Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America

Rate this book
The story of how young Arab and Muslim Americans are forging lives for themselves in a country that often mistakes them for the enemy

Arab and Muslim Americans are the new, largely undiscussed “problem” of American society, their lives no better understood than those of African Americans a century ago. Under the cover of the terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the explosion of political violence around the world, a fundamental misunderstanding of the Arab and Muslim American communities has been allowed to fester and even to define the lives of the seven twentysomething men and women whom we meet in this book. Their names are Rami, Sami, Akram, Lina, Yasmin, Omar, and Rasha, and they all live in Brooklyn, New York, which is home to the largest number of Arab Americans in the United States.

We meet Sami, an Arab American Christian, who navigates the minefield of associations the public has of Arabs as well as the expectations that Muslim Arab Americans have of him as a marine who fought in the Iraq war. And Rasha, who, along with her parents, sister, and brothers, was detained by the FBI in a New Jersey jail in early 2002. Without explanation, she and her family were released several months later. As drama of all kinds swirls around them, these young men and women strive for the very things the majority of young adults desire: opportunity, marriage, happiness, and the chance to fulfill their potential. But what they have now are lives that are less certain, and more difficult, than they ever could have imagined: workplace discrimination, warfare in their countries of origin, government surveillance, the disappearance of friends or family, threats of vigilante violence, and a host of other problems that thrive in the age of terror.

And yet How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? takes the raw material of their struggle and weaves it into an unforgettable, and very American, story of promise and hope. In prose that is at once blunt and lyrical, Moustafa Bayoumi allows us to see the world as these men and women do, revealing a set of characters and a place that indelibly change the way we see the turbulent past and yet still hopeful future of this country.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Moustafa Bayoumi

8 books56 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
525 (28%)
4 stars
843 (45%)
3 stars
413 (22%)
2 stars
51 (2%)
1 star
29 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 235 reviews
Profile Image for Heather Colacurcio.
354 reviews7 followers
May 21, 2012
This book was assigned to me for a college course and I couldn't be more grateful for it. As a twenty-something, I've seen a fair share of recent American tragedy, the most horrific being September 11, 2001. Yet, the effects of tragedy have serious consequences when an angry, grieving society wants to place blame. That blame has been and continues to be placed on the Arab and Muslim community, creating a heavy and unjust burden for those residing in the supposed "land of the free". Reading through Bayoumi's stories of young Arab-Americans who faced great injustices at the hands of a scared and ignorant society made me absolutely furious. The young people whose stories Bayoumi recounts are all from New York City and rightfully so, for the thought that such a multicultural and accepting city could reject anyone based on their culture or background is truly disheartening. As a resident of Bergen County, New Jersey, I was shocked and horrified to find out that many local jails housed innocent people that were arrested and detained because they were seen as potential "threats". I'm not Arab or Muslim, but I am American, as are the young people in these true stories and are millions of other people who are fed up with ridiculous racial stereotyping, hatred and violence. If this book doesn't open your eyes, you need to reevaluate what it means to be an American.
Profile Image for Romany Arrowsmith.
371 reviews33 followers
August 27, 2018
The stories (and the millions like it that go unnoticed and untold in this country) are as important as the writing is horrendous. At the beginning of every new essay, Bayoumi feels the need to orient himself into the story - where he was when he first saw so-and-so, what so-and-so first looked like, and it always ends up reading like a bad noir detective talking about, I don't know, "the tall drink of water with gams from here to chicago who walked into his office on a friday evening with heavy mascara and a heavier secret drawn all over her face". Not even exaggerating that much. He constantly pauses in the narrative flow to make heavy-handed and unnecessary descriptive asides that don't add to the story, or even neutrally punctuate the story; they just pull the reader out of each character study, reminding us of Bayoumi's awkward authorial presence.

Two stars for effort, but it should not have taken me TEN DAYS to read this slender book, and his writing is the reason why.

"She's fine-boned, with porcelain features that give her what you think is sparrow innocence, but soon you'll realize that it's more akin to a hard fragility. If you drop her, she'll break, but she'll cut you, too."

"...But without a good job, the movie jams and the celluloid burns in the projector".

"Their union gives Yasmin her unique looks--a sandy complexion, puffy lips, and black currants for eyes."

Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,162 reviews1,262 followers
February 28, 2018
This is an interesting book about the lives of young Muslims of Arab descent living in Brooklyn in the first few years after 9/11. If that sounds very specific, well, it is, but despite what may initially seem to be a narrow focus, the book seems to me to do a good job of addressing various aspects of Arab Muslim life in the U.S. Each of its seven chapters is devoted to a different young person, whose story unfolds over 30-odd pages.

Most of the chapters have a specific focus. Rasha’s story is about an entire family detained and held in prison for two months shortly after 9/11, although they were never charged with any crimes. I am sorry to say that I was unaware of the post-9/11 mass arrests of Muslims in the U.S., although they were hardly unknown, even drawing the attention of Amnesty International. Sami’s story is about a Muslim soldier going to war for the U.S. in the Middle East. Yasmin’s is a story of a high school student who fights back against religious discrimination at her school. Omar’s is about employment discrimination, and Rami’s, the final story, about a young person getting religion. The author includes factual information about the various topics alongside the stories for context. Of course, giving each story relatively few pages limits their depth to some extent; in some cases the author focuses in on a particular aspect of someone's life, while other chapters follow their subjects for a longer time but with less detail.

I found these stories interesting and the author’s style accessible, and there is a lot in here I didn’t know. For instance, apparently the U.S. government drew up plans in the 1980s to put Muslims in a concentration camp. I am not sure how representative these young people and their families are of Arab-American Muslims, or if that was the author’s goal. Two of the families are Palestinian and two more have one Palestinian parent, which is not representative of the Middle Eastern population in the U.S. generally. The author is also strongly attached to writing about Brooklyn, which seems to me more unique than representative of American life, but enough of these folks have also lived in other places that that turned out to be less of a limiting factor than I initially expected. Regardless, these are important stories, many of which I hadn’t heard before. No book could represent all of Arab Muslim life in America, but this one does an excellent job of opening a window.
Profile Image for Caroline.
205 reviews5 followers
June 11, 2010
I appreciated all these stories BUT Yasmin's.

I felt her story should not have been included as it wasn't valid. She signed her name to run for student body secretary. When you sign your name to a document you agree to ALL the stipulations, otherwise you should NOT sign your name. One of the stipulations, that as an officer, you MUST attend ALL functions. Her beliefs did not allow her to attend dances because she felt they were morally wrong. In her opinion it was all about sexed up teenagers and outlandish music (maybe I'm old, but teachers attended those dances in my time and no hanky panky was allowed so I think that was judgmental of her). So she tries suing the school board when her father has her resign, as the school said she must go. The school would have even allowed her to stay in a room separate of the dance, so long as she was there. Moral of the story: Catering? Because rules were meant to be broken just because she was Muslim. Not cool!!!
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews502 followers
Want to read
September 20, 2016
Dr. Bayoumi was the keynote speaker at the Academic Convocation at Carlow University today. Unfortunately I did not know about this in time to get a copy of the book to read, which would be my preference. But he is a fantastic speaker, and spent a great deal of time answering questions at the reception held afterwards. Very articulate, knowledgeable, informed, and entertaining. Any time you can get a bunch of freshmen students involved and actually want to ask questions (even beyond what was required for their class assignment) about your thoughts, you get extra points from me.

Also he called Justin Trudeau "hot". I mean, we all know this, but it's funny to hear it from another Canadian.

I'll be getting a copy as soon as I can.
Profile Image for Laura.
142 reviews10 followers
February 5, 2017
What a weekend to finish this book. My country's racist president signed an executive order banning people from 7 majority Muslim and Arab countries late last week, and this weekend, I sat down to finish the 7 stories of Rasha, Lina, Yasmin, Sami, Akram, Omar, and Rami. Although these are stories from real people that happened between 20 and 10 years ago, and they are so similar to what is happening still.

Bayoumi is a careful and political mastermind, and he picked stories that showcase the courage, the resilience, and the soul of this subset of persecuted Americans. I have a goal to learn more about Islam this year, and this book opened up a thousand arrows of light to explore. This was a place to learn, to listen, and to find future reading. But first and foremost, it was a place to humanize history:

For instance, the US rounded up thousands of Muslim and Arab Americans after 9/11 and held them in detention without telling them why. That is a fact. I knew that and protested that in the early 2000s. However, reading how Rasha describes how her family fell apart after they were finally released from PRISON (she was a teenager!) broke my heart. Perhaps we already interned these people? We stripped them of jobs, school, and their families. What more?!

In the brightest moment of the book, you root for Yasmin's steadfast approach to living her values--it is such a core American principle. She believed in her right to expression in her school in the face of pure bigotry. Her right to her religious beliefs--even after everyone gave up. I will carry her story with me in the darker moments.

Omar's struggle to find a job with his brilliant credentials and his defense of the objective media are potent weapons for what has happened to our democracy over the last 10 years. We cloak discrimination and make our judgements on whims. I could go through each of the stories, but they all stand out as a dagger in the heart of justice.

