Monday, July 28, 2008

Arab in America

Toufic El Rassi's "Arab in America" is a graphic novel depicting his life in the U.S.A. He's of Lebanese/Egyptian ancestry but grew up in the U.S. His experiences have not, to put it lightly, been pleasant. He tried to assimilate as a young man, but anti-Arab sentiments continually pushed him away. Much of the book is a chronicle of how El Rassi feels American culture has pushed him away and denigrated his heritage. He relates stories pre- and post- 9/11 of how Arabs are portrayed in popular culture; lumping all Muslims under the inaccurate moniker of "Arav"; portrayals of Arabs as inherently anti-American and potential terrorists. He's frustrated at liberals who "speak for him" but don't quite get the source of Arab resentment. He rails against the "War on Terror" and the indiscriminate renditions, imprisonments, and deportations. El Rassi also looks at how his fellow Arabs respond to these conditions -- from attempts to assimilate even more to efforts to embrace their Arab (and Muslim) identities.

The U.S.A. depicted in this book is not a welcoming place and is certainly not the U.S.A. we'd like to think we are. I'm not sure El Rassi's entirely fair to portray this nation as such an uncharitable and intolerant place, but I think he's got legitimate grievances. The anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments are clearly visible as are the violations of civil liberties endemic in our "war on terror". Sikhs have been attacked because they "look Arab" or "look Muslim" (they're not). One of my students, himself a Sikh, brought in a poster that local Sikh businessmen were displaying in their offices and stores that said "Sikhs Love America", in an attempt to stave off misunderstandings and discrimination and (possibly) violence. Arabs and/or Muslims are in an even worse situation than the Sikhs.

"Arab in America" is an unsettling book. I'm sure some on the right would call it an at anti-American work. Indeed, the author ends the book by leaving for Lebanon and seriously thinking of not returning to the U.S.A. But why did he leave? For El Rassi, we rejected him, not the other way around. In my (admittedly limited) interactions with Arabs (and Muslims), there is not so much a sense of anti-Americanism as much as a sense of having been rejected by us. Are there genuine anti-Americans out there? Absolutely. Are there terrorists in the Arab and Muslim world? Surely. But there's also another group of people who are far more complex in their hopes, aspirations, fears, and resentments. To lump everyone together in one category is inaccurate and, to me at least, rather Un-American.

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