A group of us went to lunch regularly on Thursdays. On this particular Thursday, sometime in 2002 or so, we decided to try the Pakistani-Indian restaurant that moved into the space formerly occupied by Bison Brewery on Telegraph. As we were leaving, we noticed some small white business cards written in English, Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi. The Arabic caught my eye in particular because I had studied it many years earlier. We read the cards and discovered that they gave instructions on what to do if the FBI came to your mosque demanding to know your citizenship status, along with numbers to call for help. My friends and I sort of shook our heads and went on, though I found myself forcing back tears.
It’s hard to describe the horror, anger, and embarrassment those little white cards caused me. How dare my country put people in such a position, where they had to worry about their own safety while in the sanctuary of their place of worship. In my America, I cried to myself alone in my office, federal police do not violate mosques or temples or churches. At least, that’s what I wanted to believe, the ideal I felt my country should strive towards. But at that time, the Bush/Cheney scare machine cranked at full gear in the aftermath of 9/11, creating a new McCarthyism for the 21st century.
I don’t have to wonder what it feels like to be a targeted “other.” I’m black and gay. Growing up black meant having to develop survival skills to deflect the bullshit society throws at you from birth, you know, the “you’re lazy” or “you’re stupid” or “you kinda look like a cocaine dealer” type bullshit. Fortunately, I had good parents who rushed to quash any feelings of self-hatred. Parents who said, why yes, dear, Santa Claus can be of any color, not just white. And parents who searched all over town to find the one black fireman in 1960s LA, so that their son, my older brother, wouldn’t think that he could never grow up to be one if he wanted.
The bullshit society throws at you for being an “other” varies depending on the “other” you are. The gay-is-bad bullshit takes on different manifestations, though its effects, in my mind, are just as harmful as the black-is-bad bullshit. In both cases, the bullshit dehumanizes and diminishes its subject to the point of self-hatred. And a self-hating person can never develop to become a full person. Muslim parents today, particularly those whose heritage go back to the Middle East, must be facing the same sort of things my parents faced while raising us, and asking analogous questions. How do we instill in our children a positive sense of worth? How do we counteract the bullshit they hear at school or in the movies or on television about Islam and the Middle East so that they do not internalize it?
Friend, former college roomie, and writer Patricia Dunn, herself Muslim and the mother of a son with Egyptian heritage, has counteracted the bullshit by using her most potent weapon, the written word. Her young adult novel, Rebels by Accident, explores questions of identity, heritage, fitting-in, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. Her protagonist, 16 year-old Mariam, lives in New York City with her parents. Her father immigrated to the US from Egypt, making Mariam an Egyptian-American. But she’ll have none of that hyphenated identity stuff. Mariam wants nothing more than to fit in. “I’m American,” she declares to her parents during a heated argument.
It’s a crisis moment for the family brought on by stupid but not atypical teenage behavior. Mariam and her best friend Deanna attend a shady party, without the permission or knowledge of either of their parental units. The party has no adults supervising, just happy underage teens doing happy underage teen things. And though Mariam wants nothing more than to meet some cute boy to kiss, she and Deanna quickly find themselves in over their heads. For the party has booze and the party has pot. And the cops show up to arrest the lot. Fortunately, Deanna’s mother is an attorney who successfully wins the errant girls’ release and spares them further interactions with the criminal justice system. Free from that odious burden, Mariam has only her parents to face, which in her mind is a fate worse than prison.
Fearing their child had lost touch with her heritage, and by extension herself, Mariam’s parents decide to send her to Cairo to stay with her father’s mother, her sittu (grandmother). Mariam freaks. For years her father told her, “If you think I’m strict, you should live with your grandmother.” And now she’s being sent to live with a woman she came to describe as “Darth Vader’s sister.” The only silver lining is that she’s not going alone. Her parents talk to Deanna’s mother and she agrees to let Deanna go to Cairo as well.
Between the two girls, we see an interesting contrast. Mariam has taught herself to loathe all things Egyptian, so every part of the trip to her becomes an ordeal. Deanna, on the other hand, loves all things Egyptian and relishes the chance to learn Arabic and see the pyramids. She lacks Mariam’s baggage, and thus can allow herself to freely experience what Cairo and Egypt have to offer.
Mariam and I have a similarity, even if our circumstances are different. How much of life did I miss when I was her age because of my baggage, my fear of venturing out of the closet door? What relationships and opportunities did I let slip by?
Mariam has little time to remain locked in her closeted world, however. Cairo is ready to pop. The Tahrir Square demonstrations, the uprising that will eventually topple the Hosni Mubarak regime, lie just over the horizon. This much larger crisis forces Mariam to confront her preconceptions of Egypt and the Egyptian people, as well as her place in her father’s homeland. In the process, she learns more about her father and her feared Sittu, who becomes quite a bit less feared as time goes by. Once she gets to know them, they stop being “others.” And she stops looking at herself that way as well.
One of Mariam’s obsessions, the one that led her to the ill-fated party, is meeting The One, a common rite of passage for any teen. Indeed, she rates this accomplishment as a benchmark of normalcy, proof that she is not a “freak.” I find it very interesting and fitting that it is only after Mariam faces and accepts her identity, in the land of her father, that she at last experiences her much coveted first kiss. Again, I can tie the story directly back to my own development. Only after allowing myself to be myself, did I experience similar pleasures.
It has been said that James Baldwin learned what he was in America, and who he was in Europe. Many “others,” both in life and in fiction, have traveled similar paths, needing to go abroad to look back at themselves. Mariam’s path to Egypt nicely fits into this category and Rebels by Accident neatly fits into the canon of works exploring identity and belonging. It is also a fun read with much humor and heart.
Pat’s book will help to create a world where the little white cards, telling you what to do if the FBI invades your mosque, will no longer be necessary. She invented a world of vibrant and believable characters that we come to care about. And it is harder to cast folks as “others” when you know them better.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.