How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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

Summary
Analysis
In 2006, 22-year-old Omar is stuck in his job search. Despite his experience, industry connections, and nearly a thousand applications, Omar only has offers “from shady online marketers.” He needs a job so he can be with Nadine, another Palestinian student at Hunter College, where his parents also met. He wants to have a traditional Palestinian wedding with her: “since we have no country […] the only thing we have is our identity.”
Clearly, Omar is facing some barrier in his job search—but he is also in the dark about it. Like Lina with Laith, Omar sees marrying Nadine as a way of carrying on cultural tradition from afar, since their culture relies on the idea of a nation rather than an actually existing one.
Themes
Arab American Identities 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; Nadine’s family would then spend a week or so researching Omar’s, before inviting them over. They would have tea and discuss arrangements, until Nadine would “walk down the stairs like an old-time movie star.” Later, they would make the engagement official by publicly reciting the first chapter of the Qur’an. But if he does not find a job, there is no chance Nadine’s family will approve the engagement. And he is running out of time.
Omar has a specific vision of the path he wants to follow, but he can do little more than he already is in order to translate that vision into a reality. He is stuck in the present, with no way to predict when he will find the job that will get him his marriage.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Omar could not have predicted his difficulty on the job market nine months before, when he graduated with a communications degree and an internship at Al Jazeera. Now he wonders, “could it be that American media organizations won’t hire him because they find an Arab American with Al Jazeera credentials too problematical?” Or perhaps the media job market is just difficult—he cannot know.
Omar’s uncertainty is so demoralizing because it prevents him from knowing whether he can do anything to improve his chances (if the market is difficult) or not (if he is being discriminated against). Although it is internationally renowned, Al Jazeera is controversial in the U.S. not only because it is based in the Middle East (specifically, in the small, oil-rich country of Qatar, whose government funds the channel) but also because it has offered both sides of stories concerning U.S. interventions in the Middle East, whereas mainstream media organizations in America seldom air anything but official government narratives about them. (When there is debate on the major networks, it is usually from competing American perspectives, and almost never from the perspective of the people the U.S. is invading or fighting).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Omar’s anxiety about hiring discrimination is common among Arab Americans of his age. Sade, the young man from the preface, was a successful “point clerk” on the commodities trading floor, even getting his brother a job there, but faced constant racist harassment and remembered everyone cheering “Kill those Arabs!” while watching news about the Iraq War. One day, management realized Sade’s brother was born in Jerusalem and summarily fired them both. Sade was sickened, unable to sleep well for a year.
Sade’s story seems like a clear-cut case of discrimination, so blatant that it sounds like it could not have possibly happened in the 21st century. Sade’s coworkers’ reaction reveals an unseemly truth about the war: it was psychologically satisfying for many Americans to watch soldiers kill Arabs, even people unrelated to any attacks on Americans. For Americans who see all Arabs as the same, it becomes a simplistic matter of “us versus them.”
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
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Indeed, in the year after September 11, employment discrimination complaints from Arabs and Muslims rose 400 percent; they filed one-fifth of all complaints with the Federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and in studies of company responses to fictitious resumes, Muslim names were the least likely to get a call. In fact, men of Arab, Afghan, Iranian, and Pakistani descent saw a sharp decline in income between 2000 and 2002—one study found that wages declined between 9 and 11 percent by 2005.
The ambiguity of hiring decisions is precisely the reason employment discrimination is so insidious and hard to stop: no employer will ever admit to rejecting someone because of their race, which means there are no real consequences for discrimination and everyone can continue doing it. But while it is nearly impossible to prove individual instances of discrimination, in the aggregate its pervasiveness becomes abundantly clear.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Bayoumi meets Omar at the Arab Club at Hunter college. Omar is dressed in a suit after a job interview, and he talks about his work at Al-Jazeera and aspirations to work at an American media network. He is half-Chilean, half-Palestinian, and speaks fluent Spanish after spending five years in Chile. He looks the part, too; people scarcely recognize him as Arab, even at shisha cafés in Bay Ridge. This makes the discrimination he experiences all the more frustrating. It was also part of why he loved working at Al-Jazeera, which is a sort of credential for his identity.
