Minneapolis Star Tribune

10 tales of Arab-American hopes, struggles

A collection of true stories about the lives of Arab-Americans focuses on values and desires, struggles and assimilation.

By MATTHEW TIFFANY, Special to the Star Tribune

December 12, 2009

In recent conversations, I’ve noticed distinct lines around what is and isn’t known about the tragedy at Fort Hood. Not what is known by investigators, mind you, but the general knowledge bubbling to the top of the man-on-the-street’s consciousness. The most commonly known pieces of information include the number of victims, dead and wounded; that the shooter is a psychiatrist named Hassan (or something like Hassan), and that he is a Muslim.

Actually, that last fact is often the first one cited in conversations, but the least specifically — with “Muslim,” “Al Qaeda,” “Taliban” and “Arab” all popping their heads up. The confusion of these terms continues unabated. Media coverage has lurched from the talking heads of 2001 declaring Arabs/Muslims the enemy, to the same gusts of warm air filling trial balloons with assurances that Hassan was “just a disturbed guy” — when we do not know whether he was just deeply disturbed or a genuine terrorist, or, even more challenging, that he could have been both. These broad brushstrokes of either/or may play well with the “headlines in three minutes” crowd, but thay are a disservice both to the understanding of mental illness and to Arab-Americans (and — heaven forbid — those neighbors of ours who might be both, and still not be terrorists!).

Alia Malek’s “A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories” fills in some of the details of a culture under siege, largely because of the efforts of terrorists abroad. With 10 reported stories of Arab-American individuals acting and reacting with regard to historical events nationwide, Malek opens up the possibility not only that they share the same goodness as other cultures, but that they also share the same jumble of values, interests and desires of any other red-blooded, confused American.

A high school football star parlays his talent into opening doors for other Lebanese boys; another young man embraces the challenges of navigating post-high-school life; a priest struggles to help others find meaning after the attacks of Sept. 11. The themes do not simply reflect what it is like to be Arab-American, but what it is like to experience American life — through struggles both universal and specific.

Malek avoids portraying these stories in a manner suggesting that she just wants everyone to see that Arab-Americans are Americans like everyone else. Rather, the individual stories balance relating the difficulties of minority status with a more complex subject: how their struggles, as Americans and simply as people, have played out over many decades of immigration to this country. By placing these individuals’ stories in the context of historical events, Malek simultaneously provides insight into Arab-American life and demonstrates that these people are not “just like us” — they are us, and the problem is not simply a lack of understanding, but also a too-narrow definition of “us,” a lack of sophistication in considering where American values and Arab-American values overlap. That Malek shows us the overlap while not disregarding the sharp edges speaks to the excellence of this collection.

Matthew Tiffany is a writer, therapist and book review editor for IdentityTheory.com. He blogs at condalmo.wordpress.com.