Anan Ameri’s riveting new memoir The Wandering Palestinian is receiving rave reviews, and with good reason. It chronicles her life from 1974 in Beirut, Lebanon to Detroit, Michigan as she learns how to adjust to culture shock, find her independence, and become a driving force in Detroit’s large and politically active Arab American community—an involvement that helped her break away from her isolation, resume her activism, and paved the way for her to become a recognized and respected leader in her community.
“Anan Ameri’s memoir is a valuable contribution to narratives of community organizing and grassroots activism especially on the question of Palestine. Weaving between heartbreak and personal and political triumph, her story sheds light on important solidarity work and organization building in the US.”— Dr. Sarah Gualtieri
Author of Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrian California
- What inspired you to write The Wandering Palestinian?
The genesis of this book goes back to 1993 when I resigned from my work with the Palestine Aid Society and decided to take a one-year sabbatical. During that year I spent time reflecting on my life experiences and contemplating about what makes us who we are and what forces shape our destinies. In the process, I began to remember and write about certain individuals and events that left their imprint on me and helped me choose the path of grassroots community work.
What inspired me to write this book is the fact that I have been an activist for most of my adult life. In the US, for over forty years, I have worked with immigrant communities, mostly from Palestine and other Arab countries. Their aspirations, passions, and struggles not only inspired me, but also made me realize how my individual story is in fact a part of their larger story.
This book, as well as my earlier memoir, The Scent of Jasmine: Coming of Age in Jerusalem and Damascus, were conceived during my sabbatical year but didn’t see the light until I retired, twenty-some years later. While The Scent of Jasmine is about my experiences growing up in the Arab world, The Wandering Palestinian is about my life in the US. I hope that through telling my own story I can also tell a part of the Arab American story.
- Your book discusses the cultural shock of living in America. What are three of the greatest challenges you had to overcome?
The first challenge I faced was living in a city that was so different from where I came, and from all the cities I lived in or visited. This includes lack of public transportation in such a large metropolitan city, where every adult must have a car to get to where he/she needs to go. I was also shocked by the level of inner-city poverty in the richest country in the world, and the lack of safety that made it almost impossible for a woman to walk the streets after dark.
Before coming to the US in 1974, I was living in Beirut, Lebanon; I had two jobs, my own apartment, and lived independently away from my parents. I enjoyed having a wide circle of colleagues and friends. I came to the US following a man I fell madly in love with, and other than him, I knew not a single soul in the US. Suddenly I found myself without family or friends, without a job, and not knowing how to drive or to speak the language. Regaining my own independence, finding my own niche, and charting my own path was probably the greatest challenge I faced in my life. It took me a few years to overcome it.
Another agonizing challenge was to get out of a depression that I sank in for a few years after my failed marriage.
- You write about some really difficult subjects with humor and honesty, such as depression and loss. Why was it important for you to share this part of your life?
Memoirs are about welcoming our readers into our lives, with its happy and sad moments, as well as its success and setbacks. To share only one’s success and beautiful experiences is not only self-glorification, but also dishonest. Respecting and honoring our readers requires openness and transparency. I believe the more forthcoming a writer is, and the more willing to share all aspects of her/his life, the more she/he can connect with the readers.
- Let’s talk about discrimination, which is another important topic in your book. Do you feel times have improved since you first came to America? What has changed for the better? What still needs to change?
Definitely things have changed, some for the better, but sadly, others for the worse. This applies to Arab and Muslim Americans, immigrants, as well as communities of color.
On a personal level, I have experienced discrimination and stereotyping throughout the years I lived in the US. Sometimes it was subtle, other times not so much. As a Palestinian Arab Muslim woman, to some, I was the embodiment of backwardness, submissiveness, and evil. But I have also enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of individuals from every ethnic, racial, and religious background, whose love and support are what sustained me and helped me accomplish what I did.
In recent years, we have witnessed a steep rise in Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, unfortunately promoted and pushed at the highest level of government. The Muslim ban and the border wall are only two examples. However, for the first time in US history, we have also witnessed women of color like Rashida Tlaib, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Refugee from Somalia, elected to the US House of Representatives.
Another example, when I arrived to the US in 1974, the concept of multiculturalism was taking root, and the impact of the civil rights movement could be felt everywhere. Yet no one could have imagined that by 2008 we would have an African American president, or by 2020 we would have an African American woman vice president. This is happening at the same time we see a rise in White supremacy and right-wing militia. Yes, a lot of progress has been made, but the forces opposing it are strong and very much rooted in both institutional and popular cultures. We have to stay vigilant in order to keep moving in the right direction. To protect what have been accomplished and build on it.
- You have accomplished so much in your life. What do you feel are your three greatest accomplishments?
I believe that my most important accomplishment is being able to play a significant role in establishing two nonprofit organizations, the Palestine Aid Society of America and the Arab American National Museum. While these two organizations are very different in mission and structure, both have helped organize our community, galvanized our energy around important issues, and raised the profile of the Arab American community. They have also helped us build important alliances with other communities that share our vision of moving our nation to be more equitable, just, and inclusive.
