How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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

Summary
Analysis
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 19, thoughtful, and muscular; Ezzat, 21, is talkative and just as imposing. Rami recites a verse from the Qur’an—both are devout, and both their fathers are elsewhere: Rami’s in a New Jersey detention center, Ezzat’s back in Lebanon, where he has all but given up Islam. Each generation, they agree, gets more pious, “but it’s still not enough.”
Faith is clearly central to Rami and Ezzat’s views of the world: without their fathers, they envision community in terms of a collective devotion to shared moral values and are obviously much more religious than their parents, not less (as many assume immigrants’ children in the U.S. to inevitably be). Their moral mission is something like Rasha’s, Yasmin’s, or Omar’s when he wants to work in the media—they want to create a world around better values—but they couch this in terms of religion rather than politics.
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Born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, Rami grows up in Brooklyn, spending his nights with his father at the grocery stores where he works, usually talking about wrestling­. An exemplary athlete and student, Rami ends up playing football at one of New York City’s elite Specialized High Schools. Like Islam, football is “a total way of life.” His family is not very religious, so he first learns to pray and study the Qur’an from his uncle. Rami’s father manages to buy his own store, which summarily burns down. He tries opening one after another, but eventually ends up distributing illegal out-of-state cigarettes to groceries around the city.
While football and Islam might both require “total” dedication, the similarities more or less stop there—but this also attests to Rami’s great versatility of character and identity, which continues to defy the simplistic distinction between tradition and modernity, East and West. His father’s bad luck leads him into illegal but understandable and relatively harmless work, but it remains to be seen how this squares with Rami’s religiosity.
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After 9/11, law enforcement begins investigating Arab groceries (which they believe fund terrorism) and plants an informant in Rami’s father’s circles. When the man offers to sell them weapons, they realize his identity, but they are all arrested anyway—in fact, they arrest Rami’s mother first and make her call her husband, telling him to surrender himself in exchange for her freedom. When she gets home, she is shaking and frightened; Rami is 15 and confused, and he loses his ability to focus in school as his mother grows increasingly distraught and withdrawn. They cannot afford their legal fees and end up living on credit.
This story seems like a series of improbable exaggerations on the part of the police: not only is it unlikely that small, single-family businesses run by working-class immigrants could meaningfully support terrorism (as opposed to, say, oil money), but Rami’s father is treated like a flight threat and violent terrorist despite refusing to participate in the police informant’s set-up. The police take extreme measures to ensure Rami’s father gets a minor punishment for a minor crime—his mother even gets arrested and traumatized despite having nothing to do with her husband’s actions.
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Rami turns to the Qur’an for solace, listening to a famous reciter on the internet while he follows along with an English translation. He feels calm and concentrated, so he turns this into a nightly routine and even starts praying five times a day. He develops a “foundation in the religious life” and improves his Arabic.
Like Rasha’s mom in prison or Lina in Iraq, after his father’s incarceration Rami finds his missing sense of purpose through faith, which offers him a focus on the spiritual realm rather than his material suffering, a routine to build his days around, and a set of beliefs that allow him to make sense of his pain.
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After five months, Rami’s father is released from jail on probation, but set to be deported. Their lives return to normal and, with the school year restarting, Rami refocuses on football—his mother is an enthusiastic fan, even if she does not know the game’s rules.
As soon as the family heals, Rami turns back to football. At first, his religious phase looks as temporary as Lina’s.
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Rami’s father is arrested again, abruptly, because a man with a similar name has cashed fraudulent checks. (Rami now has “just blank spots” in his memory from this time.) He again becomes more devout and starts attending discussion groups after mosque. The faith he gains at these groups on Fridays inevitably gets him through the weekend. He learns about “the fundamentals of Islamic history and the essentials of moral conduct” and feels his values slowly transforming. He starts visiting his father in prison and the two grow very close, talking about family, the future, prison, and Islam. Rami’s father is also becoming more devout, especially since his prison has a large Muslim population.
