A Country Called Amreeka

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

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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.

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.”

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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.

In “A Country Called Amreeka,” Malek chronicles the lives of a dozen Arab Americans. Their stories are markers on a timeline that stretches back to the legendary Alabama-Auburn football game of 1948 and runs through the riotous Detroit of the ’60s, the fraught tensions over Palestine in the ’80s, up to the election of George W. Bush. Each chapter focuses on an individual (often, a family) whose personal lives dramatize the political concerns of the age or the timeless personal anxiety of living, as an outsider, in a foreign land. In between each chapter, Malek fills in the historical gaps, recapping for the reader the changes in Middle Eastern politics or in American immigration policy necessary to understand the next narrative.

The book looks at America through the eyes of a minority so often viewed as its enemy. As the book progresses through time, a bigger story begins to emerge. With delicate cues from Malek, the reader begins to see how the image of Muslims has hardened over time. They have always been outsiders; in the early 20th century, politicians went to great lengths to classify newly arrived Arabs as nonwhites, a form of social exclusion. But by the ’80s, the outsider has become the other, the “swarthy-looking,” turban-wearing villain in Hollywood’s good-versus-evil dramas. (Never mind that it’s Sikhs who wear turbans, and Sikhs aren’t Muslim.)

It’s not all a negative story. By the end of the last century, Malek writes, “Arab Americans were becoming increasingly visible.” They were welcome in politics, a growing presence on college campuses, and an increasingly vocal community in domestic American politics. With Sept. 11, of course, tensions returned, and many Arab American communities quietly bowed their heads, hoping simply not to be noticed.

It’s an incredible journey, if momentarily stunted, and Malek chronicles that journey with authority. But the best stories in her book are the personal: the wife of an Arab political activist worried for the family’s safety; the hotel doorman who, against every instinct, gives up his Arab-sounding name in order to get a job and hopes, against all likelihood, to get the blonde concierge; the gay Arab American trying, in the hostilely homophobic 1980s and early ’90s, to be at peace as a “double minority.”

In these stories, the political and the personal are intertwined neither as a function of the book’s narrative nor by the choice of the book’s subjects. Instead, the relationship is almost accidental. No wife asks to lose her husband to a cause; no mother wishes to feel an alienation from her American-born children even as she yearns for a home that’s slowly disappearing.

The duplicity of a narrative is something we all intimately understand: Our own lives are made up of multiple stories, no one of which defines us. They are personal, political, and occasionally public. Malek’s book reminds us, at a particularly resonant time, that none of those stories is simple. When it comes to “Amreeka,” we never understand exactly what we think we do.

Jina Moore is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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