Amreeka: A Chronicle of Arab Americans
posted May 1, 2010
The book by Alia Malek explores the Arab American immigrant experience
Review by Mischa Geracoulis
Reading Alia Malek’s A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories (Free Press 2009) is like bearing witness to the evolution of America by way of the hyphenated American—specifically, Arab-Americans of various origins. A Country Called Amreeka also lends itself as an examination of America’s polemical issues with those of Middle Eastern extraction. The examination is mostly biographical, yet its academic and legal rigors render author Alia Malek’s work weighty and authoritative (Malek is a civil rights lawyer after all). Though many of the stories here are inherently tragic, this book is not a portrayal of helpless victimhood. Rather, the emerging theme portends societal awakenings and human efforts to do the right thing.
The author presents narrations of the Arab-American experience of Amreeka (Arabic for America) from 1963 to 2003, while attempting to answer the compelling question, “What does American history look and feel like in the eyes and skin of Arab-Americans?” Structured around key historical events in and by waves of immigration to the United States, the visage of the Arab-American is vivified. Through intimate accounts, surprising historical facts and immigration data, Amreeka walks us down the American memory lane; albeit hand-in-hand with a coinciding-yet different-recollection than that of mainstream consciousness.
Malek’s book evokes an archaic sadness. Despite our advances as a race, we humans are still holding back, singling out, categorizing, and quarantining one another on the bases of ethnicity, race, and systems of belief. Excepting the occasional hermit, we human beings are a tribal lot with an innate need to belong. This is well reflected in the lamentable example of Luba and George, a young Palestinian couple living and working in a British protectorate in the late 1950s. Their faux pas was in assuming a right to socialize with co-workers at the British company club. Luba and George were prohibited simply because they were not Brits. Their time in this British protectorate describes what would have been desolation had it not been for the Greek couple who too were excluded from the British community.
In A Country Called Amreeka, human stories persistently weave among statistics to uncover a parallel universe. Take the case of Ed Salem, Palestinian-Lebanese-American in Birmingham, Alabama. While Rosa Parks was getting arrested for violating segregation laws, real estate laws were obstructing Ed Salem. The house for which he’d saved up and promised to his family was in a neighborhood publicly zoned for white homeowners only.
Malek’s book reminds us of America’s institutionalized prejudices that a predominant part of the nation might prefer to forget. Up until 1952 in the United States, xenophobic naturalization laws stated that immigrants had to legally prove to be white, free, and of good moral character before citizenship could be attained. Not exactly white or black, Arabs, like other Levantine races, no matter how free or good they may be, fell between the cracks of color.
The book’s depiction of the non-white immigrant’s subjection to a scrutiny inapplicable to the rest of society is disheartening. The feet of the non-white immigrant are held to a fire of evidence and corroboration, demanding a ridiculous impossibility of “whiteness.” Throughout this book, we see that the fire is sometimes a wild blaze, and at other times a smoldering ember; much in the way the wildfire threat level is measured in California, racism fluctuates from red to orange to yellow and back again depending on the wind.
The stories in these pages exemplify strength of spirit, and a belief in the guiding forces that brought America into being. At times when native-born Americans may be faltering or forgetful of their country’s founding ideals, it’s the immigrant who gives them meaning. Indeed, the immigrant with a burning desire for freedom and democracy is one who willingly submits his or her own culture to a superimposition of superpower.
In the ‘70s, there’s the story of Mohammed who emigrates from Jordan to Chicago. Self-conscious of the way his name rang out singularly in the Midwest and in desperate need of work, he transformed himself into the more hire-able “John.” During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, his Midwestern neighbors didn’t care if he was John or Mohammed, Arab or Persian, they only saw him as Middle Eastern and therefore threatening. Initially hailed exotic and interesting, he was quickly reduced to an object of repulsion.
Khalil Gibran, Lebanese-American writer, poet, artist, philosopher, and theologian, sums up one of the overarching tenets of the book. Speaking to Lebanese and Syrian-Americans in 1926, Gibran says, “Be proud of being American, but also proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid His gracious hand and raised His messengers.”
Amreeka lends itself as a manifesto, encouraging any immigrant or hybrid American to proudly stake claim to their heritage. Omar’s story illustrates a kid who comes of age in the early ‘90s during a family visit to Egypt, and does just that. Though Palestinian, Omar was born in the U.S. and spent most of his life in small town Texas. Growing up amongst white Anglo-Saxons, he was embarrassed of his roots. But after a fateful trip to Egypt and connecting with his Palestinian family there, he finds dignity in his legacy. In fact, as a Yale-graduated lawyer, he moved to Palestine and served as legal counsel to the Palestinians during peace negotiations with Israel from 1999-2001.
The narratives of Amreeka question prevailing authority, and remind us that there is always more than one side to every story. They attempt to burst the bubble of political propagandizing and negative stereotyping of Arabs and Arab-Americans. Sadly, via events like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, we can see, however, that Arabs are still frequently characterized as shady or dangerous. Rabih, a Lebanese immigrant awaiting naturalization in Wichita, Kansas, was afraid to leave his apartment after media outlets reported that that “Islamic extremists” were suspected in the Oklahoma City bombing. As Rabih watched CNN, he later reported to his parents back home, “This looks like it’s a video from Beirut.” As a pharmacist and EMT, his first impulse was to rush to the bomb scene and offer assistance just as he’d done back in Beirut. Nonetheless, with the authorities on the loose gunning for Islamic extremists, Rabih knew better than risk going out.
Alex Odeh, Palestinian-American, former West Coast regional director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (1981-1985), husband, father, and poet was murdered for his conflict resolution work. An advocate for human rights in the Arab community, he also worked diligently to build relationships with other ethnic, religious and racial groups in the greater community. He surfaced as a role model because of his interfaith and interracial efforts. His position openly encouraged win-win outcomes. Win-win, however, was not the outcome favored by the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a devoutly Zionist organization with a history of legal troubles. Though the FBI was able to point to four JDL members, all of whom had dual American/Israeli citizenship, they escaped as free men to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Lines from one of Odeh’s poems published posthumously read, “Lies are like still ashes. When the wind of truth blows, they are dispersed like dust and disappear.”
The issues of identity explored through personal experiences and events described in Malek’s book may well be that of any non-white immigrant or spliced national. Arabs and non-Arabs alike might see some part of themselves reflected in these pages. Examining the development of America by way of the hyphenated American has the potential to vanquish insular thinking and categorical rifts.
A Country Called Amreeka pays tribute to the lessons of the underdog for the sake of healing and meaningful discourse. In the end, Malek casts a vote of victory for justice and a vote of confidence in her fellow Americans, Arab-Americans, and human beings.
Mischa Geracoulis, associate editor of Levantine Review, is an essayist in Los Angeles.