How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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

Summary
Analysis
Sami, an imposing but gentle and upbeat 24-year-old, returns to college in 2006 after having been away for four years. He starts in January, when the campus is freezing and the other students seem to have already fallen into their social groups. But he is thrilled to be back: “the world […] seemed open and exciting and full of possibility.”
Like Rasha’s delight at the end of her story, Sami’s euphoria and motivation show that his very presence at college—something other students take for granted—is an accomplishment, proof that he has surmounted a personal obstacle of some sort.
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One day, two girls yell at Sami: “Yusef! Mohammed!” He is confused. Soon thereafter, he sees and stops to talk with them: they are also Palestinians from Brooklyn and invite him to the Arab Student Club. He is surprised—while growing up, people assumed he was Latino, and being Arab scarcely meant anything to him. Sami’s parents are Christian—his mother an Egyptian waitress, his much older father a Palestinian taxi driver—and, like him, uninterested in politics. He is more concerned about school and the two jobs he works at night, but he still quickly falls in with the other Arab students, even if they often argue about foreign policy. Sami is “the most far-off Arab you’ll find.” He is not Muslim nor a fan of Arabic music, he hates visiting Egypt, and his girlfriend is Puerto Rican. And, for four years, he was an American soldier in Iraq.
Sami breaks stereotypes left and right; he is Christian (actually, like most American Arabs), grew up much more connected to his local community and way of life than his parents’ home countries and traditions, and of course fought in a war against other Arabs—which likely explains why he is overjoyed to be back at college in the United States. Unlike so many of the other people in this book, Sami is first called out as an Arab in a positive light, and his interest in the Arab Student Club suggests that he may not be as “far-off” anymore as he used to.
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Three years before, Sami is “full of both dread and desire” waiting in Kuwait for the order to invade Iraq. For the first month, their main enemy is the sand, which gets everywhere, all the time, and ruins their weapons. They soon learn to avoid it; then, the others learn that Sami speaks Arabic and start calling him “al-Qaeda” and “sand nigger,” which he does not particularly mind.
Even when fighting against al-Qaeda and (at least in theory) for the interests of Iraq’s Arab majority, Sami is immediately associated with the “enemy” because of his identity, which clearly puts distance between him and the other soldiers in his unit (even if he does not take it personally).
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One day, the commanding officer tells Sami that they want him to be the major’s driver, which he soon realizes means he will be “at the very front of his company, at the head of the cavalry and first in the line of fire.” They go into Iraq in March, and Sami, like everyone else, has no doubts about the American mission. It will be payback for 9/11; they are following the orders of their president and commander-in-chief. Watching the first airstrikes at 5:00 a.m., Sami realizes that “they’re about to murder everybody in this place.”
Sami is evidently ambivalent about putting his life on the line—as anyone would be in his situation—but his uneasiness about his fellow soldiers speaks volumes more about the hastiness and faulty assumptions he sees behind the Iraq War: he realizes he may watch his fellow soldiers attacking innocent civilians in a war retaliating against a devastating attack on innocent civilians (9/11).
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Bayoumi turns to Sami’s childhood. He is born, raised, and educated in New York City. After one year of college, he finds himself utterly bored and decides to join the marines after some encouragement from a persuasive recruiter, who gets him to sign up for active duty by falsely promising that he can “change down to reserves anytime you want.” Sami’s mother is horrified but his father is proud. Sami tries to back out, but the recruiter again lies, telling him his decision is irrevocable. Sami is afraid of the unknown but has scarcely even thought about going to war. He goes to boot camp in South Carolina on May 28, 2001.
In fact, Sami’s ambivalence about war started before he even signed up—and the recruiter’s underhanded tactics set the stage for Sami’s later feeling that he has been deceived by the military and his realization that he does not fully understand why he is even in Iraq to begin with. Like Rasha, he is ushered into the most transformative phase of his life with little knowledge of where or why he is going.
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In boot camp, Sami meets the other recruits—there are a few “crazy psycho guys” but most, like him, have joined out of ignorance, stupidity, or necessity: they are “lost.” He loves the movie Full Metal Jacket for its accurate picture of basic training: the drill sergeant is “intimidation personified” and boot camp is completely exhausting. He fights the desire to leave, makes friends with other recruits, and gains “an inner confidence that he’d never had before.” He goes home for a brief vacation and leaves for combat training on the night of September 10, 2001.
Sami realizes that his pathway to the military—stumbling into it because he did not yet have a clear sense of direction in his life—is the norm, not the exception. Boot camp seems designed to further erode any sense of self he does retain, to turn him into an obedient soldier—and offering him a substitute sense of purpose in the process.
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News of the 9/11 attacks comes during a rest stop the next morning; Sami cannot contact his family until the drill sergeant, frustrated by his mother’s incessant calls from the recruiter’s office, finally passes him the phone. Sami realizes he will be going to war—but, “out of his New York pride,” he cannot bear to watch the news. He prays for the first time in his life; he cannot sleep and worries he will die.
