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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wednesday Evening at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: Moustafa Bayoumi & "How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America"


Tonight we went back to the Park Slope Barnes & Noble, where we'd last been on Friday, to listen to a discussion not of Brooklyn's past with Pete Hamill but its future, with Brooklyn College English professor Moustafa Bayoumi, author of the just-released How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, a compelling look at the lives of seven young Arab-Americans coping with post-9/11 life in our borough.

The store had configured the seats and author's position somewhat differently than for the overflow Pete Hamill crowd, but we got downstairs about 12 minutes early and it was already standing-room only.

Peaches, the B&N coordinator, introduced the author pretty much with the canned bio from his publisher, which is pretty impressive for such a young scholar:
Moustafa Bayoumi is an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. Born in Z├╝rich, Switzerland and raised in Kingston, Canada, he completed his Ph.D. in English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is co-editor of The Edward Said Reader and has published academic essays in Transition, Interventions, The Yale Journal of Criticism, Amerasia, Arab Studies Quarterly, The Journal of Asian American Studies, and other places.

His writings have also appeared in The Nation, The London Review of Books, and The Village Voice. His essay “Disco Inferno,” originally published in The Nation, was included in the collection Best Music Writing 2006. From 2003 to 2006, he served on the National Council of the American Studies Association, and he is currently an editor for Middle East Report. He is also an occasional columnist for the Progressive Media Project, an initiative of The Progressive magazine, through which his op-eds appear in newspapers across the United States. He lives in Brooklyn.

Bayoumi, who jokingly said he'd brought his own cheering section, began by saying that his book was three years in the making. Inspired by such works as Random Family, Nickel and Dimed, and the writings of the brilliant Joan Didion and Edward Said (particularly After the Last Sky), the author said he hoped to use the tools of narrative to tell truths about the lives of contemporary Arab-Americans facing not just the tough-enough challenges of growing up but of having to cope with the havoc and hostility in a post-9/11 world.

His title comes from the W.E.B. Du Bois' 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, which astonished us when we first read it in the spring of 1973 in Prof. Dan Mayers' Afro-American Literature class at Brooklyn College. It's a book we've taught in several classes, and of course it contains a famous essay discussing not just the "double consciousness" that black Americans develop but with the conundrum of how a person lives when her very existence seems to be a "problem" to others.

(Aside: We were once taken aback in 1981, when at a party while we were guest-teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a self-described "redneck from West Monroe, Louisiana," asked us: "Grayson, what's your feeling about the Jewish problem?" Soon we'd learn that Mike Stone, despite his good-old-boy accent and manner, was an English teacher who knew more about the works of Saul Bellow than we did. A born provocateur - as he proved again the same night when he told us that he'd "never seen a Jew drink Pepsi before" - Mike made us think and we ended up having dinner with him every time we came to New Orleans.)

Prof. Bayoumi said he chose to write about young Arab-Americans in Brooklyn not just because he lives and teaches here and would avoid having to travel for research, but because, according to the 2000 census, the largest number of Arab-Americans in a city are in New York, with Brooklyn having more residents of Arab descent than the other boroughs. Dearborn, Michigan, may have a higher concentration of Arab-Americans, but Brooklyn's population is larger.

He then read, in a lively voice, an excerpt from the early part of the book which is both a lyrical and informative description of our borough, and then briefly outlined the seven young Brooklynites portrayed (the word "profiled" is not to be used here) in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?.

Rasha, whose story can be found in Bayoumi's New York Magazine article, was living a normal life until the trauma of being caught up in the detentions and mass arrests following 9/11. Thrown in jail along with the other members of her family, Rasha undergoes an experience that is appalling but ultimately inspiring inspiring.

(Second aside: As a law school administrator at a South Florida university with a large Arab-American student body, we constantly heard stories of middle-of-the-night knocks on the door and people being taken away. For example, Lubna - whose Palestinian family ran a popular restaurant in the heavily Jewish surburb of Sunrise - had been a student when we taught constitutional history and other legal writing subjects to undergraduates in the late 1990s and who was a first-year law student when we got our new job there. Her husband was one of those taken in during a mass arrest and was kept in custody for days until the government finally admitted that there was no reason at all to hold him further. Sometimes it seemed to us that there was no student of Arab descent who didn't have a similar story.)

