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Understanding Who We Are
By MICHAEL NAJJAR
A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories
By Alia Malek
Free Press, 330 pp, 2009
Alia Malek’s “A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories” is another collection ofArab American narratives in the tradition of Evelyn Shakir’s “Bint Arab” and Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.” Malek, an author and civil rights lawyer, writes that her book is “an attempt to populate Amreeka with human faces, emotions, thoughts, and stories, adding another chapter to the story of the country that we all share.” Her theme, Amreeka, serves as the spine connecting stories of various Arab-Americans — Christians and Muslims, naturalized and native-born, men and women, rich and poor — from all regions of the United States. “The purpose of this book isn’t to separate them,” she states, “but to fold their experience into the mosaic of American history and deepen our understanding of who we Americans are.”
Beginning in 1963, each of Malek’s narratives is preceded by a brief historical summary and how that time period affected Arab Americans in general. She then focuses her lens on the individual lives of Arab Americans dealing with the aftermath of those events in their personal lives. She introduces us to Ed Salem, a star football player whose family was caught up in Birmingham’s struggle for civil rights; Luba Sihwail, a Palestinian woman having to deal with the occupation of her homeland as it was happening; Alan Amen, a Dearborn auto laborer fighting for worker’s rights during the Vietnam era; Rabih AbuSahan, a gay man dealing with homophobia and prejudice following the Oklahoma City bombing; Alex Odeh, the ADC director who was murdered in his Santa Ana office; Monsignor Ignace Sadek, a Maronite priest having to defend his church during the aftermath of 9/11; and Abraham Al-Thaibani, a U.S. Marine deployed to Iraq.
Malek is part historian, part journalist, part littérateur, managing to simultaneously take readers on an intellectual and emotional journey. Given her copious bibliography, one desires footnotes of her specific quotes and facts, allowing future researchers to pinpoint her sources. Also, given her background as a civil rights lawyer, it would have been a useful addition to include the legal machinations behind the governmental actions that have been leveled against Arab Americans. “A Country Called Amreeka” is the kind of book every Arab American should read if they wish to know more about their history, their culture, and their fellow Arab Americans.
This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 62