Lebanese patrons of Talal's say that just one taste of the restaurant's crispy, pan-fried red mullet or tart tabbouleh is enough to transport them all the way back to the sights, smells and memories of Hamra, the famous zone of eateries and nightclubs in Beirut.

A short drive away, other scenes recall the Middle East with similar strength. Here is the Islamic Center of America, crowded with hundreds of men in socks, kneeling in fervent prayer. There is Warren Avenue, a broad boulevard lined with shops bearing signs written in Arabic. Within a brief walk are a half-dozen cafes filled with men chatting in Arabic and sipping Turkish coffee from tiny cups.

But the restaurant, mosque and cafes are probably less remarkable for what they are than where they are: in the midst of the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Mich. Better known as the ancestral home and headquarters of Ford Motor Co., the once largely white, middle-class town is today the epicenter of a vast network of Middle Eastern communities in and around Michigan's largest urban center. Other major strongholds include a neighborhood of Christian Lebanese in Bloomfield Hills and Palestinians in Farmington. Together the dozen or so Detroit-area settlements constitute the unofficial capital of Arab America.

According to Zogby International, a national pollster, 275,000 Middle Easterners--mostly Arab Americans--have settled in Detroit, Dearborn and other surrounding towns. It's the biggest concentration of Arab Americans in the country, and is tied with the Hispanic population as the second-largest ethnic group in southern Michigan, after African Americans.

Four generations of immigrants have created a world here that would probably speak directly to anyone homesick for the Arab world. Dozens of restaurants offer specialties from the kitchens of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and every other country in the Middle East. Dearborn's Arab International Festival, which drew 150,000 celebrants over three days last June, bills itself as the largest Arab arts-and-crafts street fair in the country. Shatila bakery, a Dearborn institution, serves baklava so fresh and homemade ice cream so soothing that people drive hours to savor them. And the heavy concentration of Arab American churches and mosques in the area is turning this corner of Michigan into an unlikely pilgrimage destination unto itself.

Known in its earlier days as a stronghold of organized labor, as a place that powered the American Century and drove the American imagination, and as the font of the timeless pop R&B that took the nation by storm as Motown, greater Detroit is an unlikely nexus for Arab America. With almost 1 million inhabitants, America's 10th-largest city is often associated with its sizable African American population--about 75 percent--and suburban pockets of auto workers and upper-middle-class professionals.

Following a harsh economic slump in the early 1990s marked by double-digit unemployment, the city has had only mixed success reinvigorating itself, mostly by shifting from an economy concentrated in manufacturing to one with high-tech and service industries. But high crime rates and a gray, lifeless mood still hang over many inner-city neighborhoods. Though Detroit has not enjoyed the kind of postindustrial downtown revitalization of such cities as Cleveland and Baltimore, it does have a retro-style ballpark under construction and several casino projects likely to attract people to the urban core.

I arrived in Detroit cold, as an outsider with no family or close friends in the area, no blood ties to the Arab world and no association with the Muslim faith (the religion of half the Arab Americans here; the others are Christian). My trip was an advanced course in cross-cultural immersion, an attempt to explore the depths of an utterly unfamiliar place and culture starting from ground zero. I made two visits to the area, totaling two weeks, accompanied by my friend Alex.

Our sojourn began with a history lesson. According to "Mosaic of Middle Eastern Communities of Metropolitan Detroit," a report published last year by the local branch of the United Way, it was the Lebanese who started the immigration trend, arriving near the turn of the 20th century. This was a burgeoning center of American industry, and the Lebanese were looking for work. Henry Ford responded, offering assembly line jobs for $5 a day.

After 1947 and the fallout from World War II, an influx from Yemen, Syria, Egypt and other countries began arriving. In contrast to prewar immigrants, who came seeking economic opportunity, the new arrivals were often forced from their homelands by political and economic upheaval. Iraqi Chaldeans, strict Roman Catholics, started arriving by the thousands in the late 1950s, seeking greater religious freedom. Over time, the Detroit area has become known as a haven for the displaced from across the Arab world. Even today, every political or economic crisis in the Middle East gives way to a new wave of arrivals at Detroit's airport. Several hundred Iraqi Shi'a, forced to flee their homes after several failed attempts to overthrow Saddam Hussein, are the latest refugees to arrive. Most have settled in East Dearborn.

