How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?


Moustafa Bayoumi

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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Summary

Journalist and professor Moustafa Bayoumi offers “portraits” of seven Arab Americans in their late teens and early twenties who have grown up in Brooklyn in the years since the September 11 attacks. Bayoumi argues that most contemporary Americans lack any real understanding of how Muslim and Arab Americans experience a post-9/11 political climate that has persecuted them on the basis of ethnicity and religion and left them feeling insecure in the very place where they sought refuge, economic opportunity, and cultural acceptance. His subjects all face the challenge of defining and pursuing their futures—and the future of Arab America as a whole—despite the threats to their place in the multicultural world of the United States.

Rasha’s family fled authoritarian violence in Syria when she was five and settled in Brooklyn. In February of 2002, her family is arrested in the dead of night “for possible terrorism connections,” interrogated for hours, and thrown in jail—they have no idea why they are under investigation, but it’s clear that they are “going to be staying for a while.” Rasha grows depressed, unable to reconcile her love for the freedoms her family has in the U.S. with her feeling that the government has “abducted” her. The family is freed abruptly, without any explanation for their three-month detention. Bayoumi explains that, simply because of their ethnicity or religion, thousands of Arabs and Muslims went through the same process of arbitrary and unexplained detention after September 11, which international watchdog organizations recognized as violating basic human rights; and in light of her experience, Rasha decides to work in human rights.

Sami is a Christian of Egyptian and Palestinian descent who considers himself “the most far-off Arab you’ll find” who identifies primarily with the community where he grew up in New York. After a lackluster first year in college, Sami joins the Marine Corps on a whim in early 2001 and receives news of the September 11 attacks on his way to combat training. He is horrified to realize that “Arabs did this?” and realizes that he might be going to war; his superiors dismiss his feelings that he “can’t fight against [his] own people” and he leaves to fight in the Iraq War in 2003.

In Iraq, Sami is troubled by the gap between what he sees in the people he encounters—innocent, frightened peasants trying to avoid getting caught up in violence—and what his fellow marines see—potential terrorists. These other marines proclaim their intention to kill all the Iraqis and call Sami things like “terrorist” and “al-Qaeda.” After Saddam Hussein’s government is deposed and Sami’s unit has done nothing but sit around in Iraq, he begins to question why he is in the country at all. After eventually befriending Arabic interpreters, he begins to see the war as a pointless exercise. When he returns from his second tour, he gets a tattoo of the Twin Towers that were destroyed on September 11 and moves back to New York with his girlfriend Ana.

High school student Yasmin’s outspokenness contrasts with American assumptions about women who wear the hijab. She goes to school in Bay Ridge, the epicenter of Arab American life in New York. She wins a race for class secretary, but quickly runs into a problem: her faith prevents her from going to school dances, which her new role in student government requires her to attend. Although her school frequently makes exceptions for students of other faiths, its student affairs coordinator forces Yasmin to resign. Furious, Yasmin devotes her free time to researching anti-discrimination law. She finally gets pro bono representation from the legal organization Advocates for Children, which gets her school to change its policy. Her senior year, she is elected class president. She goes on to college and a master’s program and hopes to tackle law school next.

Akram is a hard-working Palestinian American college student who has helped out in his family’s Brooklyn grocery store since age 10. Arabs own a disproportionate number of stores like this in New York, Bayoumi explains; in the 1980s, Akram’s father bought his in the heavily Caribbean-American and African-American neighborhood of East Flatbush. Akram is popular at his heterogeneous high school in 2001. After 9/11, however, other students and even teachers openly proclaim their contempt for Arabs, and at the grocery store he notices a split between the Caribbean-Americans who share Arabs’ “postcolonial sensibilities” and the African-Americans who do not, and in some cases grow hostile to his family.

By 2003, Akram is in college and goes to spend the summer with his grandparents in the West Bank. There, he notices the concrete effects of the Israeli occupation: people are constantly waiting for an Israeli attack, and he watches another group of soldiers shoot at Palestinian children who are throwing rocks at them. He feels deeply wounded by Palestine’s fate and the U.S.’s increasing hostility to Muslims—so much so that he decides to move to Dubai.

