By BOB OLIVER
DEARBORN — For the past 18 years, the Arab International Festival has been held to promote and support local businesses and cultural awareness in the region. Thousands of people migrate to Dearborn to sample cuisines, enjoy amusement rides and shop at local stores.
With the cancellation of this year’s event, which was scheduled for June 14 to 17, local businesses are preparing for business as usual rather than the excitement brought by the crowds, and some are questioning the canceling of the event.
“The festival is a tangible way to reach a new audience,” Al-Ameer Restaurant Manager Abbas Ammar said. “How else can you have a platform to reach 100,000 new customers face-to-face that quickly?”
The restaurant, at W. Warren Avenue, is one of the businesses that sits in the grounds of the last eight festivals which were held on Warren Avenue between Schaefer and Wyoming.
“We are lucky to have a strong customer base year-round, but the festival really allows us to show off our foods to a lot of new customers every year,” Ammar said.
Beginning next year the festival is going to be held at Ford Woods Park, at the intersection of Ford and Greenfield roads.
The city worked with the American Arab Chamber of Commerce to move the location from the open street to the more enclosed park.
The move is one that some local business owners feel would have an effect on their business.
“This will certainly have an effect on business,” Cedarland Manager Hussein Sobh said. “I think that every business in this community will be effected by the move. We need to bring the festival back to Warren and have it in our own community.”
Sobh added that the community is going to suffer without the festival this year.
“This will affect business, our culture and our community,” Sobh said. “It is very bad to not have a cultural presentation for our community. It’s really a shame.”
AACC Executive Director and director of the AIF Fay Beydoun said the 2014 festival is scheduled to be held at the new location and that canceling the 2013 event allows the organizers to “explore all opportunities for the upcoming year.”
Beydoun added that “with the move to a new location, Ford Woods Park, we needed more time to ensure we provide a quality event that the community has come to expect from us.”
Just how many businesses move with the festival remains to be seen, as Ammar said he still has to receive more information about the new location.
“We still have more planning to do,” Ammar said. “We may sit back and observe the first year at Ford Woods rather than actively participate. I am still not sure.”
The cancellation of the 2013 AIF comes after four years of religious tension at the event.
In 2009, a Christian missionary was removed from the festival for distributing religious leaflets. The following year four Christian missionaries were arrested at the festival. They were cleared of all charges after their trial.
At the 2012 AIF a group called the Bible Believers attended the event carrying signs calling the prophet Mohammed a “pedophile” and a pig’s head on a pike. A confrontation between them and festival attendees who threw objects at them became a viral video on the internet.
All of these cases resulted in litigation against either the city or the AACC or both.
Controversial Christian pastor Terry Jones from the group Stand Up America said he was planning to attend the 2013 AIF. He was going to bring other Stand Up members as well as pastor Warren Sapp, Ruben Israel of Bible Believers, David Grisham of Repent Amarillo and Rabbi Nachum Shifren of the California Security Council.
Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said the city remains supportive of the event and the AACC, but that there has been increased tensions at the last few festivals.
“We went through the ’90s and ’00s with no issues at all,” O’Reilly said. “All of a sudden around 2009 it became a focal point for some individuals to use the festival as a platform for their message, which was not directly related to what the festival was about. That’s an element that’s going to be there now.”
Sobh said he doesn’t understand why the AIF was specifically targeted by the groups.
“Why do they come to our festival but not those in other communities?” Sobh said. “Why can’t we celebrate our culture and share it with others? I don’t see why we are targeted.”
Beydoun said the annual event has been used to enhance the economic vitality of the area, support cultural diversity and promote the businesses along Warren.
(Bob Oliver can be reached at [email protected].)