Interestingly, perhaps because it occupies a “blank spot,” Rami scarcely talks about his pain in conection with his father’s imprisonment on false charges, which seems to still be related to the government’s fear that he is funding terrorists. Instead of talking about his pain, Rami talks about the solution he found to that pain: mosque and discussion group on Friday (the Islamic holy day). And given his own isolation, desperation, and abundant time to think, it is unsurprising that Rami’s father has a parallel religious awakening.
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Unable to focus, Rami does worse than expected on his SATs but still wins a partial scholarship to a nearby private university; his extended family works tirelessly to pay the rest of his tuition. Rami’s father is transferred to a new jail, where there are more restricted visiting hours and fewer Muslim inmates. In college, Rami decides to accelerate his graduation and grows close to other Arab and Muslim students, meeting the knowledgeable and argumentative Ezzat at the Muslim Student Association.
Rami’s family is not the only one to suffer from his father’s (unjust) imprisonment: Rami’s future nearly derails; his immediate family suffers deep psychological wounds; and his extended family is forced to help fill the financial gap Rami’s father has left. This is an important lesson about the snowball effects of incarceration, which is often both an effect and a cause of poverty and social isolation. Rami makes Islam part of his public identity at school, too, finding a Muslim community just as his father loses one in the new prison.
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One night, during an argument about marriage and children, Ezzat asks why Rami is Muslim and how he knows his religion is the right one, how he knows that Allah wrote the Qur’an—Rami is speechless, and when they switch roles, he is astonished at Ezzat’s brilliant explanations of his beliefs, which illuminate everything for him. Rami is thrilled; on the car ride home, he asks about terrorism, and Ezzat insists that “that concept isn’t part of Islam.” It is unjustified and immoral. Now, religion “appealed to [Rami’s] rationalist side, and he began seeing it through the lens of knowledge acquisition.”
Rami has thought about Islam as a received code of behavior and beliefs, not as a process of inquiry, interpretation, or understanding. Of course, it inevitably involves both knowledge and practice, but while these both vary from person to person, the former also depends on individual judgment and interpretation, so creates more space for free thought and a process of continually improving oneself and one’s knowledge.
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After a few weeks, Rami joins Ezzat’s Islamic study group in Queens, talking about how to model their lives on the prophet and his immediate descendants’ virtue, how to “revive the religion as it once had been.” They read classical Islamic scholars and condemn the contemporary power of dictators in the Middle East. They do not blame the West or advocate violence; rather, they focus on teaching morality through the Qur’an, and Rami begins seeking to propagate his knowledge, a practice called da‘wa. He takes a prominent role in the Muslim Students’ Association, whose students recognize their one-dimensional portrayal in the popular eye. Rami seeks to stop focusing on material success, banish envy, keep a distance from women, and marry a Muslim.
While Rami and Ezzat’s talk about reviving Islam might remind readers of fundamentalist views on the surface, they are talking about reviving a harmonious religious community in which people look out for one another and live with the same classical virtues he pledges, not seizing political power. In fact, Rami’s view of religion is intensely personal and local, based primarily in self-improvement, and much more like any normal adherent of any other major religion than like the extremists with whom he is so often conflated.
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After his sophomore year, Rami goes to visit family in the Jordanian capital Amman and is thrilled to receive “a hero’s welcome.” He is also fascinated to see that his relatives share his parents’ mannerisms. Most of all, he and his family are all surprised to learn that Rami is far more religious than his cousins, with the exception of Jaafar, who takes him around Amman’s mosques, accompanies him during an off-season pilgrimage to Mecca, and attends religious discussions with him. Rami fantasizes about returning to Amman as soon as he gets back to New York.
As many of the book’s characters have seen, family in the Middle East is not necessarily more strict, religious, or traditional than family in the United States, which is good reason to reject the assumption that the immigrant experience is always defined by a conflict between (Eastern, old) tradition and (Western, new) modernity. Like with Akram, Omar, and Lina, a trip to his parents’ country of birth does influence and inspire Rami, but it is not the initial impetus for his connection to his culture—which, like Yasmin, he primarily conceives as religious, not ethnic.