Omar’s identity is complex and composite: he is more than just an ethnic Arab, which makes it all the more frustrating that his prospective employers seem only to see that facet of his identity. He also shows how Arabs can be more than just one thing: to assume that Arab identity excludes other identities (Chilean, American, or whatever else) or that the Arab community is a definable, self-segregating entity is to misunderstand how identity works.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Omar gets into media in 2003, after a friend brings him to anti-Iraq War protests and he gets an internship at Downtown Community Television. There, the legendary, Emmy-winning director John Alpert assigns Omar to research a documentary for HBO and gives him the opportunity to take video and film production classes. Although the documentary never materializes, Omar reinvests in his “childhood job fantasy of working as a war correspondent,” like Alpert did during the First Gulf War—his coverage of the destruction wreaked by American bombs got him fired from NBC, in fact, because it conflicted with the government’s official narrative.
Omar is inspired by the chance to address an injustice in representation: the fact that only pro-American viewpoints get represented, even though the U.S. prides itself on having a free press that can tell both sides of the story (while, in reality, there are always more than two sides, and the two sides chosen tend to be two American political parties). Alpert’s story already shows the risks of being a contrarian in the media—a risk that Omar would be happy to accept if it meant getting the truth out there. Or perhaps, in his stalling job search, he is already facing the same penalty as Alpert.
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
Omar recounts his family’s tradition of political resistance: after fighting the Israeli occupation and “frequently landing in jail,” Omar’s father brings his family to New York and works his way up to buying a building in Park Slope. His mother is the daughter of a Chilean physician targeted for assassination by the United States-backed dictator Pinochet, and follows her family to New York as well. His parents meet in 1980, marry in 1983, and have Omar in 1984. When Omar is eight, Pinochet is out of power and Omar’s family moves back to Chile—his father is frightened after getting shot in a random attack in his New York gas station, so he hopes to stay in Chile for good. He contacts the large Palestinian community in Santiago but realizes they are mostly Pinochet-supporting merchants. The family moves back to Brooklyn the day before Omar’s twelfth birthday—he barely remembers English or gets along with American kids.
Omar’s parents’ journey exemplifies the American paradox: they were both fleeing American-backed repressive governments (Israel’s and Pinochet’s) but also found safety and community in the United States. Omar’s own Americanness is, in classic Brooklyn fashion, most of all about his never being merely American: although he is born and initially raised in New York, he spends a whole phase of his life identifying most strongly with his Chilean side—and now with his Palestinian side, which inspires his plans for the future (his wedding).
Themes
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Then, at the age of fourteen, Omar’s parents send him to Palestine, where “everything [is] alien to him.” When he returns to New York, however, he begins identifying strongly with his Arab side, hanging out with other Arab kids and learning Palestinian customs. On September 11, he is shocked when his teacher announces the attacks; he worries about his aunt who lives downstairs and works at the World Trade Center. Fortunately, she makes it home—she was getting coffee during the crash and walked all the way back to Park Slope over the Brooklyn Bridge. As Arab kids feel increasingly threatened, Omar gets even more connected to—or trapped in—his identity. He starts going to a discussion group in Bay Ridge, led by a relatable imam who emphasizes Muslims’ “public relations problem.” This makes Omar all the more excited to work in the media.
Like Akram, Omar connects to Palestine most of all after seeing it firsthand as a teenager, which radically reorients his identity only two years after he returns to New York speaking mostly Spanish. On 9/11, like a mix of Sami and Akram, he worries from both directions: that he will lose someone in the attacks, and that others will treat him as responsible for them. Of course, the latter is a product of the “public relations problem,” and the imam’s theory clearly connects with Omar’s interest in media as a form of civic education (which is part of Bayoumi’s purpose, too).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
In early 2005, Omar interviews for a job with Al Jazeera’s office in the UN. He is immediately impressed by the main correspondent and explains that he wants to work there because it is the closest thing to an objective news source—his father gets a call with the internship offer before Omar returns home. He throws “himself into the work,” researching crises and learning to cover UN press conferences. He is even mistaken for a correspondent and given responsibility to co-produce a documentary about international students’ decreasing enrollment in American colleges and universities. He researches the issue and its implications, then sets up interviews with university administrators and students, which culminates in a trip back to the Hunter College Arab Club. Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera’s main correspondent, even introduces him to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and tells him he has been the network’s best intern ever.
