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Arab in America

August 29, 2010

Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi
Published by Last Gasp, January 30, 2008

Recommended by Aarti at Booklust

Arab in America blends an autobiographical story with thought provoking social and political commentary. Toufic El Rassi was born in Beirut, Lebanon but has lived in the United States since he was a small child. The book opens right after the September 11 attacks, which sparked frightening ripples of anti-Arab sentiment. Then it steps back in time, going through the 1980s and 1990s. El Rassi’s family immigrated to America, fleeing violence in the Middle East, and settled in a suburb of Chicago. He remembers the first time he realized he wasn’t white, and recalls, uncomfortably, that he later had difficulty accepting his cultural heritage.

As an Arab American teen, he never felt accepted by his neighbors and peers. He vividly remembers the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Until Timothy McVeigh was caught, many Americans assumed Arabic Muslims were responsible for the attack, and the resulting backlash against Arabs terrified young Toufic.

As a teen he struggled between being outraged, and feeling he should take a strong stand, and believing activism is not in his nature. Eventually he did find a political philosophy he could be passionate about, and he embraced some radical opinions, which would be moderated in time. I found this search for identity, and his struggle between passivity and finding a political voice, to be one of the most compelling parts of the story.

As a young man, six years later, he was frightened and horrified by the events of 9-11 and its aftermath, including the way Americans of Arab descent were questioned, arrested, and often deprived of their civil rights.

El Rassi describes these events and explores some facets of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, including our support of Israel and the two Iraqi wars.

At the heart of this book are El Rassi’s feelings about American prejudice toward Arabs and how pervasive destructive stereotypes are in our popular culture, particularly in movies. He gives a wealth of examples, from music, talk show commentary, action movies, even Star Wars.

I think this is an important point for discussion. As El Rassi points out, these stereotypes are quite pervasive. Americans may not realize we’re seeing anti-Arab propaganda in popular media. When people are unaware of these messages, there is a danger they will unconsciously absorb them, eventually mistaking them for truth.

If viewed as a story, Arab in America is a bit disjointed. We see glimpses of El Rassi’s character, and of his story, in scattered bits, mixed with passages of cultural and historical information and an occasional outright diatribe. As a result, the book doesn’t flow as smoothly as it might, and I never felt I got to know him well. The experiences and events he describes are heart wrenching, but I never felt a real connection with him. I agree with Jason Sacks in his review in Comics Bulletin … “When we are shown how characters feel, we feel empathy. When we are told how characters feel, we feel a distance from events–and that’s the problem here: too much telling and not enough showing.”

On the other hand, it is a complex, informative ,and persuasive work. While it is not the best of the graphic novel medium, from what I’ve seen so far, El Rassi is a talented artist and writer. Parts of his story are definitely compelling, and I recommend the book. I think it would be a great tool for teachers and homeschoolers wanting to explore certain aspects of contemporary history, propaganda, and different forms of racism — from the more subtle to the overt.

Read More Reviews: Booklust; Comics Bulletin

14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 12:22 am

    I’m still on the fence about this one. If I do read it, I’ll probably get it from my library.

  2. August 30, 2010 2:14 am

    This looked so promising, I’m sad that it isn’t really good. Would you be willing to post it on my Middle East Reading Challenge reviews? I think it would be an interesting book for people to hear about.

    • September 3, 2010 3:23 pm

      Helen, If you decide to read it, I’d be very interested to hear what you think. It did have many excellent points as well as flaws. This author is a talented artist and writer.

  3. August 30, 2010 2:40 am

    I’ve been going back and forth on whether to add this to the wish list or not…still undecided. 🙂

  4. August 30, 2010 8:47 am

    Sounds like a good book, though I prefer knowing my characters well; so that I can feel for them as well.

  5. August 30, 2010 4:07 pm

    I think I’ll probably be getting this from the library, if at all–it sounds interesting, but I haven’t seen any unmixedly positive reviews. Plus, lots of words. I feel like graphic novels should play more with their art than this one seems to.

    • September 3, 2010 3:26 pm

      I kind of feel the same way about the amount of text vs. art, though with so much historical information, I can understand why he did it this way.

  6. September 3, 2010 2:21 pm

    I think I will probably pick this one up at some point. Just reading the pages that you showed here have me all angry at the injustice. I have noticed that even though I have just begun my degree work I already look at things from a sociological perspective. I want to know why people feel the need to lump people into categories and what really fuels racism and prejudices. I think it is also interesting to me because my sister knew someone from Lebanon when 9/11 happened and the girl was so scared for her life at the university that she eventually left– no one bothered to notice she was Lebanese not an Afghani, and no one cared that her father actually worked in the World Trade Center and died in 9/11. They just lashed out. This would probably be helpful in helping me to understand what it was like for Arab Muslims. I didn’t even know people suspected Arab Muslims for Oklahoma City. Of course I was in high school then so I didn’t really understand much. God forbid they talked to us about it at school. I’m just sayin’. 🙂 Great review.

    • September 3, 2010 3:21 pm

      It horrifies me how quickly people are scapegoated. I vividly remember attacks on mosques after 9/11; it made me feel physically sick. There is no excuse for being that hateful and ignorant.

  7. September 4, 2010 1:44 am

    I’ll likely be finding this one to read at some point. Thanks so much for the review – I’m sorry the characters weren’t fleshed out in a relatable way.

    • September 4, 2010 1:46 am

      I definitely think this book is worth reading, even if I didn’t love it the way I did other graphic novels.

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