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Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong
September 25, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.41
STRONG: -- say today is Wednesday, Tuesday?
STRONG: Tuesday, November --
BAYOUMI: September --
STRONG: -- September 25, 2018. My name is Liz Strong. I'm talking today withMoustafa Bayoumi for the Muslims in Brooklyn Public History Project for the Brooklyn Historical Society. So, Moustafa, just to begin, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, anything you want to share.
BAYOUMI: Well, I grew up in Canada, in Ontario in a town called Kingston, whichis pretty much halfway between Toronto and Montreal. So, we moved to Kingston when I was, you know, pretty young. I was around three, four years old, and -- so, I -- I -- I lived a large part of my life there, I think, you know, the formative years, I guess you could say and then I moved to New York for graduate school. And I've been in New York City ever since then.
STRONG: Tell me more about the formative years. Tell me about your parents a1:00little bit.
BAYOUMI: My parents are -- they both are Egyptian. They came from Egypt toSwitzerland, in fact, and on -- on separate occasions. They -- 'cause they both received scholarships to study in Switzerland back in the day. And so, my mother was studying pharmaceutical chemistry, and my father was studying electrical engineering. And my father had been in Switzerland a little bit longer than my mother, not much, by so-- some -- some months. And they were studying at a place called the ETH. It's basically the equivalent of the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] of Switzerland. You know in the German-speaking world is -- it's a very well-known establishment. I -- I believe even Albert Einstein 2:00went there at some point. And so, they had a -- they met there. They had an -- a -- an association that -- of I think a lot of students from the Arab world, and eventually, they got married.
And then when I was -- so, in total, my parents lived in Switzerland forsomething like 12 years and then at a certain point, they -- they were looking into various other opportunities, particularly after the 1967 war, which would s-- which had seem very disappointing in a lot of ways to my parents who were not fond of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his rule either. And so, things were looking bleak in a lot of ways for returning to Egypt, at least in the -- in the way that they wanted to, you know, have opportunities for them and their children. So, they started looking into other opportunities, and one that presented itself was to begin teaching at a university in Canada. This is a time, too, in Canada when the universities were expanding a lot, and so there was actually a large 3:00need for new professors to come. And in the technical fields, there was quite a number of professors who'd come -- who have come from the so-called third world, so my father being one of them.
And so, we moved to Canada. My parents said within about two years of living inCanada, they felt, actually, more at home in Canada than they ever had in Switzerland. I think there's very different dynamics in Europe versus in North America. And so, when I was around 11 years old, we went back to Switzerland for a year. So, when -- it was like a sabbatical year for my father. And my parents threw all of us -- I have an older brother and an older sister. My sister is the oldest. And my parents put all of us in Swiss schools. So, we didn't go to an 4:00school, or we didn't go to an international school. We went to the Swiss schools, so we had to learn German pretty quickly.
And -- and I also got -- I think that's a very formative time, also, to betraveling internationally. And I got a sense of, you know, that things were not as they always were in Canada. S-- Switzerland is very different than Canada. Of course, we'd also go back on occasion to Egypt as well, so I had -- I had a sense of what all these three different places looked like.
And then when I was 21 and 22, I ended up working for the summers inSwitzerland, again, back in Zurich. This was all in Zurich by the way, and so I've maintained a pretty close connection, not only with Switzerland or maybe less with Switzerland, but just with various parts of Western Europe in general, so I think I have a very -- I have a fairly clear sense of what life is like, you know, pretty much as a, kind of, minority in Western Europe or in Europe versus in Canada or the United States.
STRONG: Can you give me an example of what you mean when you say what life islike in these, you know, places between Switzerland, Canada, and Egypt?
BAYOUMI: Well, I mean Canada and the United States are both -- I guess you wouldcall them, you know, colonial-settler societies or -- or receiving nations that 5:00they really need and welcome and thrive on immigrant populations coming and, in a sense, you know, revitalizing a lot of their economies and these such things. And -- and the way in which they've organized their immigration strategies then is also very much around skillsets and upward mobility and like, you know, and -- and notions of a people that are not -- no-- it's not tied to a -- a notion of -- of blood and soil as it were, right, or at least so. Whereas in Europe, it's -- you know, there is a very strong sense of a -- a European identity, and there's a strong sense of -- of the outsiders and insiders inside -- in -- when you're in Europe.
And so, Muslim communities in Europe for a very long time and more so in thispost-9/11 era, I think, have ver-- have felt very much that they are outsiders in Europe in the way that I think is not necessarily true in North America. I 6:00think the two places are -- are really quite distinct, and a large part of that difference, also, is class politics because most of the people who are coming and who are of Muslim backgrounds in Europe, many of them are -- or the more of them are coming from working-class backgrounds. Often, they're not -- they don't have a whole -- they may not have a -- a lot of education, whereas the United States and Canada prioritize immigrants with education. You know they -- they're a labor force in a lot of ways, like in manual labor force. Historically, they've been in manual labor force in Europe. Historically, they've been tied to colonial politics of the past. Whereas in the United States, we valorize and mythologize the i-- the notion of -- of the immigrant. And we, also, have a very 7:00different sense about what's the role of religion in society versus what's the role of religion in European society.
STRONG: How did you feel the impact of these different attitudes as a kid?
BAYOUMI: I think -- I think the biggest difference was probably when we would goto community events or Friday prayers in Switzerland versus in Canada when I was growing up. Because I remember when I was growing up, almost everything -- at that time, there was no like -- you know, there was no Islamic center. It was the -- the Muslim community in Kingston would basically rent a -- a room at the university, and there would be a part of the -- it would be mostly the people who were -- you know, part of the Muslim community in Kingston, at that time, were also affiliated with universities. Kingston is a very university town, right, and so -- and my father and many others were there as part of the university as well. And so, there was a sense that being either, you know, of Muslim -- part of the Muslim community or even of Arab background or even just Brown because there were not many Brown people around either we-- in Kingston. There was always that -- that -- there was always a connection to the university. 8:00
In fact, I think when I was really very young growing up in Canada, oh, I justhad this sort of automatic assumption that Brown people were, kind of, smarter than White people because there was this -- you know, I was -- all the pe-- Brown people I knew were part of academic families, and they -- you know, e-- e-- education was very important and stressed and these sorts of things. Whereas, of course, the White people that I grew up with were -- it's a full gamut of everything. Whereas in Switzerland, you know, it was very much -- it was in a very different social setting. And so, going to community functions there was in a very working-class district of the city. So we would leave -- we were in a university-type housing, and we would go to this other part of the city that looked much rougher and it just -- you know as a kid, it was kind of intimidating, and, like, it just -- it didn't have that veneer of being affiliated with the university at all. And so, even at that level, it struck me as very different i-- at that young age.
