Bayoumi emphasizes and attempts to circumvent the dangerous American assumption that all Arabs and Muslims are somehow the same. His subjects come from a variety of national backgrounds and identify to varying degrees with their nations; the label “Arab” does not fully capture any of their identities any more than the label “American” does. Ultimately, Bayoumi shows not only how the youths he profiles actively define their identities in complex ways, only some of which depend on the places where they and their parents have lived, but also how all identity is complex and all labels are imprecise.
American discourse flattens Arabs and Muslims into a uniform category based on stereotypes. Americans tend to use the words “Arab” and “Muslim” interchangeably but forget the vast differences between them: “Arab” is an ethnic identification and “Muslim” a religious one, the “Arab world” is not the same thing as the “Middle East,” the majority of Muslims are not Arab, and the majority of American Arabs are not Muslim. American Arabs also come from dozens of countries with distinct cultural traditions and political histories (and American Muslims from an even wider variety of places). The American notion of “Arab” or “Muslim” usually refers to people from Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, in addition to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (whose majority populations are not ethnically Arab). Yet Bayoumi’s subjects often see their families’ complex stories reduced to this category of the “Muslim Arab” (with “terrorist” often implied). Sade, Sami, and Akram hear their peers cheer that the American military should kill “those Arabs,” all Iraqis, and the ambiguous “them.”
Bayoumi’s subjects actually define themselves in a variety of ways, through a variety of labels that demonstrate the diversity often effaced by the American insistence on the simple categories “Arab” and “Muslim.” Omar and Akram grow up scarcely identifying with their Palestinian heritage, but it becomes much more central to their concepts of self after they visit Palestine. Omar decides to have a traditional Palestinian wedding because, “since we have no country […] the only thing we have is our identity.” Akram decides to move to Dubai to learn Arabic and connect more deeply with his culture. Neither of them is particularly religious, however. In contrast, Rami is also a Palestinian American Muslim, but his religious identity is far more important to him than his national one. (Contrary to stereotypes, he and his friends Ezzat and Mohammad are far more religious than their immigrant parents.) Rasha and Lina’s identities depend centrally on the violence in their countries of origin, which they fled to come to the United States. After the Iraq War, Lina and her husband Laith realize that their identity is tied to a version of their country that no longer exists. Bayoumi’s subjects have other identities besides their Arab ones as well: Omar is half-Chilean, spent five years living in Chile in his childhood, and speaks fluent Spanish. Yasmin is both Egyptian and Filipina but identifies primarily with her religion; Sami is Egyptian, Palestinian, and Christian, but identifies most of all with New York City. In the limited American imagination of Muslims and Arabs, these varied identities are often erased.
The people Bayoumi profiles also identify as American, which they often find difficult to reconcile with their various Arab identities. They succeed not by balancing loyalties or choosing one side or the other, but by integrating their Arabness and Americanness, which become two parts of their more complex identities. Rasha adores the freedom of expression she gets in the United States (but never had in Syria) and retains the “hard fragility” of “a pessimist brimming with humanist hope,” despite her horror at being detained by the government. Akram loves Brooklyn’s incredible diversity, yet also decides to leave the United States for Dubai because he sees the racism and essentialism that form the flipside of America’s incredible capacity for tolerance. Bayoumi emphasizes this split: the United States tends to either exalt Arabs as “exceptional assimilated immigrant[s]” or vilify them as “violent fundamentalist[s], with very little room in between.” Sami’s tattoo elegantly captures the way he combines his Arab and American identities: the memorial light beams that illuminate where the Twin Towers stood every September 11 after the attack, with the words “always remembered, never forgotten” in Arabic. It shows his simultaneous love for the United States, devastation by the September 11 attacks, and Arab pride.
Ultimately, Bayoumi suggests that it is impossible to understand people through a label because people are not born into a box. Rami, who dedicates his life to building cultural understanding in America and teaching Muslims to live more benevolently, has far more in common with a Christian pastor than he does with Akram, a fellow Palestinian Muslim, who decides to leave America for a place that readily accepts him. When someone primarily describes someone else as “Arab” or “Muslim,” identity—which is really a kind of tool for grouping similar experiences—is being conflated with essence. Bayoumi aims to remedy this with portraits that do not claim to show the entirety of the Arab or Muslim American experience, but rather point to certain continuities and differences among the variety of such experiences.
Arab American Identities ThemeTracker
Arab American Identities Quotes in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
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.
“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.
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.