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Seeing History Through Arab-American Eyes

posted on: Dec 2, 2009

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Alia Malek, a successful Syrian-American civil rights attorney, was shocked by what she saw as a dangerous and misguided public backlash against Arab-Americans. Malek was confident that somebody would write a book that would put a human face on the Arab-American community and educate Americans about a culture that was so poorly understood.

“People seemed to think that Arabs only existed ‘over there,’ that there weren’t actually Arab-Americans who had been part of the United States since the late 1800s. And I sort of went about my life practicing law, thinking that inevitably, somebody was going to write a book like this. And by the time I decided to do a career switch and go to journalism school at Colombia University four years later, nobody had yet written the book that I thought was so inevitable. So that is why I decided to write the book,” Malek says.

Arab-Americans assimilated and became invisible

Her new book is titled, “A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories.” It is a collection of narratives about some of the 3.5 million people of Arab descent who live in the United States – individuals with roots in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Syria. Set against the backdrop of the past 40 years of American history and international developments, Malek’s subjects share their stories and demonstrate that, even as they play football, work assembly lines and hold public office, they have remained largely shut out of the national conversation.

Malek, who began her legal career as a civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, contends that U.S immigration laws before 1965 were racially biased. And she says they hindered the naturalization of Arab immigrants to such an extent that most Americans were unaware there was an Arab-American community.

“I think that is why they assimilated and became almost invisible. And then, in that post-1965- immigration pop culture, [in] the media, Arab-Americans were not part of their discourse, it was not a part of the American consciousness. You did not have a TV show of Arab-Americans; there was something that remained very foreign about ‘Arabs’,” she says.

Stories mark historic moments in past 40 years

Each chapter of “A Country Called Amreeka” focuses on a major historical event as seen through the eyes of an Arab-American, allowing readers to relive the moment in that person’s skin. In the chapter exploring how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played out for Arabs living in the United States, Malek tells the story of Luba, the wife of a Palestinian refugee who yearns for her hometown of Ramallah after it is occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

In one passage from the book, Luba struggles to explain her heartache to her young American-born daughter, Mona, whose puzzlement at her mother’s distress highlights the gap between Arab heritage and life in Amreeka:

“Now all Jerusalem is with the Jews and now it is Ramallah’s turn to be taken,” Luba explained. “And that is why I am crying and that is why I want you to shut up and stop asking questions!”

But Mona continued: “The Jews, aren’t they human beings? Aren’t they people?”

“Yes, of course they are human beings,” Luba responded. “They are people like us.”

“Then why can’t they be in Ramallah?” Mona demanded.

“Mona, this is your house. Do you want your neighbors to come and tell you to get out and take your home and they live here? Is this right?” (Malek, 2009).

In another chapter, the reader sees the 1963 burning of a black church in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, through the eyes of a dark-skinned Lebanese-American. There’s a Palestinian-American surrounded by anti-Arab violence during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and a homosexual Arab-American who was afraid to be gay in the Middle East and is now afraid to be an Arab in America.

And there is Lance Corporal Abraham, a Yemeni-American Marine who is deployed to Iraq in the 2003 U.S. invasion. Because he is an Arab, Abraham is rebuked as a traitor by an Iraqi mother, whose two young daughters had been killed during a U.S. military operation.

Malek says,”I hope people sort of sympathize with Abraham and the difficulties he was going through, both as a young married father with a wife half-way across the world, and also the concerns he has as he and his Marine brothers come back alive from the war, as well as just seeing ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the American invasion of Iraq.”

Book mentions earlier immigrants

The author also recalls the Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian Christians who were part of America’s first great wave of immigration starting in the 1880s, and who found work in the mines and opened grocery stores. She examines the impact of the 1965 immigration reform legislation that allowed Arabs to escape political upheaval in their own countries and settle in Detroit, Michigan, where many found work Ford Motor Company assembly lines. Malek hopes her American readers will come to know these people in a new and more positive light.

“I hope they can see that the history of Arab-Americans is basically as old as the history of a lot of immigrant groups that we easily accept as part of the American mosaic. And that they see that we are in American society; we are voters and consumers and producers and teachers, and husbands and wives and neighbors and everything else that we think that other fellow Americans are. I mean, there needs to be rightful re-insertion into the American imagination of the place of Arab-Americans,” she says.

Mohamed Elshinnawi
Voice of America