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?”
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.
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.
“If there's anything that I've discovered out of this whole thing, it's that people take for granted being a citizen of this country. They don't see the importance of having a privilege like that. I've been in this country for eighteen years, and I'm working hard, and I'm qualified, but I've missed all these opportunities. I feel like it should be a lot easier than this. It's not fun. It's not fun at all.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
“With all due respect to your religion, sir, how long do you think you can control your daughter?”
I was forced to submit my resignation due to the system's inability to understand my moral obligations. For example, my beliefs prevent me from having anything to do with drinking/dancing. When I was young, the system told me to stand up and fight for what I believe in. While now I am being told to do the exact opposite, instead I should give up what I believe in for some rules and regulations. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for what he believed in and gave up his life for it. I too am taking that same stand by giving up my position to defend what I believe in.
What hurt me most was that when I won secretary as a Freshman, I felt that I had achieved my dreams and broken a racial barrier that I thought would hold me back. I finally felt that as a Muslim that I was doing something and I could make a difference in the world. I believed people would have confidence in me because of what was in my heart and not prejudice against my outer appearance—I had hope that I could achieve my dreams—but when they took me out I felt different and segregated and it shattered everything I had hoped and dreamed of. Now all I feel is hurt, sadness, and I feel that as a Muslim I can never be something because America is prejudiced so much and will never let people like me succeed no matter how hard we try. I never told anyone that this is what really hurts me and makes me cry. My family doesn't even know that I still cry and that I am still hurt and think about it every day. I felt so bad, and knowing how that feels, I don't want to have anyone else go through what I went through, Muslim or non-Muslim.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
But still it's not enough. “There are a lot of Muslims,” Ezzat says, “but there is no Islam.”
“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.
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.
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.”