Lina’s family, like Rasha’s, moves to the U.S. to flee authoritarianism; her father is an open critic of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. After her father lands a job at the National Institute for Drug Abuse, the family moves to an affluent white suburb and Lina begins to feel out of place. In high school, she rebels against her strict family: she wears makeup, smokes, and skips class to hang out with her boyfriend. To set her straight, her family sends her to Iraq twice. On her first trip, she is overjoyed to reunite with her extended family and temporarily escape her mother’s oversight; but on her second, she finds herself bored: there is nothing for her to do and, since Iraq’s economy is devastated by American sanctions, she lacks the material comforts of her life in the U.S.

Shortly after Lina returns to the U.S. and returns to her old, rebellious self, Maisa dies suddenly and Lina grows alienated from her family. She moves out and falls in love with an Iraqi man named Wisam, but ends up engaged to one of her new stepmother’s brothers, Laith. She later learns that Wisam is in prison: he was a double agent, a spy for both Saddam’s regime and the FBI. Lina ends up building a relationship with Laith in Virginia. When Bayoumi visits them. Lina and Laith lament that, with the war in Iraq, they do not recognize their country anymore.

In 2006, Omar is 22 and unable to find a job despite sending out almost 1,000 applications. He needs money and independence to marry Nadine, a fellow Palestinian student at Hunter College, in a traditional Palestinian ceremony. He should have better prospects, especially after his prestigious internship at the international media company Al Jazeera—but he realizes that other companies might worry about hiring him, an Arab American who worked at the only major Arab news network.

Omar has not always identified with his Arab side—he is also half Chilean and spent five years living in Santiago during his childhood. A few years later, however, he visited Palestine and began taking pride in his heritage. During his internship at Al Jazeera’s office in the United Nations, his boss introduced Omar to Kofi Annan (the Secretary-General of the UN) and called him the network’s best intern ever. At his next job, however, his boss calls the organization a “terrorist network” and Omar decides to take “Al Jazeera” off his résumé. He even applies for jobs at the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (who are looking for Arabic and Spanish translators), knowing that they might involve “spying on his own community” but feeling that he lacks other options.

Rami grows up in Brooklyn and is a star football player in high school before his father has a string of bad luck: a store he buys burns down, and then he gets arrested twice—first for illegally selling out-of-state cigarettes, and then because a man who shares his name has been cashing fake checks. He ends up in prison in New Jersey; Rami is devastated and loses all motivation to keep playing football. Instead, he turns to the Qur’an, which gives him a “foundation in the religious life.”

Rami learns Arabic and begins going to mosque on Fridays, which he feels recharges his spiritual batteries. In college, he meets Ezzat, who inspires Rami with his depth of knowledge and reflection. They grow close as they wonder how they can show the West that Islam is a religion of peace, not violence. He also befriends Mohammad, a young man who is already a star preacher and community leader in the New York area, and Bayoumi follows them on a number of Fridays (the Muslim day of prayer). They spend a few hours in the office they have set up for their website, which sends copies of the Qur’an to anyone in the world who requests one. They consider this da‘wa, meaning religious charity work. Rami has also started working at a local Muslim youth center and leading prayers. He plans to dedicate his life to da‘wa, family, and strengthening the relations between Muslim Americans and the communities where they live.

Bayoumi examines the stories he has told in an effort to answer the question, “what does it mean to be young and Arab in America today?” He concludes that young Arab Americans are constantly forced to cope with “fear, suspicion, curiosity, and misunderstanding” as they struggle to find a place in American society.

Bayoumi summarizes the long and usually forgotten history of Arab and Muslim immigration to the United States, which stretches back centuries. Numerous Muslim West Africans were enslaved and brought to what would eventually become the U.S.; in the 19th century, New York already had a “Little Syria” in Manhattan. In the first half of the 20th century, a debate raged over whether Arabs were “white” (which was a central criterion for American citizenship), but this was settled in 1944 by a judge who thought the United States should give Arab immigrants citizenship in order to improve its relations with the Middle Eastern (and, Bayoumi explains, get access to its oil).

Since then, Arab and Muslim Americans’ fate has been inextricably tied to American foreign policy; they have been under routine surveillance since the 1970s and subject to being tried with “secret evidence” in immigration courts since the 1990s. The situation worsened considerably after 9/11, when the government began using similar tools against citizens and non-activists—with the tools of American imperialism turned against America, the foundational values of equality, freedom, and compassion have come under threat. But they live on formidably in Brooklyn, which remains a place “of everyone for everyone and by everyone.”