Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arab Americans

Is Terrorist Arrest an Attack on U.S. Arabs?

The narrative is familiar. Since 9/11, we’ve had a steady drumbeat of accusations bolstered by featured stories in the mainstream media claiming that Arabs and Muslims in America have been subjected to a backlash that has amounted to a wave of discrimination. As I have written several times before (here, here, here, and here), the evidence for this charge is purely anecdotal. No credible studies back it up. If anything, statistics like those compiled by the F.B.I. of hate crimes show that assaults and bias crimes aimed at Muslims are disproportionately small and far less than attacks on Jews in every year since 2001, including the time in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks.

But that hasn’t stopped groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations that claim to represent Muslims and Arabs and their cheering sections in the press from continuing to make such charges about Islamophobia. CAIR, which was born as a political front for American supporters of Hamas, has at times advised its supporters not to cooperate with federal investigations of homegrown terrorists. But, as the Associated Press reports, a leader of a similar Chicago-based group has now jumped the rhetorical shark by saying that the arrest of a person convicted of taking part in a terror bombing in Israel is, “an escalation of attacks on our community. … We are very, very angry.”

Like so many other allegations of bias against Muslims and Arabs, this one is unfounded. But it betrays the mindset of groups that think that holding terrorists accountable for their actions is inherently prejudicial.

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The narrative is familiar. Since 9/11, we’ve had a steady drumbeat of accusations bolstered by featured stories in the mainstream media claiming that Arabs and Muslims in America have been subjected to a backlash that has amounted to a wave of discrimination. As I have written several times before (here, here, here, and here), the evidence for this charge is purely anecdotal. No credible studies back it up. If anything, statistics like those compiled by the F.B.I. of hate crimes show that assaults and bias crimes aimed at Muslims are disproportionately small and far less than attacks on Jews in every year since 2001, including the time in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks.

But that hasn’t stopped groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations that claim to represent Muslims and Arabs and their cheering sections in the press from continuing to make such charges about Islamophobia. CAIR, which was born as a political front for American supporters of Hamas, has at times advised its supporters not to cooperate with federal investigations of homegrown terrorists. But, as the Associated Press reports, a leader of a similar Chicago-based group has now jumped the rhetorical shark by saying that the arrest of a person convicted of taking part in a terror bombing in Israel is, “an escalation of attacks on our community. … We are very, very angry.”

Like so many other allegations of bias against Muslims and Arabs, this one is unfounded. But it betrays the mindset of groups that think that holding terrorists accountable for their actions is inherently prejudicial.

The case of Rasmieh Yousef Odeh, a 66-year-old Palestinian immigrant to the United States, is in many ways an unexceptional immigration case. Odeh was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian Marxist terror group that ordered her to take part in plots to plant bombs in Israel. One of them was exploded at a crowded supermarket, killing two people and wounding several others. She was caught and sentenced to a long prison sentence for her crime. But, like other lucky Palestinian terrorists down through the years, she was released as part of ransom paid by Israel in exchange for the release of an Israeli soldier who had been captured in Lebanon.

Press accounts don’t say what she did in the intervening years, but we know that in 1995 she left Jordan for the United States and became a citizen in 2004. She lived in suburban Evergreen Park, where she worked as a lawyer and attained the status of a community leader among Arabs. Whatever good she may or may not have done during the last 18 years, we do know one thing: she lied in order to gain entry to the United States. The law is fairly clear about those with prison records disclosing this fact while applying for a visa of any sort. Those with records of terrorism are not eligible for entry, let alone citizenship. So, like many Nazi war criminals who snuck into the U.S. by leaving out their time serving in the SS or as death camp guards on their resumes, Odeh is a prime candidate to be stripped of her citizenship and deported.

No doubt some will claim that years of alleged good works ought to grant her absolution for her crime. But the idea that helping to plant a bomb in a supermarket in order to kill as many Jews as possible is the sort of thing that should be ignored when assessing Odeh is risible. It is especially outrageous when you consider that there is no record of her apologizing for her crime. No doubt, like the many thousands of other Palestinian terrorists who have been released by Israel in order to gain the freedom of captive Jews, her community treated Odeh as a heroine because of what she did, not in spite of it.

But the decision of Arab-American groups to protest on her behalf and to allege discrimination has nothing to do with pleas for mercy. Rather, it is derived from that same sense that those who murder Israelis are “freedom fighters” and not terrorists.

Government action against Odeh is, at best, merely justice delayed. While the vast majority of Muslim and Arab Americans are loyal, hard-working citizens, those who embrace terrorists like Odeh or who claim prosecution of her is an example of bias are discrediting the cause of an entire community. Not to mention, the claim of a mythical post-9/11 backlash.

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Review: Dreams of His Father in Cairo

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Read Less