STRONG: Talk to me then about visiting Egypt and what the experiences were foryou like there.
BAYOUMI: Well, it really varied depending on what age I was going --
BAYOUMI: -- I guess, so --
STRONG: Well, walk me through time then.
BAYOUMI: Well, I mean, you know, when I was nine, I think, it was the first time9:00that I was in Egypt, and it was sort of shocking. I remember hearing the -- hearing donkeys and mules on the street for the first time and just not knowing what that sound was and being, like, afraid of that sound. And my family, still to this day, makes fun of me for that because, apparently, I got very scared and I was like, "What the heck is that?" I said to -- sort of -- sort of something to that effect. So, everyone thought that was cute and charming that the Canadian boy didn't know.
You know, because Egypt is -- you know. My -- my mother's from Cairo, and myfather's from Alexandria, too, so we're from different parts of the country and then we also have family -- my uncle from my mother's side who's passed away 10:00right now, but he was a village doctor in Upper Egypt in the -- in the southern part of Egypt, and so we also had a connection to that part of the country. So -- so, we had -- you know, I had a lot of different kinds of experiences with Egypt in different regions of Egypt at also different ages, but yeah.
I mean, I think it's -- like very many people, who've grown up, you know, as aminority in one culture and then you go to the culture of your origin and in the -- in the place where you are -- have -- have grown up and where you've always felt like you're some kind of a minority. And your otherness -- you -- you feel like your otherness is always stressed. When you go to the country of your origin, somehow your Canadianness or your ness comes out much stronger, and so that was certainly the case with myself as well.
STRONG: You also talked about, you know, you -- you have a very academic family.So, talk to me about your relationship with school, your siblings, things like that. 11:00
BAYOUMI: Well, so, both my parents have PhDs and also in the sciences and -- andthen my -- my mother always, I think, wanted to do medicine, but instead of doing medicine, she ended up doing chemistry. And when my sister was -- as the oldest was deciding which -- what path she was going to choose as a career, my mother was very interested in her medical choices because my sister eventually became a physician. And -- and then my brother who is only about 13 months older -- I mean younger, I should say, than my sister, so they're very close together, followed suit. So, he went to medical school, too. Although, my sister went to medical school in Kingston where my parents lived, and my brother went to medical school in Toronto, so that was like the big difference.
And then I, I'm about 18 months younger than my brother who -- we're all veryclose in time -- knew that I didn't wanna do medicine. And it was even more 12:00exacerbated when people would come over to the house, you know, family friends, or what have you when I was in high school. And then they would just say to me things like, "And so, what medical school are you going to?" and then they would just make this assumption that I was immediately bound for medical school, which I think drove me directly into the arts.
BAYOUMI: So, I was much more interested in the creative fields and in just thehumanities. I mean, my family is not, you know, they're not a family of -- driven by a kind of monovision of the sciences there. You know, arts and culture have always been part of our -- our household as well. My -- in fact, the uncle that I mentioned who's since passed away, who was a village doctor in Egypt was himself a short-story writer.
And books were always around my house, lots of different books, books in Arabicand English. And in a -- a sense of quiet and reading is common in my household. 13:00Something that my friends, often, would remark upon that when they could come over that, you know, "It's so quiet. It's like a li-- it can often be like a library because people read. And so, you know, sometimes if -- if everybody's reading and then there's a lot of quiet in the house and that's fine. Since then, now there's a lot of TV on in the house because my parents are also watching Arabic channels through -- now, with new technologies, there is much more available for them to watch all kinds of stuff from a va-- across the Arab world, and so they've been doing that a lot lately, or not even lately, for the last many years.
BAYOUMI: Yeah. So -- so -- and, you know, I think what's the takeaway from thatis that I decided sometime in high school that I was more interested and that I wanted to pursue, I guess, a path that was somewhat different from my siblings. And I was always interested in various forms of the arts. I liked drawing. I liked -- liked the fine arts, the plastic arts. I was also interested in writing, and I was interested in -- in all kinds of things. And so, when I -- when it came time for me to apply for undergraduate, I decided that I wanted to 14:00-- I applied for architecture school, and so I was admitted, and so I went to architecture school, which I thought was a sort of a happy medium because it has an engineering component to it as well -- as well as the creative side. But I kind of hated architecture school, so I didn't -- I lasted a year and then decided I didn't want to do that much anymore.
And eventually then -- I was deciding. I did -- I took a year of general arts tofigure out what I wanted to major in, and I was thinking I wanted to major either in philosophy or in English. And I started reading the work of Edward Said around this time, too, pa-- partly because in one of the architecture books, one of the textbooks that we have for one of my classes in architecture, there had been an essay by Said in that book. We hadn't been assigned it, but -- but I saw the essay in the book, and I knew of Edward Said. I knew of his political work. I had already been involved with the Palestinian struggle in high school. I had brought people to speak. I was very familiar with -- with Edward Said's po-- political interventions at that point already.
But at my home, in, well, my parents' home, we had all of Said's books in--including Orientalism. I knew Orientalism by its cover, but I had never read the book. I was -- you know, at this point, I was 18 or 19 years old, and so -- but 15:00I was interested to see that there was this essay in a book that had nothing to do with Palestine but was, you know, a book about arts and -- and -- and -- and culture and politics really. It was a book called The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Hal Foster. It was part of the Dia [Center for the Arts series. I -- I might have the book in my office over here. Anyway, so I ended up reading that essay one night just on my own and trying to really hard to understand what it meant, and I think I fo-- followed what it was, and I started getting very interested in reading all these other things by Edward Said.
And then when I went home that summer, I -- I read Orientalism. Even though wehad the book at home for a very long time, I think I was probably the only person, actually, to read the book, at least all the way through. I started -- and then I read, you know, pretty much all of the works. I was following his work in the literary journals at the same time, you know, in the -- the academic 16:00journals when I wou-- I would go to the library and -- and back then you had to actually look up in these big books where -- where articles were and then go find the article in the actual -- on the stacks, and I was doing all of that. So, I got very interested in that approach as well, not just in Said as a figure, but his approach towards looking at questions of culture and politics, and so that really, I think, enabled my -- my own trajectory.
