Paperback, 117 pages
Published: February 1, 2008 by Last Gasp (1st published January 30, 2007)
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 11th 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 US 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, and 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.
When 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.