October 6, 2015
It was a pleasure to meet Moustafa Bayoumi last evening at the Graduate Center for the launch of his most recent book This Muslim American Life.
Moustafa Bayoumi, also the author of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? is a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, lives in New York, and from Egyptian origins. During the discussion of the book launch, Bayoumi explained the presented styles, tones and voices in the book making it an easy read. In lieu of academia, Bayoumi’s argument does not restrict to one tone. Bayoumi signifies the Global War on Terror places Muslims in a predicament of the image associated with being a terrorist, and mirrored by the American society. He talks about the justification of military intervention overseas and overlooks the Arab problem as a general statement.
Bayoumi highlights the interchangeability of themes in both of his books through contexts of time and space. Bayoumi sheds light on the Muslim-Arab story in the United States and how it truly feels to be what he calls an “Arab problem”. Bayoumi carries a humorous tone in his books, explaining the notion of “Regimes of Stupidity” where many contextualize Muslims under one umbrella of identity, albeit Muslims originate from 69 different countries.
The trajectory of his work shifts from how to become a problem in America being an Arab, to the Muslim life, projecting the history of Muslims in the United States. In Bayoumi’s talk, he expresses the tone in his work carried towards historicizing Islam in the U.S. He passes on with a notion of optimism, where he explains it as a passing historical phase of Muslims targeted in America. Muslims are being historicized, asserting that “Muslim is the new black”. His argument is well developed. He moves forward with discussing racial oppression in the United States.” To be a Muslim American today often means to exist in an absurd space between exotic and dangerous, victim and villain, simply because of the assumptions people carry about you.”
A source added “Bayoumi exposes how contemporary politics, movies, novels, media experts and more have together produced a culture of fear and suspicion that not only willfully forgets the Muslim-American past, but also threatens all of our civil liberties in the present.” In the world of film, Bayoumi was featured in Sex and the City 2, playing a stereotype Arab terrorist. This imagery in the movie portrays and conveys the generic brown-colored-hostile-looking man. The character is not introduced to the audience as “a person”, rather as an element of representation due to hostility and backwardness. During the talk, Bayoumi discusses the image and representations of Muslims in the Hollywood film industry. “Representation is more than the thing itself” where Bayoumi talked about the exaggeration of difference in tones when filming a Hollywood movie. He drew similarities in the representations of Muslims and black characters on T.V. and how they usually are the first to die off in mainstream media.
Bayoumi uses references to Mohammed Ali and Malcolm X in support of his argument of true Black American/Muslim men. Bayoumi discusses the notions of Islam presentation accompanied by its misrepresentations produced.
Also, Bayoumi focuses on the acts of collecting wrongful information and the misuse of data, surveillance and targeting, all that leads to misplaced data and misconceptions about Muslims. Alienation is a primary narrative in his work rather than “exceptionalizing” a people.
Many acclaimed novelists and cultural workers wrote good scholarship on interfaith dialogues with the promise to change misconceptions, stereotypes and false representation of Muslims, Arabs and ethnic communities.
The book explains how Law Enforcements and the FBI interfere in the lives of Muslims to the extent, as Bayoumi explains “the police aim to patrol the minds of Muslims for what they believe they will think and not for their actions.”(9) The authorities barge into the lives of ordinary Muslim Americans. Pluralization of a group is a result of when society associates labels to people. Bayoumi adds, post September 11, 2001 Muslims, more than ever, were categorized as hostile, aggressive and a possibility of potential threat.
The topic I enjoyed most was describing encounters with people when asked about his name. The name Moustafa has resulted in questions leading to misconceptions of being a secular Arab American in New York City. Bayoumi discusses the significance of having an Arabic name and how it has played a big role in interaction with people.
He touched on other important topics. How others had to endure their fate post September 11, 2001 leading to deportation and incarceration of thousands of Arabs and Muslims. Basing a race almost solely on a national origin and immigration status is quite unfair and absurd. His book is an interesting read with a wide readership who can relate to the topics and problems issued.
One of the chapters I personally appreciate in the novel was “Letter to a G -man”. Bayoumi traces the trajectory and history of the first Middle Eastern settlers in New York City from the 19th century. They filled shops with spices, Middle Eastern sweets and beautiful crafts in lower Manhattan on Greenwich, State, and Water Streets. Arabs have been in New York for centuries leaving a legacy behind that is not as appreciated as it should be.
Last but not least, Bayoumi ended the discussion with reading from his book; an interesting list of eleven rules of attributes for writing the perfect Muslim Character. Very funny!
Here are 5 out of 11 crazy rules for writing Muslim Characters: (249)
- Be very careful. Palestine is not Pakistan, Iraq is not Iran, and Hamas is not Hizbollah. Iranians are not Arabs. Turks are Turks. Farsi is Persian which is not Arabic. Shia is the same as Shi’ite, and Sunnis and Shias are not ethnic groups, like Kurds, who are both Sunni and Shia (or Shiite). I know it’s confusing. Sorry about that.
- Muslim men with beards should never be shown smiling.
- You will probably have an older male Jewish character. Make him wise. Don’t bother showing Arab Christians. No one will believe you. Same goes for Indonesian Muslims.
- Always have someone, preferably the wise Jewish character, say that not all Muslims are terrorists. That way, the association between Muslims and terrorists will be cemented. Very useful.
- Be sure to have at least one good Muslim character, preferably one good one for each bad one. People will then say your film or book is “ balanced” (when in fact, as you know, its function is more akin to an alibi). Besides, fifty-fifty are pretty good odds that half of all Muslims are terrorists (see above).