And so, at a certain point, I was really interested in that, and I'd decidedthat I was going to apply for graduate school. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to graduate school right away. I thought maybe I would take a year off in between undergrad and graduate school, but my parents were more comfortable with me going to graduate school, if I could, immediately. And they were not super comfortable with me studying English in the -- in the first place either. I mean, they accepted it. It wasn't like a big problem, but they were concerned, I 17:00think, about career options and these sorts of things. Once I got into graduate school, they felt a lot more -- I think they felt a lot more comfortable about the choices that I had made.
And so then when I went to -- so what -- what happened was after I was, youknow, in my final year of undergraduate, I applied for graduate school and I also applied for some fellowships. And I had an interview in Michigan. I remember I didn't get the fellowship, but I -- I -- I don't know. Maybe that had helped that I made it very close to get in this fellowship. Anyways, the long and the short of it was that I was admitted to Columbia [University], at that point, and that's where Edward Said was a professor, and so that was exactly what I wanted to do.
So, I came to New York then to study and do -- at first -- you know, the waythat the program was established at Columbia at the time when I was there, was 18:00that it was initially a master's program and then those people who didn't want to continue on to the PhD would then get their master's. And they could continue, go somewhere else if they wanted to or just be fine with a master's degree. And then there was -- within the small -- within a -- that cohort then there would be another kind of competition for the PhD program. And, usually, they thought that it was just going to be -- they've done this for several years in the past, and I think most of the time, it was just a -- a kind of natural attrition that allowed people to move from the master's into the PhD program.
So, there were 30 spots in the PhD program and they were -- they had assumedthat about 40 people would come for the master's program. The year that I arrived, however, many more people accepted than they had expected because, you know, they accept more people thinking that not everyone is going to accept. And so, in fact, we had about 60 people in our cohort for about 30 spots.
BAYOUMI: And so, that first year was kind of rough, and there was a lot of likeweird dynamics. And the competition was -- was, you know, bizarre and -- and damaging to relationships sometimes and things like -- so, actually, I finished that year and then I decided that I -- then I would take a year off, so I did take a year off then. I went to Germany, and I worked for a year in Germany and then I came back and then I finished my PhD at Columbia.
STRONG: What did you do in Germany?
BAYOUMI: I was working in the same -- just doing like office work for the same19:00Swiss bank that I had worked for in Switzerland. It was basically computer program, like low-level computer programming kind of thing.
STRONG: So when you came to New York, it was 1990. Talk to me about what NewYork City was like at the time.
BAYOUMI: Well, it was not as expensive as now. [laughter] Manhattan was still interesting.
STRONG: Meaning what? What was interesting about it?
BAYOUMI: You know, I think, Manhattan has now become a place of the very wealthyand -- along with the big-box stores. And before [Rudolph] Giuliani, you know, there was zoning -- there were different zoning rules that governed real estate 20:00in New York. So, actually, you had a lot more mom-and-pop shops and far fewer of these big-box and chain stores. So, the -- you know the street life was just more vibrant in a way and also just the -- the -- the cultural life of -- of the city, I think, was more -- I don't know. It was -- it was more interesting. It was less about -- I don't know. I think -- it was I -- I -- this is just a sentiment I have, but I feel like it was less about being fabulous and more about being interesting in a way.
You know, now, everybody has to be on top of everything and be like -- I don't21:00know. Maybe this is -- and maybe this is just the cynicism that comes naturally from age, but it felt like a very -- it fe-- did feel like a different city back then. But it was also -- you know, I arrived in very early -- I must have come in very late August. I think I came in very -- at the very end of August. And in fact, when I left in Canada, my father drove me down and -- because it's not that far. Kingston is right on the other side of Watertown, New York. So, it's about a seven-hour drive. It's not that bad. And so, I had all my stuff packed in the car, and we drove down.
And at that time, there was the -- what -- what in Canada, they called the OkaCrisis. Because what had happened was there had been a -- this is in a golf course in -- in Quebec if I remember the details correctly. They were trying to expand the golf course in one part of Quebec, but what this expansion of this golf course was going to do was gonna trample, basically, on indigenous territory. And so, it caused an uprising among the indigenous population in Quebec. And at that point, there had been -- they -- they stopped the bridges in Montreal so that the people couldn't -- like basically, they put Montreal into a 22:00gridlock and that meant the economy was suffering and everybody was getting upset. Although, there was a lot of support for -- for the indigenous population.
And there was, actually, a face-off at that moment between the -- you know, thepolice and the -- and the -- and the demonstrators. And I remember listening to it on the radio as we're driving into New York with my fa-- you know? And I'm moving to New York City, and as we're getting -- it was very dramatic in what was happening. And then as we're getting further into New York, you know, the radio starts to crackle, and you can't hear anything anymore and like I ca-- and I, you know it was -- I just wanted to find out what it was -- what was happening. And in some ways, you know, I think that's -- you could also think about that as a metaphor in some ways for moving to a new country anyways, right, because you sort of start -- I was so interested in what was happening in Canada and slowly -- I-- I'm still interested in what happens in Canada, but I don't keep up with the same kind of, you know, detail that I used to when I 23:00first moved to the United States. 'Cause when you move, you -- you -- you -- you know, your life moves with you. Your priorities move with you. And now, I'm much more ensconced in -- in New York City. I mean, when I first came to the United States, I didn't expect that I would stay here. I thought just like when -- from like -- with most people who come to study, I think, I thought I would get my degree and then return, but eventually, I ended up staying here.
STRONG: What was the political climate in New York like at the time?
BAYOUMI: The -- so, the big difference or the big issue I should say, at thattime, was because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait also that same summer. And so, there was a -- there was a lot of threat to war in the first semester that I was here. And I remember going on like long marches. There was a march that said that, you know and say no to war kind of march that began around Columbia and ended at Washington Square. And we picked up people on the way, and so you know, 24:00we walked, I mean for people who don't know, like that's a good length of Manhattan, like, at that point right there from 116th Street down to the -- the Village.
I remember there was -- you know, there was a lot of concern already among --among Arab and Muslim populations back then about what kind of thing this war was gonna bring. Wha-- what kind of attention it was going to bring. There were already people talking about the feeling that they were being targeted by FBI interviews even back then for that at -- you know, before that war began.
