The question posed by W.E.B. DuBois in his classic "The Souls of Black Folk" cut to the marrow of what it was like to be black under Jim Crow. Now, more than a century after DuBois penned his query, Moustafa Bayoumi thinks it is appropriate to ask it again. The associate professor of English at Brooklyn College argues in his new book, "How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?" that young Arabs and Muslims are America's latest "problem."
In a few destructive hours on Sept. 11, he writes, the groups went from being just another set of minorities in our multicultural patchwork to "dangerous outsiders" in many Americans' eyes. Hate crimes spiked 1,700 percent against Arabs and Muslims in the months after the terrorist attacks and thousands were detained, questioned and deported. A 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found 39 percent of Americans believed all Muslims --including U.S. citizens -- should carry special IDs.
"We're the new blacks," a Palestinian-American in his 20s tells Bayoumi as the young man puffs on apple-flavored tobacco in a hookah lounge. "You know that, right?"
In "The Souls of Black Folk," DuBois aimed to pull back "the veil" separating whites and blacks by presenting a full view of black life. In his new book, Bayoumi gives us seven richly observed vignettes of the lives of young American Arabs and Muslims who live in Brooklyn; he hopes to cut through the suspicion and fear they face as they navigate post-Sept. 11 America and come of age.
Bayoumi's subjects are more ordinary than extraordinary, but that is precisely the point. In the war on terror, he argues, Arabs and Muslims have been reduced to two types: the exceptional, assimilated immigrant and the violent fundamentalist. Bayoumi hopes to humanize, as well as complicate, our view of Muslims by presenting his subjects in the texture of their daily lives with all of the attendant humor, boredom, messiness and small victories and defeats. That does not mean the book is prosaic -- suspicion, fear and being different create roadblocks and tough choices in every chapter. (MORE)