How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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

Summary
Analysis
In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, “there was no ice cream.” It is illegal, as the nation is “choking under sanctions” in 1996. Lina is seventeen, and has been sent back from the U.S. on a one-way ticket by her conservative parents as punishment for her truancy and American boyfriend. Most Americans see Iraq “as a blur of bad news,” essentially identical with Islamic fundamentalism and extremist groups. But it also has a history and a people. After a flight to Jordan, a long bus ride, and a lecture from her mother Maisa, who demands she say nothing political, Lina ends up at her aunt’s beautiful villa, surrounded by huge piles of garbage, evidence of the nation’s collapsing social services under the sanctions. After a summer visiting relatives, her mother and sister leave her there.
Lina’s story points to the invisible struggles of life in Iraq, which Americans so often see as a political rather than human tragedy. Her lack of ice cream, while obviously insignificant compared to the major effects of sanctions and war, symbolizes her losing the way of life she has grown accustomed to in the U.S. To Lina’s parents, her trip is supposed to be something like Sami’s conversations with translators in Iraq or Akram’s trip to Palestine—a journey of self-discovery, in which she finds a place in her identity for her heritage. But to her, it is a draconian punishment.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
The sanctions imposed by the United States and United Nations effectively stop all food, medicine, and equipment from flowing into Iraq. Saddam imposes rations and “at least half a million” children die unnecessarily; the nation’s infrastructure collapses. The UN’s assistant secretary general even resigns in protest because he considers these sanctions equivalent to genocide. Without electricity or sugar, “ice cream became simply unsustainable.” So, for good measure, the regime outlaws it. Although Lina enjoys seeing her family and grows close to one of her cousins, she can see the suffering caused by the sanctions firsthand; and she misses her boyfriend, to whom she writes letters that she cannot send because of fear and her family. Meanwhile, the UN is busy scouring Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.
Seven years before the Iraq War, the U.S. was already involved in the nation—a reminder that American interference in the Middle East (and foreign policy’s residual influence on Arabs and Muslims in the United States) has a long history and did not just start after 9/11. The sanctions blocked all international trade with Iraq, punishing the Iraqi people for the errors of its government. These sanctions were initially imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but after this war was over, the United States and United Kingdom refused to let the UN lift them until Saddam was out of power (which did  not happen until the Iraq War in 2003).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Bayoumi meets Lina in 2006 at a Bay Ridge café, where she smokes and smiles with a rebellious energy that reflects her private conflicts with her parents (rather than any political commitments). Her story, too eccentric to generalize, is nevertheless tinged with politics, especially because of her father’s resolute opposition to Saddam.
Bayoumi carefully distinguishes Lina’s personal rebellion from the rebellious political beliefs many readers might implicitly associate with young Arabs. Sespite all Americans might already know about Iraq, her story is in no way reducible to her country’s. In fact, Lina’s disinterest in political rebellion might itself be a way of rebelling against her dissident parents.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
In 1979, Lina is born in Kuwait City; four years later, the family moves to the United States so that her father can study for his PhD. Her mother Maisa works at the Iraqi embassy and brings her father to parties where “the necessary worship of Saddam” infuriates him, and his criticisms lead to Maisa’s firing in 1986. The family moves to a working-class black neighborhood in Maryland, where Maisa works at a thrift store and raises her daughters strictly. Lina’s father gets a job at the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Iraq invades Kuwait, which means the family is going to stay in the United States for good. They move to a wealthier, whiter suburb and, for the first time, Lina feels judged and ostracized because of her race.
In a peculiar turn of events, Lina’s parents move from Iraq to Kuwait to the United States only to watch Iraq invade Kuwait, the United States remove the Iraqis from Kuwait, and then (later) the United States invade Iraq. The family, like all the others who appear in this book, has to distinguish between the people and governments of its various countries, but the embassy, of course, cannot, and neither can the 21st-century American public that associates all Muslims with the actions of a few authoritarian governments and militant groups.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
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Nevertheless, Lina manages to befriend various students from different groups by the time she gets to high school. But her fashion choices frustrate Maisa, who accuses her of “turning into a black person!” Lina starts smoking and wearing makeup—but she fails to hide either from her mother, who grows stricter and stricter. Soon, “home [feels] like prison.”