And then when the war began and then it ended very quickly -- it -- it was -- itwas also a very intense time. I remember there was a big demonstration at Columbia, and Eric Bogosian came and he spoke abou-- at that time. And he said 25:00something to the effect of, you know, "I'm not Arab, but I'm frequently mistaken as one," because he has Armenian background, I believe, and -- and, you know, he has darker features as I do and -- you know? And -- and then he was, you know, talking about the -- fact that, you know, anti-Arab racism is a very real phenomenon, and we have to think about this in very distinct and very, you know, real ways. And that was important, I think, for me to understand and to hear, you know.
Because the thing is too, also, the way that we talked about Muslim identitythese days is, in a lot of ways, a post-9/11 phenomenon. People did not have as much of a sense of a Muslim identity as people talk about these days as they did pre-9/11. And so, pre-9/11, people might have been -- mi-- might have had identities that are affiliated with Islam. They might have thought of themselves as Muslim, but they -- they often still thought in national origin ways, too. 26:00Not that that -- not that there is -- that those two are mutually exclusive, but there's different kinds -- kind of emphasis on the ways that people's identities had been constructed. And so, I think that there was not nearly as much of a sense of a Muslim identity prior to 9/11.
And -- and then the other side of that, too, is I'm coming to New York City asMuslim Canadian or Arab Canadian. I'm trying to understand racial politics, too, and -- and looking at the ethnic racial divisions within the US, even official divisions in the ways in which people get recognized by the state or don't get recognized by the state is that Arabs completely disappear within that formation too, so -- whereas, there's definitely something called Arab racism. There's certainly a phenomenon of Arab racism and, you know, anti-Arab racism, which is what Bogosian was talking about at that day. You know, we're also a population 27:00that is not recognized as even being in -- a -- a distinct community within racial logic. And so, you're sort of doubly hit by that phenomenon.
STRONG: What was it like working with Edward Said?
BAYOUMI: Yeah, it was great. I mean -- I mean, you know, he was very busy. Hewas very -- he was a star, you know, at that point too. I mean, I think in the '80s -- if you were working with Edward Said in the -- in the early '80s, it was -- you probably had more of an opportunity to work really closely with him because -- when -- when -- because when I came to Columbia, well, two things really happened. One, he was already, you know, world famous and -- and then by the time that I, you know, had developed a relationship with him, he had already 28:00been diagnosed with leukemia at that point too. And so, when he had the diagnosis, he withdrew a lot from -- understandably from university life, from like students. And he became a university professor, which meant that his teaching obligations were also less, although he -- he continued to teach all the way through. And so, I think I was really one of the fortunate ones because I was able -- I was one of the last students that was able to work with him, who's able to work with him, so that was great.
STRONG: And how did your -- your own intellectual life change at that time? Whatbecame your focus? What were your interests? What were you researching? Tell me about that.
BAYOUMI: So, I think -- well, my dissertation was on Islam and migration and,sort of, thinking about the notion about how Islam and Muslims -- what happens when Islam as a phenomenon or Muslims as populations move from one place to the 29:00-- to another name-- mostly from -- from the Muslim world or what's called the Muslim world to, like different western locations. And it was a kind of cultural studies, the dissertation, so I was thinking about specific locations in specific moments. So, for example, one chapter that I had on the dissertation was about the construction of the first mosque in Paris, and so that was me using my archi-- architecture background 'cause I still wanted to feel like I hadn't wasted that time. And I was still interested in architecture. I just didn't want to be an architect. And so, I wrote -- a -- a chapter that was looking at the, sort of, cultural history of a building in this in a way.
And I had two very long chapters on African Islam as well and thinking about themovement and the migration from, you know, West Africa to the United States, and so an antebellum chapter and then a postbellum chapter. And so, you know, what I 30:00thought what I was doing in a lot of ways was kind of uni-- uniting Edward Said's postcolonial, sort of, but Eurocentric notions. Eurocentric in so far as, you know, he's thinking about the European empire primarily or even when he's thinking about the United States as an empire, thinking about the United States as an imperial formation, and how that impacts the rest of the world. Whereas, I was interested in kind of studies approaches at the same time too, so trying to think about minority politics within the same thing. So, in a sense, trying to think about where is the relationship between, you know, ethnic studies, you know, US-based ethnic studies and postcolonial studies and trying to merge them into -- into something. So, you know, when people ask me to describe my work, that's often like the -- one of the shorthands that I would use.
STRONG: So, what brought you to Brooklyn College from that point?
BAYOUMI: A job. [laughter]31:00
STRONG: Was it directly or was there anything that you were doing --
BAYOUMI: So, after I finished the last year that I was, you know, writing mydissertation, I went on the job market, which is, you know, routine. And there were few -- you know, there aren't -- every year is different, whether there's a lot of jobs or not a lot of jobs. The year before, I had -- I wasn't really ready to go on the market, but there had been a job that was advertised that was at York University in Canada, which would have been a good job for me. And so, I did apply for that, and I got fairly far along in the process, but I wasn't really ready at that point. I think I needed the other -- the -- the -- the f-- the following year to finish the -- the more work on my dissertation. So, I didn't get that job.
But then the year when I was up before -- you know, I was basically ready tofinish the dissertation and so I applied for a series of jobs, and I applied for a couple of postdocs and so -- or at least one postdoc. I don't remember -- I don't remember how many. And so, what happened was then I had an interview at 32:00Brooklyn College, and there was -- that was one of the jobs. They were looking for somebody who di-- did post-colonial studies, and so I applied for that job, and they interviewed me. And -- and then they -- eventually, they offered me the job.
And at the same time, the -- there was the Center for Race and Ethnicity, Ithink it, was at -- at Rutgers, offered me a postdoc. But Brooklyn College, you know, has since become more, I would say, intellectually inclined than it was back then. For example, the 10-year clock used to be a five-year clock, and now, it's a seven-year clock, which is pretty much the standard for research-oriented universities around the country. So, research has been given -- made more of a priority at CUNY [City University of New York] generally in the intervening years.
And so, when I first applied to Brooklyn College and then when I got the job andthen I called up the chair when I got the o-- the opportunity to have at this postdoc. And I said, you know, "Is there any way of deferring my -- my start date?" Which, nowadays, people would do within CUNY, I think, without -- without 33:00waiting. But the chair of the department, at that time, said that they needed me to start to right away. And having a job meant that I could then also begin changing my immigration status from being a student to being a faculty member. So that gave me a certain type of security if I wanted to stay in New York City. And I think I was, ultimately, more interested in New York City than in the United States as a whole. So, I decided that it was worth it in the end. So, I -- I declined. I had -- you know, perhaps under a small, slight duress, but I did decline the -- the postdoc at Rutgers and then I started teaching at Brooklyn College.
