How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 - 9:30pm

By: Moustafa Bayoumi (Penguin Books 2008, 290 Pages) 

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?



It’s difficult to overstate how much anger, frustration, and outright hatred is directed towards Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.  Whether immigrants or citizens, poor or well-off, devout or secular, Arabs and Muslims of all types are the target of a large, angry section of U.S. society, and generally don’t have a public voice with which to fight back.  Arab and Muslim communities are represented in public fora, but often they see someone else representing them, robbing them of agency.  How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? does its part to rectify this.

In this book, Moustafa Bayoumi recounts seven stories of Arab and/or Muslim experiences in the U.S. pre-and post-9/11.  Some are U.S. citizens, some immigrants, but each has a compelling background and set of trials.  Each tale describes experiences that likely look familiar to anyone regardless of background—young people trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in society, sometimes turning to their family roots to better understand where they’ve come from.  The only real difference between them and any other person is that they’re all Arab and mostly Muslim; it’s this aspect that tends to cause unnecessary problems.

While the coming-of-age narratives and the incidents of discrimination will be all too familiar for some, this familiarity is the point: they’re meant to humanize the problems that Arabs and Muslims have face daily since 9/11, and with a renewed with a vengeance since the emergence of ISIS.  Bayoumi does an excellent job giving readers a window into unfamiliar lives in order to illustrate the common experiences we all share as human beings with those being victimized.  This book may be a little older than those HPAR normally reviews, but its purpose is no less crucial today than when it was published in 2008.

One big shortcoming, especially for the policy-focused reader, is how the larger context is short-changed.  Bayoumi does a decent job of inserting relevant data and “big picture” information throughout the stories, but he does so with a concern for narrative flow rather than the presentation of a deep description.  It helps illuminate the various tales, but what you will not find here is an in-depth study of the various problems faced by Arabs and Muslims in America, and certainly not any policy solutions.  However, this is a small flaw, and I feel this book still accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do in a very accessible way.

Why is this relevant? 

Despite this book’s age, Bayoumi’s vignettes are sadly still relevant and needed today.  9/11 was the backdrop for the discrimination Arabs faced in these stories, but today they face similar hardships because of the more recent rise of ISIS and the subsequent political reaction in the U.S.  These accounts are a powerful reminder of how much we all still have in common in the, despite perhaps looking and worshiping differently.

Who should be reading this? 

If you are not Arab or Muslim, you could benefit from reading this.  While we, as policy students, are somewhat more aware than others of the challenges touched on in these stories, sometimes it’s difficult to find specific accounts that humanize these problems.  If you’d like a way to start understanding these issues and their magnitude, start here.