Saturday, May 15, 2010

Moustafa Bayoumi's How Does It Feel to be a Problem?

I highly recommend Moustafa Bayoumi's How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America.  The title comes from W.E.B. Du Bois, who asked the same question about African American during Jim Crow.  Bayoumi, who is an English professor at Brooklyn College, chronicles seven Arabs (men and women mostly in their 20s in Brooklyn) and we meet their friends as well.

As you might imagine, the result defies all stereotypes.  Some are deeply devout Muslims, some are not.  Some are very angry at the U.S. government, while others hope to leverage their knowledge of Arabic into an FBI job.  Some have close relationships with their families, while others (particularly one young woman) chafe at their parents' control.

What you can't help noticing is that their problems are the same problems that all young have--getting a job, getting married, figuring out your identity, etc.  The difference is that after 9/11, there is an extra layer of obstacles.  For all of them, even those with family members who have been arrested, terrorism is anti-Islam.  That's not even an issue, yet so many people around them figure they are terrorist sympathizers.

One interesting (and I think positive) aspect of the book is the fact that one of the men volunteers for an organization that sends out free Qur'ans.  Hits on the website spike and requests soar when a public figure speaks ill of Muslims.  Most of those requests come from non-Muslims who are simply curious to learn more.  There is an appetite for understanding, perhaps (and hopefully) greater than we tend to think.  What this book shows is that there are certainly cultural differences, but issues like high school elections, getting through college, arguing with your parents, thinking about religious beliefs, even just going out to eat, are entirely universal.


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