Book Review: A Country Called Amreeka

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A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories
by Alia Malek
New York: Free Press, 2009

Few books published in the past 10 years or so which deal with the histories and lives of people of Arab descent actually deal with Arabic experiences in America. This fact leaves the impression that Arab people entered the American consciousness only after 2001. And while it is clear that predominant views of Arab peoples are typically distorted, stereotypical and organized to promote violence and animosity toward Arabic countries, many Americans have furthered refused careful examination of the experiences of Americans of Arab descent, both historical and contemporary, in this country. By detailing the lives of a number of different individuals in different contexts and times in America, Alia Malek's A Country Called Amreeka begins to fill in that gap in our collective understanding of our own history.

Alia Malek is a second generation American of Syrian background. She works as a civil rights attorney in Baltimore, but her writing sparkles as she brings to life the men and women who are the subjects of this book. Though Malek provides a space in which 11 men and women tell about their individual lives in Amreeka, the Arabic word for the US, they stand in in some ways for the 3.5 million people of Arab descent in this country. As she notes, these Americans are of Christian and Muslim background (of different sects). They live in all 50 states. Some are new immigrants; some came in the wave of the great migration to the US in the latter part of the 19th century. They are workers, business owners, teachers and students; they are our neighbors, co-workers, friends and relatives. They are voters, consumers, rich and poor.

"The purpose of this book isn't to separate them out," Malek explains, "but to fold their experience into the mosaic of American history and deepen our understanding of who we Americans are."

The book opens with the story of Ed Salem, a football star at the University of Alabama in the 1940s. Salem's family, who were Christians, had moved to the US a generation before from Lebanon and made this country their new home. Almost 100,000 people from Arabic-speaking countries entered the US in this time period, the vast majority of whom were Christians. Like immigrants from Europe, Salem's father, Yussef Salem El Ankar had arrived at Ellis Island. Confused by the pronunciation of his name, authorities there changed it to Joe Salem.

The Salem's moved to Birmingham, Alabama where a thriving Lebanese community existed within the racial hierarchies and violence of the mid-20th century South. When the civil rights movement challenged Southern Jim Crow laws, Salem and the Lebanese community found they were subjected to segregation and racial red-lining in housing.

In each of the stories, Malek sets the individual lives within a global, national and local context that tells as much about the individuals as it does about the communities they live in and the major social and cultural trends at the time. For example, Rabih AbuSahan, whose family sent him off to Iowa State University in the mid-1980s both as a way to avoid the violence that plagued their home country of Lebanon and to help him find more opportunities, struggled with the complexities of being gay, Muslim and from an Arabic country just after the first Gulf War (1991), the first World Trade Center bombing (1993) and the terrorist attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City (1995).

Because he lived and worked as a medical professional in Midwestern cities like Kansas City and Des Moines, Rabih felt isolated, Malek writes. His own religious values promoted a sense of self-hate because of his sexuality, and this combined with fears about how he would be treated by Americans generally as a result of the major confrontations between the US and Arabic countries. Racism, religious bigotry and homophobia seemed to be a powerful web he could only hide from rather than confront.

That is until he met other gay men of diverse backgrounds who had struggled with similar issues. He joined a group called "Men of Colors and Cultures Together" and began to meet and work with gay men who had struggled to reconcile their religious values with their sexuality and the views of their families. He met and worked with men who experienced racism and fought back with slogans like "Black is beautiful!"

While, according to Malek's narration, Rabih never fully resolves all the tensions, contradictions and challenges of being in America, he does finally start to make America his home when he joins the ongoing struggle for equality and erasing the hatreds that are so much a part of this country's history.

These are just two of the stories that make this book a worthwhile read. Richly told and beautifully written, this book is as valuable a contribution to the American story as Malek hopes it will be.

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