I am an outsider in Detroit. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m comfortable being an outsider. It’s a space I’ve occupied most of life in varying degrees since I was born. I’ve been part of an ethnic minority, a refugee, an immigrant and more professionally, a freelance journalist functioning independently outside of the newsroom of major news organizations, a journalist who started out without any “connections,” academically or otherwise to the people and places that control our mainstream media machine.
I’ve been an outsider for the communities in the countries I’ve chosen to report in, even the one that’s supposed to function as a “homeland,” but we can talk about the complicated politics and ethics of what it means have part of your identity defined by your existence in a diaspora another time.
Being an outsider is what I know. It’s a position that has tremendous advantages and dangerous implications, if the wrong kind of person occupies its weighty cloak.
If you’re an outsider in Detroit, there are moments when you really feel like an outsider, in a way that you might have never felt before. It’s a feeling that goes deep and it’s completely understandable.
When you haven’t lived through something, you can’t fully grasp its impact. When you weren’t there for things to unfold, your understanding of what happened, of how it factored into people’s daily lives is at best, second hand. You don’t have the memories ingrained in your mind, and you certainly don’t carry them in your soul.
I could try to tell you what its like to burdened with the weight of war, of genocide and the physical and mental challenges of being uprooted not once, but several times, but unless you’ve had a lifetime of it, it wouldn’t sink in. I could try to tell you about the Los Angeles you've never heard of, the incredibly rich, diverse, real L.A. I grew up in, the one very far away from what you've seen portrayed in the media, but I don't think I could transport you very far away from the cliches of the entertainment industry, palm trees and traffic if I tried. I could try to convince you of a different kind of Iran, the kind I've known and loved from afar, the country in which I was born, but I probably would not be able to fully overshadow the ingrained, (probably negative) images you have of it or its people.
After being here for a month, I’ve quickly gotten a lesson in historical, political and cultural crossfire. “Old Detroit” and the “New Detroit” are apparently engaged in a strange battle. The conflict circles around the changes taking place in this city and the (sometimes very serious) byproducts that that leaves behind. It’s about gentrification, it’s about outsiders “discovering” or “reclaiming” Detroit as if it hadn’t been here this entire time. Those who call Detroit home, or who have been here much longer than I have are better resources to explain exactly what this encompasses, but I appreciated this hip hop crew's take on it.
Recently, this has made me very aware and conscious of my ""outsiderness." Perhaps I have to try extra hard to convince people that I'm not a newcomer intent on plowing forward without any sense of respect for the people and places that have been here since the beginning. Perhaps I need to make sure that my enthusiasm isn't being misinterpreted for complete disregard of the stark reality of putting Detroit back together again.
In addition to learning what it means to have, and take care of a house, I’m still learning about what it means to live in this city, what it means to have pride in this city and have this city live in your bones, the way being an outsider lives in mine.
Being caught up in this debate of old. vs. new is slightly startling if you’re new here. I feel lucky that both my personal and professional journeys have afforded me the opportunity to avoid polarization or sensationalization, that they’ve taught me to honor memory and the history that came before me, to add context and detail, to know what being left out and disenfranchised means.
Maybe I’m being idealistic, or naive, maybe I just don’t know enough, but my background has taught me that there’s room to exist in the middle of the old and new, to bridge them together in respect and inclusion. An outsider in Detroit is capable of embracing what once was and what will be at the same time, an outsider can be conscious of the past, acknowledge the realities of Detroit, but also look towards the future. A lifetime of existing as an immigrant in this country while feeling very much American - and having those two schools of thought exist side by side has confirmed this for me, and in the month that I've been here, my neighborhood has done the same.
When I found out at the end of last year that I had somehow miraculously become the second recipient of Write A House, one of the first things I did was look up the neighborhood I’d be moving to on Google StreetView. It was a market called “Jalalabad,” named after the city in Afghanistan, that caught my eye. Perhaps that might have been interpreted by someone else very differently, but for me it was an instant source of comfort.
In the first days of my residency in Detroit, more businesses and people appeared around my neighborhood that made me feel a strange sense of home - some of them Bangladeshi, some of them Polish and everything in between.
It made me realize that at least in my immediate surroundings, being an outsider, a stranger was normal. It meant that maybe we would all be trying to make this unfamiliar place our home and learning how to function in it, together.