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.”

Festival of Lights

photo by Jay

Deepavali, Diwali, Deepawali, Divali — another year has passed and it’s time to again celebrate the festival of many names, traditions, stories, and observances.  As one explanation so artfully puts it:

More than a religious festival or the festival of a community or race, Deepawali is perceived as the battle of light against darkness – a tiny lamp’s determination to illuminate the earth and the sky setting them free from the all-enshrouding darkness. Deepawali celebrates this victory of the tiny lamp, its humble effort to fight out the gigantic darkness. People see in the effort of the tiny lamp their own effort to wade across the ocean of adversities, and this sense fills them with renewed confidence and fresh vigour for the days to come.

Happy Deepavali!

On The Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear

I’m back in New York today, rallying to restore lost sleep after one of the more exhausting weekends I’ve had — and trying to wrap my head around around the politically inspired Halloween-themed media critique that was Saturday’s Colbert/Stewart event.  I’ve been to Washington, DC countless times but the crowd the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear drew on Saturday completely transformed the city.  Cellphones become unusable; the Metro shut down (the DC transit authority reported 825,000 trips, more than double its usual load); the crowd stretched on as far as the eye could see.  Subversive but anodyne, “cool” but family-friendly, it was really more of a polite, ironic spectacle than a politically charged rally.

Because I was on assignment, I missed most of the live speeches and performances (I caught up online late last night).  But working my way through the crowds to shoot photos, I got a good feel for the sideshow.  And what an civil, reasonable sideshow it was — the outlandish costumes and pithy slogans couldn’t mask an underlying earnestness.  When I finally watched Jon’s main speech, what stood out to me was its guilelessness:

Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

It would be disingenuous to overlook the fact that Stewart/Colbert fans are overwhelmingly Democratic.  But a celebration of “little reasonable compromises” isn’t exactly what one would expect as a party rallying cry on the eve of midterm elections.  Coming from a political satirist, the talk of compromise and rationality was especially disarming.  Capturing votes (and legislative seats) takes — and creates — one kind of power. But capturing a national mood and moment has a power of its own.


photo by me: soundbites suck! at the Rally to Restore Sanity

The Persistence of Procrastination

I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction …

-Rainer Maria Rilke

One of my favorite notions about procrastination is the idea of incubation — the belief that quietly putting off a task when you just don’t feel like doing it is just a way of ensuring that when you do get around to it, it turns out great.  It’s a pleasant wives’ tale about inspiration and productivity that for the most part, I manage to dismiss in favor of lists, deadlines, and something like “sensible” time-management.  But the tricky part about this construction of procrastination  — and the reason I still cling to it — is that where creative tasks are concerned, I find it’s often true.  There is such a thing as productive delay, and it lends itself to thoughtfulness.  More often than not, setting aside an idea, a question, an argument, or theme for a while lets the mind do a bit of digestion and unconscious problem solving on its own — and results in better work.

Salvador Dali's Persistence of MemoryThe problem with this outlook is that as the stakes get higher, the impulse to allow for more and more “creative downtime” grows.  It’s procrastination at it’s most thrilling, debauched and clinical.  The Takeaway explored the topic morning in a segment on procrastination featuring Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, co-editors of  The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.  What intrigued me about the book is its apparent endorsement of the “great movement” philosophy of procrastination I hold dear.  As the New Yorker review of the book puts it:

You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”

Basic impulse, indeed! Co-editor White takes a different view. He suggests that the key to understanding and controlling the desire to procrastinate is treating it like any other struggle of willpower: make rules, exercise some discipline, keep the larger objective in mind.  Stay the course; resist the urge to reach for the short-term payoff.  But where’s the magic in that?  I’m inclined to keep looking to the literary giants, who have a great tradition of procrastination, for definitive instruction on how to postpone the task at hand.  E. B. White couldn’t have gotten it wrong, could he?

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.

image: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory