How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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Moustafa Bayoumi Character Analysis

The author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? is a journalist and professor of English at Brooklyn College whose research centers on the cultural discourses about Islam in the United States. In this book, he seeks to understand how the generation of Arab and Muslim Americans below him—those growing up “in the age of terror”—understand their American identities and cope with suddenly being deemed a “problem” by society at large. He approached his research by reaching out to acquaintances and leaders in Brooklyn’s Muslim community, who ultimately introduced him to the seven young people whose narratives form the core of this book—each of whom he met for a series of extended interviews, mostly in 2006. Bayoumi recognizes that none of these subjects share his class background or particular life experience—he and both his parents have PhDs, and he has lived in Switzerland, Canada, and the United States at various points in his life, whereas most of the people he profiles are working-class and have lived most of their lives in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, he clearly sees all seven of these young people’s stories as reflecting a shared cultural predicament for Arabs and Muslims in the 21st century: they all have to reckon with the relationship between their Arabness and their Americanness; they all have to cope with discrimination and suspicion, usually from legal institutions as well as in their day-to-day relationships; and they all worry about their families and futures, at once appreciating the privileges of life in the United States and fearing that they will be excluded from them.

Moustafa Bayoumi Quotes in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

The How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? quotes below are all either spoken by Moustafa Bayoumi or refer to Moustafa Bayoumi. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? published in 2008.
Preface Quotes

The last several years have taken their toll. I ask him about life after September 11 for Arab Americans. “We're the new blacks,” he says. “You know that, right?”

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Sade (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

But what exactly is a profile? It's a sketch in charcoal, the simplified contours of a face, a silhouette in black and white, a textbook description of a personality. By definition a profile draws an incomplete picture. It substitutes recognition for detail. It is what an outsider from the street observes when looking through the windowpane of someone else's life.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

It seems barely an exaggeration to say that Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from. The problem is not that they lack representations but that they have too many. And these are all abstractions. Arabs and Muslims have become a foreign-policy issue, an argument on the domestic agenda, a law-enforcement priority and a point of well-meaning concern. They appear as shadowy characters on terror television shows, have become objects of sociological inquiry, and get paraded around as puppets for public diplomacy. Pop culture is awash with their images. Hookah cafés entice East Village socialites, fashionistas appropriate the checkered keffiyah scarf, and Prince sings an ode to a young Arab-American girl. They are floating everywhere in the virtual landscape of the national imagination, as either villains of Islam or victims of Arab culture. Yet as in the postmodern world in which we live, sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Brooklyn is the concentrated, unedited, twenty-first-century answer to who we, as Americans, are as a people.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
Sami Quotes

“I'm like the most far-off Arab you'll find,” he complained to me one day when talking about his relationship with some of the guys in the club. We were sitting in the backyard of a Starbucks in Park Slope. “You have to be a Muslim to be an Arab. You have to listen to Arabic music all the time to be Arab. You have to be in love with going wherever your parents are from. You have to marry an Arabic girl to be Arab. Certain things. You're not a real Arab if you're like me. I don't listen to Arabic music. I don't watch Arabic programming. I hate going to Egypt. I hate going overseas. I date a Puerto Rican female.”

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Sami (speaker), Ana
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Around this time he decided on the tattoo he wanted to have, once he'd saved enough money. With his large, muscular bulk, he has acres of skin to plow ink into, but he never wanted to stamp himself with the regular bulldog or the eagle, globe, and anchor symbol of the Marine Corps. If he was going to paint himself, he needed something that expressed who he is, something that really spoke to him. What he came up with was the New York City skyline as the tattoo's basis, but instead of the World Trade Center towers, two memorial beams of light will shine upward. The moon, vaguely imprinted with the marine emblem, will land high on his shoulder. The stars will spell out “N-Y-C.” Underneath, and in Arabic, will be written the words “Always remembered, never forgotten.” A little bit of everything—New York, Marine, Arab—to be put carefully together and marked indelibly.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Sami
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:
Yasmin Quotes

“911. What's your emergency?”

