Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review: The Arab Americans A History

Gregory Orfalea is to be commended for taking on a demographic that is often ignored in American discourse. The fact that the Arab-Americans escape visibility is obvious whenever someone looks at the ethnic section of any official document. There is rarely a box to check “Arab-American”.
The book is incredibly well-written, as one might expect from a professor of creative non-fiction. The first chapter, where Orfalea describes his trip back to his ancestral homeland of Syria is at times humorous, sentimental and familiar. Whether in our mind’s eye or through an existential experience, many of us have journeyed back to the place of our roots. We do this to determine where we come from, and where we are going. This opening chapter sets the tone for the entire book in its emphasis upon the incredible sense of community in the Arab culture. The nuclear family, Orfalea states, is not as important to Arabs as the extended family, quite a reversal from the Western world. The family, the community looks out for one another.
Ellis Island is an often talked about place as we are taken back to the 1870’s when the first known Arab immigrant arrived on our shores. This is where the book enters into an area comprising my one major criticism. Orfalea often takes a tone of trying to prove that Arabs could be successful in American Capitalism. The tone strikes me as an effort to show assimilation vs. the contributions of this rich ethnic history that have CHANGED America for the better. It is true that any immigrant demographic has to adjust to culture shock, the American labor market, and American consumption. However, the interviews which Orfalea chose to put into the book tended to portray “successful” Arabs (according to Western standards). I certainly do not wish ill will on anyone, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the average American who happened to be Arab. It is my Marxist training and class consciousness that always looks at how a particular ethnic group is treated within the poor and working classes.
What is encouraging to me as an activist is that overall the Arab-American community is quite aware and informed of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their views tend to be “liberal” in this respect regardless of whether or not they are fiscal conservatives. This should go without saying, but there is an element of 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Arab Americans who are as uninformed about the crisis as any other demographic.
I was glad to see Orfalea showcase the great intellectuals that have an Arab ethnicity. I was especially struck by a particular incident of civil disobedience in which Orfalea was joined by Edward Said (who was a close friend). For years, the two of them were accompanied by a handful of other intellectuals in instigating an Israeli tax boycott (which has inspired me to do the same). They averaged out the amount that the US government contributes to Israel per person and deducted the $37 from their tax returns. Never once did they receive an audit or penalty from the IRS.
The difficulties with which the Arab-Americans have had to deal with since 9/11 was the topic of the last major section of the book. Here again we come back to the common theme of community. My impression is that this idea of community and its importance to Arabs has had to do with the incredible adversity and constantly changing landscape of their homelands. Whatever the reason, it is admirable, and it is something from which the individualistic West could learn a great deal. Orfalea’s own experience with community becomes quite personal to the writing of the book as he closes with an anecdote about his own father. When the research for the book took more time and money than was expected, his father put a 2nd mortgage on his house to help Orfalea finish the project. While this could happen within any close American family, the emphasis here was that it was just a normal part of the Arab consciousness. My hope is that Americans realize how beneficial the idea of community can be with one’s family or social environment. I also hope that we as Americans (no matter what our ethnic background) acknowledge this great need for the other in order to survive, enrich, fulfill and change for the better our own lives and the lives of those with which we share our time on this earth.

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