Julia Scheib and Kelsey Bundra
Last Thursday night, September 12, 2013, Gordinier’s Lehr room was packed with students and faculty who came out to hear Moustafa Bayoumi, the author of this year’s One Book One Campus pick “How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America”. Bayoumi received his Ph.D in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and is currently teaching English at Brooklyn College. He also taught at City University of New York. Bayoumi has written for New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and contributed to the book Islamophobia/Islamophilia.
Mr. Bayoumi opened with a dry “What’s up, Millersville?” and expressed an aching sense of deprivation over not having had any shoo-fly pie before he revealed to the crowd’s delight that he had brought with him a young woman, Yasmin. Students recognized the petite woman wearing a hijab from the book, a work of literary journalism that chronicles the experiences of young Arabs in America, pre- and post-9/11.
Bayoumi explained that although 9/11 was a sad time for everyone, including the Muslim and Arab population. Arabs and Muslims had to deal with the repercussions of stereotyping. “Something changed after 9-11,” says Bayoumi.
In his talk, Mr. Bayoumi gently explained the difference between Arabs and Muslims and then gave a condensed account of the Muslim and Arab diasporas. He described his memory of the attacks on the Twin Towers (he had been living in New York), and the efforts of the community to heal. The 9/11 attacks were the catalyst for a lot of negativity in the mainstream media and public discourse toward Muslims and Arab Americans, and, Mr. Bayoumi said, these groups have been “dehumanized” since then.
Many Americans hold onto misconceptions. To be Arab is an ethnicity or culture and to be Muslim is a religion. People can be Arab and not practice Islam and people can practice the religion without having an Arab descent. Islam preaches peace not terrorism. Unexpected countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and India have the most Muslims where as most Arabs living in the United States are Christian.
In his book, Mr. Bayoumi told the stories of Arab-Americans who had been the object of racism and xenophobia thanks to the media and the Bush administration (remember the “Axis of Evil”?). He asked friends in the Arab community in Brooklyn to spread the word to others who wanted to share their stories, and he contacted leaders of mosques and other community organizations. He didn’t expect to have an easy time of it: when he first began his research, there was a high-profile terrorist case going on and the police had sent undercover informants into the community, eroding trust between strangers.
Mr. Bayoumi’s goal was to “re-humanize through the act of storytelling.” He gave each individual his or her own chapter because he wanted compelling stories: “You relinquish who you are when you’re reading, and you inhabit the life of someone else,” he said.
The author expressed grave concern for the fate of our society and the trouble in the Middle East: answering a question from one student, he said, “The future of race relations in America is contingent on the United States’ foreign policy—it’s hard to be optimistic,” adding, “If you work for peace internationally, then you’re also working for justice locally.”
Citing the media’s portrayals of Arabs and Muslims and the “create and capture” tactics of the NYPD (the Demographics Department was tasked with spying on the Muslim community, and paid “informants” to bait Muslims into saying inflammatory things, essentially framing them as terrorists because they, the police, had no real leads), Mr. Bayoumi emphasized the importance of having power over one’s own narrative, and the harm that can come by letting other people tell it or “abuse” it. He also expressed his worries regarding the revelations about privacy in the U.S. (recently brought to light by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning), saying that when we surrender our privacy while allowing the government to function in private, we give the government the privilege to write our story.
During the question-and-answer session, Yasmin, who experienced discrimination during her teenage years, expressed bitter frustration with the mainstream media’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims. But she then offered a kernel of optimism, suggesting that social media is a welcome alternative because it allows “a lot more diversity of opinion,” and room for everyone’s perspective.
“You have to be in charge of your narrative,” encourages Bayoumi.