How can details like these disappear so soon? A relative's reluctance to reminisce is a common obstacle for the family historian, and Akmon said his grandfather didn't talk a lot about his past.
It's a challenge in his day job as well. "Trying to do research on Arab-Americans in the early ... 20th century is very difficult," he says. "It's so underdocumented."
That's an underlying theme of the 1985 book, "Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience," by Alixa Naff. It draws on dozens of interviews with pioneer immigrants and their descendants from more than 25 communities, including my uncle — a son of Hussien Karoub who followed him into ministry.
You come away with one overarching feeling: The ancestry quest of Arab-Americans is common to all immigrants, be they Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews or others. It is the story of most everyone in America.
Yet Syrians are one of the least studied of America's ethnic groups — partly because they were smaller in number and the formal Arabic language was not widely understood by Western students and scholars before World War II. But Naff says the blame also falls upon Arab immigrants, who "neglected to study themselves."
"The history of their American experience was, by comparison, too insignificant and too fleeting to warrant recording," she wrote.
So, what filled the cultural void? American myth and history. "Lacking ancestral legends and heroes that had an organic relevance to their lives, they adopted American legends as their own — presidents, cowboys, athletes and men like Charles Lindbergh," Naff wrote.
Maybe the Titanic — itself no slouch as an American history tale — looms so large in my grandfather's legend because the sea at that time of its fateful passage was filled with Middle Easterners seeking a new life, including on the "unsinkable" ship itself. There, 154 of the Titanic's passengers were Arabic; 29 survived.
Those who did included 24-year-old Catherine Joseph, who was sailing steerage with her children, 6-year-old Michael and 2-year-old Anna. The passenger record indicates her husband, Peter, sent them back to Lebanon a few months earlier to save money, but called them back to Detroit.
We know these facts about the Joseph family because of "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," which spent several recent months at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, the capital of Arab-America. Visitors learned about passengers and their fates on special tickets handed out at the exhibition's entrance.
It didn't take years for the tales of those on the Titanic to be told. Arabic-language newspapers from New York's Little Syria played a particularly aggressive role in helping to identify victims and provide support to families and survivors — something it was uniquely equipped to do.
"The entire Syrian community of New York identified with the difficulties of those who had left their homeland seeking a better future in a new land," Leila Salloum Elias wrote in 2005 in an essay that laid the groundwork for a new book, "The Dream and the Nightmare: The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic."
"They were reminded of their own journey across ocean and sea," she wrote. "The Syrian community considered the ship's Syrian passengers as part of it."
What kind of impression did that leave on my Jiddo? I wonder if he was there to see newspapers report, connect and advocate on behalf of those on the ship, and if those efforts helped him decide to launch his own newspaper a few years later in Detroit.
No doubt he was lured like many other immigrants by the promise of Ford's "five bucks a day" to make Model Ts. But he saw another, less material motive: Muslims making Michigan their home would need a spiritual leader. He could put his Islamic studies to work to help build an American community.
More help in my quest comes from the National Archives, the main repository for pieces of the American story. Naturalization records contain details about where and when an immigrant came to the United States — and my grandfather's record is among them, at the Archives' Chicago branch. It teases me even more.