A Country Called Amreeka – Book Review
Alia Malek may very well be the first to narrate a comprehensive contemporary American history from the perspective of Arabs in America. If others have grown up in a situation anything like mine, then their experience reading textbooks in grade school is not unlike that of many other non-white peoples in the United States, who read what passes as American history often wondering what role people like them played.
Malek answers decisively: there are many roles, and one cannot quite comprehend the diversity of experiences that have tried Arabs in this country (or, indeed, American history itself) without giving heed to all of them. If you have ever wondered where Arab Americans were during the civil rights freedom marches, what the Oklahoma City bombings meant for a gay Arab man in Kansas, or the social justice movements of the 1960s, this is, without a doubt, the book to start with.
Malek communicates these stories with extraordinary skill, delivering a personal account of seminal historical events and the impacts they had on individuals’ lives as much as she delivers an account of how these individuals’ lives impacted those events. She does so in a way that forces us to reconsider how we conceive of the Arab in American history, problematizing many of our common assumptions about Arab attitudes towards race, class, sexuality, and politics. Further, she does so in a way that is as illuminating for non-Arabs as it is for Arab-Americans themselves.
For example, while Arabs today are officially considered “white” on government forms, Malek’s legal background as a civil rights lawyer persistently shines through, reminding us that in the early 20th century, American courts “struggled with whether or not Syrians—as [the people of Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon] were called—were white…. The federal government… in each case opposed the Syrians’ naturalization on the grounds they were not white for the purposes of naturalization.” That was at a time when American immigration law only allowed naturalization for people deemed white.
Against this backdrop we are thrust into the life of Lebanese football star Ed Salem in Birmingham, as he straddles the line between local hero (having defeated Auburn for the University of Alabama) and undesired outsider (Ed and his wife Ann were not allowed to buy a home in a “restricted” neighborhood – that is, one for whites only). We see how Ed, despite his ethnic background, semitic nose, and the tantalizing aroma of his mother’s cooking, made a life for his family despite the rampant white supremacism and violence around him.
In contrast to these beautifully simple yet intimate stories about people navigating the circumstances around them, we are acquainted with a number of characters actively engaged in community struggles, fighting hard to transform their circumstances. We gain profound insights into the way these larger world-views penetrated their personal lives and those of their families. The most tragic tale, perhaps, is Alex Odeh’s assassination in 1985. The Jewish Defense League assassinated Odeh, it is widely believed, for his outspoken activism on Palestine in his capacity as West Coast director of the Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. Malek treats the matter with profound sensitivity, transitioning elegantly from Alex’s narrative point of view to his wife Norma upon his death.
Other exhilarating and inspiring stories of Arab activists include Alan Amen and his role in labor organizing in his Dearborn community, and especially in initiating protests asking his union to divest its bonds from Israel during the 1973 war.
While Malek reminds us of an Arab-American history that those of us in the younger generations may never have lived through, she also writes about Arab-Americans who make history in the present. Through the dueling Maya Berry (Democrat) and Randa Fahmy Hudome (Republican), we get a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes role Arab-Americans played not as voters but as activists, campaign organizers, and power brokers. The section on Berry and Hudome is particularly painful to read, in no small part due to Malek’s skillful use of situational irony. Perhaps she could not have avoided it, given that this is a contemporary history we are all too familiar with. Nevertheless one has to cringe as Malek retells the story of Bush’s pandering to the Arab-American community through Randa Hudome, who apparently fed him the lines that won him the Arab endorsement in 2000:“Second, there is other forms of racial profiling that goes on in America. Arab Americans are racially profiled in what is called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we have to do something about that. My friend, Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan, is pushing a law to make sure that Arab Americans are treated with respect.”
As incorrect as the statement was (Malek informs us that racial profiling and secret evidence were in fact two separate issues), that such an issue reached public prominence in a televised national presidential debate must have been groundbreaking at the time, but the tale can only be cautionary for us today, at a time when we must vigilantly remember that kind words are no panacea for the now intensified discrimination against Arab-Americans, and the prospect of new wars against still more Arab countries.
These are only a few of the lives and experiences Malek shares with us to illustrate the variety of the Arab experience in America. Weaving American history out of Arab stories, identifying connections to developments in American law and policy, Malek has craftily paved the way for others to investigate and share the history of Arabs in America. More than sharing a history with us, though, Malek’s book is profoundly empowering, suggesting the range of possibilities open to Arabs in this country today. There is no standard course for us to follow, only paths for us to pave. In that sense, it is too ironic and unfortunate that the publisher chose the book’s feature endorsement to come from Queen Noor of Jordan, who Arab-Americans would do better without, both as a spokesperson and an advocate. With options like Anthony Shadid, Steven Salaita, and Naomi Shihab Nye on the back, it’s too bad publishers still find Arab royalty to be more marketable than Arab authors and activists. Indeed, if there is anything that A Country Called Amreeka should leave the reader knowing, it is that, often, we, with our ordinary lives, are the ones with extraordinary stories to tell for ourselves — with or without authoritative approval.
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