The book itself is dated only in the fact that so much has happened in the Middle East since then. In particular, Lina's story ends with the idealized future of sending her unborn daughter to Syria for a summer. This book was published in 2008, before the spring that would unleash one of the worst humanitarian crisis of our new century. My hands went to my hair then, for the promises we haven't kept and for the children who will never know their homeland.

I find it fascinating that Bayoumi left the most religious story for the end, and I think it is because he understood the reader's journey, and that this book is meant for white Americans like me. He presents a journey through these stories, and then he provides the most nuanced story of Rami on his path with Islam at the end. As an atheist, I was intrigued the most by this story. It is the most "foreign" to me, but if you take out the specifics of the religion, it sounds just like an evangelical Christian. It's not cut and dried, because spiritual discussions never are--and that's the point.

The best conversations of my life have been questioning and challenging from people who believe in a higher power whereas I do not. So when Rami celebrates a new found friend who challenges him with "Why are you a Muslim?" I found myself cheering with him. We SHOULD ask our selves these questions. And we should listen to the answers. We are all Americans if we do that. #resistTrump
Profile Image for Diz.
1,607 reviews100 followers
August 23, 2015
This was an interesting read on a topic that needs more discussion in our society. A strong point of this book is that the author provided accounts from a wide variety of Arab-Americans. Doing this helped to break the stereotype of Arab-Americans that is common these days. The accounts provided a good picture of the situations that Arab-Americans face today.

One thing that I didn't like about the book so much is that there are quite a few reconstructed conversations that the author did not witness or which were not recorded. These conversations rely a little too much on the memory of the interviewee. While I trust the sources, I can't help thinking in the back of my mind whether the conversations were remembered accurately or not. If the reconstructed conversations were taken out, I would rate this higher.

Something to be aware of is that this book was written before U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, so recent developments in the Arab world are not covered in this book. It not a bad thing, but just something to be aware of when you read this. It would be interesting to hear how the lives of those covered in this book have developed since publication. Perhaps a new project for the author?
45 reviews
July 10, 2021
A look at the challenges facing young Arab and Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 era. I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, but it was interesting nonetheless to see how U.S. foreign policy has directly affected people’s lives. I just wish the portraits were more concise/better organized.

Sadly still relevant 13 years later.
Profile Image for Vrijeme.
3 reviews
November 24, 2015
If it hadn't been necessary for me to read this all the way through, then I would've thrown this away and taken it to the garbage can OUTSIDE.

Being forced to read a book for a university class is always guaranteed to leave a sour taste in your mouth. However, with each new book, I always stay optimistic and try to like it.

And with this little number, I tried liking it so hard I might as well have been constipated.

I do, however, give kudos to this book for addressing a serious issue all over the world and giving the Islam faith a more personal touch, since 99% of us are fed our beliefs.

The book is divided into five mini stories, all involving Arab Muslims living in the United States post 9/11, and their lives in that aftermath. While the stories came from all corners and were unique, they were described in droning words, dull as dirt and non-beneficial, to any part of the story. Describing every scene in backbreaking detail does not a good story make.

I tried to give the book the benefit of the doubt by reading through and seeing if they would either be connected or signified. Nope. Not even that.


Because fuck logic.

The writing style was so drab that it made this book practically unreadable. The stories themselves were interesting, but they shone about as brightly as a 1 watt lightbulb. It's so literal that it hurts.

Point of view is also mixed up in some sections of the book, especially when we approach the dreaded dialogue walls. Conversations in each one are between three people or more with no indication of who is saying what.

"How many?"
"Five, including me."
"But what about the student body?"
"Not sure yet."

Do you know who said what? No? GOOD.
Profile Image for Kristi.
323 reviews1 follower
June 14, 2021
This completes Task 12: Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color of Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge.

I was super excited to read this book when I saw it as a recommendation for this task. I was not disappointed. The author did a great job interviewing these young Arabs (men and women) in New York so that he could compile a book about what it is like to grow up Arab, especially post 9/11. I loved that he went with them to places to see how they interacted with other people in the community (Muslim or Non-Muslim). I loved that he told their before and after and some of them had it somewhat rough before 9/11, but for the most part it definitely got worse. I learned a great deal and things I didn't know happen like Muslims were picked up randomly and spent many weeks in detention centers/jails with criminals without knowing their charge. It is very sad to read these things and it made me rethink the things I said right after 9/11. In my 20s, I said things like, "We should just bomb Afghanistan," thinking all that remained were the terrorists as pushed by all media, not just Fox News. I was impressed with how each of the people broke down what they were feeling and how it changed them; some of them became more spiritual. I was also surprised to find out about the beatings and killings of Arabs in American (even in Dallas...never heard that before) post 9/11. Very sad.