While Lina continues to identify with her old black community, Maisa’s accusation also shows how communities of color in the United States can stereotype and antagonize one another, even if they share concrete social interests (like Walter and Akram’s family).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Sophomore year, Lina gets into an argument with Maisa because she wants to go to the homecoming dance; her father agrees that she can go, and her mother even helps her buy a dress, but insists that she drive Lina both ways. During the dance, however, Lina notices Maisa lingering in the corner, watching her and her friends. They watch each other quietly and later drive home in silence.
As in Yasmin’s story, school dances are an important stage for the conflict between religious beliefs and American cultural norms. Unlike Yasmin, however, Lina resolutely chooses the latter, and her parents actually do try to “control [their] daughter.”
Themes
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Lina starts skipping class, which is the only way to see her friends. As her grades decline, her parents decide she should go to Iraq for the summer. She is excited—she scarcely remembers the Iraqi family she talks with on the phone and finally, if ironically, gets the freedom she never had at home. When she comes back to the United States from Iraq that fall, however, she returns to her old self. She starts skipping classes with her new boyfriend, Daniel, who is half Puerto Rican and half black and neither minds that her parents are conservative nor tries to have sex with her. But when Lina’s parents catch on to her evening phone calls with Daniel, she decides to run away.
There is no mention of ice cream or the misery that marked Lina’s time in Iraq at the beginning of this chapter—this is an earlier trip, albeit one with the same goal of setting her straight. Lina’s parents’ plan doesn’t exactly backfire—she does reconnect with her Iraqi family, but simply going to Iraq does not necessarily imbue her with traditional values, which suggests that it is too simple to frame strict religiosity as “tradition” (residing in the Middle East) and freewheeling secularism as “modernity” (in the U.S.). Indeed, Lina finds a compromise between teenage rebellion and her parents’ values.
Themes
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Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Lina stays at friends’ houses during her runaway attempts and climbs out of her locked window when she inevitably goes back home—each time, her father gives her a drug test and sends her to the gynecologist to ensure she has not lost her virginity. Once, after a two-week stint at a friend’s house, her parents find her laying on the couch with Daniel in the basement. Instead of berating her, they say they want to meet Daniel, who soon comes over for dinner. But then Lina’s parents reveal they are planning to send her to stay with family friends in Virginia for a few weeks, and then back to Iraq.
Lina’s rebellion never turns dangerous or lives up to her parents’ deepest fears, but it does land her another corrective trip to Iraq as her parents struggle to keep her motivations in line with their own. However, their willingness to meet Daniel suggests that they are also willing to make concessions to their daughter (or, perhaps, just want more information about what, exactly, she has been up to).
Themes
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In Virginia, Lina grows close to the 22-year-old Looma, the family friends’ daughter, who even lets her drink. She still misses Daniel, however. One day, her father calls to inform her that Daniel is in prison for a carjacking and robbery. Lina goes to visit him and is devastated; Looma advises her to move on. Soon Lina goes to Iraq, on a ticket with no return date. She thinks about Daniel endlessly for a few months, but then abruptly forgets him and starts enjoying her freedom. She is still unhappy, though—her family manages to obtain ice cream to cheer her up, but she still breaks down one night, crying and feeling isolated, able to talk only to God. Like many people under the sanctions, she begins praying devoutly and even wearing “the entire regalia of a religious woman,” to her family’s surprise.
Again, Lina’s punishment trip ironically gives her the freedom and time to explore away from her parents that she wanted at home the whole time. The news about Daniel is horrifying not only because it threatens their relationship but also because it violates everything Lina knows about him. Like Rasha’s mother in prison and Sami on his way to war, Lina turns to religion for solace and rebels in the opposite way as in the past, even astonishing her family by becoming more traditional than they are.