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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 are hopeless, sure that Arab leaders will sit idly by and sacrifice their people’s interests while Israel and the United States wage war in Lebanon. Another Lebanese friend joins; they go to a Lebanese sandwich restaurant and watch the Lebanese news into the night.
The conflict in question, the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, ended after approximately a month in a relative stalemate. But the almost constant series of conflicts in the Middle East, complicated by the region’s extensive network of alliances among state governments, political parties, and paramilitary organizations, almost always involves the United States, especially on Israel’s side whenever it is involved. Accordingly, the men understandably feel that their country is at war with their people, while Americans assume that Arabs have it out for them—each side sees the other as the aggressor.
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A few weeks later, Rami and Bayoumi go to Friday prayer, where Rami’s friend and Bayoumi’s student Mohammad, an outstanding young Islamic scholar, is leading prayer. Rami has grown a beard, and Mohammad explains that Rami’s family has started worrying about his religious activities, not wanting him “to fall into any trap with the government” like his father. Mohammad, too, has a beard and always wears religious garb—his mother will only let him go to Egypt if he shaves, but they both insist that outwardly displaying their religion gives them strength and helps in their da‘wa. Bayoumi remembers an article about French Muslim women wearing the hijab or worshipping in public to “mark and claim a presence in the public sphere.” Similarly, da‘wa has become an urgent “struggle to represent Islam positively to non-Muslims.”
Rami and Mohammad are trying to fix what Omar’s imam called Muslims’ “public relations problem.” Their choice to wear religious garb—which is certainly unusual for men of their age in New York—symbolizes both their own moral vows and their desire to change the public face of Islam. It is not a protest against racism, but simply an attempt to reach out to both Muslims (for whom they hope to model serious moral commitment) and non-Muslims (whom they hope to show what Islam really means). They are trying to perfect the Muslim community (which has lost sight of morality) and the American community (which has lost sight of acceptance) alike. Like Yasmin with her hijab, it takes a certain fearlessness for Rami and Mohammad to go out in their garb, but it makes them an asset to the community for the same reason as it makes them a target for hate and law enforcement.
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Bayoumi accompanies Rami and Mohammad for their da‘wa work, sending free Qur’ans to anyone who requests them from a tiny office in Staten Island—about 3,000 per month, and more whenever Muslims get bad publicity. The office is full of Qur’ans in various languages, which Rami starts mailing out while Mohammad shows Bayoumi the questionnaire he sends to new converts and the emails he receives from them—one woman learns about the Qur’an on TV and another, a preacher’s daughter in Mississippi, converts after making a Muslim friend. Mohammad then pulls out the hate mail—one message calls for the mass murder of all Muslims. Bayoumi notices that many requests are from prisons and law enforcement offices, and Rami realizes he can send Qur’ans to his father’s new prison.
This da‘wa work is, so far, the most concrete manifestation of Rami and Mohammad’s quest to improve Muslims’ representation. And it is clearly working: reaching at least 30,000 people is astonishing for two teenagers in a cramped office, but their hate mail proves how extraordinarily much room there is for progress. Their interest from law enforcement officers is a reminder that, even if there are severe structural biases in the American system, individual agents are not necessarily prejudiced and can even become gateways for Muslims to dispel myths, at least through indirect rumor, among the broader American community. Beyond hoping to get his father reinvested in religion, Rami seems to hope he can help create or support a Muslim community in the prison.
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Bayoumi spends numerous Fridays with Rami and Mohammad, working a few hours in the office before following Mohammad to a prayer session he leads, talking about theology or successful conversions on the car ride over. One day, they pick up and chat with another man named Mohammad, a recent immigrant from Egypt; once, they talk about Qur’anic recitation and imagine preaching in Mecca, then notice the police searching a car nearby and mention their fear of being targeted by law enforcement.
