Last post, I looked at the feeling of shame that incarcerated Japanese and Japanese Americans felt after the end of World War II. Today, I want to expand that conversation some by looking at the ways that Toufic El Rassi discusses the ways that feelings of unwarranted shame weighed down on him in Arab in America. In each text, it is not the oppressor that feels and expresses their shame. No, it’s the victim who carries the burden of shame, a burden that should fall on the shoulders of the oppressor, not the oppressed.
Following 9/11, El Rassi feels shame even though he did not commit the attacks or condone them. He thinks back to school where the teacher would ask everyone to share their nationality. Students would say European nationalities of something like, “I’m part Cherokee!” El Rassi would say, “I’m Egyptian and Lebanese.” This would cause other students to make jokes, specifically singing songs such as the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The prominence of Arabs in popular music extended beyond the Bangles to songs such as “Killing and Arab” by the Cure or The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah.”
Walking down the street, El Rassi thinks about these moments in school and the songs. We see a closeup of him face, eyes wide, as he narrates, “All these memories and feelings bubbled up in me on the day of the attacks. This almost Pavlovian response really scared me. I felt like I should hide of apologize or something.” His immediate response was guilt and shame, even though he did nothing wrong. This feeling stemmed from the representation of Arabs and Muslims in mass media, typically as terrorists and fanatics who hate the United States. Being fed on this narrative from the media and news sources, whites view El Rassi not as a man who grew up in Illinois but as a threat.
El Rassi begins Arab in America with a six-panel page, against a black background, that highlights this. The firs panel shows El Rassi’s face as he looks at a computer screen, reading an email from his sister. In the third panel. we see the email. It simply reads, “Hey man you better shave . . .” The implication here is that whites will view El Rassi, with his beard, as a terrorist. He follows these first three panels with three more that show “a spontaneous demonstration of ‘patriotism,'” that popped up in a heavily Arab and Muslim Chicago suburb. El Rassi shows the white faces in the crowd in the fifth panel as he narrates, “The mostly white crowd marched toward the local mosque, it was unclear what they would do if they reached it because the police stopped them.”
A white woman, holding an American flag, told a reporter, “I’m proud to be an American and I hate Arabs and I always have.” This vitriol stems from a myriad of things, most notably mass media and the news. The woman, and those marching with her, does not feel guilt or shame at her actions. Rather, she feels “patriotic,” standing up for the United States in a moment of conflict. However, one of the men whom the mob addresses their anger, El Rassi, carries the guilt and shame on his shoulders even though the mob oppresses him.
After he thinks about his school and popular music, we see another six-panel page with El Rassi walking down the street. Here, the first panel shows him, from the waist up with other people around, walking down the sidewalk as he narrates, “I don’t know why, but I felt guilty, like I did something wrong and should be ashamed . . .” What did he do wrong? Was El Rassi involved in the attacks? No. That guilt and shame comes from the ways that others perceive him. The project those feelings, in a way, onto him because they see him as an extension of the attackers. The next panel shows El Rassi, full-body, continuing to walk. He narrates, “Everytime I made eye contact with someone I quickly looked away. I waited for someone to walk up to me and say, “You! You are responsible for this!”
Continuing down the street, El Rassi encounters a police officer, and this four panel section highlights the effects of the unwarranted guilt and shame that El Rassi feels. In the first panel, we look at the officer as El Rassi notes the fear that arose in him at the sight of the officer. The next panel shows a closeup of the officer’s badge as El Rassi narrates, “I became even more conscientious about not displaying any signs that could be construed as suspicious behavior.” Here, the badge signifies law and order and the legal entity that can attack El Rassi if the officer suspects anything, not matter if that suspicion is true or not.
In the next two panels, El Rassi focuses on where he looks. The first shows the officer’s gun in its holster as El Rassi thinks, “If I kept looking down-that was too suspicious, right?” Here, while the focus is on the gun, El Rassi’s “looking down” could be at the ground, the officer’s shoes, or something else. However, the officer could perceive the lingering look as El Rassi determining whether or not he can grab the gun from the officer. The officer, thus, sizes El Rassi up as a threat in this scenario. The next panel shows the officer’s shades and hat. El Rassi reflected in the lenses. He narrates, “Or if I looked at him in the eye that would draw attention to me and that’s bad, right?” Here, we see, through the reflection, what the officer sees. We see the shame and guilt transferring from the person who should feel shame and guilt based on his assumptions to the person experiencing the trauma.
This shifting of shame and guilt has a psychological impact on El Rassi. Instead of being able to merely exist as an individual in the world he must navigate the ways that others view him and the ways he views himself. This tightrope is what DuBois talks about when he discusses double consciousness and the veil. While El Rassi experiences these feelings, the officer doesn’t appear to show any shame or guilt. The white individuals who harass El Rassi throughout Arab in America don’t show shame or guilt. Instead, they place the shame on El Rassi, the individual who they psychologically torment with their preconceived ideas and fears.
In the next post, I’ll look a little more at El Rassi’s graphic memoir alongside Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.