Those of us who are not white Americans know what it is to have ourselves defined by a popular imagination that does not ask for our approval. For Muslims and Middle Easterners in the U.S., Sept. 11 meant an onslaught of external definition by politicians, the media, academics, and even our neighbors and friends.
I was a high school junior in Manhattan when Sept. 11 happened. The candlelight vigils I attended continually at Union Square, while healing, kept me distracted from what was happening to so many Muslims and Arabs around me. Meanwhile, I brushed off as trivial the ignorant questions about Islam (to which I had no answers—my Iranian American family is devoutly agnostic), the terrorist jokes told in jest and the apparent need by white friends to analyze my appropriate racial category as though I were a jigsaw puzzle. It was tiring at best, and infuriating at worst.
In his new book, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, Moustafa Bayoumi, an English professor at Brooklyn College, introduces readers to seven young people in Brooklyn who are all too familiar with being defined by others.
From the story of Rasha’s family being detained in 2002 after the FBI identifies them as terrorists simply for being in immigration limbo to Sami’s experience in the marines where his commanding officers watch him like hawks to be sure he is not “too sympathetic” to the Iraqis, readers see each person attempt to come of age in an environment that has already decided who they are. As Bayoumi gets to know Rasha, Sami, Yasmin, Akram, Lina, Omar and Rami by spending time with them in their homes, workplaces and favorite hangouts, the theme of navigating simultaneous Arab, Muslim and American identities takes shape. Patterns become clear, such as facing law enforcement, being targeted by authority figures in different environments (teachers, military officers, employers) and—perhaps just as bad—the frustrating paranoia of constantly being unsure whether you are being targeted at all.
Bayoumi places Sept. 11 on a timeline of historical events in the U.S. that have targeted different ethnic groups, from the Native Americans being labeled as savages by the Declaration of Independence to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Certainly the significance of Sept. 11 for Muslims and Arabs, and anyone perceived to be such, cannot be understated, as we see from Rasha’s experience of her family being detained “like lab rats.” However, Sept. 11, while having a central role in the coming-of-age experience of these youth, loses some of its focus in the narratives that exist here.
After all, many of the struggles that these youth face preceded Sept. 11. In the third literary portrait, we are introduced to Yasmin, who Bayoumi beautifully describes as “a heavyweight fighter stuffed into a tiny, ninety-pound frame.” A couple years before Sept. 11, Yasmin was elected as secretary in her high school’s student council. When she declines to attend a dance due to her religion, the school decides that Yasmin’s absence from a number of school functions means Yasmin must resign from her leadership position. Yasmin, stung by the injustice of the decision that essentially pushes Muslims of faith out of leadership positions, fights it for the remainder of her high school career, finally winning her case with the help of a pro bono attorney.
While Sept. 11 gave long time prejudices a power that was unprecedented, it is important that we not forget that Muslims and Arabs were already struggling with racism. Bayoumi’s inclusion of Yasmin’s story reminds us that on September 10th, 2001, Yasmin was knee-deep in the struggle to simply be Arab and Muslim and have the same access to opportunity as her peers.
Bayoumi astutely observes that, “Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from… [yet] sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere.” Herein lies Bayoumi’s incentive for embarking on the project that culminated in this book. There is no doubt that Bayoumi has a central question, being “What is it like to be young and Arab in the age of terror?” Yet he is able to keep this question in his pocket and let the youth, for once, lead the way.