MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the latest in our essay series, This I Believe. A mother responds to questions from strangers about her child. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we talked earlier about the way schools are teaching young people about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Now we want to focus on a particular group of youngsters whose lives were affected by the attacks in the aftermath of 9/11. Some Arab and Muslim-American children often found themselves caught between two worlds, the American world in which they lived and had grown up, and this other identity that was suddenly assigned to them because of their appearance, ethnicity, or religion. The suspicious looks, the name-calling, in some cases out-right hostility.
Author Moustafa Bayoumi tells the stories of seven young Arab-Americans and their struggles to navigate this new world after 9/11. His new book is called, "How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America." And he joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI (Author, "How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America"): Oh, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: How did you get the idea for the book?
Mr. BAYOUMI: I had spent several years after September 11 writing op-eds and giving lectures across campuses across the country. And it just seemed to me at a certain point that I was exhausted by always responding to the events of the day. And I wanted to assess and think about what had happened to the community, you know, from another kind of advantage point. And it seems to me that young people was really a good place to do that from young people, I think, have a different kind of reality.
If you think about September 11 now being seven years away, most of their adult lives will be framed by this, and so I thought that was a really interesting and an important place to start from.
MARTIN: Where did the title come from?
Mr. BAYOUMI: The title is from W.E.B. Du Bois ' classic,"The Souls of Black Folk." People are coming up to him and asking him about what does he think about the Southern outrages and lynchings, et cetera. Or sometimes he says they say to him, how does it feel to be a problem? And I thought that was a really good question. And the Du Bois asks it in that book because he really wants to bridge the gap between African-Americans and the rest of American society during segregation. And I wanted to ask the same thing during this period in American history.
MARTIN: You grow up overseas. You grow up in Switzerland, and you are raised in Canada but you're very conversant with American history. I just wondered, had you, you, before 9/11, did you ever feel like a problem?
Mr. BAYOUMI: Of course. Growing up as a minority and growing up as an Arab and as a Muslim in Western culture often makes you feel like you're a minority. And that experience pre-dates September 11. But I think September 11 really, in a lot of ways, solidified and transformed and brought a new kind of identity to a newer generation.
MARTIN: And give an example.
Mr. BAYOUMI: You know, prior to September 11, it was a lot easier for Arab-Americans to in some ways pass for any kind of ethnicity. They might, if they are lighter skin, for example, many might consider themselves Italian or something like that. After 9/11, you get a very small minority that seem to - for a while, wanted to pass as Latino, immediately right after 9/11 has happened in some of the high schools in Brooklyn, some of my friends have told me.
But more than anything, I think that what happened was a stronger and more devoted sense of being either Arab or being Muslim in the wake of all the prejudice you were confronting. So it seems to me that what happened was that a lot of the younger people decided that they really wanted to be able to inhabit and define themselves within an identity that was under siege. And instead of being defined by the culture outside, they were taking charge of definitions of their own identity.
MARTIN: How did you decide which stories to tell?
Mr. BAYOUMI: I thought it would be interesting if I could find an Arab-American soldier who would fight in Iraq. I thought also a story about a woman from Iraq, an Iraqi-American, would also be inherently interesting. But I didn't come with any expectations. Once I found the people and I heard their stories, I realized that these were the stories that were going to be in the book.
MARTIN: Let's talk about some of them. I'm not even sure where to start because they are all interesting. I want to hear more about Yasmin(ph).
Mr. BAYOUMI: Sure, OK. Yasmin is, you know, I think I call her something like a heavyweight fighter in a 195-pound frame. She was in high school when she decided to run for her student government, and she succeeded and she was thrilled. She never thought that the people would vote for her, especially since she's religious and she wears hijab, and she thought that that would be a liability for her popularity in high school, but it wasn't. In fact, people voted for her and overwhelmingly. So she starts in student government and she's thrilled and excited, but then it's time for the first school dance, and she wouldn't go to the school dances.
MARTIN: For one reason, some of them are on Friday, which is a holy day. And sometimes - well, at that age, alcohol is not supposed to be served, but just in general, is it the whole mixing of genders or that kind of socializing that she considered sort of outside the boundaries of her practice, right, of her religious practice, right?
Mr. BAYOUMI: Yes. That's exactly it. And she told her father and her father also consulted a local religious leader and they determined that dances were not really something they wanted to participate in. So she told the person who was in charge, the coordinator of student affairs in her school, and then he responded by saying, well, anybody who is part of student government has to participate in all student functions, including dances.
She felt that this was inherently unfair, that it would somehow exclude all the Muslims or people who were like her from participating in student government, and she offered, in fact, to make some kind of accommodation that she would help in setting up the dance and help in taking it down and these sorts of things, but just not be present during the dance.
Anyways, what happens in the end is that they decide - she feels that she's eventually forced to resign her position and she does so, and she's very, very upset by this. And so she spends the next two or three years trying everything she can to overturn the school's decision and she does everything that a 16-year-old can. She goes to the library. She takes out books like "Sue the Dummies," et cetera, et cetera. Learns everything that she can about the law. Nobody pays her any attention until finally she does start to get some attention from some lawyers and she gets a newfound respect from the coordinator of student affairs and eventually, she actually does run again for another office for presidency of her school.
MARTIN: And we have to know how it turns out.
Mr. BAYOUMI: OK.
MARTIN: We have to know.