Although, I did have some issues. I don't know what it is or why, but here lately, the Prefaces I have read have BEEN SOOOOOO LONNNNGGGG! For gosh sakes, it's a Preface, an Introduction. It's not the same as a chapter. It's an abstract of what the rest of the book will provide or your results from your investigative study. Granted, this Preface was no where near the length of The New Jim Crow Laws book, but it's just getting tired. And I think I'm over it. Also, I did not think Lina's story was relative to the rest of the investigative work, with the exception of how Iraq changed for her and two of her friends jailed for espionage. It was about her rebelliousness as a teen to her family and religion. I'm sorry, but that happens everywhere no matter your religion. Teens do this. I mean we don't have the vernacular, "Preacher's Daughter/Son," shown in a wild light for nothing. For me, she could have been anyone in America and I just didn't feel like it added anything to the rest. Or at least, I would have focused more on her feelings of Iraq.

I think this is a good book for anyone to read who was around in America during 9/11, especially ones who were in their late teens/early 20s. It changes the perspective and narrative of Arab Americans and will make you think about things you never thought you should or needed. I only wished the book had a part 2 of other people and their experiences in America, not just New York.
Profile Image for Isabelle .
191 reviews8 followers
October 3, 2022
3,5 ⭐

The first stories catched me more.
Nevertheless very interesting.
Profile Image for Vivian.
43 reviews
September 25, 2023
Even though the individual stories were nice, this book was so poorly written that it took me multiple years to finish
Profile Image for Richard Knight.
Author 6 books58 followers
June 21, 2020
Some stories in this book are infuriating. Some are inspiring. And some are distinctly familiar. But all of them are excellent, and I recommend this book to any Muslim-hating SOB (and I know a few) out there, since it shows how Muslims are not so different from anybody else. Because of course they're not. They're human! And we're all in this together.
Profile Image for Eugene.
Author 17 books256 followers
April 22, 2009
all history is biography bayoumi shows us again and again and again with these only occasionally sentimental, sometimes triumphant, and very very often heartbreaking profiles of young arab-america.

these portraits of brooklynites show a pervasive racism that i'll admit was profoundly unfamiliar to me. profound not only because these documented injustices occurred close by, down the block and up the hall--but profound too because i'd naively assumed that, for the most part, your cruder, traditional variety of racist act had largely been replaced by the subtler, slicker and more insidious prejudices of a PC age. turns out though to some, the oldies are still the goodies.

"But the traders at the exchange used to harass Sade constantly... They would crumple paper into balls (as if they were stones) and throw them at him. 'Go back to Palestine!' they'd yell, and laugh. When he wouldn't laugh back, they'd retort with, 'Hey, we do it because we love you.' But Sade didn't buy it. On other occasions they would scream, 'Don't blow yourself up!' to him. On quiet days someone would run right up to him and bang chests, yelling, 'Ba-BOOM!' Then the other traders would fall over in hysterics ...Then one day shortly afterward... the director called Sade into her office to tell him that he had to go... To this day Sade is convinced that the termination order came from on high, a cleansing of Arabs from New York's fragile cathedral of international commerce" (192-3).

"For Palestinian kids in American high schools, their keffiyahs matter. unlike other kids, they don't have a country to lay claim to so they hold tightly to their symbols... Once, when he was a junior, one of his English teachers passed him in the stairwell while his hatta was on his shoulders. She stopped above him, peered down at the scarf, and spit out the questions to him. 'What does that mean?' she said. 'You hate all Jews?' He was stupefied. 'Nah. It's not like that, ' he said. 'It's just traditional!' He resented the idea that the hatta -- and by association his culture and ethnic origin -- could be interpreted as hatred" (127).

"Before the attacks the American popular imagination was essentially blind to Arabs and Muslims... After the attacks, however, they have formally entered American discourse around race, and with a bang... 'Black New Yorkers joke among themselves about their own reprieve from racial profiling,' explained a New York Times article from October 2001. 'Even the language of racial grievance has shifted: Overnight, the cries about driving while black have become flying while brown'" (133-4).

an excerpt from NEW YORK magazine:

Profile Image for Gregory.
Author 11 books13 followers
May 15, 2010
From http://weeksnotice.blogspot.com/2010/...