STRONG: What was Brooklyn College like at that time?
BAYOUMI: [laughter] Well, what do you mean like --? I mean --
STRONG: The students --
BAYOUMI: -- it was --
STRONG: -- culture, what were your classes like, anything.
BAYOUMI: I mean, you know, it's a college. Like it's a -- it's a veryinteresting college, it's -- in so far as it's a place that serves primarily students who are the first generation to go to university in their families. It's -- the population is generally working class. The general population is generally from around the world, and yet, somehow, the students tend to be a 34:00little bit parochial. They often don't leave Brooklyn as a borough very much.
I used to take students to -- I had a friend -- a very close friend of mine usedto work at the Public Theater, and she would do community relations for the Public Theater. Like she -- her -- so, one of her jobs was actually to get groups to come and visit the -- the Public Theater, so she was always asking me, you know, "Bring your classes," and it was great. It was a great fit because I, wa-- wanted to bring my classes too. And they -- the students, you know, for many of them, it would be, you know, one of the few times that they were ever going out to Manhattan, like on a night on the town kind of thing. So, I think -- and that's still pretty much the case for I think for Brooklyn College students.
You know, I don't think the population of Brooklyn -- students really haven'tchanged that much over the years. I think the college has become slightly more selective because the -- there's like more just the -- I think community college 35:00enrolment has also expanded, and so there's more people going to the community colleges and then they become theaters for the senior colleges. And so, for a mul-- a multitude of -- and, you know, reasons that really need not concern us, the population at Brooklyn College has become slightly more -- you need slightly higher test scores, in other words, to enter. It might in that way, also, be slightly less racially diverse than it was in the past but not hugely, at least not from my point of view that I've seen. And there's been -- it's been pretty consistent all the way through.
STRONG: You had mentioned that there was something unique about teaching with a-- a postcolonial perspective to students at Brooklyn College. Could you expand on that a little bit?
BAYOUMI: Well, I mean, one of the things that was interesting when I startedteaching at Brooklyn College was that I was teaching students who many of them had experience with different educational systems because many of them were immigrants themselves. And particularly -- that was particularly true with my 36:00Caribbean students. The students that I have from the Caribbean, often, immediately understood so much about the po-- postcolonial theories and the postcolonial sensibility without even having read it. You know, they -- it would seem very familiar to them, much of it already. Then they already knew things like A-levels and O-levels. They -- they -- you know, they knew the -- the ways in which the Caribbean education systems -- many of them are from the former British colonies in the Caribbean, so they are already connected to England in a way that people in the United States are not even probably to a lesser degree, but that's, I think, also true for Canada.
Canada has a sense -- we're -- we're s-- we -- Canadians feel somehow in betweenboth Canada -- between the United States and the UK. And so, I feel like people in Canada have a -- people in the United States have a very romanticized view of the UK, and people in Canada, I think, have a more realistic view of what the UK is and a more realistic view of what the United States is. And so, I think I saw that, you know, even a more intimate way of teaching Caribbean students at 37:00Brooklyn College.
Whereas tea-- and also, when you're teaching issues that are around, you know,class politics or when you're trying to teach Marxism for example or things like that, too, that also is different than I was -- when I was teaching say at -- at Columbia when I -- as a grad student. You know, 'cause at Columbia, the vast majority of the students are -- are upper middle -- upper middleclass to wealthy, and so they might have a lot of -- they might have a difference in terms of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, in terms of their regional backgrounds from parts -- different parts of the country, and these sorts of things. But their lives are not that different from each other, especially when you're talking about socioeconomically.
So, you -- when we were discussing things around Marx, you know, 'cause I usedto teach a class called Contemporary Civilizations at Columbia, which is basically, you know, a great books course through ideas, right? And so, Marx is a -- a pretty important part of that, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all the way 38:00through, right, in the second semester. But when I was teaching similar ideas at Brooklyn College, what I found is my students immediately understood the questions around exploitation in a non-abstract but very concrete, kind of, way for example. So, there's definitely a big difference between the populations and the ways in which certain concepts land, I guess, you could say.
STRONG: Also, tell me a little bit about living in Brooklyn at that time.
BAYOUMI: Well, I didn't li-- when I first started teaching in Brooklyn College,I still stayed -- I still lived in --
STRONG: Oh, okay.
BAYOUMI: -- in Manhattan.
STRONG: So, when did you move here?
BAYOUMI: So, I moved to Brooklyn, I think it was 2003. It was either 2002 or2003. I can't recall exactly when.
STRONG: To this apartment?
STRONG: Oh, so you've been in this neighborhood the whole time?
BAYOUMI: I have. Yeah.
STRONG: How have you seen it change or grow or anything?
BAYOUMI: Well, it's like every -- like so many of the other neighborhoods inBrooklyn, it's gentrified a great deal. And that's for better and for worse, 39:00right? So --
STRONG: [sneezes] Excuse me.
BAYOUMI: Bless you. Even this building, itself, is really interesting becausethis building -- from what I understand just talking to people around, the folklore of this neighborhood -- and I'm sure it's true. The folklore is that the corner here that's at -- I think it's just Underhill [Avenue] and Sterling [Place] was supposed to be one of the most -- one of the busiest drug corners in New York City for a long time. So, apparently, this used to be a relatively, you know, rough-and-tumble, I guess, neighborhood in the past. But what happened also regarding this -- this neighborhood and this building in particular was that this building converted to co-op. I believe it was in the '80s when a lot of the buildings converted to -- to -- to being cooperatives. 40:00
But what happened -- and this is also very New York City, like, based, right?Because listeners outside of New York City might not understand how the laws within New York facilitate people taking ownership of the buildings where they lived through become -- incorporating and then becoming a cooperative. And so, the-- there's no landlord anymore, but the people who are in the building own shares in the building, right? And so that's what happened with this building.
But immediately, I -- what I understand was not long after that happened, thepeople couldn't pay the -- the mortgage on the building, so the bank was about to foreclose on the building, right? And so, instead, an investor came in, and he said, "Well, if I buy a bunch of the apartments in the building then will that prevent foreclosure?" and the bank agreed to that, so -- usually, that's not the case but -- so what happened in this building was that a good portion of the building, more than half -- I think at one point, it was probably about 41:00three-quarters of the building was owned by one investor who was the landlord then. He -- so he rented out apartments, right? And the rest of them had become owner-occupied when the building converted to being a co-op.