“There's a white couple on a city bus. I think she has a bomb in her purse. It's a 863 bus, going up Fifth Avenue. The license plate is . . .”

She wanted to call. She really did, just to make a point, to make them feel the same way—singled out, powerless, discriminated against, a source of irrational fear. But she didn't call. In fact, she didn't do anything, and because of that she was annoyed with herself.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Yasmin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hijab
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:
Akram Quotes

What do you do when everything and everyone—from teachers to TV—is screaming that you and your culture just don't belong? You have to come up with your own solutions, and Akram has found his answer. He's quitting the United States and heading to Dubai, a newfound land of opportunity, a global oasis of modern wealth done up Arabic style. Dubai. It's the latest Arab-American dream.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Akram
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

He's a curious mix that isn't so strange in Brooklyn, equally at home with Arabs, African Americans, and West Indians. He's a twenty-first-century United States American, absorbing and refracting all the ethnicities and histories surrounding him. What he loves most about Brooklyn is this heady human geography.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Akram
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

American idiom: “IN ALLAH WE TRUST. EVERYONE ELSE MUST PAY—NO CREDIT.” The customers laughed.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Akram (speaker)
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:
Lina Quotes

What happens when your homeland is in the process of disintegrating in front of your eyes? What do you do, especially when Iraq's turmoil has always hovered in the background of your life? Perhaps you do what immigrants to the United States and their children have done for generations. You build your own destiny from your American home while keeping one eye open to that which has been lost. And while your American life largely takes over, you still live somewhere between geographies, as you have for most of your life. It's just that the in-between has become harder than ever to locate.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Lina, Laith
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:
Omar Quotes

“But look, Omar,” she said. “I'm a friend of your family. And just for the future, I'd like to warn you.” She paused. “This,” she said, pointing to the line on his résumé that Omar was most proud of, his work at Al Jazeera, “this could work against you in the future. Especially if you want to get work with people who feel threatened by the whole Arab thing.”

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Omar
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

“Look. It's like this,” Eyad, a portly young Egyptian, explained to me. He leaned in to the table and put his weight behind his words. “Before, they went after the Jews, the Italians, the Irish. And now it's our turn. Everybody gets their turn. Now it's just the Muslims.” He leaned back. To my ears these young men were living uneasily in an unresolved contradiction.

They acknowledged that the rights of Muslims were being unfairly trampled on, but they were seduced by the lure of owning a marketable skill (the Arabic language) that was currently in high demand. What they didn't voice was the idea that the culture of the FBI would be changed by their contributions to the Bureau or that civic participation was calling them to serve. They saw an open avenue, wide and empty of traffic, to a job, a profession, a career. It was as if the grinding pressure on their generation to succeed at any cost was taking precedence over everything else.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Omar
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:
Rami Quotes

But still it's not enough. “There are a lot of Muslims,” Ezzat says, “but there is no Islam.”

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Ezzat (speaker), Rami
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

“Oh, man,” he said. “I forgot a good ending!” He pursed his lips. “Sometimes you just forget,” he explained.

“How did you want it to end?” I asked.

He paused to get the expression just right. “You come into the world crying while everyone around you is laughing,” he said. “But when you leave this world for the next life, and everyone else is crying, you should be laughing.” He summed up what he meant. “You've done good. Now all you have is bliss,” he explained with wide eyes. “That's what I should have said.”

The young imam was kicking himself and smiling.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Rami (speaker)
Page Number: 256-257
Explanation and Analysis:
Afterword Quotes

On any given day, popular feelings seem to swing wildly between these poles of fear and acceptance, illustrating what the sociologist Louise Cainkar has called “the apparent paradox of this historical moment: [where] repression and inclusion may be happening at the same time.”

