Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Country Called Amreeka

A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold through Arab-American Lives
Alternate subtitle: Arab Roots, American Stories
© 2009 Alia Malek
320 pages

I discovered  A Country Called Amreeka while looking for the film Amreeka, the story of a Palestinian woman who emigrates to the United States with her son Fadi.  (Trailer) Ms. Malek's book is a history of thousands of men and women who have made the same journey, escaping civil war and poverty by journeying to America.  Ms. Malek does not endeavor to give a survey of Arab immigration to the United States spanning a century, as the title hints she may; instead, she uses the personal stories of various families to visit  20th century American history through their eyes.  The book begins with American factories soliciting immigration from Europe, and unexpectedly receiving it from Greece, Syria, and other areas around the Med's eastern rim.  Although these first Arabs would draw the wrath of nativists like the Klan for both their appearances and their faith (the Syrians were predominately Catholics),  these first immigrants largely sought assimilation within the American melting pot.  Later and larger waves coincided with the civil rights movement within the United States, and total assimilation was resisted.  America's foreign policy in the same period gave Arab-Americans from diverse countries a cause to unite around, chiefly opposing the United States government's unqualified support of Israel.

The collection of stories here has quite a few  strengths; the heavy use of Christian Arabs, which runs against American media stereotypes;   a few interesting tales like an Arab-American soldier in the Iraq war, or the two women who fought fiercely for opposite sides in the Bush-Gore presidential battle. (Set as it was before 2003, how strange now to think of Bush being courted by Arab-American civil associations..)  The book suffers from an over-emphasis on politics,   with more ink devoted to Palestine than the Arab-American immigrant experience.  Considering that the author is a civil rights attorney who once worked in the West Bank, the focus isn't surprising. Still, more interesting information filters through this repetition: in Michigan, for instance, Arab auto workers went on strike against their union after it began buying Israeli bonds with dues money.  While a book like this is presumably useful to hypothetical Americans who think everyone in the middle east gets around on a camel,  what it mostly amounts to is accounts of Arabs experiencing racism during events like the hostage crisis and the post 9/11 period, and then fighting for Palestine through political activism.  While these are aspects that deserve thought, there is far more to life -- and to the immigrant experience -- than mere politics.

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