And then slowly, as this -- the investor was getting older and was getting ridof some of his investments and those -- the real estate market was booming, and so the building was slowly converting more and more to owner-occupied. So when I moved in, it was about half-half. Now, it's more than half-owner or significantly more owner and very few rental units left, but -- so what that meant is -- means is that even though the notion of gentrifying Brooklyn can be seen just in the very -- like in the very building itself where I'm living. And so, you have a lot of old-timers who've lived in the building, mo-- ma-- many of them coming from various parts of the Caribbean who lived here for -- for generation -- for at least a couple of generations. And many of them are the renters.
And then the first wave of people who bought in, which is basically -- well,42:00maybe it's the second wave of people who bought in, which is when I was -- when I first came in. A lot of them were in typical, sort of, gentrifying fashion were artists, actors, musicians, you know, or the -- the sort of cul-- creative-cultural class, right. And then they've since moved on. And now, most of the people who own in the building are lawyers, some people who work in, sort of, the nonprofit sector, you know, that -- that kind of profile. But we've really seen it move in terms of who owns in the building, and that matches a lot with -- if you read the literature on gentrification, how gentrification also happens.
STRONG: So, it's sort of like a little case study?
BAYOUMI: It is. In fact one of the --
BAYOUMI: -- one of the -- there was a woman who used to live in the building andhe -- she and her husband and their children moved out, I think, 'cause, you know, they needed more space at one point. And she is a documentary filmmaker, so she was trying to tell the story of Brooklyn's gentrification just through 43:00talking about the -- the stories that she would be able to tell through each person's apartments 'cause she was going around and interviewing all the members of the -- of the building.
STRONG: Oh, wow.
STRONG: So, you talked a little bit about your political and activist awarenessas a student, and I'm wondering how that transitioned when you became a teacher?
BAYOUMI: Well -- so, I've always been pretty activist, I guess, in myinclinations. So when I was a high school student, I was doing a lot of activism at that point. In the -- in my undergraduate days, we had the Arab Association, which was also a very -- we did a lot of pro-Palestinian work. One of the things that we were proud of was -- I don't know if you remember the -- The Cure. You 44:00know this band The Cure? Yeah. So, they had a song, at one point, called "Killing an Arab." And it was based on The Stranger, L'Étranger by Albert Camus, you know, the -- the -- the book -- the famous book. And because that's the -- the narrative in that book where the -- the -- the men in the book Meursault killed a nameless Arab and then he goes to trial for it. So, the song was ostensibly about this thing, but it's called "Killing an Arab," and it's like in that moment when there's, you know, a lot of anti-Arab sentiment around.
So, we had these meetings with -- 'cause not -- this is not just campus-basedstuff, but also like community-based stuff -- and so meetings with the record distributor and the -- and then they ended up putting -- The Cure ended up putting a label saying that they con-- did not con-- you know, condone anti-Arab racism or whatever. So, we felt like that was something good. Like, you know, we are able to affect some -- some change there.
And then at Columbia, too, I was also very active in different organizations and-- and got different organizations on the ground and -- and -- we had -- an Arab 45:00association in particular, a friend of mine and I were the ones who began it and really had a -- did a lot of, I think, important work. 'Cause, again, this was around the time of the Iraq War initially and then it was also the sanctions and trying to understand what the sanctions meant. And then there's this -- unfortunately, when it comes to Middle Eastern politics, there's no dearth of things to organize events around.
And then, you know, when I became a faculty member, I mean one of things I don'tdo is I don't teach my politics. I don't think that -- or at least not directly. I mean, I teach -- you know I teach my students. I don't teach my politics. And so, it's more important for me to teach, you know, ways that people can think critically rather than just having my students, you know, hear me pontificate about this or that. So, you know, I don't teach classes on -- on things that I'm very activist about gen-- generally speaking. 46:00
You know, I have been involved in some measure in -- as a faculty advisor. I'mthe faculty advisor for Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, on our campus. But, yeah, I mean, I also think that especially after 9/11, after 2001, most of the activism that I have been doing is just off-campus. It's in other realms. And then after 2008, which is when How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? was published, it's -- really come -- just really hard to find time to do anything because that book has assumed its -- a life on its own and has demanded a kind of schedule that for me now has become difficult to manage. Sort of lecture schedule along with my own research schedule along with a teaching schedule, and so that's what my life is like these days.
STRONG: Makes sense. Then talk to me a little bit about your -- your off-campus47:00activism before and after 9/11 and how the environment kind of changed.
BAYOUMI: Well, aft-- right after 9/11, there was a lot of desire for people --different community groups were calling in and asking me if I can just come and -- they're -- a lot of them -- and speak to them -- and a lot of them were, you know, fundamentally informational. They're just like, "Can we just -- we are just trying to understand what is Islam," so, there were a lot more Islam 101 kinds of things. Or, you know, sort of, like what is -- what are the politics of the region in a -- in a kind of -- you know, can you just explain to us, this sort of thing.
So, I was doing a ton of that and then I was also doing some op-ed writing, so-- and a lot of that took off with The Progressive magazine. So, The Progressive magazine, this magazine has been around for over a hundred years based in Madison, Wisconsin. At one point, they had to write something of mine or something that relate -- referred to me. And they con-- they -- one of their 48:00editors contacted me and said, you know, "Would you be interested in writing something about such and such," and so -- I think it was, actually the first year anniversary of 9/11. So, I wrote an op-ed about that and then we kept in -- kept in good contact from there. And so, I started writing op-eds regularly for them. I don't know how many I've written but it's dozens and dozens for them over the years.
And that was really -- you know, not only was that important because what theywere doing, too, with their op-eds was they had a project. It was -- it's still around, I believe. It's called the Progressive Media Project, and so it was a foundation-funded project that was an attempt to try to bring more diversity into America's op-ed pages. And so, what they were doing was their op-eds, they would edit the op-eds and then they would go directly into a wire service. At that time, it was the Knight Ridder wire service, which has since become McClatchy. And so, whatever I had written then would immediately get distributed to -- to, you know, thousands of newspapers around the world. And back then, people still read newspapers like as a thing, you know? 49:00
BAYOUMI: So, I would get all kinds of hate mail, but that's just par for thecourse. You learn to ignore hate mail after a while. But -- but it was -- what I -- why -- the reason why I say that is because I would actually get mail because -- you know, like hate mail, not hate email. Like I would actually get hate mail as well as email, and not that everything was di-- was analog back then. It was a mix of both digital and analog. But that was also really good training for me because, you know, of-- it got like -- allowed my voice, I guess, to get out there, but it was also really good training in terms of writing an op-ed. And so, I've been -- you know now, I -- I write routinely for The Guardian, and so I think the writing for the -- for The Progressive was actually very helpful.