I highly recommend Moustafa Bayoumi's How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. The title comes from W.E.B. Du Bois, who asked the same question about African American during Jim Crow. Bayoumi, who is an English professor at Brooklyn College, chronicles seven Arabs (men and women mostly in their 20s in Brooklyn) and we meet their friends as well.

As you might imagine, the result defies all stereotypes. Some are deeply devout Muslims, some are not. Some are very angry at the U.S. government, while others hope to leverage their knowledge of Arabic into an FBI job. Some have close relationships with their families, while others (particularly one young woman) chafe at their parents' control.

What you can't help noticing is that their problems are the same problems that all young have--getting a job, getting married, figuring out your identity, etc. The difference is that after 9/11, there is an extra layer of obstacles. For all of them, even those with family members who have been arrested, terrorism is anti-Islam. That's not even an issue, yet so many people around them figure they are terrorist sympathizers.

One interesting (and I think positive) aspect of the book is the fact that one of the men volunteers for an organization that sends out free Qur'ans. Hits on the website spike and requests soar when a public figure speaks ill of Muslims. Most of those requests come from non-Muslims who are simply curious to learn more. There is an appetite for understanding, perhaps (and hopefully) greater than we tend to think. What this book shows is that there are certainly cultural differences, but issues like high school elections, getting through college, arguing with your parents, thinking about religious beliefs, even just going out to eat, are entirely universal.
Profile Image for Lynn.
52 reviews1 follower
December 10, 2016
I bought this book on a whim while walking around Chelsea at one of my favorite bookstores. I started reading it in the store and continued as I walked around the city that afternoon. As well as on my way home, and then at the seat by the window in my apartment till I finished it. I could not put in down. I completed it in less than 3 hours. Yes, I thought it was that good.

The story is of my city, my borough, in particular, about Brooklyn. The people in this story - all young and under 30 - could be my neighbors or friends. The streets, businesses, and homes, described throughout the story are the same as mine. Their habits and mannerisms are all similar to people I know. Their dreams, hopes, and struggles are that of most any New Yorker- or really most any individual that I've ever met, which is why I found this book so infuriating and so stunningly good.

Moustafa Bayoumi is an English professor and takes the title of this book after W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk" where he talks to and about African Americans during Jim Crow. In this book, Bayoumi profiles seven young Arab-Americans living in New York City. The book walks the reader through how it feels being Arab and, for example; going to high school, serving in the US Army, manning a deli, shopping on the street, or trying to attend a dance.

It's just soul crushing to think that here - where we all live in a "RELATIVE" peace amongst each other - there continues to be such injustice over basic tenements of humanity. Many of these stories are tragic; a handful are hopeful, but all of them stay with you, and that is a testament to the writer and the story tellers. Read this book; ignorance is nothing to be proud of.
Profile Image for Tabitha Vohn.
Author 9 books111 followers
March 30, 2015
Its difficult rating a book on the basis of enjoyment when it's purpose is to inform, not to entertain. That being said, this is an informative look into a perspective that we (in America) are not often given a window to.

I enjoyed some of the stories more than others (the first is especially moving), only because a few of the narratives seemed to be unnecessarily long while other, more compelling ones were cut short. (I think this had something to do with the longer stories belonging to personal friends of the author).

Nevertheless, it was thought-provoking. It made me think about what a long history of discrimination mars our country and the sadness of that. It's sad that with all of our collective knowledge of the past we still, as a society, react with the same fear and ignorance that genocided Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, imprisoned Japanese Americans, turned a crooked brow towards Russians etc. However, I will be so bold as to say that we are no different from any other country. Every nation, culture, people has its own prejudices, discrimination, reactions out of fear or retaliation.

The common denominator is that innocent people always suffer. This book is another testimony in a long line of testimonies to the fact.One that everyone needs to be reminded of.
Profile Image for Elizabeth☮ .
1,572 reviews11 followers
June 22, 2016
I read this book in preparation for a class I am taking this summer entitled: Retelling and Rewriting America.

I found this to be an easy and accessible read. Each chapters tells the story of a young Arab American (all of the participants are younger than thirty) and none of the stories are the same.

It is fascinating to read about the transition (for some) to America and how their families assimilated into American culture. It is also heartbreaking to hear how many of these immigrants feel like they no longer have a home to return to any longer.

I don't want to give the impression this is politically charged, because I feel like the author doesn't lay blame anywhere. Bayoumi lays out the facts and the reader is left to glean the reality of each individual's situation.

