How Does it Feel to be a Problem?

By Susan Muaddi Darraj

Being Young and Arab in America
by Moustafa Bayoumi
New York: Penguin Press, 2008, 290 pp

“Enemies living among us” – this is how Moustafa Bayoumi characterizes the perception many Americans have of Arabs in the United States. In “How Does It Feel to be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America,” he focuses on young Arab Americans whom, he explains, bear the brunt of much of this hostility as they themselves are in a precarious period of their social development and their identity formation. “Even the most mundane facts of their lives,” he writes, “such as visiting mosques and shisha cafes, are now interpreted as something sinister and malevolent.”

Bayoumi draws the model for “How Does It Feel to be a Problem?” from an earlier work concerning another group in America facing suspicion and hostility. WEB DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” published in 1903, asked the title question of Bayoumi’s book. Written during the era of Jim Crow segregation, “Souls” offered American readers a portrait of the African-American experience. Bayoumi seeks to do something similar; in “How Does It Feel to be a Problem?”  he presents individual portraits – delivered in arresting, lively prose – of seven young Arab Americans, all living in Brooklyn, New York. He explains the Brooklyn boasts the largest Arab-American population in the United States, more than areas that one might expect like Dearborn, Michigan. Its urban environment also contributes to the diversity – Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Lebanese, etc – within its Arab population, which makes it a suitable setting for Bayoumi’s further investigation.

And yet, the sole complaint one can lodge against the work, which is admirable as a whole, is that it is not diverse enough. For example, of the seven young Arabs interviewed by Bayoumi, only one is an Arab Christian, despite Bayoumi’s own assertion that “the Arab-American community is a majority Christian population.” He adds that “Arab-American Muslims are at the eye of today’s storms,” but goes on to explain that the American community at large, which knows little about the Arab-American population, does not discern differences and Arab Christians have also been painted with the same brush of ethnic stereotype. The young Christian man Bayoumi interviews is also atypical of the Arab Christian experience: he feels compelled to join the military and serves during the Iraq war, he grows up knowing little of his Arab heritage, and he only recently has begun to feel connected to the Arab culture and to immerse himself in the political questions that tend to define the Arab and Arab-American experience.

Nevertheless, Bayoumi’s book is an important contribution to a developing canon of work that seeks to explore the Arab-American experience (others include Steven Salaita’s “Anti-Arab Racism in the USA,” and Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber’s “Race and Arab-Americans Before and After 9/11).” A compelling read, “How Does It Feel to be a Problem?” is filled with stories of young men and women who grapple with their identities, who suffer uncertainty, indignity, and even violence due to post-9/11 racism, as displayed in the opening story of Rasha, whose family was incarcerated for three months during the crackdown on Arabs after the terrorist attacks. One of the most appealing aspects of the book is the trend of young Arabs drawing strength in these troubling times from Islam; these include Yasmin, who takes on the prejudiced policies of her high school – and wins – and Rami, who seeks to be a role model for young Muslims. These portraits offer a picture of Islam as a faith that affirms life, dignity, and love – in contrast to its maligned representation of Islam and Muslims in popular American thought.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

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