STRONG: I'm curious to learn about the climate and your experiences leading upto the decision to write your book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Talk to me about that time what you and friends of yours were experiencing or seeing. 50:00
BAYOUMI: The -- you know, I think, I decided somewhere around 2005 that I wantedto write How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? And in fact, I had written an essay earlier in 2001 immediately following 2001, and I had titled that essay, "How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?" and -- but with a different subtitle. And that essay was more of a -- a -- my own kind of fragmented response -- I was -- to the events of 9/11. I was looking at it somewhat a little bit historically in that essay. I was looking at it from very -- you know, experientially. And so, in other words, that -- that question, how does it feel to be a problem, which I took directly from W. E. B. Du Bois in his Souls of Black Folk, and I continually acknowledge that. But that question was present in my -- in my mind 51:00as soon as 9/11 happened because there was a sense immediately that I think all -- anybody who was of Arab and/or Muslim background and living in -- at least in New York and probably within United States knew immediately that this was not going to be an easy time.
And so, the time period from September 11, 2001 to, you know, the middle of 2005when I decided I was gonna write the book, in some ways, it's sort of a blur. Because it's -- it was all just one long day, in a way, of trying to respond to whatever was coming next because there was always something happening the very next day. People today talk about how exhausting the news cycle is, and the news cycle today is completely exhausting. But I think the news cycle today is completely exhausting for anybody in the United States who has -- pays any attention to politics. But from 2001 until today, the news cycle has been 52:00completely exhausting for anybody who's of Arab and or Muslim background.
And that was true in -- for me, in the way in which I felt like I had toimmediately respond to everything that was happening all the time. So, it was not just -- not just, you know, going to different community functions and speaking to different groups and talking to the different interfaith events and these sorts of things but also writing these op-eds and going to different demonstrations. And it was the -- you know, first it was 9/11 saying -- you know going to the demonstration at Brooklyn Heights. I remember just days after 9/11 and people holding up signs that said, you know, "Islam is not the enemy. Muslims are our neighbors," and then feeling that that was somehow -- that was comforting to see those signs. And then going with some friends of mine from graduate school, so people who are of not Arab or Muslim background, and going 53:00to this demonstration.
And then I remember also there was a -- a reporter then from -- I forget if it'sChile or Peru -- but from -- from somewhere in South America -- a reporter who came right up to me and started asking me -- I didn't have one of those signs. I was just there just -- just as, I didn't have a sign at all, and I was just walking around in support of the demonstration. And she was coming right up to me and asking me about how I felt to be -- you know? And I was, "How did you identify me?" and so at the same time, feeling very identified as well as being comforted. And I think that was common for everybody within this community. I mean, we would often get together as like -- in mutual support networks. It was a very intense moment.
And, you know, at one point, I realized just how true it was that everybody who-- who was of Arab and or a Muslim background in the United States, everybody 54:00that I knew who fit that background had either been directly visited or knew somebody who had been visited by the FBI. I knew just -- I knew a ton of people who have been visited already by the FBI. This is just months after 9/11, so like the -- the -- the fanning out into the community and the level of -- of fear and -- and really intimidation that -- that brought -- was enormous. You know, I think most people think about 9/11 and its aftermath as primarily something about the vigilante violence that might happen because, you know, a random racist will be upset and will make -- might shoot you at the gas station or something to that effect.
But in fact, that wasn't my experience or the experience of my -- of, you know,the peers of my peers. What was really the -- the -- the fear and intimidation factor came much more from law enforcement and from different government programs, you know, such as Special Registration [National Security Entry-Exit Registration System], which came down a year following 9/11. And that -- and that -- when that came down, you know, a lot of my friends -- I -- because I was born in Switzerland, I was not required to register -- 55:00
STRONG: Oh my God.
BAYOUMI: Right? Had I been born in Egypt, I would have been required to registeras a lot of my friends 'cause I have a lot of internationals who are my friends. And so, they had to go and register their whereabouts with the governments and go through these very exhaustive, very intrus-- intrusive interviews and, you know, deal with the -- the -- the sort of, you know, security apparatus of the state up close -- something that most s don't have to deal with, and so -- and then years later, the Vera Institute, which is this institute that studies criminal justice and its impact in the United States, came up with this study. They had done a study themselves in -- within the Arab communities. It was not Muslim oriented. It was an Arab-oriented study. And they were like, "What are your -- what -- where are your, you know, primary concerns as -- as the Arab community?" And the Arab communities said, overwhelmingly, it was with law enforcement. Because we felt that the secure -- the whole security apparatus was unfairly directed towards us in -- in ways that were not really there to provide safety but were there to intimidate. And I think that that was very much how a 56:00lot of people felt during that period.
STRONG: Had you had interactions with law enforcement directly?
BAYOUMI: They didn't come to me. I mean, I didn't have FBI interviews, you know,so -- the time is still young I guess.
BAYOUMI: Who knows, so -- I mean I always had -- you know now, it's less. Ithink also the -- the -- the systems have probably become more sophisticated. But I -- I used to have a lot of long dealings at airports when I was -- you know, which was also a common complaint that a lot of people had. Now I don't anymore. So, I think the systems have become more sophisticated but that was certainly true.
STRONG: Can you walk me through the experience of being stopped at the airport?
BAYOUMI: I mean sometimes, it would even -- it's -- a lot of times, it evenhappened prior to 9/11 too. And I think it's also a mistake to assume that life was fine prior to 9/11 and then there was -- suddenly, there was this apparatus that it -- that sprung up out of nowhere. I think it's important to rec-- to 57:00remember that there was a history of prior to 9/11, and I think it's important to think of it in a manner of scale. So, I think that things -- what existed prior to 9/11 has just magnified to a much higher level. And then another way that's important to understand is that it's become politically expedient to talk about M-- Muslims in a way that it wasn't politically expedient before. So, we've become used politically -- you know instrumental. I think the idea of Muslims in the United States has become instrumentalized into politics in a way that it hadn't been prior to 9/11. So, I think it's very important but it -- nevertheless, I think it's very important to remember that things also existed prior to 9/11, too, but yeah.