Many of the new settlers brought age-old differences with them. "At first, the Christians worked for Chrysler and the Muslims for Ford," said Barbara Aswad, who has written extensively about the area's Arab American scene and teaches anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit. "They didn't mix much."

Curious to get a feel for the dozen-plus Middle Eastern sub-communities in and around Detroit, Alex and I set out on a drive through the region. In Troy, a quaint town of stately two-story homes with manicured lawns, there was a tiny settlement of Egyptian Coptics, a Christian group. In Livonia, known as a bedroom community of doctors and other professionals, we found a neighborhood of Palestinians from Jordan. In Southfield, a sweep of bright, new upper-middle-class homes, we stopped at Mother of God, an Iraqi Chaldean church, where the traditional Catholic service drew a large, well-dressed crowd even on a Wednesday night. In downtown Detroit, nearly every corner store we dropped into was Arab-American-owned.

But the biggest and most tangible scene was in East Dearborn, home base of industrial colossus Ford Motor Co. Along a four-block stretch of Warren Avenue, one of the busiest thoroughfares in East Dearborn, we counted 86 Arab American restaurants, cafes, grocery shops and other businesses. Fourteen years earlier, there were no more than a dozen Arab American-owned establishments along the same stretch.

"Wherever your home is in the Middle East, a little bit of it has been re-created here," said Lebanese immigrant Hassan Jaber, the engaging deputy director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a network of social services for Arab Americans in the Detroit area.

What Arab visitors and residents find so familiar seemed profoundly foreign to me. Over cafe counters, I heard stories that made me uneasy--like the one about the Lebanese man who reacted to his daughter's decision to date a non-Arab with a horrific punishment. During her 18th birthday party, just after the cake was cut, he shot her to death.

"In the family's view, the daughter brought dishonor not only on herself but on the entire family," Aswad explained. "In her father's view, the only way for him to redeem the family's dignity was to kill her. Of course, being Arab doesn't exempt him from U.S. laws. He's now paying for the crime with a prison sentence."

As I began trying to engage the cultures, I found some doors closed and others that opened only slowly. When I arrived at the Dearborn studio of an Arab American cable television producer, for instance, he demanded to see my Washington Post ID card. "There's a lot of suspicion of outsiders, and for good reason," Jaber told me later. In past years, the FBI has acknowledged sending agents into the community in search of leads to terrorists.

At the end of my second day, I returned to my hotel and looked out the window into the darkness. Would it be possible for an outsider to gain entry to this community? I had doubts.

"Food is what gives outsiders a foot in the front door of the Arab American community," explained Talal Chahine, local star of Lebanese cooking and namesake of the popular Dearborn restaurant. "Restaurants offer the easiest possible entree into our world." Taking his advice to heart, Alex and I set out on a tour of Arab American eateries in Dearborn and surrounding towns. Along the way, we made back-of-the-napkin comments about the cuisines and cultures we encountered, trying to make some sense of it all.

If people are anything like what they eat, we concluded, the Yemenese--who favor basic meat and rice dishes--must be earthy and uncomplicated. The Iraqis, who serve elaborate lamb and vegetable platters concocted from scratch, are clearly resourceful. The Chaldeans, whose diet draws heavily on eggplant, beans and rice, have a lower-key lifestyle. And the Lebanese, who can devour a whole plate of goat cheese appetizers, followed by a round of hummus, baba ghanouj, sausages and grape leaves, topped with a healthy serving of baklava and mango ice cream, have a distinctive passion for life's earthly pleasures.

Our first stop was Baghdadi, an Iraqi restaurant on Schaefer Road in Dearborn. It looked like a cafeteria. No sooner did we sit down than the owner came by to explain that the restaurant had been shut down for a month by a fire, possibly the handiwork of an arsonist. "There's a lot of people around here who probably wouldn't want us to succeed," he said. "But that won't stop us from planting a piece of Iraq on this ground."

