Book review: correcting mistaken notions on Arabs in America

Many Americans think anti-Arab sentiment in the United States began after 11 September 2001. Others think Arabs are recent immigrants to America. Some think the Arab community has kept to itself, not participating in struggles like the civil rights and labor movements. Alia Malek’s A Country Called Amreeka is a welcome corrective to these mistaken notions.

Malek tells the stories of Arabs in America of all ages, national origins and religions — from Randa, the avid Republican supporter of George W. Bush, to Rabih, the man struggling to deal with his sexuality and Arab identity during the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, to Omar, the young college student sharing the “Gaza Towel Rack” and “West Closet” with a Jewish roommate.

Malek intersperses these biographical vignettes, which span from the 1940s through 2003, with descriptions of the major historical events taking place in the US and the Arab world at the time. Gathered from personal interviews with subjects and their families, newspaper articles, academic books and journals and a variety of other sources, Malek tells stories potent with humor, poignancy, mysticism and charm. Rather than narrating with a historian’s voice, she brings her subject to life with dialogue, thoughts and intuitions, foods, smells and songs on the radio. Though its content is substantive, the book is a page-turner that reads like the best fiction.

A Country Called Amreeka can be read as a study of Arab immigration to the US from the 1800s until the present. Malek carefully traces the fluctuations in American public opinion toward Arabs, beginning with the 95,000 who immigrated between 1880 and 1924 during the “Great Migration.” Most of them Christian, many worked as street peddlers and were seen as “un-American,” as were all non-Europeans. The rising anti-immigrant sentiment led Congress to pass restrictive immigration laws in the 1910s and 1920s.

Ed Salem, one member of this early immigrant community, was a first-generation, working-class Lebanese American. Malek writes that his “people had been in Birmingham [Alabama] just about as long as anyone else’s” (7). Salem became a University of Alabama football star and eventually opened a drive-in burger restaurant in 1950.

Over the next two decades, more than 10,000 Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived in the US. But the presence of large numbers of Arabs did not guarantee their acceptance. After the US’s open support for Israel in the October 1973 War, the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an oil embargo which caused a huge increase in oil prices across the US and Europe. In response, President Richard Nixon asked Americans to turn down the thermostat, form car pools and reduce driving speeds. Arab Americans became the convenient target for blame, the object of a variety of epithets, and in Hollywood the rich Arab oil sheikh became a favorite stereotype. Another convenient stereotype was the Arab as terrorist, which began to emerge after factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization engaged in high-profile airline hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Malek explores how Arab Americans continued to be an easy scapegoat from the 1970s through the present, and were blamed for the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, several attacks on US embassies around the world, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and both World Trade Center attacks. They faced threats in the street and at the grocery store, and had their political endorsements rejected and donations returned. They were beaten up and women had their head scarves ripped off. Mosques and community centers were threatened and attacked. Former President Bill Clinton authorized the use of secret evidence to deport noncitizens, specifically targeting those of Middle Eastern descent. Polls from 2001 showed a majority of Americans supported profiling of Arabs in airports. Malek describes how 18-year-old Sawsan Nabulsi was questioned for two hours by the Secret Service at her Laketown, Michigan high school after another student accused her of plotting to kill President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Arab Americans took part in struggles around the country for gay rights, workers’ rights and civil rights. They were active participants in America’s economic, political and social life. They sold affordable goods, healed people’s children, cleaned clothes and homes, opened doors and answered phones. They protected their country in police forces and the military, even fighting opposite their brothers in wars in the Middle East. Malek shows the courage it took Arab Americans just to stay present, active and empathetic.

Some families and communities turned inwards, helping each other cope with the hatred directed at them on a daily basis. Some held their suffering, responding to the vitriol with silence. Others took active stances, organizing on campuses and in mosques, writing editorials and protesting US foreign policy. When they could learn nothing about their home countries from the American media, they gathered in coffee shops and told their own news. They embraced their histories and their identities.

Malek’s gift for storytelling and subtle refusal to preach to her readers helps distinguish this book. She doesn’t discuss “the Arab experience in America” in broad terms or employ political rhetoric on the role of the US government in creating and encouraging anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia. Instead, she presents facts and personal narratives, leaving the reader to perform their own analysis and form their own conclusions. The apolitical structure of the book makes it ideal for inclusion in any US history curriculum.

Broad in scope, A Country Called Amreeka contextualizes Arab American lives in US Middle East policy. Malek gives the reader a more thorough understanding of the deep-rooted connections between racism and US support for Israel than do most books on Palestine. Rather than focusing only on a single issue, she explores the relationships between multiple forces — national and international, government and individual — for a uniquely holistic approach to history. Her simple, yet imaginative and poetic storytelling is suited to any audience and has great potential to impact and overturn general perceptions on Arab-Americans.

Shira Tevah is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN). She studied public policy and Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.

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