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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

BC English Professor Moustafa Bayoumi's book tells the story of seven Arab Muslims living in Brooklyn, post 9/11. Photo/Zainab Iqbal
BC English Professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s book tells the story of seven Arab Muslims living in Brooklyn, post 9/11. Photo/Zainab Iqbal

By Zainab Iqbal

Published: February 7th, 2018

Brooklyn College Professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s book, “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem,” is perhaps the greatest book I’ve read in a while. I was in love with the brilliant “Exist West” by Mohsin Hamid, and I think this book may have taken its spot.

“How Does It Feel to Be a Problem” tells the stories of seven, 20-something-year-old Arab Muslims living in Brooklyn. Each story is more incredible than the next. Bayoumi, quite gracefully, takes us into the lives of Rasha, who was detained with her family five months after 9/11; Sami, whose life changed forever when he joined the Marine Corps; Yasmin, the brave young woman who took on Fort Hamilton; Akram, who proudly wore his keffiyah to school even though his teachers had a problem with it; Lina, who all she wanted was to be independent; Omar, who wanted to marry the lady of his life but needed a respectable job; and Rami, a strong man who spent his life loving Islam.

And I am Zainab. I am not twenty-something, I’m simply twenty. I am a Muslim but I am not Arab. My dad immigrated when he was 21, he went back to Pakistan to get married, and came back soon after. During that time, when couples tied the knot in Pakistan, the man came back to the US and spent his life working and providing for his family back home, occasionally visiting his wife and children. My mother stayed in Pakistan. When she was six months pregnant with me, she came to America to join her husband. No way was she going to live without him.

Unlike the brave young people in Bayoumi’s book, I do not remember 9/11. After all, I was in pre-k. I was just five. My mom told me I was in school. She told me the smoke was so strong it was floating in the air in Brooklyn. As soon as she heard what happened, she came to get me from school. She tells me other parents were doing the same. My dad, just like now, was driving a yellow cab in Manhattan. He tells me he picked up a woman in the morning. She worked at the Twin Towers. He dropped her off hours before it happened. Did she die?

He was driving in SoHo when the towers were hit. He saw one of them begin to collapse. He saw the smoke. But he also saw people. He tells me yellow cab drivers began picking up groups of people. Everyone was afraid and everyone wanted to go home. So he picked up many at a time, sometimes squeezing in more than five in the cab. And he dropped them off without wanting a single penny in return.

Did my parents ever face Islamophobia? I do not know. My mom tells me she did not. And so does my dad, but it’s hard to believe him. Years back, he was driving past the Trump Towers. He stopped his yellow cab because of the red light. While waiting for the green light he simply glanced at Trump’s hotel. All of a sudden, a cop came toward him. He asked my dad why he was looking there. He told him to move along.

My mom tells me she is more afraid today. It’s the political climate, she tells me.

My siblings and I were taught to never speak about politics in school. Never argue with anyone. Your words can be taken out of context, my parents would tell us. Even at home. If I were to tell my parents about something deadly ISIS did, they’d tell me to hush. They could be listening, my mom would say. For the most part, my siblings and I would comply. And then I got older and became so in tuned with politics. I would read about the new policy implemented by the president, I would watch the nightly news on TV, and I would listen to podcasts explaining what everything means. I would argue about politics with my dad at home, but was not allowed to argue in school. There are spies who can put you in jail, my dad told me. So I kept quiet.

But being quiet, I learned, does nothing. Like what did Rasha from Bayoumi’s book ever do? She was just a young girl. Forget Rasha, what did her mom ever do? She prayed and stayed quite. Sometimes it is important to speak up. Otherwise, Muslims will continue to be labeled as terrorists, and women will all be considered oppressed.

Everyone has their own way of speaking out. Some rally and protest. Others create and sign petitions. There are those who debate publicly.

And then there’s me. I write.

I am a reporter. I attend events and I cover stories for people to read online. I have written everything from local politics to crime to teachers raising money for school supplies. My favorite, however, is writing about Muslims. Brooklyn has a very strong Muslim community, and I would not have known that if it weren’t for the stories I covered. One of my first pieces for BKLYNER, a local news outlet, was explaining what Ramadan is. I once attended a protest outside a neighborhood mosque where congregants were demanding the imam to unlock the doors. After a man from Kensington bombed Port Authority, the neighborhood held a peace rally, where everyone from Muslims, Jews, and local politicians came together to denounce hate. But you will never hear about that.

Muslims have constantly been portrayed in darkness. But Muslims are worthy, and I write so everyone can see that. I write so Muslims can one day not feel like they are a problem.

Because we are not a problem. 

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