Omar finds himself at his role, doing exactly the kind of work he wanted and getting clear signals about his talent and potential. The UN office is perfect because it allows Omar to pursue the broad, international perspective that he feels is missing from American media and, due to his background, he is particularly poised to offer. But his failed job search also looks even more tragic now, since there is clearly a deep disconnect between people’s perceptions of Al Jazeera and the reality of Omar’s work there.
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
For the next few months, Omar focuses on school and helps a New York Times reporter navigate the Arab American community in Brooklyn. He soon lands a job at a nonprofit housing organization run by a family acquaintance, who tells him that his time at Al Jazeera “could work against [him] in the future.” Soon thereafter, his supervisor calls it “a terrorist channel” and Omar jumps to its defense. Eventually, in his search for a long-term job, he deletes the words “Al Jazeera” from his résumé.
Omar realizes the frustrating part about fighting systematic misinformation: it is impossible to show people the truth if they refuse to believe you precisely because of the misinformation you are trying to fight. Although he envisioned a career in the media as an opportunity to take a moral stand, Omar ends up doing the opposite: hiding his morals in order to find a platform to speak from in the first place.
Themes
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Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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 school, al-Noor, the largest Muslim private school in New York. It was not investigating students—it wanted to recruit them. Of course, it was relatively unsuccessful. The FBI’s goal is clearly to get Arabic speakers—translation jobs in law enforcement are growing, especially in New York, and there are barely any Arabic speakers in the FBI. Fewer than 300 out of 12,000 agents have any proficiency, and only six are “fluent enough to appear on Arabic television.” These few officers also face harassment and discrimination; many have filed complaints reporting offensive slurs from their superiors.
Ironically, the FBI needs to hire Arabic speakers to target Arabic speakers, but this makes finding people to hire particularly hard. At the same time, when discrimination against Arabic-speakers is rampant everywhere else, the FBI is the one employer looking for them. Much like Sami in Iraq, FBI Arabic translators simultaneously must spy on their communities, be seen as valuable assets for being able to do so, and be derided at work for belonging to those communities. This logic is both circular and contradictory—circular because it starts and ends with the conflation of Arab and “enemy,” and contradictory because it is impossible to spy on “enemies” without cooperation from some of them.
Themes
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Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
In fact, Omar has even applied for a job at the FBI—he is that desperate—and at the DEA, which wants to send him somewhere like Afghanistan or Colombia. All the men insist they would have no qualms about working for the FBI, even though they understand that Arabs face discrimination and persecution. One of them says that “everybody gets their turn” to be the target of racism. The men see the potential for a lucrative career and do not think about changing the FBI’s culture. While Omar knows a law enforcement job would inevitably entail “spying on his own community” and says he would never do so, he is still thinking about pursuing one.
Omar and his friend also end up with contradictory ideas: they want a job they know they could never do with a clean conscience. Omar seems to face enough employment discrimination that his only job opportunity could be perpetuating discrimination against his own community. They recognize the injustice in and historical precedent for racism but, unlike Rasha, Yasmin, and Omar himself a few months before, they now feel they are powerless to change anything.
Themes
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Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Related Quotes
A few weeks later, Omar tells Bayoumi about meeting Nadine at the Arab Club; although they seldom spend time together, they clearly like one another, and Omar’s father has promised that he will agree to pursue the marriage as soon as Omar gets a job. Omar agrees with Bayoumi that his trouble finding work at a major network involves discrimination—not necessarily against his Arab identity, but there is definitely suspicion of Al Jazeera. His friends and cousins with “much more Arabic-sounding names” all have jobs already. Omar’s father, however, just blames the recession. Like many others, Omar is stuck in “a place where you just don’t know how much power to attribute to contemporary prejudice.” He does not know if he is being paranoid; it feels like swatting a mosquito in bed, not knowing if it is even there, and being unable to sleep regardless.
Omar’s story does not reach a neat resolution: he remains confused by his lack of success, motivated but roadblocked, with what feels like his whole future relying on a job that is completely outside of his control. The same thing he wanted to fight through working in media—a falsehood with more credibility than the truth—seems to be preventing him from getting a media job in the first place, and this ethnically-tinged suspicion of Al Jazeera is also getting in the way of the marriage that, at least in large part, symbolizes Omar’s ethnic pride.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon