Individuals consistently label others in hopes that they will fit into preconceived constructed categories. The use of these categories helps us navigate the world around us, but these categories also craft differences between individuals. Rather than celebrating these differences, the categories serve, especially to those in power, as a means of severing communities and individuals, causing them to turn on one another out of fear. When someone struggles to place someone else into these categories, they become disoriented, leading them to either question the purpose of the categories or to move back into a feeling of fear because they feel threatened by an individual they can not easily label.
Throughout Toufic El Rassi’s Arab in America, there are moments where individuals try to place El Rassi within a nationality or ethnicity, and they fail. Near the beginning, a man approaches El Rassi and asks, in Spanish, for a light. El Rassi responds that he doesn’t speak Spanish, and then the man’s perceptions change. The sequence begins with El Rassi standing outside of a store smoking, as he narrates, “Most Americans don’t know what an Arab is. In the weeks after the [9/11] attacks, I took comfort being in Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.” El Rassi knows that individuals will be unable to place him into a category unless they interact with him, and when the man asks for a light, El Rassi’s response causes the man to pause and ask, “You Pakistani?”
Here, we see two panels. On the left the man asks El Rassi the question as El Rassi narrates, “But being ambiguous to Americans can also be a problem.” El Rassi responds to the man’s question with, “Yes . . .” even though he is Lebanese and not Pakistani. The man, struggling to place El Rassi within a category he knows, looks right at El Rassi, eyes wide, as asks, “So you a terrorist motherfucker?” The next panel shows El Rassi’s face, scared as he tells the man he isn’t a terrorist. We see a closeup of the man’s eyes, hate staring through the panel, as he tells El Rassi, “Yes you are, I saw your fuckin’ ass on TV.” At this, the man calls to his friends and yells that El Rassi is a terrorist and tells them to get him. El Rassi runs away, fear on his face.
El Rassi follows this sequence up with a sequence showing him on the subway sitting next to a woman as a man reads the Chicago Tribune. Sitting next to the woman, El Rassi narrates, “Since it was clear that the average American couldn’t distinguish Arabs & Muslims from other nationalities & faiths I soon felt both fear & anger.” The actions of the man in the previous sequence stem from fear and anger, and the man’s actions towards El Rassi cause him to feel fear and anger, even though El Rassi did nothing wrong. The man sitting next to El Rassi on the train looks at the paper, and the front page shows the pictures of the men who carried out the attack.
El Rassi starts with a panel showing a closeup of his eyes then has two panels zooming into the cover of the paper. A full page panel shows El Rassi’s picture amongst the attackers on the front page of the paper. He says, “Could the average American distinguish me from a Muslim terrorist? I saw the photos of the hijackers and the fact is . . . they looked like me, and the images appeared everywhere.” As a result, when El Rassi told the man, “I’m Pakistani,” even though none of the hijackers were from Pakistan, the man drew a connection between Pakistan and the nationalities of the terrorists. This misidentification served to place El Rassi in a category that the man could identify. If El Rassi was not Latino, he had to be “Middle Eastern” and “Muslim,” thus a fundamentalist terrorist. This attack on El Rassi causes him to feel shame, a shame for something that he did not have any part in perpetrating.
Along with the fear and anger that El Rassi experiences, he highlights the arbitrariness of labels, of our need for categorization. Again, categorizing things helps us make sense of the world, and I know that we need it in order to organize and understand our surroundings; however, the ways that this categorization turns and creates social hierarchies, fears, hatred, and more based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and more only serves to fuel systems of oppression and hate. El Rassi notes this arbitrary nature when he talks about Robert Forester playing an Arab hijacker in 1986’s The Delta Force. He shows it later when numerous people label him as Mexican, Iranian, or Indian.
As he points out these moments, El Rassi says, “What’s so frustrating about all this is that Americans don’t even know who they hate. Since there is so much confusion and ignorance it may be useful to explain what an Arab actually is.” El Rassi, over the course of four pages, details the history of Arabs and also points out how on can be Arab and Muslim, Arab and Jewish, or Arab and Christian. His point here, as he makes clear, is that individuals, myself included for a long time, conflate Muslims and Arabs, thinking that anyone who is Arab is an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. This stems, for the most part, from media narratives, both in popular media such as films but also from the highest positions of power in the government.
“Considering the educational system in the U.S.,” El Rassi writes, “it is not surprising that the average American would be ignorant of foreign cultures and societies.” Coupled with the media’s false depictions, the lack of education on foreign cultures and societies, apart from our study of British literature, hinders our cultural understanding of foreign cultures and societies. This lack of understanding makes it easy for politicians to play upon fears and stereotypes because individuals trust that those whom they elected have their best interests at heart. However, that is not always the case. On top of this, the lack of respect and education displayed by “high level government officials responsible for life and death decisions” makes this lack of education and understanding horrendously dangerous.
To highlight this point, El Rassi points out George W. Bush’s ignorance of the region and the danger that his ignorance has for individuals. Speaking in India, in 2006, Bush said, “I believe that a prosperous, democratic Pakistan will be a steadfast partner for America, a peaceful neighbor for India and a force for freedom and moderation in the Arab world.” Pakistan is not an Arab nation. While it may be a Muslim nation, it is not an Arab nation. As El Rassi points out, “It is hard to take pronouncements of altruism seriously when there is no knowledge about the people who are to be helped.”
Our need for placing individuals in categories, while understandable, carries with it a heavy weight and creates a lot of problems. In the next post, I’ll look at a few examples of these issues Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream and 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.