While the seven individuals at the center of Bayoumi’s book all face discrimination based on their Arab and Muslim identities, they are also just young adults trying, like people of their age everywhere, to determine who they are, what matters to them, and what they want to do with their lives. Most graduate from the confusion of adolescence, often exacerbated by 9/11, to the provisional certainty of young adulthood. All affirm their cultural identities in various ways, whether by pursuing religious work (Rami) or moving to the Middle East (Akram), committing to work for civil equality (Rasha and Yasmin) or choosing to marry within their communities (Omar and Lina). And while the challenges they face as Arab Americans inform their processes of self-discovery, these struggles do not ultimately define or constrain their senses of possibility. They cannot avoid living as second-class citizens, but they do manage to flourish in spite of it.
All of Bayoumi’s subjects profoundly reckon with their identities, coping with the confusion and sense of sudden freedom that defines the lives of many American teenagers and college students, regardless of ethnic or religious background. For five of the seven, this confusion results from experiences closely tied to their Arab and Muslim identities. After her family moves from the primarily black neighborhood where she felt at home to a white neighborhood where she feels marked as “other” for her identity, Lina has a long rebellious phase and gets herself sent to Iraq as punishment. Rasha’s detention and Yasmin’s dispute with her school make them question their love for the United States and ability to find a place for themselves in American society. Akram’s sense of belonging at school and in Brooklyn begins to erode after 9/11, when he and his family start getting singled out for being Arab, and Rami is devastated after his father is arrested in a post-9/11 police operation; he no longer feels fulfilled playing football and finds himself with nowhere to turn.
But these same experiences of cultural conflict also contributed to Bayoumi’s subjects’ sense of purpose. Rasha and Yasmin’s tribulations lead them to pursue careers in human rights and law, respectively, in order to help fight the same kind of injustices they experienced. Rami finds his sense of purpose through the Qur’an and his theological discussions with other Muslim students in his college; he realizes that he can use Islam as a force for good, both by helping Muslims to live more virtuous lives and by helping improve understanding and relations between American Muslims and the American public at large. Akram, on the other hand, follows his newfound connection to his identity abroad, to Dubai, where he feels that he has a much better shot at “the American dream” than he does in New York.
But, while all of Bayoumi’s subjects grow to better understand themselves and their relationship to American society through experiences of cultural tension, not all of them translate these experiences into career goals: Omar and Lina commit to marrying people who share their cultural backgrounds and sustaining their traditions; Sami, who also finds love, pursues his future by returning to New York, the place that is most central to his identity. When Omar’s internship with Al Jazeera threatens his future job prospects, he is distraught: he originally found a sense of purpose after recognizing both bias and potential in American media, but cannot achieve his goals precisely because of the media’s bias. He decides to focus on his other main goal instead: marrying Nadine in a traditional Palestinian ceremony, which is important to him because it allows him to help pass on his culture, which manages to thrive in diaspora despite not having a sovereign country of its own. Lina, too, decides to marry another Iraqi and pass on her traditions, allowing her to sustain Iraq—which she and Laith do not recognize anymore—as an idea and cultural practice. And after returning from his five years of military service, Sami has a one-track mind: instead of the leisurely road trip he had planned with his girlfriend Ana, he speeds his way across the country. His destination: New York City, his home, the only place he can imagine living.
At the end of their respective chapters, all of Bayoumi’s subjects are heading into unknown waters with more or less defined senses of direction. While the author does largely focus on the discrimination and cultural uncertainties that affect them, he also shows how they all define themselves in spite of their struggles rather than letting these struggles define them. In the afterword to the book’s new 2018 edition, Bayoumi briefly mentions what each of his seven portraits’ subjects have done in the 10 years since he first wrote their stories. Akram did end up moving to the United Arab Emirates—so did Rasha, although they both moved back to Brooklyn and are now high school teachers. Yasmin has successfully become a lawyer and Rami is combining Islam with community development, as he hoped, working for the Muslim American Society in Texas. Omar did end up marrying Nadine, but not working in the media, and Sami and Lina have taken more roundabout paths, but both ended up in New York as well.
Growing Up and Self-Discovery ThemeTracker
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Quotes in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
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 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.
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.
“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.
“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.