Prof. Bayoumi said he'd wanted to interview a soldier, and he found Sami, a Park Slope Christian kid who joined the Marines and left Port Authority for basic training on the night of September 10, 2001. By morning, when he'd arrived at base, everything had changed and the recruits knew they were preparing to go to war. Sami ultimately served two tours of duty in Iraq, and the book details his conflicting feelings about being there.

Yasmin was 15 and decided to get involved in student government at her high school. To her surprise, she's elected to office in a landslide, only to find that she later is pressured to resign because, due to her Muslim religious beliefs, she cannot attend a school dance where attendance is mandatory for student officers. Facing a mixture of anti-Muslim bigotry and the mindless (but selective) adherence to rules common among the more moronic educators in our public schools, Yasmin eventually chooses to fight. Earlier today, along with Prof. Bayoumi, Yasmin - now, we are glad to report, a law student - eloquently told her story on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show.

Akram, whose Palestinian family lives in Sunset Park and owns a grocery in East Flatbush where he works, confronts many pressures after 9/11. But he maintains a mordant sense of humor (driving with three buddies, he says, "There's that new Arab store," and when they ask where, he points and says, "Target") and the dream of going to booming Dubai.

Lina, an Iraqi-American, has to deal with her conservative parents as well as societal pressures and her infatuation with an Iraqi man takes a surprising turn when he's revealed to be a spy for, no shit, Saddam Hussein.

Omar, an aspiring journalist, thinks he's hit the jackpot when he scores an internship with Al Jazeera, only to find that his credentials seem suspect when he begins an apparently fruitless search for employment.

And Rami, whose father, like many Arab-Americans, is picked up on criminal charges for a minor offense - this was common among owners of corner stores, Prof. Bayoumi said - becomes more religious and devoted to Islam, just as her father does in prison.

Prof. Bayoumi read another excerpt in which Yasmin and her father go to midtown to see an attorney to discuss a possible case against the high school for removing her from student government, an excerpt typical of his lavish attention to detail and character development.

A question-and-answer period covered a lot of ground. The author said his biggest surprise was just how hard everyone seemed to work, making it difficult for the young people to find time to talk with him. (Third aside: in our opinion, compared to most working-class people, full-time college professors are on a perpetual vacation.)

The Brooklyn Arab-American community is close-knit, despite differences in national origin, neighborhood, and to some extent religion. Local organizations like the Arab-American Association of Bay Ridge do a good job in helping recent immigrants and families with young children, but finding support for teens and young adults is a bit harder. There are maybe three degrees of separation about Brooklynites of Arab descent, and there's a lot of networking among the borough's mosques.

Although there's been considerable Arab immigration to the U.S. since the 1880s, and they've been in Brooklyn for a long time - we started going to the bakeries, food stores and restaurants like Sahadi on Atlantic Avenue in the late 1960s and early 1970s for couscous, baba ghannuj, baklava and typical Arab hospitality - there also was a lot of discrimination prior to 9/11.

For example, in the fall of 1989, alerted by an article in the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee newsletter, we went to our local Spencer Gifts in Hollywood, Florida and found, in the store window in the Diplomat Mall a display of several Halloween costumes, with one called "The Arab" or maybe "The Sheik" joining other presumably scary figures as "The Witch" and "The Werewolf."

When we protested the costume, featuring a kefiyeh-headed mask with stereotypical hook-nosed Semitic features and a maniacal grin, the store manager just shrugged and appeared unmoved by our argument that he'd never feature a similar costume of a felt-hat-topped payiss-wearing Hasid in our heavily Jewish area. Basically, all we could do was write a long outraged letter to the Hollywood Sun-Tattler, the daily newspaper for which we'd worked as a humor columnist a few years before, and that didn't stop the sales of this racist outfit.

One hopes that such a Halloween costume would be haram in 2008, but we're not so sure. If you want to educate yourself about Arab-Americans and get to read some compelling stories, get Moustafa Bayoumi's book, as a long line of Barnes & Noble customers did last night.

1 comment:

Up Set Press said...

This is a great review of that evening! We have some photos up from that event on our blog as well (scroll down on the Bayoumi story for the Park Slope photos).