As it turned out, Baghdadi's makeshift look was deceptive. We were served a feast worthy of royalty: borak, a dish of pancakes stuffed with ground lamb; kibbi, made from boiled potatoes and lamb; chicken shawarma and basmati rice; liver kebabs; gravies made from eggplant and potatoes; drinks of yogurt and pineapples. Each dish was prepared with thought and care.

In East Dearborn, a disheveled part of town that is home to the most recent immigrants from Yemen and Iraq, we stopped at the Arabian Village restaurant. Saeed Hidara, the Yemenese owner, has created the kind of simple, rustic ambiance I imagine you might find in a cafe in Sanaa, the Yemenese capital. A largely Muslim country on the Gulf of Aden, the 3,000-year-old Yemen is rich in history. A few pictures of the brick tower homes typical of Yemen enliven the plain decor. A group of men sat in one corner drinking strong black coffee and smoking. A few isolated women sat in booths, covered in black, bent over plates of food.

We asked the Yemenese cook to make us something the folks back home would like. He gave us a wink, and before long made good on our request: a salad of greens, fresh onions and tomatoes; a ghallaba dish, a mix of lamb, tomatoes, cilantro and parsley; and a boiled chicken spiced with garlic on a bed of rice. "I don't have all the spices I need," he said apologetically. "But this is about what you'd get if you ate in a kitchen back home." It was a simple meal, but fresh and spicy--the Yemenese version of comfort food.

We dropped in on Chahine, the young Lebanese engineer whose nine local restaurants have made him an expert on Lebanese cooking. "When I first moved to this area, Lebanese restaurants used to be the kind of carryout places where the food was pretty basic," he said. "But I wanted dining out to be an experience. I wanted people to be able to enjoy the same range and fine quality of cuisine that they find in Beirut. So I opened La Shish."

It was a runaway hit. Over time, he opened seven other La Shish branches. One look at the menu, and you can see how it's outdone the competition. It features nine types of hummus dishes and five of ghallaba, where other Lebanese places might offer one or two. "These have become the favorite eating places of just about everybody around here, whether they're Arab American or not," Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido told me. "Around here, Talal pretty much put Lebanese dining on the map."

But not until I entered Talal's, the latest addition to Chahine's collection, did I understand what he meant. The smells were overwhelming: of markouk, the unleavened wheat bread beloved in Saudi Arabia; of lamb roasting; of fresh limes and mangoes used to make juices. With a young woman kneading bread in one corner and Middle Eastern music emerging from another, the spirit of the motherland was duly evoked, all in an environment of a successful enterprise that demonstrated how, as has always been the case in America, immigrants can work hard and prosper, can make their mark on America, even as it makes a mark on them.

The belly dancer with drop-dead locks pranced onstage in a scant outfit of white and emerald beads. One glittery jewel hung strategically along her midriff, accenting her tiny stomach. As a traditional Lebanese tune played, she swayed seductively, her long black tresses flowing and mysterious eyes glittering. For 20 minutes she held the focused attention of the gathering--men with bushy mustaches and women covered head to toe in black.

After her performance, at Detroit's annual Arab festival, I approached the woman, a third-generation Lebanese American whose grandparents immigrated to Michigan from Beirut. As she spoke, it was clear that one foot was planted in suburban Detroit life while the other was in the Arab world. A devoted wife and mother of two by day, she spent evenings performing the exotic art of belly dancing at clubs and parties. Until recently, she was a successful public relations executive, but she gave up that life to concentrate on dance and other Arab cultural pursuits. Even her names reflect a divided loyalty. To friends, family and business colleagues she is Mary Chalderone. In the entertainment world, she is Hawida.

"It's not that I wasn't happy with PR," she told me. "But belly dancing is where my heart is. But I've always had deep feelings for my Lebanese heritage. For many years I had this dream of pursuing belly dancing. I took lessons for years and decided to give up my other work to pursue it further. I really love it. It's made me feel complete."

