Nonfiction debut profiles seven young Brooklyn residents of Arab-Muslim heritage whose lives redefine the American dream of their parents’ generation.
The book’s title derives from a question posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, and given the burgeoning of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments since 9/11, the author’s appropriation of it seems apt. Himself of Arab and Muslim descent, Bayoumi (English/Brooklyn Coll.) poignantly portrays young people coming of age at a time when “informants and spies are regular topics of conversation…friendships are tested, trust disappears.” His first subject, Rasha, endured a middle-of-the-night FBI raid on her family’s home in 2002. Agents handcuffed them—her eldest brother’s legs were shackled as well, after the heavy sleeper responded angrily upon being shaken awake—and forced Rasha’s father to leave his two youngest sons (the family’s only U.S. citizens) with a neighbor. After three months in prison, they were released (it’s unclear if any charges were ever filed), and Rasha never forgot this demonstration of what had happened to human rights in post-9/11 America. Probing into his interviewees’ domestic, vocational, civic, philosophical and religious concerns, the Swiss-born, Canadian-raised, U.S.-schooled author made generally good use of his multicultural passport. He gained access to mosques, insider cafes, conversations and disclosures not granted to outsiders. The proximity often works in the book’s favor, allowing him to glean interesting insights. Visiting Akram at the family-run East Flatbush grocery store where he worked for his father (while attending college fulltime), the author observed an intimacy that transcended race between the Palestinian-American proprietors and their West Indian and African-American customers. However, Bayoumi’s sympathy for his subjects sometimes shades over into identification, and the mix of academic background material with first-person narrative can be jarring.
A slightly disjointed narrative structure enfolds some compelling personal stories.