How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Akram Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Serious-looking but jovial Palestinian American Akram is 21. He goes to college full time but also works 65 hours a week—90 hours a week during the summers—at the family grocery store. He spends most of his free time watching television in the family’s crowded Sunset Park home; he fixates on the way Arabs are vilified on TV, laughing at but also scarred by American culture’s rejection of his people. Feeling that he does not belong in the United States, he has decided to leave and move for Dubai.
Akram’s classic immigrant tale of hard work is undermined by his creeping sense that, for people who look like him, hard work is no longer enough to achieve the classic version of American success and nothing he ever does will be enough to get past stereotypes. In pushing him away, Bayoumi implies, the United States is losing not only a man with remarkable drive and insight but also its reputation as a nation where anyone can succeed.
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Bayoumi knows Akram from Mike’s Food Store, his family’s grocery store in East Flatbush, which is a largely Caribbean neighborhood mostly full of small single-family homes. Invariably, besides the four men who work there, everyone in the store is black. Customers buy food staples on Sundays, and luxuries like phone cards and beer on paydays (Thursdays). The store is the centerpiece of his family’s life, “but it also swallows their time.” Akram notes that, unlike his white friends, he never eats dinner with his family. He reads the newspapers until they sell out and strikes up conversations with regular customers. Akram is not very religious—he seldom goes to mosque—but he does know everything imaginable about the West Indies. He loves Brooklyn’s diversity, which he reflects, and the American poet Walt Whitman.
Akram embodies the contradiction between American tolerance and American racism: the nation’s insistence on reducing him to a single identity contrasts with his incredible ability to comfortably navigate and connect multiple identities. He is completely embedded in his local community, and attuned to its rhythms and complexities—he knows more about the world than the world does about him.
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Arab American groceries are a staple of Brooklyn life. Most are run by Yemenis and Palestinians; sociologists call them “middlemen minorities” because they connect inner-city residents with the corporations that sell their goods. Throughout the world, such people usually come from persecuted groups and find themselves marginalized in the countries to which they immigrate, excluded from most conventionally lucrative professions. Many become merchants and most live in tight-knit families. But they also often have to work extraordinarily long hours. Whereas Yemeni store owners save up for trips back home, Palestinians like Akram’s family cannot return home. They also often get caught up in the ethnic tensions within their inner-city communities—in the case of East Flatbush, there are complex relationships among Caribbean Americans, African Americans, and Arab Americans.
The story of “middleman minorities” is also a story of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion: they manage to find a place in American society only by occupying niches outside the mainstream; Akram’s family can connect disparate groups, rich white business owners and poor black consumers, only because they are neither. Due to their nation’s occupation by Israel, Akram’s family is also cut off from its original home. They must instead forge a new sense of identity and belonging, and moving to Dubai is Akram’s strategy for doing so.
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In 1982, Akram’s father, Abdel Salam, bought Mike’s Food Center, more than a decade after leaving Israeli-occupied Palestine for the United States. He found an Arab community in Brooklyn and, before buying the store, started selling “whatever he could get his hands on”—even, at one point, a stray cat in exchange for some pizza. He worked in Arab grocery stores, sharing a studio apartment with six other men, until he bought Mike’s with his brother, as East Flatbush was transitioning from a Jewish to Caribbean majority. The brothers each married and had five children. The boys worked in the store from age ten onwards, and by the time Akram started college, his two older brothers had already moved on to other professions. Now, Akram will be the family’s first college graduate—he accomplished the “textbook American dream”—but he is unsatisfied in the United States. “What’s America to me?” he asks.
Akram’s work ethic runs in the family—his father epitomizes the “middleman minority,” relying on his family and ethnic community for support in a country where all his other relationships are financial transactions. Akram’s father also epitomizes the first stage of the “textbook American dream”—building opportunities for one’s children through cleverness and grit—just as Akram epitomizes the second: education, assimilation, and a shot at joining the mainstream elite. But it seems that following the “textbook” no longer guarantees achieving the American dream, as Akram’s ethnicity makes it increasingly difficult for him to break into mainstream success.
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Bayoumi meets Akram at an Egyptian-run Dunkin’ Donuts in Sunset Park, a neighborhood of southwest Brooklyn near Bay Ridge. Akram remembers going to Edward R. Murrow High School in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Midwood, a special school for the academically gifted where he “majored” in English and social studies. As an Arab student there, he feels comfortable around all his peers, but mostly hangs out on the school’s heterogeneous third floor. He also grows wildly popular because of his sense of humor. But he claims his Palestinian heritage by wearing a keffiyah (or hatta), a traditional scarf, which a teacher once misinterpreted as a sign of anti-Semitism. (Bayoumi has encountered numerous stories of racist teachers in his research, especially after September 11).