Other Arab Americans I met seemed to arrange their own delicate cultural balances. There was Christina Assaf, the 20-year-old Jordanian who by day works as an office researcher and at night hones her skills in henna--the ancient Egyptian art of body painting. There was Ahmad Chebbani, a Lebanese business executive and devout Muslim who is married to a Catholic woman. The couple has exposed their adolescent son and daughter to both Catholic and Muslim traditions. Michael Chamas, the Lebanese chef whose LA Express restaurant in Dearborn specializes in the kind of Pacific Rim cooking you find in California, maintains a close relationship to his native culture via regular gatherings of his close-knit Lebanese family and through his spirituality.

Sometimes the whole Arab American community appeared divided along the same lines, separating those who have assimilated from those who have not. Over the years, immigrants and their offspring have gradually shifted away from work in ethnic ma-and-pa businesses to professional jobs in local industries, including insurance, banking and manufacturing.

And yet, some aspects of the community maintain a distinctly Arab character. Walking the streets of East Dearborn, where the majority of residents are Muslim, I found myself among women covered in black and men lingering on street corners chatting in Arabic. In a nearby park, I saw men spread their carpets on the bare ground and kneel in fervent prayer to Allah several times a day. A stroll along Dearborn's Warren Avenue, starting at the corner of Schaefer and heading east, is a good way for a visitor to soak up the mood of this colorful scene.

Although Muslims make up no more than an estimated 50 percent of the local Arab community, their presence is strong. Three new mosques have opened in the past five years in Dearborn and nearby suburbs. In response to the increased demand, the 10,000-strong Islamic Center of America in the Detroit metropolitan region is building a new mosque complex, spread over 10 acres and billed as the largest mosque in the country.

Services at the existing center, conducted by Imam Hassan Qazwini, draw a diverse crowd of devotees from throughout the area, including many Americans whose ancestors emigrated from Europe or Africa long ago and who have since converted to Islam. Sometimes attendance is so high Qazwini must hold a half-dozen different services in a single afternoon. Visitors are welcome at every service, he said.

During a meeting in his office, Qazwini, a 36-year-old Iraqi, explained how he grapples with making the word of Allah more accessible to a broader audience. He conducts services in English and Arabic and chooses contemporary dilemmas, such as sexual temptation among teenagers, as sermon topics. Qazwini also visits private homes when he feels guidance is needed.

The more I wandered the streets of towns like Dearborn and Southfield, the more I discovered other traditions besides the Muslim faith that distinguish some Arab Americans from the mainstream American lifestyle. Aswad, who has devoted much of her career to the study of Arab traditions and culture, offered some insights. Whereas the families of the father and mother are given equal weight in most American households, Arab families are strongly patrilineal, meaning the father's family is considered far more important, Aswad explained.

The sense that every person is a vital part of the family group also distinguishes Arab culture from American culture, according to Aswad. "While Americans are raised as individuals, Arabs are accustomed to thinking of themselves as part of a group," she added. "Family ties are thick and everything an individual does in a family reflects on the whole family."

Still, when I made the effort, I found many aspects of the culture easily accessible. In the corridors of ACCESS's Dearborn office, I toured a wonderful exhibition of pottery, weavings and other crafts from the Middle East. At the Detroit Historical Museum, I viewed a display of portraits of prominent Arab American artists and musicians. Concerts and art shows featuring Arab American artists also pop up in the area all year.

But during the street festivals, held in Dearborn and Detroit every summer, the community flings its doors wide open to all, including curious tourists.

Last August, at the three-day Arab World Festival in Detroit's Chene Park, I saw more Arab Americans letting their hair down than I had ever witnessed in one place. And I met a few, including a group of Syrian Christian evangelists, an Egyptian selling gold jewelry and two members of the Yemeni Benevolent Association.

And when night fell on the festival's final day, a Syrian band came onstage and cranked up the volume, sending the crowd into a wild dance.

Whenever I sat down face to face with Arab American immigrants, the conversation would eventually turn to the homes and families they had left behind. During a back-and-forth in his office, Ahmed Chebbani told of the Beirut he had fled during childhood, a city wracked by the violence of civil war. Abdu Nasser spoke of the political tug of war that has embroiled his home country of Yemen for more than a decade. Ali Hainab, a young Iraqi, spoke of the months he spent in refugee camps after fleeing Iraq.