It's a strange place to inhabit, and it reveals not only the bifurcated nature of contemporary American society but also the somewhat precarious condition of Arab and Muslim Americans. Because their situation here is ultimately dependent less on what happens on the home front and more on what happens in the Middle East, Muslim and Arab Americans know that their own domestic security and their ability to live full American lives turn on the winds of global conflicts and on America's posture in the world and its policies abroad.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker)
Page Number: 260-261
Explanation and Analysis:

What we are currently living through is the slow creep of imperial high-handedness into the rest of American society, performed in the name of national security and facilitated through the growth of racist policies. This fact alone menaces the foundations of American society far beyond what has happened to Arab- and Muslim-American communities. “It is indeed a nemesis of Imperialism,” writes [historian J.A.] Hobson, “that the arts and crafts of tyranny, acquired and exercised in our unfree Empire, should be turned against our liberties at home.”

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker)
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:
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Moustafa Bayoumi Character Timeline in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

The timeline below shows where the character Moustafa Bayoumi appears in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Preface
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Bayoumi has written this book to uncover “what it is like […] to be young, Arab,... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Bayoumi begins his research by reaching out to friends and community leaders; he is an Arab... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
After hearing about his project, some people even reach out to Bayoumi. But the author insists that his seven stories do not tell the whole story of... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...burdens that others do not, however, including discrimination, violence, surveillance, cultural misunderstandings, and more. Yet Bayoumi is optimistic, realizing that his subjects have “an enviable maturity” about their situation and need... (full context)
Sami
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Bayoumi turns to Sami’s childhood. He is born, raised, and educated in New York City. After... (full context)
Yasmin
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
During a phone call with Bayoumi, Jimmy Yan explains that racism in education often impacts “the most vulnerable members in our... (full context)
Akram
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Bayoumi knows Akram from Mike’s Food Store, his family’s grocery store in East Flatbush, which is... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Bayoumi meets Akram at an Egyptian-run Dunkin’ Donuts in Sunset Park, a neighborhood of southwest Brooklyn... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Lina
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Bayoumi meets Lina in 2006 at a Bay Ridge café, where she smokes and smiles with... (full context)
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...emotionally and a source of cultural pride. As of 2007, she is pregnant, and during Bayoumi’s visit, they celebrate at an Arabic restaurant and club in the area, then go to... (full context)
Omar
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
At a Bay Ridge shisha café, Omar tells Bayoumi how the engagement would go: his grandfather would call Nadine’s father to propose the marriage;... (full context)
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Bayoumi meets Omar at the Arab Club at Hunter college. Omar is dressed in a suit... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
At the shisha café Meena House, Omar and a number of his friends talk with Bayoumi about work and the FBI. One of the young men says the FBI visited his... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
A few weeks later, Omar tells Bayoumi about meeting Nadine at the Arab Club; although they seldom spend time together, they clearly... (full context)
Rami
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
On a night in July 2006, with Israel and Lebanon at war, Bayoumi sits with Rami and Ezzat, his friend, in a Bay Ridge Dunkin’ Donuts. Rami is... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
During their meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts, three more of Rami’s friends join him, Bayoumi, and Ezzat. They continue to talk about politics, namely Israel’s bombing of Lebanon. The men... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
A few weeks later, Rami and Bayoumi go to Friday prayer, where Rami’s friend and Bayoumi’s student Mohammad, an outstanding young Islamic... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Bayoumi accompanies Rami and Mohammad for their da‘wa work, sending free Qur’ans to anyone who requests... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Bayoumi spends numerous Fridays with Rami and Mohammad, working a few hours in the office before... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...Laden […] I’ve never met the man.” On the subway ride home, a missionary hands Bayoumi a pamphlet about Jesus Christ. (full context)
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Bayoumi also meets Rami several times at his local Muslim youth center, which used to be... (full context)
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
A few weeks later, Bayoumi meets Rami in a “bleak, working-class neighborhood” on Church Avenue, where now Rami is going... (full context)
Afterword
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Bayoumi asks why Arabs and Muslims can never have the “breezy self-indulgences and creative self-inventions” so... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...Muslim, and Arabs have been migrating to the United States for centuries. Recalling this history, Bayoumi notes that Manhattan’s Washington Street becomes “Little Syria” in the late 19th century; its inhabitants... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...based on fairness and compassion, and the values of equality and intergroup harmony. This reminds Bayoumi of a multiethnic Brooklyn block party, “of everyone for everyone and by everyone.” (full context)