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Being Young And Arab In Post-Sept. 11 America

Sep 16, 2008

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Writer Moustafa Bayoumi Moustafa Bayoumi

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

In his new book, How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, Moustafa Bayoumi delves into the rich, complicated lives of seven men and women who are completely different in every way but two: They're all from Brooklyn, and they're all Arab. Their stories are American stories, with kaleidoscopic views.

We meet Sami, a Christian who signed up for the Marines. He was on a bus headed to basic training when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. After two deployments to Iraq, his sense of identity developed from amorphous into impassioned.

Syrian-born Rasha comes from a secularized Muslim family. As part of the xenophobic response to Sept. 11, she and her family were rounded up in a raid and imprisoned for months alongside criminals.

Yasmin was a devout 15-year-old Muslim and a popular kid at her high school. When she couldn't attend a school dance due to her religious beliefs, she was pressured to resign from the student council. (Yasmin is now in law school.)

The author, himself, is young, Arab and Brooklynese. He began writing the book at a moment when hate crimes spiked 1,700 percent against Arabs and Muslims, and when a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 39 percent of Americans believed all Muslims — including U.S. citizens — should carry special IDs.

Bayoumi turned to such writers as W.E.B Du Bois, Joan Didion and Barbara Ehrenreich for inspiration, and he concentrated on Brooklyn in part because it had been a home for Arab immigrants since the 1880s, and because, according to the 2000 census, the largest number of Arab-Americans in a city is in New York. (Dearborn, Mich., has a higher concentration of Arab-Americans, but Brooklyn's population is larger.)

In writing How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?, Bayoumi draws from his own rich history and rigorous training. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, and raised in Canada, Bayoumi is now on the faculty of Brooklyn College after earning his Ph.D. at Columbia. He's published widely in academic journals and popular periodicals like The Nation, New York Magazine and The London Review of Books.

This reading of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? took place in August 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.

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