None told a more touching story than Ali Romahi, an Iraqi painter who fled his homeland after the Persian Gulf War and was held in a Saudi camp before eventually gaining passage to the United States and settling in Dearborn.

"One of the unique aspects of this community is that nearly every family fled serious hardship of some kind," said ACCESS's Jaber, a refugee of war-torn Lebanon. "We all know what tragedy feels like."

Apparently undaunted by the devastation of his home city, Chebbani founded an accounting business and now publishes Arabica, a magazine for upscale Arab Americans. Nasser is using the cooking skills he learned at home in his job as chef at the Arabian Village restaurant. And Romahi, who studied art in his native Iraq, has put his painting skills to use. He recently completed a mural of Middle Eastern village life along three walls in the Dearborn offices of ACCESS.

As my visit to the Detroit area neared its end, I thought about the people I had met and their endurance in the face of adversity--a characteristic, I realized after reflection, Arabs share with Americans. In that way, maybe, this unusual melange of Arab immigrants and established, assimilated Americans in the heart of the Midwest makes more sense. On the one hand was a new population striving to establish itself in a new cultural, economic and political world; on the other was an established middle class struggling to sustain a comfortable life their parents had won, in a landscape that sometimes feels increasingly foreign, too.

Somewhere in this marriage lay a common spirit of resilience. And in that spirit, perhaps, I managed a glimpse into the soul of Arab America.

DETAILS: Arabic Detroit

GETTING THERE: Southwest is quoting a round-trip fare of $202 from BWI to Detroit, via Chicago. Northwest flies from Reagan National, with round-trip fares starting at about $175. Restrictions apply for both.

WHERE TO STAY: The Dearborn Inn (20301 Oakwood Blvd., 1-800-MARRIOTT) is within driving distance of many of the places mentioned in the accompanying article. It's a Marriott chain property but is quaint, with nice rooms and amenities. In winter, doubles start at $79 on weekends, $159 weekdays.

The Hampton Inn in Dearborn (20061 Michigan Ave., 1-800-HAMPTON), with doubles at $99 a night, is a good budget alternative.

WHERE TO EAT: Food is a great way to become familiar with Detroit's Arab American communities. Some of my favorites:

* La Shish is a chain of first-rate Lebanese restaurants with branches in Livonia, West Bloomfield and seven other places in suburban Detroit. Call 313-441-2900 or visit www.lashish.com for addresses. Talal's, in a Dearborn shopping center, has the finest food and decor in the group--dinner for two costs about $40. Call 313-565-5500 for reservations.

* La Fendi (27060 Evergreen Rd., Lathrup, 248-559-9099) is an upscale Iraqi Chaldean restaurant serving to-die-for grape leaves and other specialties. Dinner for two runs about $45.

* Shatila's (6912 Schaefer Rd., Dearborn, 313-582-1952) is a beloved Lebanese pastry and ice cream parlor. The Web site, www.shatila.com, tells how to order by mail.

* Baghdadi (6425 Schaefer Rd., 313-581-2929) is a simple-looking place that serves really tasty Iraqi food. A veritable feast for four, with juices and desserts, totaled $75.

WHAT TO DO: Building a trip around one of the two annual Arab American festivals in the area may make it easier to break into the community. Both offer music, food and local Arab Americans to mingle with:

* The Arab International Festival, held along Warren Avenue in East Dearborn, is scheduled for June 16-18. For details, contact ACCESS (see below).

* Detroit's Concert of Colors is planned for July 8-9. Call 313-664-2058 or 1-800-DETROIT for an update.

The Islamic Center of America (15571 Joy Rd., Dearborn, 313-582- 7442) welcomes visitors for worship, particularly on Fridays at midday.

INFORMATION: ACCESS (6451 Schaefer Rd., Dearborn, 313-842-7010), an Arab American service organization, is a good source of information for concerts or other cultural events. Staff members are very helpful if you make clear what you want.

For more information on visiting Detroit, contact the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-DETROIT, www.visitdetroit.com

--Gary Lee