Like in the store, at school Akram is comfortable navigating difference without sacrificing his own identity—but others often fail to give his identity the same benefit of the doubt that he offers everyone else’s. Palestinian identity is a particularly thorny issue, since the Palestinian and Israeli governments claim sovereignty over the same land, but Israel’s military occupies and controls the parts of it where Palestinians live (in decrepit conditions, compared to Israelis). Israel also has no greater ally, in terms of military aid, diplomacy, or public attitudes, than the United States. Many on both sides of the issue feel that pride in an Israeli or Palestinian identity comes at the expense of the other side.
Themes
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Akram is in his senior year of high school during 9/11, which he initially thinks must have been a joke. In the class after the news breaks, they listen to the news for an hour; in the next class, a teacher asks for the students’ reactions. Multiple offer versions of “bomb them” and “kill them.” Akram reminds other students that “over there” could mean anything and that most of the people in the Middle East have “nothing to do with it!” He thinks about his childhood visits to Palestine and the children who are no different from the ones in New York; he starts to cry and the class, full of unfamiliar students who had no idea Akram was Arab, falls silent.
Like Sami and Yasmin, Akram reacts to 9/11 with both horror and the realization that his community stands to come under attack. He is attuned to the Middle East’s fine-grained diversity just like he is to Brooklyn’s—he does not just differentiate races, or Caribbean-Americans and African-Americans, but knows about the dozen or so major nations in the West Indies, and recognizes the vast difference between al-Qaeda and the rest of “them” in the Middle East. He also sees the similarities and shared humanity among diverse groups, but his classmates seem to think in broad strokes, seeing neither complexity nor humanity.
Themes
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Akram’s next period is a community service class. Before the teacher arrives, another student loudly announces that Hamas is responsible for the attacks. Astonished, Akram punches out the room’s glass doorframe and walks down the hallway, asking people to leave him alone. When the teacher arrives, Akram returns to class, lays his head on his desk, and worries about his family and nation: “what’s going to happen to us now?” After their early dismissal, Akram walks 45 minutes to the store with a cousin and friend, since buses are not running. When he arrives, he laments to his uncle that “we did it [the attacks],” but his uncle disagrees with him.
Hamas (a militant political party in Palestine) was not connected to the 9/11 attacks, but the rumor that it was drives a wedge between the two dimensions of Akram’s identity that had always coexisted in the past. Like Sami in Iraq, Akram suddenly feels that he has to pick between his ethnicity and his country.
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Akram’s family is safe, but others are not: numerous Arabs, and many people mistaken for Arabs, are beaten, murdered, or have their stores burned in the months after 9/11. But Akram’s customers reach out to the family, offering support—except for one local man, Walter, a retired African-American loiterer who starts a screaming match in the store and tries to persuade everyone around not to shop at Mike’s. After a year, Walter gives up and starts shopping at the store again, but insists on starting political arguments every time he comes in. This reflects a broader rift between African-Americans like Walter, on the one hand, and West Indians and Palestinians, who have “similar kinds of postcolonial sensibilities,” on the other.
As shopkeepers who interact daily with their surrounding community, Akram and his family are hyper-visible compared to many New York Arabs, which also puts them at a greater risk of attack (many of the hate crime victims Bayoumi mentions owned shops). Whereas Walter represents the American tendency to racist stereotypes, the Caribbean-Americans, themselves immigrants caught between old and new homes, understand what it is like to be defined not only by race but also by markers of foreignness like accent, citizenship, and cultural difference.
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While there was no coherent popular image of Arabs or Muslims before 2001, now they play a crucial part in American racial discourse, although there is no clear sense of whether they are “white, brown, or black,” or “their own novel category.” In a sense, Arabs are now “more ‘black’ than blacks,” with racial profiling refocusing on them and “flying while brown” becoming the new version of “driving while black.” Arabs are being demoted to the new racial underclass, “the new niggers.”
Walter’s animosity toward Akram’s family suggests that he sees himself as speaking on behalf of America against the Arabs and Muslims at the bottom of the new racial hierarchy. Bayoumi is not saying that African-Americans have it better in any concrete sense because of their “promotion” in the hierarchy relative to Arabs and Muslims (they are still extensively targeted by law enforcement and associated with criminality in public, popular, and media representations). But 9/11 proved terrorism a unique threat in terms of scale, urgency, and organization, which led to uniquely heightened anxieties in return.
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The week after September 11, when school resumes at Edward R. Murrow, one of Akram’s teachers confronts him: “where are your scarves now?” The next day, he brings five hattas to school and hands them out to friends, to make a point to the teacher—but a security guard starts yelling at him and Akram yells back, until another guard intervenes and Akram screams, “Bin Laden didn’t do it!” He goes to the dean’s office, fuming, until class is over. Later, he laughs that “before September 11, I had never even heard of Osama bin Laden.”
Akram’s teacher reacts to 9/11 with rage at Palestine, which makes little factual sense but plenty of psychological sense given that the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization (though many countries don’t). So does Akram’s wishful, tactless defense of Osama bin Laden: though he presumably brings the hattas to school as a way of reminding his teacher that Palestinian nationalism is unrelated to al-Qaeda, he ends up replying on his teacher’s own terms, insisting that Arabs are not responsible for 9/11 because his teacher sees all Arabs as the same.