As with the rest of Bayoumi’s subjects, 9/11 is a major turning point in Sami’s life—but, at least initially, not because of his Arab ethnicity. Like Rasha’s mother in prison, he turns to religion in a time of crisis and uncertainty, and for the first time he fully understands the consequences of his decision to join the military.
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Next, Sami goes to California for “job school”—technical training for his specific post, which is telecommunications. He is promised “that he would be in a room, far away from war, working with satellites and state-of-the-art equipment.” He has still never mentioned his Arab American background; everyone assumes he is Hispanic. A rabid Yankees fan, he stumbles on news about 9/11 for the first time after watching the Yankees lose the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Seeing video of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, he is horrified, thinking, “Arabs did this? […] My own people?” He grows angry and ready for war—but still has months of training left.
Sami’s superiors make him another promise that, as the reader already knows from the beginning of his chapter, turns out to be false. It is unclear whether he hides his ethnicity because he worries about his fellow soldiers’ reactions or simply because he does not consider it important. It is telling that Sami’s anger drives his motivation to fight—as Bayoumi noted at the end of the previous chapter, the government carefully managed outrage as a political tactic, channeling it to justify war as well as racist policies like indefinite detentions and arbitrary deportations.
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Using the laptop his parents buy him for Christmas, Sami meets a Puerto Rican woman named Ana from New Jersey through a pen pal service, and they start dating in 2002. Later that year, a general tells him after a party that “you boys better get ready […] it looks like we’re going somewhere.” He eventually admits to his commanders that he is Arab and insists that he “can’t fight against [his] own people.” His superiors are dismissive: Sami is Christian; “they” (meaning Iraqis) are Muslim. Sami lies that his parents are having issues, but is again dismissed and starts feeling guilty, like “less of an American,” for not wanting to go to war. Three weeks after returning to California from Christmas break, the news comes: he will be leaving for Iraq in two weeks, on Valentine’s Day, 2003.
It is also telling that Sami continues to think of Arab Muslims as “my people,” even though he is Christian, while his superiors think this religious difference should be enough to make him consider them “other;” they think in terms of religion, while Sami thinks in terms of ethnicity, and (as Bayoumi argued in the preface) popular representations of Arabs and Muslims tend to merge the two, combining them into the image of anti-American violence. Similarly, Sami comes to feel that he is “less of an American” for rejecting his orders based on his conscience, which further suggests that (one form of) the concept of “Americanness” is used to secure people’s uncritical loyalty to the government’s interests. This contrasts with Bayoumi’s vision of “Americanness” as social inclusivity.
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After a month in Iraq, Sami is woken up in the middle of the night. So far, he has not seen combat, only Iraqi peasant farmers innocently walking down the road—nothing like the bloodthirsty murderers his superiors tell him to expect. At first, he is nervous and unable to focus; the landscape and poverty remind him of Egypt, and he does whatever he can to help the people he passes, trying to “show some kind of humane feeling” and prove that the Americans are “here to help.” Other marines believe the United States should kill all Iraqis, and call Sami a “terrorist.”
Yet again, Sami feels deceived by the military: the Iraqis he meets do not fit the image he was fed (that they would be violent, hostile, anti-American enemies). But he is only able to form his own picture of them because he can empathize with them, and therefore see through stereotypes; this requires the kind of underlying faith in people’s common humanity that Bayoumi hopes to encourage through his book.
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This particular night, a group of old men approaches the Americans; a marine named Andrews screams at them, fondling his weapon, and Sami tells him to calm down, advice Andrews ignores until Sami gets the commanding officer involved. Sami is furious at Andrews’s indifference to the Iraqis’ humanity, at his inability to imagine how he would feel in their shoes. But, not wanting to “appear soft on the enemy,” Sami says nothing about this.
Andrews, like many of the other soldiers around Sami, continues to see a profile rather than the people behind it, which is a salient example of how anti-Arab and Islamophobic stereotypes operate at home in the U.S., too. Sami again feels caught between his conscience and his reluctance to make trouble—the military punishes empathy because it has already defined all Iraqis as the “enemy.”
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In June, Sami’s company arrives at their destination, the ancient city of Babylon, well after president Bush has declared “Mission Accomplished.” Sami translates for the American officers during their tour and is surprised at their respect for the Iraqi tour guide. They settle into the palace that will serve as their base and quickly grow bored because they have nothing to do. They go to another palace for fun one day and “pillaged the guts out of the complex,” breaking and stealing whatever they want. By September, they finally get the news that they are to leave; Sami’s communications team is the last to go, and on his flight home Sami reflects on his past fears, success in the line of duty, and newfound connections to his Arab heritage. When they return to California, everyone celebrates with American beer and cigarettes.
While the officers’ respect for the tour guide shows Sami that racist stereotypes are not always the norm, his unit’s utter disrespect for the palace they “pillage” not only serves as a clear metaphor for the American involvement in Iraq as a whole, but also appears to stem from their boredom and purposelessness at their base—the same feelings that led them to join the military in the first place. Sami’s entire tour feels like one big exercise in futility, but his unit still celebrates a “Mission Accomplished” (despite not doing anything at all) with symbols of their national pride (for their America—but not necessarily Bayoumi’s).