Another accomplishment, within a relatively short time of my arrival to the US, I was able to gain the trust and support of the Arab American community and to become a recognized, respected leader.
I also feel a sense of accomplishment when it comes to mentoring a relatively large number of young women, many of whom I have met and worked with during my long career in the nonprofit sector. Nothing gives me more joy or makes my heart smile as much as watching them mature, succeed, and prosper over the years. I treasure their friendship and the time we spend together. They give me hope about the future.
“…a riveting, 40 year-long journey through the streets of several American cities recounting tales, both humorous and heartbreaking, that illustrate the acculturation of an idealistic but restless Palestinian woman into American life. Ameri’s writing is crisp and smooth, and I was hooked immediately. I couldn’t put it down.”— Diana Abouali, PhD.
Director of the Arab American National Museum
- You played a pivotal role in the creation of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. This is such an important museum for Michigan. What is it about this museum that is especially important to you?
To me, the museum is a living and ever-expanding memoir of a community that has been ignored for too long. It is an institution that unites and uplifts our community. It gives a voice to every Arab American regardless of his or her national background, religious affiliation, time of immigration, or socio-economic status. No one, no voice, and no story is more important, or more precious than the other.
Another important aspect of the museum, and possibly most rewarding, is to see the excitement and smiles on the faces of young Arab Americans when they visit. It gives them a sense of pride and comfort of being who they are.
- What do you feel are the three most important things you’ve learned about life?
I have learned that life is not linear but rather a mixed bag of good and bad, joy and pain, failures and successes, and we ought to embrace them all. They are part of us, and what makes us who we are.
I have also learned that taking a chance and trying something new, especially when it gets us out of our comfort zones, though scary, is a mind and heart opener. It expands our horizon and makes us more compassionate and accepting. The world has not been changed for the better by people who are satisfied with the status quo, but by those who are willing to take a risk and challenge the common wisdom.
And I have learned that the most important things in life are not things.
- What advice would you give to someone who is new to the United States?
For a recent immigrant, life might seem very difficult and lonely, and success is far out of reach, especially for those who have no family or friends. From my own experience I’d like to say, though it is hard to believe it, that life does get better sooner than one thinks. More likely than not, as a recent immigrant, especially if you are a person of color, you will be faced with hostility or discrimination. Someone will say unkind or hurtful words, but try to reach out, to keep an open heart, because there are more people in this country that are kind, generous, and helpful. People who will embrace and accept you the way you are.
- What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Memoirs are about individuals; however, as the stories of this book reveal, my personal, social, and political life have been very much intertwined with Arab and Palestinian American activism. And without my own activism and community work I don’t think there would be much about my life that is worth documenting.
I hope this book will provide the readers an opportunity not only get to know me, but to also learn about the Arab American community—its history, aspirations, and contributions. To accurately portray the hardships most new immigrants face as they try to adjust and find their own place within the larger fabric of mosaic America. I also hope this book will succeed in demonstrating the interconnectedness between some international struggles. How the oppression, pain, and aspiration of the Palestinian people is not much different than that of other oppressed people, especially in Apartheid South Africans and Native Americans.
Finally, I hope this book will encourage other women activists from our community to narrate their own stories. I look forward to the day when we, as well as other immigrants, will not be afraid to tell our own stories in our own voices and perspectives, so no one can take that away from us.
“…a masterful book capturing the intimate ways one woman’s immigration story can contribute to the transformation of U.S. society at large …a must-read for anyone interested in immigration, feminism, activism, or Arab Americans.”— Nadine Naber, Professor, University of Illinois and author, Arab America
- What do you enjoy doing for fun? Do you have any secret, guilty pleasures?
I wish I did have some secret pleasures, but sadly I don’t.
However, I do very much enjoy travel. Sometimes I enjoy travelling alone because it gives me an opportunity to seek people and venture into creating new friendships.
I also love to spend time with my women friends, eating and drinking, telling dirty jokes, and talking about love, sex, and men.
In COVID era, I learned how to play jigsaw puzzles.
- What’s the one thing on your bucket list that you still want to do or achieve?
Since I retired in 2013, I have been spending part of the winters in Seville, Spain. I fell in love with the city, its people, and its culture. I would love to be able to start spending more time there and to have Seville become my second home.
- What are you currently working on?
Before we were hit with the COVID pandemic, I was working on a novel based on a story of a woman I met a few years ago. But after a couple months of confinement I find myself unable to concentrate, so I dropped it. I am hoping to be able to get back to it soon. I am also working on collecting oral histories from elders in our community.
A relatively new venture for me is learning Spanish, which seems to be rather challenging, but I do not intend to give up.
About the Author:
Dr. Anan Ameri is a scholar, author, activist, and community organizer. She is the founding Director of the Arab American National Museum (AANM) and Palestine Aid Society of America. She holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Jordan, an MA from Cairo University, and a Ph.D from Wayne State University in Detroit. She was a fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, a visiting scholar in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, and served as Interim Director of the Institute for Jerusalem Studies.
The recipient of numerous awards, Anan was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in Lansing, Michigan in 2016 and received ACCESS’s Arab American of the Year award in 2020.
She enjoys writing and has authored and edited several articles and publications.
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