Themes
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
After over a year, Maisa finally comes to bring Lina home from Iraq. She is shocked by her daughter’s new religious clothing, though Lina soon stops wearing it. Lina is sad to disappoint her mother once again, and agrees to an engagement with her older cousin in Iraq.
Maisa’s plan seems to have proven too successful, and now she and Lina reach the same impasse in opposite roles. However, Lina seems to care about her mother’s judgments for the first time, and agrees to marry within her community, which suggests that she has grown more attached and committed to her Iraqi identity.
Themes
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Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
When she returns to the United States with Maisa, Lina’s family is living in Colorado, where her father works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She bonds with her mother over wedding dress shopping but cannot stand her new town, which is “claustrophobic and small-minded,” uniformly white and adamantly Christian. But her parents are getting along better, and finally “they [feel] like a family.” And then, suddenly, Maisa dies from an infection while Lina’s father is away. The family is devastated; Lina calls off her engagement. She graduates high school and spends the following summer “drinking hard and smoking a lot of weed” as her father falls into depression and fights endlessly with her.
Just when Lina and her mother begin to develop a mutually understanding relationship, catastrophe strikes and, like in Iraq, Lina is suddenly completely alone in a place that seems desolate and foreign. Her decision to marry seems to have been primarily related to this improving relationship with her mother, and she again loses trust in her family.
Themes
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One day, Lina goes to Denver and never comes back. She stays with the only person she knows, works at a restaurant, and meets a group of Arabs at the University of Denver. She enrolls in community college, gets a diversity grant to pay for her tuition, and finally contacts her father, who is actually very impressed and satisfied with her decisions—he even helps her pay for school and rent. Lina starts dating a Palestinian man named Zaki, who brings her gifts from Lebanon.
Desperate to leave her situation and realizing that her family can no longer provide guidance, Lina takes matters into her own hands and, for the first time, fully claims the independence she has always flirted with—and proves to her father that he has nothing to worry about. For the first time she also finds specifically Arab friends, whether because she now can in college or because of her time in Iraq.
Themes
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Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Lina increasingly feels an itch to return to the East Coast, preferably to Maryland. When her father gets a job in Brooklyn, they move “into a drab concrete building in Bay Ridge.” She takes a cross-country bus to break up with Zaki, who is cheating on her anyway, and enrolls in Kingsborough Community College. She connects with a group of Iraqis on the internet and falls for one of them, Wisam, although they remain only close friends and never date.
Yet again, Lina gets uprooted and ends up in a new, unknown place with the family from which she just ran away (but now, a place full of fellow Arabs). Her friendship with Wisam shows that, even with her mother gone, she is still interested in men from her own community and conceives it as central to her identity, more so than before she went to Iraq.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
In mid-2001, Lina’s father hastily marries a woman from a family of dissidents-turned-refugees torn apart by Saddam’s regime. Lina is confused and sad, but eventually grows close to her new family in Brooklyn and even agrees with their suggestion she marry one of her new stepmother’s older brothers, Laith. But he is dating an American woman, and in her confusion and frustration, Lina joins the army to be an operating-room specialist, seeking a sense of purpose and clarity of mind. Her father is incensed, but his neighbors and coworkers in the prison system change his mind. Wisam’s sister Rana, the daughter of an Iraqi diplomat, is clearly disappointed. Lina goes to Virginia for training and quickly starts feeling better, gaining a sense of discipline and focusing her goals. Having achieved what she sought from the military, she decides to quit. Back home, she briefly rekindles her friendship with Rana.
Again, events outside of Lina’s control transform the foundations of her life and the structure of her family. Her decision to join the army is another way of running away, an attempt to take back the control that she lacks but needs in order to decide what is next for herself. When the military gives her that control, though, she quits. Her military story is nearly the opposite of Sami’s—while they both joined because they felt lost, he remained lost and served five full years. Noticeably, this all happens around the time of 9/11, which does not seem to profoundly change Lina’s view of her place in the world—perhaps because Iraq had already been fighting with the United States, militarily and then diplomatically, for more than a decade.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
One Friday in 2003, the FBI comes to Lina’s house and politely interrogates her about Rana, Wisam, and their other brother Ra’ed, who is apparently a spy—one of his friends is planning to kill a member of Lina’s stepmother’s family. This means that Wisam, too, is secretly working for Saddam, and Lina is devastated to learn that “her closest friend and so much more” has been using her.
