A few weeks ago, we read Toufic El Rassi’s Arab in America in my Multicultural American Literature course. El Rassi was gracious enough to Zoom in and speak with up about his work, and the conversation covered a myriad of topics from representation to Abrahamic religions. One of the things that stood out was our discussion of El Rassi’s experiences in class during the first Gulf War. This was actually the first question I asked him when we began speaking. Specifically, I asked whether or not the scene where his social studies teacher told the class “to keep our troops in our thoughts as they defend our nation” and the students responded with derogatory language and chants of “U.S.A.!!” was true or embellished some for the book. He told us this was true, and the teacher, instead of correcting the boys, laughed with the boys and said, “Now settle down now boys. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Boys!!”
My classes consist of English education students, students who will one day stand in front of a classroom teaching students of their own. This is a great responsibility, and El Rassi pointed out that this moment, in 1991, was when he started to see the cracks in the authority figure of educators. We expect educators to be knowledgeable, yes, and we expect educators to work for the better of all of their students. However, that is not always the case. Each of these things make a good teacher, and I think about them constantly when I am in the classroom. I think about the fact that students, when they enter a classroom, view educators as founts of knowledge. I’m upfront with students when I tell them, “I don’t know everything. I’m learning right alongside you with some of the things we’ll cover in this course. That is ok.” We are not, as educators, all knowing. We need to be honest about that.
As well, we need to foster inclusive communities in our classrooms. When a teacher tells students to keep the troops in mind as they go to Iraq, there is nothing inherently wrong there. We want individuals to be safe and return. When the students reply, “Yeah!! We’re going to shoot up some towelheads! U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A!!” the teacher needs to step in and say something, not laugh along with the students as they spout hyperpatriotic chants and anti-Arab sentiments. We need to pause, ask our students to question why they say the things they do. We need them to see how their language affects other students, as El Rassi does in the panel where the boys spout off. We see the boys cheering as El Rassi sits at his desk with his hand on his chin. We can think about the troops, but we must also, as El Rassi points out, think about those who must live with the real-life devastation of those troops’ actions.
El Rassi moves from the classroom to the ground where the troops served. He points out that the United States and others dropped “85,000 tons of bombs” and devastated Iraq and its citizens. The politicians said it was good. Juxtaposed against George Bush claiming victory, El Rassi shows a panel of comedian Bill Hicks pointing out “the disproportionate nature of the war.” Hicks tells his audience, “I guess the most amazing thing about the war, obviously the disparity in casualties, Iraq 150,000, U.S.A. 79.” While the boys in El Rassi’s class chanted “U.S.A.” and watched films filled with Arab terrorists, the United States and other nations killed 150,000 individuals while only 79 United States service members died. That is a difference of about 19 to 1.
All of this makes me think about the ways that we privilege the United States’ actions, thinking about them as peace keeping or nation building. We don’t think about the actions as imperialism. In fact, that is what they are for the most part. We don’t think about the fact, as El Rassi pointed out in our conversation, about the dissonance between the United States “civilizing” other nations and working to assist oppressed populations and the ways we oppress individuals in the United States based on the same things that other nations use to oppress groups in their countries. Individuals pointed this out during World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and more as they noted that to proclaim superiority to fascists or communists on the basis of freedom is fraught because Jim Crow, xenophobia, and more oppress individuals at home.
When I think about all of this, I keep thinking about August 26, 2021 when IS-KP attacked the airport in Kabul during the evacuation. In the attack, 13 United States service members died. In the days that followed, I saw countless posts on social media calling upon us to remember the 13 service members who were killed. I may have seen a few that mentioned that 170 Afghan civilians (men, women, and children) also perished in the attack. This is the dissonance that we have, the dissonance that El Rassi gets at with the Gulf War. When we say, “Remember the 13 service members,” we erase the 170 Afghan civilians, saying, “They don’t matter. Only our service members matter.” Is that the case? The 170 were there to leave, to get assistance to flee the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Do they matter?
I am not saying, again, that the lives of the 13 service members do not matter. They do. They sacrificed their lives serving their country and working to serve those in Afghanistan. I am saying that all 183 lives mattered. Again, the disproportionate number exists. Instead of 19 to 1, the attack on August 26 produced a 13 to 1 ratio of Afghani citizens to United States service members.
Thinking back to the scene earlier with El Rassi in the social studies classroom, what should an educator do? Should the educator play along and support the boys chanting and racist language? Should the teacher ignore it and move on? Neither. The teacher should point out the true facts of war. The true facts of imperialism. The true facts of power. That does not mean, again, that the teacher doesn’t like the United States. It means that the teacher wants students to understand the human costs, the effects of decisions. It’s like Lillian Smith speaking with the campers at Laurel Falls after the United States killed thousands of individuals in Hiroshima. The girls asked her, “If we had been in Hiroshima at a summer camp with other children that bomb would’ve fallen on us, wouldn’t it?” Smith simply told them, “Yes.”
The girls reply that they themselves, nor the children in Hiroshima had anything to do with the war, and that wasn’t “quite fair to children” or anyone. Smith tells the girls, “Sometimes geography–and distance–make it easier not to care.” Our distance, our lack of knowledge, our lack of desire to learn all make it easier not to care. It makes it easy for the boys in Chicago to hypnotically chant “U.S.A!” or sing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” at a football game than to care for the men, women, and children suffering as a result of the troops’ actions or the sanctions or the support for authoritarian governments or . . . It makes it easier to think of others as enemies, denying them the basic thought of humanity.
As I read El Rassi’s Arab in America, I thought about this, and much more. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.