Themes
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In 2003, Akram is in college and goes to spend the summer taking care of his grandparents in the West Bank. He is questioned by Israeli security when he lands and, against his father’s advice, jokes around with his questioner—who turns out to be from Buffalo, in upstate New York. The trip ends up being “the most spectacular, the best time I ever had.” For the first time in his memory, Akram does not have work or school. He is free to walk around his grandparents’ village and once goes into Ramallah, where he looks at Yasser Arafat’s compound and chats with the soldiers guarding it. He notices that there are people on the roofs everywhere, preparing to suffer Israeli attacks.
Despite the palpable tension that seems to define the West Bank under Israeli occupation, Akram’s trip sticks with him and helps him understand his identity because it both allows him freedoms he has rarely had and forces him to understand the place and political context that have forged his family. His encounter with the Israeli security guard from Buffalo is remarkable, like Rasha’s encounter with her former jailer in reverse: while they are equals (at least in theory) in the United States, the security guard has power over Akram in Israel, and while they share the American dimensions of their identities, their ties to the Middle East are as opposite as can be.
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One day, Akram goes searching for a well he remembers from his childhood, which his family has told him is now blocked by the Israeli army. Three soldiers drive up to him, their rifles drawn, and order him to turn around. His last Friday, he tries to go for prayer in Jerusalem—but his family is sure the Israelis will not let him in. He pretends not to speak Arabic and says he is visiting from America, and after some commotion, they let him inside, where he prays. On his way back, there is only one transport van at the checkpoint, and he runs over to it as the Israeli soldiers yell something he does not understand in Hebrew. The van’s occupants are tense; they hear a gunshot; when they finally get through, he sees Palestinian children throwing rocks at the soldiers, who are firing at them with rifles.
Akram experiences the occupation’s brutality firsthand; the widely-circulated, all-too-common stories of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinian protestors (including children, as here) is a symbol of racist violence that fails to see the enemy as human, combined with the force of the state. It is a literal, life-or-death version of the battle over ethnicity and inclusion ongoing in the U.S. While Akram does get into the mosque, ironically he can only do so by disavowing his Palestinian identity and pretending not to speak Arabic. This is similar to what the United States requires of him: entry and sanctuary only insofar as he actively proves that his identity does not make him a threat (which in practice means disavowing it).
Themes
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Akram is deeply affected by the sufferings of Palestinians: his grandfather is constantly afraid of being raided or killed by the Israelis, who have shot two of Akram’s cousins. Most of all, Akram’s trip shows him the value of his education, which he thinks can help him fight back against the occupation in a way violence never could.
As with Rasha’s story, violence and oppression are personal and traumatic, even if their victims are often also silenced in the public sphere. Also like Rasha, Akram envisions using the privileges of his life in the U.S. to address the injustices he and his family have faced.
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He returns to Brooklyn, college, and the store, which closes two hours earlier on Sundays—Akram jokes that, if it also opened two hours later, he would only have “eight hours a day […] like a regular American job.” In 2005, he talks with a veteran who taught English in Korea after the end of the Korean War, and Akram realizes he could do the same in Dubai, the city that has become “the new American dream for many Arab American youth,” a virtually mythical promise of wealth and excitement in a place with Arab roots. He can learn Arabic and build the long-term relationships with the Arab world he could never have in Palestine (to which he even has trouble getting visas for a few months at a time). He is leaving resolutely, bringing his talents away from America, a country that does not accept him and leaves him miserable.
Given Akram’s education and sense of disillusionment in the United States, Dubai seems like an obvious choice: it has beat the United States at its own game, at least for Arabs. But Akram’s earnest decision to leave paints a troubling possibility for the future: that the United States will never stop treating Arabs as a “problem,” rejecting integration and progress for the sake of a sharp boundary between “us” and “them.” Akram’s departure is not only a personal challenge to himself, but also a challenge to America to live up to its ideals.
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Akram sometimes hangs out with his friends at unassuming shisha cafés in Bay Ridge, although he does not smoke. (Like the often Muslim-run Dunkin’ Donuts shops, these cafés are one of the few “public spaces where it is comfortable to be Arab in America.”) At one of these café gatherings, Bayoumi, Akram, and Akram’s friends talk about their jobs and “the ‘war on terror.’” The author tells them his story—they find it peculiar that both his parents have PhDs. The other young men wonder if they should join Akram in Dubai, and whether they will save enough money to get married. On the car ride home, Akram mentions they are passing “that new Arab store,” drawing the interest of “a car full of shopkeeper sons.” He points to Target, and everyone laughs.
Akram’s friends share his sense of displacement and uncertainty, which seems only to grow when they realize that Dubai presents a legitimate alternative for them, an entire place where they can feel as comfortable as they do in a Muslim-owned Dunkin’ Donuts or shisha café. Akram’s final joke about Target is also a subtle reminder of the limits of Arab ambition in America, the bright line between the small community shops Arabs own and the successful mainstream ones they likely never will.
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