of the Dearborn Arab International Festival resulted in several observations that I would like to share:

1. The Dearborn Muslim community is one of the most gracious hosts I have ever met. Many of them invited us into their homes with a warmth and hospitality desperately needed in our alienated and lonely world.

2. It was a great joy and blessing to observe so many men maintaining a fatherly presence with their children. This is certainly one family value lacking in much of American culture on which both Christians and Muslims agree.

3. Much of the mistrust and bigotry surrounding Muslim/non-Muslim relations is a result of ignorance, be it unfair stereotypes or isolated negative personal experiences. One time I heard two people speaking in Arabic and thought they were mad at each other, but they weren’t. The Arabic language might sound harsh to an English speaker, but it’s not.

4. The Arab community has the most fantastic food and makes the best desserts ever! I am personally ordering online from my now favorite bakery, The Shatila Bakery, one of the many incredible food providers at the festival.

5. I learned over 200 new names unfamiliar to many Americans (Mohammed being the most popular).

My personal thanks and deep gratitude go to the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Dearborn Chief of Police, and the entire Arab community of Dearborn for the positive, enlightening, and joyful experience my group and I had at the festival. I also so appreciated the working relationship I had with Bassam Mourad, editor of the Alhadath Newspaper M.A.T, Osama Siblanni, the editor of the Arab-American newspaper and Laura Bauer, editor of the Press and Guide. My prayer is that we had as much positive effect on the community as they had on us. I hope to have the honor of being invited to return next year, because it is our desire to bridge the gap of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Josh McDowell

1 comment:

Peter Jonesz said...

Dear Mr. McDowell,

Thank you for your thoughtful portrayal of your experience and your reflections on it. The kind of honesty and open-heartedness you display is moving and more of what we need in this country.

I am going to link to it from my Facebook Page called Liberty and Justice for All, so more people can read it.