The rising politician, right. 

Photographer: Salwan Georges/Washington Post

Saad Almasmari's American Dream Is Alive and Well

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Saad Almasmari is ready for another interview. We are seated in a tea shop in Hamtramck, Michigan, which made news a year ago when it elected the nation’s first Muslim-majority city council. Across from me, next to Almasmari, is a gracious young Muslim-American student whom I also had expected to meet here. Next to me is an organizer for the Hillary Clinton campaign whom I didn’t. Almasmari invited the Clinton operative for the same time and place, figuring he’d kill two appointments with one cup of tea. He’s a busy man.

Hamtramck is a small town carrying more fears and hopes than its two square miles really ought to shoulder. Islamophobes are hoping the hardscrabble city blows up like a Michael Bay blockbuster, thereby proving that Muslims are all treacherous and anti-American. Multiculturalists want to see the city’s Bangladeshi, Polish, Yemeni and other communities live in a dreamscape of harmony and prosperity, proving, among other things, that Islamophobes are idiots.

Almasmari, meanwhile, mostly wants to get ahead.

He arrived in the U.S. from Yemen in 2009 with his American citizen wife, whom he had married in Yemen in 2007. Since then, Almasmari has learned a good amount of English, failed at a business in New York, started yogurt and ice cream businesses in Michigan, and twice run for public office, winning a seat on the city council after previously losing a race for school board.

“It was in my dream to get to the U.S.,” he said in a subsequent telephone interview. “I like the life here. I like the way people are treating each other.”

His city, which is transitioning out of receivership, seems to be doing all right. “Honestly, I haven’t seen so much progress in the 13 years I’ve been in public office,” said Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski in a telephone interview.

Not surprisingly, except perhaps to those eager for pyrotechnics, the composition of the city council hasn’t had a huge impact one way or another. “A lot of what happens in the city comes out of the city manager’s office,” said council member Ian Perrotta in a telephone interview.

Detroit, which is right next door, is rising from its near-death experience. Higher rents in midtown Detroit are driving hipsters to Hamtramck. Local real estate, commerce and nightlife have all benefited. “A lot of that has to do with Detroit’s revival,” Majewski said. “We’re piggybacking on that.”

The prospects for sharia law taking hold in Hamtramck seem pretty dim. Two non-Muslim city council members own bars here. The city clerk, August Gitschlag, tends bar on weekends. If the town has an official religion, it’s multiculturalism washed down with a frosty cold one. “My neighbors are Russian, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and hipsters," said Gitschlag in a telephone interview.

As Shikha Dalmia reported in Reason, Hamtramck’s Yemeni and Bangladeshi Muslims don’t necessarily even have much in common.

Unlike the Germans and Poles before them, the city’s Muslim council members don’t appear to have any unified goal, religious or otherwise. They seem to disagree as much among themselves as other council members over city spending, what to do about vacant storefronts, road repairs, and how to attract new business to the city.

Almasmari, who is built like a high-school linebacker, stocky and short, said he is very social and loves politics. But I had a hard time discerning any ideology beyond rudimentary constituent service and a generic commitment to pluralism. “It’s my concern to help improve this community,” he said. If his ambitions for the city are vague, his personal plans allow a bit more detail.

Lacking experience with American political culture, Almasmari hasn’t heard the message that the American Dream is desiccated and dying. On the contrary, he’s pretty convinced that it’s creamy, rich and delicious. “The business is getting bigger and bigger, and I’m doing great,” he said. “I have big plans to move forward.”

It’s not too hard to imagine Almasmari wealthy and powerful and a little more at home with English in another decade or so. He’s only 29.

Seven years after arriving in the U.S., one year after winning his first election, he clearly has his eyes on other prizes. “I have a really good plan for my future,” he told me. “I’m not going to be in Hamtramck forever.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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