Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin Press, 2008)
“But what exactly is a profile?” Moustafa Bayoumi writes at the outset of How Does It Feel to be a Problem? “It’s a sketch in charcoal, the simplified contours of a face, a silhouette in black and white, a textbook description of a personality. By definition a profile draws an incomplete picture.”
In his 1903 treatise, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B Du Bois contended that all interactions between himself and “the other world” of white America were mediated by an “unasked question;” a cloud that hung over his encounters with everyone from entrenched racists to those who moved within Du Bois’ own liberal and rarefied circles. This question informed Du Bois’ sense of “two-ness,” the cognitive dissonance of being black and American in a racist country, and the strange feeling of always having to look at yourself “through the eyes of others.” What was it? “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Skip ahead a hundred years. In his latest book, How Does it Feel to be A Problem?, writer Moustafa Bayoumi takes Du Bois’ unasked question as his title and premise, using it as a platform to explore what it means to be young and Arab in an America tempered by suspicion and anger towards the Middle East. In How Does it Feel, Bayoumi chronicles the lives of seven young Arab-Americans growing up in post-9/11 Brooklyn, following them through the daily travails of government surveillance, chronic unemployment and casual discrimination, all the while sketching out a portrait of contemporary race relations in America. Writing the narratives of these young people, Bayoumi measures their lives against the promise of the American dream, and considers the ways in which their country has fulfilled and failed them.
Aside from a common zip code beginning in 112, the only connection Bayoumi’s subjects have is a loosely shared ethnicity. Moving from Rasha—a young Syrian-American imprisoned for three months for reasons never revealed to her—to Rami, an Egyptian-born Brooklynite pursuing his calling as an imam—Bayoumi follows his subjects with an attention to how a shifting political landscape is altering what it means to grow up Arab in the U.S., and moreover, the disturbing implications these trends hold for all Americans. In the age of terrorism, and with the recession of civil liberties as a political lodestar, Bayoumi identifies Arab-Americans as ascendants to the position occupied by African-Americans in the country’s imagination. “We’re the new blacks,” one man tells the author. “You know that, right?”
Because most of Bayoumi’s subjects are second-generation immigrants, they grew up steeped in the American narrative of opportunity alongside the parallel realites of racism and prejudice. One young Palestinian man, Akram, attended college while working 65-hour weeks in his father’s East Flatbush grocery store— a reiteration of the classic immigrant rags-to-riches story — only rather than dreaming of prosperity in his adopted homeland, Akram fantasized about teaching English in Dubai, a city inculcated in Western values yet free of the discrimination he saw metastasizing in America. According to Akram, the conditions that first drew his parents to emigrate—education, opportunity, mobility—were disappearing, and so his aim became the opposite of theirs. He sought a better life. He wanted to “reverse the geography of his father’s American dream.”
Through characters like Akram and Yasmin, a high school student forced to resign from student government on account of her religious beliefs, Bayoumi depicts everyday Arab life in a way that is both intimate and human, refusing to turn his book into either a political treatise or an aloof piece of investigative journalism. Moreover, this is not a depressing book. Bayoumi does not write America as a bleakly racist country, but instead calls into sharp relief the difference between the country’s originary values and the disturbing political climate we have now found ourselves in.
In his subjects, Bayoumi sees dark reflections of culture and politics, and he offers the dignity of their stories as antidotes to the rising tide of prejudice. Unlike profiles, which are by definition incomplete and caricatured, “stories,” Bayoumi writes, “have the capacity to convert a line drawing into flesh, to dislodge the power of the presumption and prejudice.” And this is Bayoumi’s task in How Does it Feel—to turn the line drawing of the American Arab into a person, and to have the reader recognize him as real, and worthy of the respect and equality promised in the American dream. In undertaking this mission, Bayoumi raises Du Bois’ unasked question and answers it, using the medium of the story to evoke the true power of the question.
“Perhaps,” Bayoumi suggests, “this explains why I responded the way I did to the many inquiries I heard from friends and associates after I described the project of this book to them. ‘Oh, you’re writing profiles,’ they would say. ‘Portraits,’ I would answer. ‘Hasn’t there been enough profiling already?’”