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A Country Called Amreeka

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

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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.

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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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