How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America

Moustafa Bayoumi – Penguin Books (2008)

I picked this book up in a Brooklyn bookstore in 2017, nearly a decade after its publication. The timing couldn’t be any more auspicious, given the election of Donald Trump, his despicable Muslim ban on travelers, and the rise of angry white supremacists and KKK members carrying burning torches in Charlottesville.

Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of English at Brooklyn College, set out to tell the stories of young Arab men and women he got to know in Brooklyn, to let their experiences and words speak for themselves.

book cover 1

Rasha, whose family was woken up in the middle of the night in February 2002, and thrown into detention as part of the government’s sweep of Arabs and Arab-Americans in its “war on terror” following 9/11.

Sami, who joined the Marines in May 2001, found himself stationed in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and questioning what they were doing in Iraq.

Yasmin, who ran for a position in student leadership, found herself waging a battle with the high school administration and the rules which would not accommodate her Muslim faith.

Akram, Lina, Omar and Rami each have very different stories to share. The author spent considerable time with each young Arab, culling out the critical details he wanted to include, weaving together very different experiences but also common themes.

I read the book cover-to-cover, front to back. However, I recommend readers begin with the last chapter, the Afterword, where the author answers the question “What does it mean to be young and Arab in America today?” 

I was almost ready to set the book down and not finish reading the individual stories, not because the topic isn’t important or the writing isn’t engaging, but because there are many things vying for my time and attention. When I got to the Afterword, I knew that these young Arab Americans shared critical insights with the author that I would not have understood or appreciated, given my life experiences, without reading his book.