Rami and Mohammad dedicate their entire Fridays to religion—this means not only spending their time on religious activities but also fixating their minds on it, as shown by their conversations with each other and the other Mohammad; Islam truly is all-consuming for them, and it fills their day with an air of serenity, gratitude, and optimism.
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Another Friday, after his sermon, Mohammad goes to speak with his old high school’s Muslim Students Association. The students revere him as he insists on their right to practice Islam as it was intended, dressing conservatively and praying even at school. They will look “strange,” but so were the first Muslims, and so was he in high school, like when he could not let the cheerleaders kiss him on the cheek before basketball games. Their community is essential for their strength, he implores. He also jokes, “don’t ask me about Osama bin Laden […] I’ve never met the man.” On the subway ride home, a missionary hands Bayoumi a pamphlet about Jesus Christ.
Mohammad argues for a relatively conservative version of Islam, but one still fundamentally based in American civil liberties—the freedom to practice one’s religion. This is, of course, not only about following what he considers proper codes of behavior, but also making a claim about Islam’s right to be included in American society and visible in American institutions. Yet Mohammad also recognizes and pre-empts the possible association between his conservative vision and bin Laden’s extremist, violent vision, using humor to suggest that people would have to seriously misinterpret his own beliefs to equivocate them with bin Laden’s (or to even make him explicitly disavow bin Laden, like the FBI agents meeting with religious leaders in the Preface).
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Bayoumi also meets Rami several times at his local Muslim youth center, which used to be an Italian banquet hall. Rami is full of “joy and purpose” whenever he talks about the last year of his life, during which “he has finally found himself” through Islam. The only thing that could improve his life, he says, would be marriage.
Resolutely on Rasha and Yasmin’s side, Rami has clearly figured out his purpose in life: to spread goodwill through religion. Although adjusting to his father’s absence was a traumatic process, it also showed Rami the power of religion, which he both latches onto for himself and wants to bring to others who might not see the depth, coherence, and beauty he does in Islam and the Qur’an.
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Rami’s other future plans are changing, however. His family cannot afford for him to go to medical school, so he is thinking about becoming a teacher or lab assistant; his father is getting out of prison soon, but is likely to be deported; his family might move to California, but he will stay in New York. He might spend a few years in Saudi Arabia and hopes his eventual wife will work, so he can dedicate his life to Islam—he sees da‘wa as more important than the usual accouterments of success. But, for now, he hopes simply to spend more time at home with his family. He also loves mentoring children at the Muslim youth center—he feels like something of a father toward them.
With his newfound spiritual grounding, Rami seems poised to tackle his future challenges with both confidence and flexibility; he clearly looks forward to the future, despite knowing that it will bring challenges in the near term. Even though he expects to leave his family, it is clearly his central value, despite (or because of) his family’s fragmentation by his father’s incarceration. And he is clearly excited to start his own family—he already plays out surrogate father roles at the youth center and, contrary to stereotypes of Muslim gender roles, wants his wife to be the breadwinner.
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A few weeks later, Bayoumi meets Rami in a “bleak, working-class neighborhood” on Church Avenue, where now Rami is going to lead prayer. Bayoumi watches from an overflow room downstairs; Rami talks, eloquently but a bit nervously, about coping with death and dying “with the Qur’an in your heart.” Muslims should rebuild the Islamic world for themselves by “purify[ing] your hearts,” he insists. At lunch later, he realizes that he “forgot a good ending!” He says that “you come into the world crying while everyone around you is laughing […] but when you leave this world for the next life, and everyone else is crying, you should be laughing.”
Leading prayer is an important next step along Rami’s pathway to becoming a religious leader; his manner shows that he is giddy to be living out his dream (if anxious to be speaking in front of so many people). The ending he forgot means both that people should try to live without regrets by focusing on what truly matters and that people should act virtuously so as to guarantee their place in the next life, so they have plenty to look forward to.
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