This book is almost ten years old, so I wonder if the author plans to follow up in any way with the stories presented here.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,321 reviews978 followers
June 12, 2022
"Yet as in the postmodern world in which we live, sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere": I love how this statement simultaneously says absolutely nothing of substance (wherever you go, there you are - Buckaroo Banzai) and perfectly encapsulates the predominant difficulty facing identity as a discrete category in a modern globalised world (does erasing the possibility of tribalism inherently lead to erasure of personal identification and, more crucially, culture or cultures as distinct entities?). I might not have been Young and Arab in America (in the time period upon which this book focuses), but I know people who were, and it feels bad, actually. That's the answer to the titular question: it feels bad, actually.
Profile Image for Diana.
46 reviews
February 14, 2016
I was SO excited for this book, to help me better understand something I have never experienced. I think a book like this needs to be out in the world to show just how difficult it is to be Arab In America. While I was intrigued by the lives of Arab Americans in Brooklyn and outraged at the discrimination they faced, the book devolves into its own form of hatred. I'll be the first to admit America has problems, but I'm not sure hating back helped; it seemed to undermine the genuine struggles in the stories the author was relaying. We can't fight hate with hate. But then again, I am not a minority, so perhaps the volleyed ire is fitting. Great idea, not so great execution.
Profile Image for rinal ♡.
15 reviews
April 20, 2022
while i think the premise of the book & the idea of exploring the identities of arab-muslim americans in a post 9/11 society is poignant, the way it was written made it really hard to get through. there wasn’t much finesse or eloquence in the author’s writing, making the stories seem so much more dull than they actually were. however, i still enjoyed this book, just not as much as i could have.
245 reviews10 followers
January 24, 2021
Sometimes, the most scathing and incisive act isn't hyperbole or exaggeration - it's simply to tell a story.

"How Does it Feel to be a Problem" is a book of seven stories. Each story follows a different young Muslim in America, each of whom is navigating a radically different experience. One is in the midst of a religious revival while another is being kept from student government by the racism of her school. One is a marine and part of the invasion of Iraq, while other is hounded by arbitrary detentions of family members. (Though, to be fair, arbitrary and racially motivated detention of family members and harassment by police, ICE, and other agencies is a feature of several stories.)

These stories are, simultaneously, profoundly normal and incredibly disturbing. In each one of them, we witness a young person trying to navigate the normal trials and challenges of adolescent life in a highly relatable way... only to face relentless marginalization, racism, and exclusion piled on top.

I reserve five-star ratings for books that I believe /everyone/ should read. I think this is one of them. The stories are emblematic of the dark underbelly of anti-Muslim within America, though the lessons could just as easily be applied to other marginalized communities or take place in other countries, Canada included. The stories are so damning - of prisons, of the military industrial complex, of subtle and explicit racism, of America's approach to immigration - because they're so real and unexaggerated.

In the afterward, Bayoumi says that "...the principles currently at stake revolve not only around issues of full equality and inclusion, but fundamentally around the consequences that American foreign policy has on domestic civil rights" (p. 261). I think this captures the heart of the book, though perhaps could be expanded. We're all too often guided to think of racism as something that happens in interactions of vile or more subtle microaggressions. But, what Bayoumi reveals is that the marginalization, exclusion, and setting-up-for-failure that happens isn't just in interpersonal interactions, but in deeply perverse systems. It's born, per the quote above, from an American foreign policy that's antagonistic, imperialistic, and racist, which trickles into lived experiences at home. But, it's also born of the way we build institutions of policing, of education, and of commerce, among others. What the stories reveal so - I'd say beautifully, but it's the opposite - is the degree to which these systematic and institutional forces create a stage upon which everyone's a player carrying out these deep perversions, and every act of the performance is one that leaves the Muslim community more marginalized and harmed.

In other words, this is a remarkable book to read at the transition from Trump to Biden. While Biden's first act might well have been to end Trump's "Muslim Ban," the book reminds us that in 2006 Judge Gleeson of NY found that arbitrary detentions based on race, religion, or national origin were acceptable. It reminds us that the military industrial complex has long churned through young people with little regard for the harm they do nor the harm done unto them. It reminds us that institutions of policing are highly selective in who they target and how they target them. While 9/11 is a clear inflection point in many of the narrative in the book, and represents what Bayoumi suggests is a new chapter of the Muslim experience, the antecedents existed long before. Trump's Muslim Ban, in other words, wasn't the evil, but a symptom of it.