Mr. BAYOUMI: Well, actually, she succeeds, and she becomes the president of her school. So it's a story of triumph, and her plans before going into high school were to go to medical school, something her father had wanted for a long time, and this experience fundamentally transformed her and since then she has decided she's going to go into law school, and she actually now is in law school.
MARTIN: Really, this is the made-for-TV movie because you can imagine her parents. If of all of the things they thought she should be probably be spending her school time on, running for student office and then trying to sue them so that she could actually do the job, is probably not their highest priority. Why don't you tell me a little bit about Rasha's(ph) story and if you don't mind, perhaps you could read a little bit.
Mr. BAYOUMI: Sure. Rasha has lived in the United States for about 20 years of her 25 years of living. Her family comes from Syria and they have unresolved immigration issues like many people do in this country. They actually had an asylum claim that was pending around the time of September 11. And so about six months after September 11, Rasha and her family were detained and taken to prison for about three months long, and their story is one of thousands of other stories from people who are arrested and really, those first months, there were mass arrests that were at least 5,000, perhaps more people, were in similar circumstances.
MARTIN: Would you read an excerpt?
Mr. BAYOUMI: Yeah. Sure.
MARTIN: OK. Go ahead.
Mr. BAYOUMI: (Reading) This was no accidental arrest. The man seemed to know everything about the family, including the fact that Rasha's two youngest brothers, both minors, were U.S. citizens. He turned to Rasha's father and told him to arrange custody for the boys. Rasha's father suggested that his brother, who lives in New York City, could take care of them. He asked to call him, suggesting that the authorities wait before transporting them to Federal Plaza until his brother could arrive. But the agent torpedoed the idea. That would take too long, he said, and instructed him instead to wake the tenants below and leave the boys there. Rasha's father had no choice but to comply. And when they were ready to go, the agent turned to the entire family and said, We're going to handcuff you now.
Later, Rasha learned why her eldest brother had already been not only handcuffed, but shackled. Munir(ph), her brother, is a deep and stubborn sleeper, and when an agent went to his downstairs bedroom to wake him, Munir was uncooperative. Why? he kept asking. Come on, get up, the agent said. And Munir asked why again. Get up, the agent yelled. Get up and put your hands together, like the way you pray. Munir swore at him and told him to get the hell away. So they shackled him, Rasha told me, you know, to tame him.
MARTIN: What happened to Rasha?
Mr. BAYOUMI: They are released after about three months, and after this experience she was quite traumatized and the whole family was, in their own separate ways.
MARTIN: I just need to point out, when you're talking about detained, we're talking about every member of the family strip-searched, every member of the family handcuffed, transported in shackles and so forth. I just think that's important to point out.
Mr. BAYOUMI: Yeah. And it was very traumatic, and in fact, what was interesting for Rasha was she saw the insides of the immigration detention system and the criminal justice system. And so she was resolved after leaving this to work towards making a better world and she was resolved to enter into a program that was working towards getting rid of human rights violations around the world.
MARTIN: What do you think is the state of acceptance of Muslim and Arab-Americans? I mean, there's so much data contradictory on that. On the one hand, you know, Barak Obama has had to continually to face the question of whether he is a closet Muslim or not, and it's clearly intended to be a slur and it shouldn't be a slur. I mean, he doesn't have to face the closet accusation that he's a man, right? So clearly, the fact that people are repeating this untruth that he's a Muslim is meant to be a negative, right? On the other hand, you do have stories like the one in your book, like Yasmin, who, faced with tremendous opposition and one could argue, just prejudice, but she triumphed. So when you put it all together, is the glass half full or half empty?
Mr. BAYOUMI: I think it's a mixed bag, you know. In some ways, there's a lot of drive for inclusion and acceptance, for understanding, really, the complex nature of American society. And on the other hand I do feel that there's also this drive. There was a poll done last year that said something like 76 percent of young Arab-Americans encounter discrimination. That's a very high number, it seems to me.
You have both things going on at the same time. You have Obama, as you say, running away from this rumor and his Web site calling it a smear. And then you have people like Andre Carson and Keith Ellison actually voted into Congress, and so now you have Muslims in government at the same time. So I see both things happening and it's not clear to me which direction society is going right now.
MARTIN: OK. And finally, it's been seven years since the 9/11 attacks. If you and I were to reconnect seven years from now and if you, for example, decided to tell the stories of seven more young people, what do you think those stories would be? Do you think that they'll be the same? Do you think they'll be different?
Mr. BAYOUMI: I hope that they would be. But I think that what it's dependent upon is what are the foreign policy objectives of the United States seven years from now? It's not just the terrorist attacks of September 11 that have created the environment in which we live right now. Those were criminal acts and we should condemn them absolutely. It's also been the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and this kind of heightened state of political violence and tension that we have around the world. I think that if the United States were to pursue a different kind of foreign policy based more on equality for everybody around the world, that would actually lessen the degrees of political violence that we encounter and that would be good for everyone.
MARTIN: How would they affect these young people at home?
Mr. BAYOUMI: I think that people would be less quick to judge them based on their ethnicity or their religion or their name or the tint of their skin, the kink of their hair, these sorts of things.
MARTIN: Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of "How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America." He joined us from our studio in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BAYOUMI: Thanks. It's been a pleasure.
MARTIN: To read an excerpt of the book, you can go to our Web site at npr.org and click on Tell Me More.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.