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When he is called for his second tour in Iraq, Sami is “pissed.” He feels “a sense of failure,” as though the military has fallen short in its mission and he is being forced to make up for its ineptitude. In his first months back from his earlier tour, he enjoys relaxing, spending the combat pay that has accrued in his bank account. People see him and his fellow soldiers as heroes, and they appreciate the comforts of everyday life in the United States. When he goes home for Christmas, his family respects him like never before. He cannot bear to tell them he is likely to go back, which he does in February of 2004.
Sami’s feeling that the military has failed him finally makes explicit his longstanding, creeping sense of discomfort and suspicion in Iraq; it also implicitly undermines his status as a “hero.” Moreover, his time in Iraq has done little to give him a sense of purpose or direction.
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On Sami’s second tour, the conditions are much more comfortable than they were during the first: the soldiers have regular shifts and functional facilities. He also gets promoted, and praise from the ranking major above him is a strong source of pride for Sami. But he is also trying to avoid the Iraqis who pass constantly through the camp: he does not want them to identify him as an Arab, but nobody ever asks him. Sami does spend time with the Arabic interpreters, one of whom reminds him of his father and teaches him about Palestinian history. He gains a deeper sense of pride in his heritage.
During his second tour, Sami finds a dual sense of belonging: first, in the military, where he finally feels respected and valuable, and second, in his ethnic background through his conversations with the interpreters. Yet he still recognizes that this heritage associates him with the “enemy,” which is why he seeks to hide it from the other soldiers—the fact that none of them realize shows again that such stereotypes are based on preconception, not perception.
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The camp starts facing constant mortar attacks, but the marines cannot leave or fight back. One day, a mortar nearly hits Sami’s building and kills one of his respected superiors. Sami is distraught, as the man seems to have died for no reason: he was just headed to the bathroom. The soldiers begin to resent their jobs and wonder why they are even deployed at all. One day, one of them buys a bootleg copy of Fahrenheit 9/11 from an Iraqi, and Sami realizes that he is only fighting for the personal gain of those in power (although many of his fellow marines see the film as an unjustified attack on the President). Sami decides he cannot support the Iraq War, but has to “support the men and women in the war.” Their lives have become pawns in someone else’s game, he thinks, but he refrains from voicing his opinions.
Just after Sami finds a sense of loyalty to the military—“the men and women,” but not the institution—he is again overcome with doubt about the government’s rationale for sending him to Iraq, and much more deeply than ever before. His superior officer’s death symbolizes the war’s gruesome and futile violence, and Sami recognizes that (like with the detentions suffered by people like Rasha) people in power make decisions for their own political benefit and image, without considering or ever having to personally engage with the human consequences of those decisions. This likely makes the fact that he and most of his fellow soldiers joined because they were “lost” (and/or deceived) all the more infuriating.
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With less than a year of active duty remaining, Sami is sent home and returns demoralized, with nothing to do. He spends his accumulated combat pay on an expensive Acura car and has a delightful reunion with Ana. But he has no idea what to pursue next. He considers reenlisting or doing equipment maintenance, for which he found a natural aptitude in the military, but his mother and Ana refuse to let him stay in the marines and “make the same mistake twice.” To his horror, his brother ends up enlisting the next year.
Sami again leaves Iraq with no more sense of purpose than he had before—in fact, his main lesson was the war’s utter purposelessness, and he returns unsure of how to translate the skills he learned in the military into civilian life. He then sees his brother (and nearly himself) make the same fateful decision.
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Sami tries to help Dan, his closest friend in the military, move in with his family. But his mother is uncomfortable with the idea, and while doing their discharge paperwork, Sami and Dan have an explosive argument about nothing, which ends their friendship. Sami decides to get a tattoo: the New York skyline, with “two memorial beams of light” in place of the Twin Towers, the moon and stars spelling “N-Y-C” around it, “always remembered, never forgotten” in Arabic underneath. His discharge ceremony is “a little underwhelming,” and immediately afterwards he and Ana begin a cross-country drive from San Diego to New York. But “that’s when the anxiousness and the panic set in”—he gets sick, then insists on driving almost nonstop, even for 22 hours in a single stretch at one point. He nearly cries when they finally reach New York—which was his real mission the entire time.
Sami and Dan’s explosive and pointless argument, a neat metaphor for the war’s own pointlessness, shows their mutual sense of disillusionment and suggests that they are putting their pasts behind them, moving on to new phases of life. As the reader knows from the beginning of this chapter, his next step is college. But Sami does find one overwhelming sense of purpose: to return to New York, the place that is still most central to his sense of self. His tattoo also shows how he has integrated this identity as a New Yorker with his background as an Arab, which he refuses to let stand for “anti-American,” as it did in the military.
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