Interview by Sage Hazarika
In light of the September 11 attacks and the resulting War On Terror, Arabs and Muslims living in the United States have been unfairly perceived as potential threats to national security and the “American” way of life. Within the media firestorm surrounding Arab- and Muslim-Americans, a relative few rational voices have been heard.
Moustafa Bayoumi, writer and Professor of English at Brooklyn College, has compiled the stories of seven young Arab-Brooklynites in his 2009 book How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Though no single individual can solve a problem like our Nation’s penchant for discrimination, publishing the stories of those who have had virtually no voice is, without a doubt, a step in the right direction.
How did your background translate to daily life growing up?
I grew up in Kingston, in Ontario Canada. It was kind of a lily-white town, an old, conservative, Victorian city in Canada. My family and I pretty much stood out from the beginning.
I played saxophone in my school’s band and sometimes we would go on trips to perform in the United States. We’d get in a bus, drive to the border, and the border guard would come up and ask, “Everybody here Canadian?” We would all yell, “Yeesss,” but he would walk down the aisle of the bus and say, “You…and you. Let’s see the passports,” pointing at the only other brown kid on the bus and I. It was always just the two of us [laughs].
I started to embrace my culture on a larger scale in high school. I had always been around Arab and Middle Eastern politics, as my parents were quite politically oriented and often talked about the state of the Middle East. There came a certain point when I became very interested in Palestinian issues, and that was a way for me to embrace who I was. I’m not even Palestinian; I’m Egyptian. But I think that if you’re in the Arab diaspora, you are a Palestinian because you have to embrace that cause, understand the great injustice done to those people, and you have to have the injustice rectified.
What did you think of the climate for Arab Americans in New York City when you got here, and how did that change after September 11?
There’s always been an association of Arabs with terrorism and violence. That goes back a long way, and there’s a theory that my mentor in grad school, Professor Edward Said, wrote about. He had a famous book called Orientalism, where he said that Western civilization as a whole found definition for themselves by making this “other” in the Middle East and elsewhere. That kind of thinking existed when I was growing up, but it has been ratcheted up to such a degree that being Arab has become a new category of existence post September 11. Professor Said used to say that Arabs made up the last ethnic group that it was “okay to be prejudiced against.” In a way, [Americans are] much more sensitive now, and I think it’s a good thing that people’s gross generalizations are gone for most groups. However, on another level, if you examine popular media, there’s still an open season on the Arabs and Muslims.
What are your thoughts on Arabs In the wider spectrum of civil rights issues?
I think that any society is as strong as its most vulnerable population. If you are protecting the rights of Arab Americans when they are extremely vulnerable, what you’re really doing is protecting your own rights. You can say the same thing for other under-represented groups. It’s not about identifying which group gets recognition, it’s really about your stand on the protection of the most vulnerable, and there are a few people who are able to see that. I try to make a point of citing groups like The Center for Constitutional Rights, an activist law organization based in lower Manhattan. They were fearless in defending the rights of Arabs’ right after 9-11. Though not based in the Arab community at all, they’re based in the constitution, and they want to defend it on the grounds of the document’s principles. I remember hearing this from my ex-girlfriend who worked there and my friends in the legal community. They had a dialogue, not long after the attacks happened, about taking on cases protecting the rights of Arabs, even though it was going to make them extremely unpopular at the time. The Center decided, “that’s what our mandate was,” and I applaud them for what they did.
Was there a specific breaking point for writing the book?
After September 11 there came a point where every Arab person I know in the US had been, or knew someone who had been, visited by the FBI. People were concerned about their futures. I tried to write op-eds and give lectures, but everything just kept piling up and piling up and I kept hearing more and more stories, until I said, “I can’t just be responding to what I hear day by day, I want to actually create a document of it so we can sit back, reflect, and then learn more than we could from just responding.”
When the book came out, what was the general impact like? Did you feel the public fully absorbed your concept?
It does take a while, and something that I’m dealing with is the title. I drew it from the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, but people think it’s angry or polemical. Of all the words in the title, people fixate on “problem.” What happens in an age with a lot of ideology and lecturing, the real human emotions, besides fear, are evacuated. In my title, I would fixate on the word “feel,” because I think that people don’t know what it really feels like to be an Arab, or Muslim American. Most of [the negative feedback] came through email; people told me [I wasn’t] a real professor and that I should’ve stuck to writing books about English. That’s the polite stuff. The most extreme one I got was on the anniversary of 9-11 when I wrote an op-ed about the year after the attacks. Someone sent a letter to my office that was laid out like a ransom note with terrorists’ names like “Mohammad Atta” rearranged into the word “attack,” and had a collage of a camel with a missile going up its ass. It was just bizarre, but I laugh it all off. It doesn’t really bother me.
Has the climate really changed for Arabs and Muslims in America?
I think most people want it to change, and Obama’s election, his rhetoric, trip to Cairo, and interview with Arabic television all indicate a certain “hope”—to use his own word—for its change. But I’m not sure it’s there yet. Every year The Washington Post and ABC News organization conduct a poll asking Americans if they have negative perceptions of Islam. They’ve done it since 2001 and this past year in May it was the highest that it’s ever been. If half the population says that they have negative opinions, I’m not sure of the level at which we can keep our civil rights protected. In the end though, the people I wrote about are optimistic about their futures and the future of their country. So at least that bodes well. Like I said, I think that there’s a lot of good will and I encounter it when I go places to speak about the book. I hear that people don’t want to live in a world that’s based on fear or division and hatred. I know I don’t. There’s definitely a desire to turn the page and move on. We can do it but I think we haven’t charted the way yet and there’s been progress, so I’m optimistic about it.