This might not be the typical kind of book you read, but it's well worth taking some time to work through. Bayoumi's portraits are deeply Muslim and deeply American, but the motifs of their stories have applicability far beyond these particular experiences.
Profile Image for Ann.
323 reviews5 followers
October 27, 2019
Moustafa Bayoumi presents the stories of seven young Arab and Muslim Americans living in his multi-ethnic home community of Brooklyn. Though their experiences are vastly different, all face problems due to their ethnicity that the average white American would never expect or even be aware of. An associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, Bayoumi writes engagingly and creates reader empathy for his young subjects. I felt outrage along with 19-year-old Rasha, a university student, who, in the aftermath of 9/11, was arrested and held without charge under traumatic conditions for three months, then suddenly released with no explanation. I felt frustration along with journalist Omar, desperately seeking a job so he could marry, who finally had to remove his most significant work experience from his resumé because ignorant employers thought it was a terrorist organization. My favorite character was feisty Yasmin, who as a high school Freshman was elected secretary of the student association but was barred from serving because her faith (and her father) did not allow her to attend a dance. Her amazing determination to change her school’s discriminatory policies took years and ultimately led her to choose a career in law. All seven subjects are strong leaders who overcome obstacles to achieve their goals.

In an Afterword Bayoumi discusses the situation in general and compares it to comparable periods in US history involving other ethnic groups. He concedes that a spirit of inclusion is growing across the country and that Arabs and Muslims are successfully integrating themselves into our institutional framework. But ethnic profiling persists in our legal system and law enforcement, he says, and too many Americans still view them as the enemy among us. Despite some very disturbing revelations, my takeaway from this book is positive, as I believe Bayoumi intended. He ends with a delightful anecdote about a spontaneous celebration of diversity that happened on a summer afternoon in Brooklyn.

This would make a great book club selection, and discussion questions are included in the edition I read.
Profile Image for Nicole Means.
348 reviews9 followers
December 20, 2018
What does it mean to be young and Arab in today's America? What does it feel like to be looked upon with suspicion for being you?? Bayoumi explores how it feels to want to believe in America--to want to believe that America is the land of opportunity, but how can we continue to spread this to our children when this is not true. Many Muslims today do not feel that this country is providing them with the opportunities that their ancestors moved here for. Bayoumi excellently recounts the stories of 7 Arab-Americans living in Brooklyn. Although they derive from a variety of backgrounds, they all have one thing in common-they have Arab blood. Despite the fact that many of the "twentysomethings" highlighted in this book were born in America, have always lived in America, and, in some instances, fought for America abroad, their lives are riddled with discrimination and general distrust by others. In fact, many do not even associate with their "homeland" as they have only known life in America. So why does this discrimination persist? Omar, a young Palestinian-American states, "Before they (Americans) went after the Jews, the Italians, the Irish. And now it's our turn. Everybody gets their turn. Now it's just the Muslims."

Bayoumi does something that so many authors have attempted but not mastered--he humanizes Arab-Americans. The seven twentysomethings in this book do not lead exotic, extraordinary lives--they are average, regular people trying to make it in today's society. By employing the power of narrative, Bayoumi has tackled the challenge of trying to end the polarized view of the world--"us" vs. "them"--insisting that we must embrace America as a multi-cultural society. There is no "typical" American--in fact, the typical American experience is one of multi-cultural contact. This irrational fear of multiculturalism is dividing our country today, andmaybe its time we started paying more attention to those who cannot accept diversity as a societyal norm--not those who are just trying to live their best lives in their own countries.
Profile Image for Katie.
158 reviews29 followers
January 29, 2018

How Dows it Feel Be a Problem? is an important discussion of post 9/11 America, although I often found myself wanting more. In the preface, Bayoumj describes this story as a collection of "portraits" and I think that is the best way to approach this book. If you are looking for a nonfiction book filled with facts and studies, you will be disappointed. Instead, it reminds me more of a memoir. We hear each person's story through their voices, see it through their eyes.

Also, be warned that the book does feel a little dated. It was published in 2008 and there is no denying that the world has changed drastically in the last decade. I would love to read an updated version with the added complexity of the refugee crisis and Trump's America.

At the end of Lina's chapter, there is a heartbreaking moment where Lina and her husband identify Syria as home, even though they are originally from Iraq. "Iraq? ... What Iraq? There is no Iraq anymore." This broke my heart in two. In 2018, there is no Syria anymore now either.

