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A Country Called Amreeka

The lives of a dozen Arab Americans tell the story of an often strained relationship.

By Jina Moore / December 2, 2009



There is a scene in A Country Called Amreeka by Alia Malek that seems to be playing on repeat. We’ve been watching it for weeks, as pundits pick apart the background, psychology, and religiosity of Army Maj. Nadal Hasan, who murdered 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, last month. Hasan has been called troubled, disturbed, a follower of radical Islam – the one seeming to lead, in some television commentary, tautologically to the other.

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The fact that he is Muslim is such a fundamental part of the narrative that many are wondering (and not just on an often-singled-out news channel) whether the attacks should be considered terrorism.

Flash back to 1995. A truck bomb has just gone off outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Hundreds are reported dead, but the perpetrator is unknown. Rabih AbuSahan watches CNN, thinking how familiar the scene is those of his own childhood in war-torn Lebanon. The network interviews a former congressman. “My first reaction,” the congressman says, “was that there could be a very real connection to some of the Islamic fundamentalist groups that have, actually, been operating out of Oklahoma City.”

That was nonsense, of course; American Timothy McVeigh was behind the attacks. But the rush to judgment that took over the airwaves kept AbuSahan in the chair in his living room. A trained medic, and sympathetic to the chaos and pain the victims were feeling, he’d wanted to drive there from his home in Kansas City and help. But after that morning’s talk of terrorism, by pundits and by the Department of Justice, he stayed home.

“How could Rabih now go to the site of the blast and help in Oklahoma City, which would be full of government people with guns and dogs, chasing after Middle Eastern-looking men,” writes Malek.

It’s a scene that resonates in the weeks since the Fort Hood shooting. There are, of course, differences, notably that in Texas, the perpetrator was in fact Muslim. But the urge to link Islam to violence, or to understand violence only through the lens of Islam, has its roots in a story much older than a few weeks. It’s that story, the story of the relationship between America and its Arab Americans, that Malek brings powerfully into focus.

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