How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Opposition to my book seems more symptomatic of our moment than produced by its contents,” Moustafa Bayoumi, writes in an October Chronicle for Higher Education article.  I just finished reading How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? and I agree. It’s not a “radical” book. It’s a multifaceted celebration of the contradictions of Arab-American youth, seeped with a love for New York City and respect for the country at large.  But the content of the book is not what set off the controversy surrounding it. The New York times reported:

The seeds were planted last winter, when professors in the [Brooklyn College] English Department, with Donna Wilson, the dean of undergraduate studies, chose this year’s ”common reader”: a book given to all freshmen and transfer students in an effort to provide a common experience at the outset of the school year. The books are generally memoirs set in New York City, by authors available to speak on campus.

In past years, the committee has selected Frank McCourt’s ”Angela’s Ashes” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s ”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” This year it picked Dr. Bayoumi’s 2008 book, which profiles seven Arab-Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The young Arab-Americans profiled in the book have a range of aspirations and conflicts.  There’s the Iraq War veteran, the high school student who launches a legal battle with her school’s student council, the rebellious Iraqi teenager who runs away dozens of times before growing into a conservative, devout Muslim herself.  The book is interested in the roadblocks these young people hit on the way to adulthood — and the negotiations they make with their background in the process.  It’s a coming of age story particularly relevant in these times and in this city: The young men and women in the book are interested in school, friendships, dating, their families, and their careers, as well as politics, current events, and religion.  They’re figures most 20-somethings can relate to, making their clashes with contemporary culture all the more thought-provoking for a college-aged audience.

But when the English Department announced it had picked How Does it Feel to Be a Problem as its common reader, Bruce Kesler, an alumnus living in California (writing in a blog post entitled “I Just Disinherited My Alma Mater”) blasted the book as an attempt to inculcate political views in Brooklyn College’s entering class.   “I just updated my will and trust,” he wrote, “and, with heavy heart, cut out what was a significant bequest to my alma mater, Brooklyn College.” The post went viral, sparking widespread opposition to Bayoumi’s book and prompting plenty of other objectors.

“My first reaction was one of disbelief,” Bayoumi writes. “Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn’t actually read the book.” Reading the book weeks and months after the crisis’s peak, I see why Brooklyn College picked it in the first place. Spirited and opinionated, it’s written in colorful accessible language.  It’s an easy read, but not a light one.  This is a book that wants (and deserves) to be talked about.  So I’m glad to see Bayoumi hasn’t dropped the topic yet because, as  The Daily News reports, neither have New Yorkers:

Last Thursday, a [book club] discussion of Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” quickly turned personal.

Kerry Sahadi, 38, a blond married to a Christian of Lebanese decent, explained how she and her husband were both pulled over for speeding while following each other. Her husband was ticketed. She wasn’t.

Brooklyn-born Thikra Esa, 25, wearing traditional Muslim dress, admitted to anger over having to miss her prom and pass on an internship in Manhattan because of her parents’ strictness.

Bay Ridge mom Omayma Khayat, 31, opened up about her decision during college to cover her hair and her less-religiously strict mother’s embarrassment over it.

Muslims in the heavily Arab-American area are often reluctant to branch out of their tight-knit community, fearful of being rejected amid images of them as terrorists, said Linda Sarsour, 30, the Arab-American Association’s co-founder and a book club member.

“This is an opportunity for people to have a regular conversation,” Sarsour said. “If this can happen in Bay Ridge and be successful, it can happen anywhere.”

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1 comment
  1. meera said:

    I would like to read the book-I remember the controversy over that book when it was announced as a common reader.

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