I enjoyed reading this book and getting to know all seven individuals. I would definitely recommend it with the caveat that it is a little dated and tends to be more of a portrait than a study.
Profile Image for Rachel.
228 reviews18 followers
February 27, 2021
“It seems barely an exaggeration to say that Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from.” -page 5

Detailed portraits of the lives of seven different Arab Americans in their twenties all navigating young adulthood in post 9/11 Brooklyn, New York.
Profile Image for Bookaholic.
375 reviews18 followers
April 20, 2019
2.5 Stars

Very interesting stories (except the last one), good prose. What really bugged me about this book is the author's complete and total lack of empathy for the victims of 9/11. He never mentioned them even ONCE. In those stories, where the author mentioned the protagonist's experience on that fateful day, it was always about the negative feelings which quickly developed towards the Arabs on and after that horrible event. Mr. Bayoumi never mentions the lives taken on that day and just how WRONG and terrible that was. If you're reading this book not knowing what happened on 9/11 (I doubt there's such person on this planet) you would think that it was just "an event" where two planes hit two empty buildings and nothing more of that.
But, wait, there IS more.
Here's a direct quote from the book:

(Omar, the protagonist of one of the stories, meets his aunt whose office was located in one of the Twin Towers after the "accident." The aunt survived because she stopped by a Starbucks that morning.)
"And she told Omar the story with remarkably little emotion. "Thank God for that cup of coffee," she said, and the two of them laughed a little. Then they turned and went quietly inside, and Omar shut the door" (p. 203)

Let me repeat that:
"and the two of them LAUGHED A LITTLE"

Not even a WORD about those who actually DIED on that day.

Yet--they are laughing.

As a New Yorker, I am DISGUSTED that this author lives in my hometown (as well as that protagonist AND his aunt).

Besides the above, there was one particular story which drove me mad. It's the third story in the book, under the name "Yasmin." The story is about a determined, young lady who decides to run for a leadership position in her HS. She is selected and she starts serving her term. Then one day she is told that she has to attend... school dances, as a required part of her role, which she knew of BEFORE she signed up to run for that position. She quickly announces that she cannot do that because of her... "moral principles." And as a result, she is removed from that role.
A normal person would accept the outcome at that point (no, wait--a normal person would not sign up for something that she knows she cannot do) but, Yasmin is above everybody, and she decides to make this "struggle" all about her "religious persecution." Let me restate that--she is NOT discriminated against by believing in Islam, practicing her religion, or wearing a hijab (a head scarf) in her school. Yet, because the school does not allow her to neglect one of the conditions that she *willingly* signed up for--she turns the tables on the school's officials and makes it all about "her discrimination."

At one point she even writes in her diary: "I believed people would have confidence in me because of what was in my heart and not (sic) prejudice against my outer appearance. (...) And further: "because America is prejudiced so much and will never let people like me succeed no matter how hard we try. (p. 101)


Let's say--I want to go to an event where I would be required to jump from a plane. I know in advance that I have a severe fear of heights, yet I sign up for it anyway because you know what--at the end, I'll just wing it. So I arrive at the event and then announce that I cannot jump from a plane because my "moral principles" wouldn't allow me to board the plane. And then I get upset that I am kicked out of that event and decide to...sue the company! And that's exactly how little Yasmin's logic works. And you know what--she does succeed bringing the school's leadership down on its knees all in the name of so-called "tolerance to the religious diversity," or something along those lines. Now, I'd understand if she were required to go to school dances at a strip club, and would agree with you that it is completely "morally inappropriate"... but a HS dance? GIVEMEABREAK. Please. What I do admire about Yasmin is her extreme sense of entitlement.

Finally, the last point goes to the publishing house. Really, Penguin? You could not find a better copyeditor for this writer? It's not like you're one of the biggest publishing houses in the world, right?
- missing end of quotation marks (p.1)
- "Reem was five yars older..." (p. 17)
- "They did, it did, and she did, too." (p.174)--this got to be my favorite "pearl of wit" from this author; there are many other grammatical errors and similar weak sentences which could use an eye of a good copyrighter.

But then, why would a respectable publishing house with the HQ in NYC even publish a book SO completely and utterly DISRESPECTFUL to the memory of those innocent souls robbed so abruptly and maliciously out of their lives on 9/11--is beyond me. Yes, we definitely NEED a book to show others that killing other innocent civilians, be it in Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan, is NOT a "solution," not to even mention how terribly wrong religious/cultural/etc. hatred is, but THIS ONE is NOT the book that does justice to BOTH sides.

Again--as a New Yorker, I am disgusted.
Profile Image for savannah.
262 reviews3 followers
April 22, 2021
I had to read this for school, but it was really good!
Profile Image for Eric.
479 reviews4 followers
June 10, 2022
3.5 It was a great read and certain chapters would be great to use as class materials.
48 reviews
January 26, 2018
Perspectives from young, Arab Americans living in Brooklyn on what it is like to live in post-9/11 America. The stories expose internal and external conflicts that they wrestle with in regards to gender, discrimination, racial profiling, generational divides, and spirituality.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 235 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.