How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America


An eye-opening look at how young Arab- and Muslim- Americans are forging lives for themselves in a country that often mistakes them for the enemy

Just over a century ago , W.E.B. Du Bois posed a probing question in his classic The Souls of Black Folk: How does it feel to be a problem? Now, Moustafa Bayoumi asks the same about America's new "problem"-Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Bayoumi takes readers into the lives of seven twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn, home to the largest...

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An eye-opening look at how young Arab- and Muslim- Americans are forging lives for themselves in a country that often mistakes them for the enemy

Just over a century ago , W.E.B. Du Bois posed a probing question in his classic The Souls of Black Folk: How does it feel to be a problem? Now, Moustafa Bayoumi asks the same about America's new "problem"-Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Bayoumi takes readers into the lives of seven twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn, home to the largest Arab-American population in the United States. He moves beyond stereotypes and clichés to reveal their often unseen struggles, from being subjected to government surveillance to the indignities of workplace discrimination. Through it all, these young men and women persevere through triumphs and setbacks as they help weave the tapestry of a new society that is, at its heart, purely American.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

According to Bayoumi (The Edward Said Reader), for most of its history, American society has paid little attention to its Arab and Muslim citizens-until the events of September 11 thrust millions of uninvolved people into a very unfavorable limelight, often forcing them to answer for the monstrous deeds of others. The author profiles seven young people for whom that day's horrors were not just a shared national tragedy but the beginning of a struggle to define themselves, as they began to face pervasive workplace discrimination and government surveillance, cultural misunderstanding and threats of violence. In many ways, his absorbing and affectionate book is a quintessentially American picture of 21st-century citizens "absorbing and refracting all the ethnicities and histories surrounding [them]." However, the testimonies from these young adults-summary seizures from their homes, harassment from strangers, being fired for having an Arab or Muslim name-have a weight and a sorrow that is "often invisible to the general public." Says Akram, a Palestinian-American college student, "I love the diversity of this country, I really do, but the whole politics.... America's not America anymore to me." (Aug.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Nonfiction debut profiles seven young Brooklyn residents of Arab-Muslim heritage whose lives redefine the American dream of their parents' generation. The book's title derives from a question posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, and given the burgeoning of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments since 9/11, the author's appropriation of it seems apt. Himself of Arab and Muslim descent, Bayoumi (English/Brooklyn Coll.) poignantly portrays young people coming of age at a time when "informants and spies are regular topics of conversation . . . friendships are tested, trust disappears." His first subject, Rasha, endured a middle-of-the-night FBI raid on her family's home in 2002. Agents handcuffed them-her eldest brother's legs were shackled as well, after the heavy sleeper responded angrily upon being shaken awake-and forced Rasha's father to leave his two youngest sons (the family's only U.S. citizens) with a neighbor. After three months in prison, they were released (it's unclear if any charges were ever filed), and Rasha never forgot this demonstration of what had happened to human rights in post-9/11 America. Probing into his interviewees' domestic, vocational, civic, philosophical and religious concerns, the Swiss-born, Canadian-raised, U.S.-schooled author made generally good use of his multicultural passport. He gained access to mosques, insider cafes, conversations and disclosures not granted to outsiders. The proximity often works in the book's favor, allowing him to glean interesting insights. Visiting Akram at the family-run East Flatbush grocery store where he worked for his father (while attending college fulltime), the author observed an intimacy that transcended racebetween the Palestinian-American proprietors and their West Indian and African-American customers. However, Bayoumi's sympathy for his subjects sometimes shades over into identification, and the mix of academic background material with first-person narrative can be jarring. A slightly disjointed narrative structure enfolds some compelling personal stories. Agent: Katherine Fausset/Curtis Brown
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143115410
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 235,553
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Moustafa Bayoumi was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and raised in Canada. He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and is an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is coeditor of The Edward Said Reader, and his essays have appeared in The Best Music Writing 2006, The Nation, The London Review of Books, The Village Voice, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Table of Contents

How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Preface



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  • Posted December 6, 2009

    Being Young and an Arab-Muslim in America

    Moustafa Bayoumi's profile of seven Brooklyn-based Arab-Americans and their diverse experiences living in a post-9-11 America is not only interesting and insightful, but refreshing too. At a time when it seems like everyone but Arab-Americans is being given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the community, Bayoumi goes straight to the source and allows Arab-American youth to explain who they are and what they're experiencing for themselves.

    The book's only shortcoming is that it doesn't fully represent the Arab-American community. Though the majority of Arab-Americans are Christian, Bayoumi only shares the story of one. In the preface of his book, Bayoumi states his reasoning: "...Arab-American Muslims are at the eye of today's storms. They are forced to reconcile particular American foreign policies that affect their countries of origin with the idea that their faith poses an existential threat to Western civilization."

    Though Bayoumi's assertion is correct, his reason for choosing to focus more on Arab-American Muslims than Arab-American Christians is far from convincing.

    Arab-American Christians must also reconcile certain American policies (both foreign and domestic) with their love and dedication to both their ancestral homelands and new homeland. They also face the same social and political backlash associated with being an Arab or Muslim in a post-9-11 America.

    Arab-American Christians find themselves in an even more precarious position in that they're often forced to serve as a bridge between their Arab-American Muslim brethren and non-Arab/Muslim Americans. In many cases, Arab-American Christians have even taken a leading role in educating non-Arab/Muslim Americans about Islam. While those that do may feel a sense of duty to serve as their brother's keeper, most also recognize that popular misconceptions about Muslims also affect them. After all, few - if any - Arab-American Christians haven't been touched by the racial profiling, discrimination and violence directed towards Muslim-looking people since 9-11. In this sense, Arab-American Christians are direct stakeholders in how non-Arab/Muslim Americans treat Muslims in America.

    Bayoumi makes an attempt to address these issues in his story of Sami - an Arab-American Christian who "must navigate the minefield of associations the public has of Arabs as well as the expectations that Muslim Arab Americans have of him as an Arab-American soldier." Sadly, Sami's account is less relatable to Arab-American Christians as are the six other stories of Arab-American Muslims - as he doesn't even self-identify as being an Arab-American.

    In Bayoumi's defense, he never asserts that the stories he shares in this book represent all, or even most, Arab-Americans. In fact, he states: "...I make no claims that these seven narratives touch on every detail of Arab-American life." However, his decision to present a more rounded picture of the post 9-11 Arab-American Muslim experience over that of Arab-American Christians renders his book more useful to readers wanting to understand what it feels like to be young and an Arab-Muslim in America - not what it's like "Being Young and Arab in America."

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