Just 20 minutes outside Detroit lies Dearborn, Michigan, where more than 40 percent of the population is of Arab descent. Photographer Penny De Los Santos reports on the city’s Middle Eastern root system and the food industry that thrives around it.
As a photographer, I’ve learned to get good at finding the places where culture intersects with landscape. I think of my work as ethnographic—I’m interested in people, how they migrate, how they gather, how they celebrate, and what they eat. I’m also interested in showcasing American culture in unusual ways, ways that aren’t always reflected in mainstream media. That’s what drew me to Dearborn, Michigan, home to the greatest concentration of Lebanese in the United States—many of them descendants of immigrants who first came to Michigan in the 1890s for jobs in the automotive industry. It’s a great intersection of cultures, a little Beirut in the middle of the country. There are halal cafés, butchers, and bakeries like Shatila Food Products, which bakes Middle Eastern sweets and ships them all over the world. The air there smells of honey and rose, and the sound of the whirring conveyor belts and knives against cutting boards is punctuated with the friendly Arabic greeting of “As-salaam alaikum”—peace be upon you.
Dearborn is also home to the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America, which contains a massive commercial kitchen. It’s a beehive of volunteers who churn out hot loaves of man’oushe and baat breads all day long. At the Center I met a volunteer baker named Mirvat Kadouh who invited me to join her family for a meal, where I met Mirvat’s mother, Tawfika Elzayat. Tawfika is an incredible cook; she works throughout the day every Sunday, hosts a large dinner, and then packs everything up for her children to feed their own families all week.
I’ve reported on Middle Eastern culture in places like Lebanon and Dubai, but I went to Dearborn to explore how that spirit unfolds in this country. What I found was a place where culture and food collide in a truly beautiful way. —As told to Jordana Rothman
These are coal-roasted rib eye kebabs. They were just eyes-rolling-back delicious, with a really nice char on the outside. I had been on a plant-based diet for eight weeks when I shot this, but I tasted them anyway. And then I was like, “We need another round.”
Tawfika (left) works with her sister-in-laws to prepare the dough for markouk bread in her basement kitchen—they’ve been at it since 5 a.m.
The Elzayat family gathers for their Sunday meal. Everyone gets a little bit of everything: stuffed cabbage, grape leaves, hummus, kibbeh tartare and fried kibbeh in yogurt, crispy sambusak (turnovers), shish kebabs, and more.
Tawfika’s husband built this brick oven, which she’s using to grill chicken with her son, Amad Elzayat (right).
All eyes were on me as the bakers handed me a piece of baklava to taste. It was very sweet, just dripping with honey, and I had to lick my fingers to make sure I didn’t get any on my camera.
Volunteers baking breads at the Islamic Center of America. In the middle is a pot of za’atar and oil, which they brush on the finished loaves. All of these women were extremely kind to me, inviting me into their homes and offering their own opinions about the best food in Dearborn.