A Vision of Arab-American Underworld in 'Souls'

By Shakir Mustafa

A Pair of Misguided Souls (in Arabic)
By Mahmoud Saeed
Beirut, Dar Al Adab, 2003

In his post 9/11 novel, Mahmoud Saeed presents an unmistakable Arab-American underworld of outright scoundrels: drug dealers, thieves, counterfeiters, smugglers, pimps. Interestingly, Saeed does not suggest that his characters have been pushed into criminal behavior as a consequence of collective victimization after that atrocity.  Instead, the crackdown after 9/11 exposes the existence of such human types.

In this novel, Omar lives in a tent in a Chicago park corner that has become less traveled due to nearby road construction. He was fired from his job at KBG Security immediately after 9/11, and, like many in the community, remains unemployed. Unlike them, however, he chooses not to traffic in drugs, and wants to devote himself to writing. When he shelters Cathy, a prostitute and a drug addict, he comes face to face with the darker aspects of the Arab-American community in Chicago. His characters also remain divided between two worlds: one they cannot return to, and one they do not seem to belong to. A common denominator in the discourse of this community is shameless hypocrisy: the deeper it slides into corruption, the more eloquent its members’nostalgia for the values of their lives in the old country.

Implicitly, 9/11 has been a factor in the community’s degeneration. When Omar complains to the police after an unidentified person assaults him, their immediate reaction is that it must be a drug related business. “Tell the truth,” a police officer shouts at him, “You’re involved in drugs, aren’t you? You’re an Arab, right? Don’t you know Muhsin Araawna? Bassam Addahash?” The Palestinian translator at the police station consoles Omar:

“You shouldn’t be upset. They’re right. They have arrested dozens of Arabs after 9/11 who are involved in drugs, including some big heads. Many of them are Palestinians, my own people from Jerusalem, Gaza, Bethlehem, Jenin, Bayt Sahour. A gang of Iraqis, your own people, was involved in selling fake truck driving licenses. Two days ago, an Arab lady, one of us, mind you, told the police that three Arabs raped her. Another Arab woman complained that one of us molested her son. He’s only five years old, Omar. Our people have shit slung all over our faces.”

The confessional tone in this speech is remarkable. The translator has no business telling Omar about the two Arab women, unless his understanding of translation is rather radical. The moral of his story is stated bluntly at the end of his litany, and the narrator’s refrain from commenting on it seems an endorsement of it. The translator is rather emphatic in his use of “us,” even though at one point he seems to distinguish between Palestinians and Iraqis, and his little sermon ends up complimenting the officer’s charges.

What I find intriguing in this instance is not only the self- internalization of an aggressive stereotyping of Arabs after 9/11,  but the urge in both character and author to make amends of sorts for the guilt of that horrible day through bearing testimony to egregious stereotyping. Horrendous as they might be, drug trafficking, rape, and molestation do not justify wholesale demonization of communities, and the assault incident itself shows that. Omar was a victim, not a perpetrator, but he finds himself in the defensive position of proving he is not one of the bad Arabs. In this double process of victimization, it escapes the notice of character and writer that misrepresentation of certain communities exists regardless of the actions of members in these communities.

When I expressed my concerns to the author that such representations of Arab Americans might consolidate racial stereotypes, he claimed his right as a writer to portray what he sees and experiences. There is little argument against that. My experience of the community, however, brings me to an opposing conclusion. 


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no.  49,  Fall 2004

Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid