By SETH ECKMAN
How does it feel to have rampant discrimination, hostility, ignorance, and unwarranted suspicion directed towards you from your neighbors, and your country, on a day-to-day basis?
On Thursday evening (September 12th), author Moustafa Bayoumi tried to answer those questions and more while discussing his book “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America” in the Lehr room in Gordinier Hall located on Millersville University’s campus. Starting around seven, Bayoumi and Yasmin Dwedar, one of the persons profiled in Bayoumi’s book, spoke to and fielded questions from MU students and faculty members for an hour and an half. Despite the erratic weather outside, more than 200 people showed up for the event, which was a part of the university’s ‘One Book, One Campus’ programming for this year.
“How Does it Feel to be a Problem?,” which chronicles the lives of seven Arab-Americans in post 9/11 America, won the American Book Award in 2008 and the Arab American Book Award for non-fiction in 2009. Besides writing books, Bayoumi has written acclaimed pieces for The Nation, The Village Voice, The New York Times, and The London Review of Books. Bayoumi, who received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia University, is now an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College and current editor for Middle East Report.
After being introduced by Jennifer Shettel, a professor of Elementary Education, Bayoumi went up to the podium and started discussing how his book came to fruition. Living in New York on 9/11, Bayoumi witnessed firsthand the horrible circumstances the city lived through, but he also saw how the city was able to come together. “There was a giant wound in the skin of the city,” remembered Bayoumi, “and we all had to come together and work towards healing it.
However, in the months following the attacks, hostility and suspicion towards, and negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims grew stronger, not only in Brooklyn where Bayoumi lived, but all across America. “They [the “average” American] initially just thought of Muslims and Arabs as living abroad, but something changed after 9/11,” said Bayoumi. “Since then, there’s a whole different idea of how we think about Arabs and Muslims. We think about them as living in the United States as communities of suspicion, communities of intrigue, and as problems to be dealt with.” Bayoumi gave examples of these changing attitudes. Bayoumi cited a 2002 Washington Post poll that showed that 39 percent of Americans harbored some kind of hostility towards Arabs and Muslims. By 2010, the hostility was even stronger; a similar poll showed that 50 percent of Americans harbored hostility.
Though the 9/11 attacks changed the “average” American’s perceptions about Arabs and Muslims, Bayoumi said that, in general, most Americans knew nothing about Arab people and the Islamic faith in the first place. For example, Bayoumi noted the common misconception that all Arabs are Muslims, and vice versa. In addition to the “average” American, the media and policymakers were just as ignorant and suspicious. According to Bayoumi, the media played a huge role in the “dehumanization” process of Arab Americans. “They’d [the media] talk about you [Muslims and Arabs],” remembered Bayoumi, “but not ask you to represent yourself.”
Though he searched for how Arab-Americans really felt about the discrimination that was, and still is, harbored towards them in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Bayoumi had trouble finding any of their stories. Frustrated, Bayoumi decided to take action. “I thought I should just write a book about them [Arab Americans and Muslims] instead,” said Bayoumi. “They often say that you end up writing the book you want to read; the book that you can’t find. And that’s what happened in my case.”
Bayoumi started his book by going back to a question sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois asked in his book, “Souls of Black Folk”: How does it feel to be a problem? “Though I read the book way before 9/11, that question always seemed relevant to my life,” said Bayoumi. “After 9/11, it became clearer how important that question was to ask all over again.” Bayoumi noted that through America’s history, many groups of people have been “othered” by more advantageous groups. Seeing this “othering” process happening to Arab Americans, he chose to chronicle the lives of seven young Arab-Americans in Brooklyn, New York after the attacks on the Twin Towers, when misconceptions about their religion and nationality ran rampant and when they were subsequently labeled the “enemy.” He chose Brooklyn not only because New York has the highest population of Muslims in America, but because the city was “in the shadows of the towers that fell.”
After talking about his book, Bayoumi gave out some advice to the engaged crowd. “Don’t let anybody else write your own story, individually, as a community, or as a nation,” said Bayoumi. “You have to take charge of your own story. And then you and someone else can share your stories. There’s a great deal to be learned if you want to share your story with someone else. That’s how a society is built.” Bayoumi went on to explain how the writing of the book has shaped him. “My goals were to present this progressive dehumanization by rehumainzing a group through storytelling,” explained Bayoumi. “I feel like a richer person for sharing their [the people who participated in the book] stories.
After the author finished speaking, students and faculty were encouraged to ask Bayoumi and Dwedar questions. Fielding the question ‘how does one combat the media’s negative narrative,’ Bayoumi responded, “It’s a responsibility of Muslims to engage non-Muslim neighbors.” Dwedar, who has become a federal court clerk with a focus on public interest law and who has been trying to form an all-Arab bar association in New York since the book was published, noted that social media can spread the message for “othered” racial and religious groups. “It can spread information and introduce a diversity of perspectives,” explained Dwedar.
When asked how the book has changed her life, Dwedar answered, “If I had not done that [participated with the book], I wouldn’t be where I am today.” She mused, “When I’m 89 and telling the story to my grandkids and I can’t remember anything, I can just read them the book.”
“How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?” was chosen as Millersville’s 2013 One book, One Campus selection. The One Book, One Campus selections, which began on campus six years ago, are assigned to all incoming Millersville freshmen to read before their orientation. Dr. Caleb Corkery, who has been the chairman for the One Book, One Campus committee for the last three years, said the selections are “meant to give incoming students a chance to engage over something meaningful as part of their early experience on campus.” He added, “We look for books that we think will connect with students yet also challenge their perspective.”
Bayoumi’s book was chosen for various reasons. “We chose this book to assist our majority white, Christian campus in appreciating the experiences of Arab-Americans who often have difficulty feeling accepted in communities like ours,” explained Corkery. “The Arab and Muslim population is growing here and has much to contribute to Lancaster’s community. We hope the book, and the programming around it, will serve as an opportunity to hear those voices.”
Additional programming linked to Bayoumi’s book will continue on campus until the end of November. Such programming includes a screening of the film “Muhammad – Legacy of a Prophet,” a staging of Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo’s “Sounds of Desire,” and the “Concerts for Peace,” a concert performed by Atzilut, a Middle Eastern ensemble that contains Jewish and Arab musicians. As for Bayoumi, he will be on campus until Friday where he’ll visit classes and participate in book signings.
For more information on the One Book, One Campus selection and programming, contact Dr. Caleb Corkery at 872-3655.