Although Lina has spent most of her life avoiding politics, it finally catches up to her; like Sade in the Preface, she realizes that she cannot necessarily even trust those in her own community. The effects of American foreign policy on Muslim and Arab life are pernicious, psychological, and not limited to those whom the American government (or, in this case, the Iraqi government) directly targets.
Themes
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Rana and the family’s other brother are deported, but “Wisam and Ra’ed were not so lucky.” Lina remembers having been stopped for more than 20 minutes by the police when she was with Ra’ed a few days before; now, it all makes sense. She even remembers Ra’ed bringing the assassin, nicknamed “the scorpion,” over to her house. This man, supposedly visiting to ask Lina’s father about a rash, was “rough and imposing.” Wisam and Ra’ed are arrested in March 2003, right after the beginning of the Iraq War, and charged with acting as Iraqi intelligence agents, although some evidence suggests they were FBI informants, but the judge “determine[s] that the brothers posed no threat to national security.”
Lina is forced to retrospectively question her entire relationship with Wisam, which to her was genuine and meaningful, but for him was a mere cover, a way of getting closer to his assassination target. In the immediate leadup to the Iraq War, Lina watches the conflict play out in microcosm through her family; because of her position at the juncture of American and Iraqi communities, she is manipulated by both sides, seen as an enemy by both the police who pull her over and the Iraqi government.
Themes
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Lina moves to Virginia, where she continues working at a restaurant and going to community college. Her relationship with Laith eventually “turn[s] into real love,” but, by the end of 2004, things are rocky again and Lina returns to Brooklyn to work at a short-lived Arab American newspaper. In January 2005, Ra’ed and Wisam are convicted and sentenced to six months’ incarceration for working as foreign spies, but have already spent two years in prison and are deported to Jordan, the only country that agrees to take them. Lina visits Wisam about a dozen times, but his sense of disconnection leads her to believe he is guilty and was probably acting as a double agent, working for both the FBI and Saddam.
After Wisam and Ra’ed’s arrests, Lina again flees the tensions—before, cultural, and now, political—between her American and Iraqi sides. In jail, Wisam is a completely different person than the man she used to know—but she also never learns where his true loyalties lay, with the United States or Iraq (his deportation might suggest the latter, but could also suggest that his work for the FBI was compromised, and it is curious that Iraq would not take him back).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
In July of 2006, Lina and Laith finally marry, and she moves to be with him in Virginia. Their marriage gives Lina both “something to hold on to” 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 Laith’s brother’s Denny’s restaurant, which is full of a broad mosaic of Americans.
Lina’s story about personal, religious, cultural, and familial confusion has been one long search for “something to hold on to,” a way to define her own identity. The fact that she takes Bayoumi to both an Arabic restaurant and a multicultural Denny’s suggests that she has found a way to claim both her identity as an Iraqi and her identity as an American immigrant.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
While the desire to return home is often seen as central to the experience of exile, this is not so for Lina, who “simply no longer recognizes the [Iraqi] nation she sees on television,” with its internal divisions and economic hardships. She especially laments the sanctions. The vast majority of her family has left Iraq and is now living in Syria and Jordan. Like so many immigrant Americans, Lina is trying to “build [her] own destiny from [her] American home while keeping one eye open to that which has been lost,” living in a geographical in-between space of sorts, starting a family but lamenting alongside her husband Laith that “there is no Iraq anymore.”
While Lina’s immediate family left Iraq for the United States, now her extended family is leaving because of the United States. For Lina and Laith, home is a memory and idea rather than a place in itself. If Palestine for people like Akram is a nation to come, a project of creating a country, then Iraq to Lina and Laith is a nation that has already gone, which they can only carry on in diaspora through cultural tradition.
Themes
Arab American Identities 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
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