I mean it was not uncommon that, you know, when you're just getting -- you haveto go through -- especially when you're flying back to the United States still to this day, you have to go through multiple layers of interviews and then getting stopped and taken to -- I mean I've been taken to rooms on several occasions and then everything gets taken out of your bag and then slowly put 58:00back in. Like at one point, they even opened up my contact lens case to look inside. It's like what could possibly be dangerous inside of a contact lens case? You know, things -- such things like that. It was not uncommon.
STRONG: Did you have situations where, you know, as a faculty advisor, just amember of faculty where you were in a position of helping students with these concerns on any level?
BAYOUMI: Sure. I mean there's -- that's actually quite common. I mean -- youknow. You know probably, a couple of times a year at some point that somebody will come to me, people -- and often students I don't know. And they'll just you know, "You Professor Bayoumi?" I'm like, "Yes." He goes, "Okay, I just want to --" And they'll tell me some -- something that's happened to them and then I'll inquire about seeking some kind of redress. And most of the time, the students don't want to do anything, I think, for whatever reasons. They have their own -- 59:00they all -- they have their own reasons. But, yeah, oftentimes, they might feel that they're being unfairly treated on campus. It's not uncommon that it happens.
STRONG: Tell me then a little bit about the process of this book and the ideafor it and doing the research, writing it.
BAYOUMI: I mean I th-- what happened was that I was so exhausted. I was -- as Iwas saying from the pre-- from that period, from, you know, 9/11 to somewhere in 2005, by always looking forward and -- and being concerned about, you know, what am I gonna say about what's gonna happen tomorrow. And like, you know, that -- that's an exhausting mode of living.
And -- and then I -- and I also thought that it wasn't really doing as much goodas I had hoped that it would do. Just because, you know, I think when you're involved in daily journalism 'cause a lot of this was connected to my op-ed 60:00writing, and I think it's still true with op-ed writing. Like, you know, a powerful op-ed can go a long way for about 18 hours or so and then, you know, maybe -- maybe 36 hours if you're really lucky and then something else happens and takes over. But books are where there is actually a lot more, you know, longevity.
So, I remember one of my -- my advisor, another advisor was Rob Nixon atColumbia, and Rob told me a long time ago. He said, you know, "Books is where you can really make an impact." I remember that very clearly when he told me that. And so, I thought at some point that there was -- there were enough stories that I had heard and just a sort of sentiment that I felt wasn't being represented in the -- in the narrative, the post 9/11 narrative that I thought it should be my obligation now to do it if I can.
So, I decided somewhere -- I -- I was actually in Madison, Wisconsin, at thetime, and I was like, you know what, I'm gonna write this book, 'cause I had 61:00given a talk there. And -- and then I immediately called one of my friends and I asked her and I said -- you know? And she's well connected to -- also to various Muslim communities around New York. And I said, you know, "I have this idea for this book. You know, do you have --?" And I want it to be story driven." I knew from the very beginning that I wanted it to be story driven. Not -- not a polemic but -- but a book about real people's lives. And not looking for any specific kind of story either. I'm not looking for any specific kind of tendency. I didn't want just stories of great s and their great successes in this era. Or -- or the opposite of like, you know, horrible racism, and everything that's terrible that happens in the people's lives. No. 'Cause I don't -- I think that's not really how people live their lives. People live their lives in between a lot of different formulations.
And so, I was trying to see if could access that world of where people lived62:00their lives. So, I just wanted to have good stories to tell. So, I, kind of, put the word out that that's what I wanted to do, and I wanted it to be about young people also because I figured very early on that having grown up as an Arab Muslim Canadian, I have an idea what it's like to grow up as a minority. But I don't know what it's like to grow up as this kind of minority when suddenly there's this massively, you know, enlarging hostility that's in the culture at large. And that's landing on your shoulders at the same time so that just seemed like an inherently interesting proposition that I wanted to investigate.
STRONG: So, tell me a little more about the title and the significance of takingon that.
BAYOUMI: Well, I mean, I think that the Black freedom struggle has been a model,really, for all freedom struggles in this country. And so, I see it as a -- as -- as a way of paying some respect for -- to that. And trying to understand 63:00also, at the same time, the ways in which racialization is a kind of constant in politics, in culture. Though it should also be noted that I say in the very first footnote of the book that, you know, this is not to say that there's any kind of equation between what's happening now to Arab and Muslims and the long s-- story of African s in this country.
So -- and I think most readers understand that. I can see that, right away. Butit was important for me to, sort of, like, understand and locate and see what this connection is between, you know, one -- one -- you know one narrative of -- of -- of trying to liberate yourself and another one where you're involved in -- in that kind of moment when your -- you know, when your rights and your civil liberties are not just threatened, but are in some ways, often being taken away at the same time.
And so, part of that was also in the book ea-- there's -- each chapter begins64:00with a little epigraph that is also drawn from the African tradition. And in order to do that, I mean -- I don't know if you've ever published, but when you -- even if -- especially if it's poetry, you have to get the rights to pu-- even just like a couple of lines of poetry, and you have to do it. Nobody does it for you, like, you know, even if you're working with a big publishing house. You know I was working with Penguin, which is one of the large publishing houses, no way Penguin's gonna do it. It's up to me to do it. And sometimes, you have to pay some money for the rights and all of these sorts of things. You have to tell them what the project is in order to get those rights and what have you. And so I was dealing. You know, I would -- I would email or write letters or call different places to try to get the rights just to run these small, little epigraphs. And almost immediately, for a-- almost all of them, you know, the people I was dealing with were like, you bet. No problem, absolutely, you know. 65:00
So, Rita Dove, for example, who's like one of the -- you know she's like anational treasure in terms of poetry. It was -- what a joy it was to -- I mean, I only communicated it with her via, you know, letters and the internet and what have you, but it was such a joy to work with her on that level because she understood, I think, the project on -- you know immediately. Same with the estate of Nikki Giovanni and -- and others as well. And so -- so that was, actually, a really -- a really -- that was an important and comforting moment at the point when also that's at the very end of when you're writing a book, which can be super stressful. And so, that was a good time for all of that to happen at the same time.
STRONG: That's almost like a -- a physical calling out for validation to -- for-- directly to these people that you were quoting in your work.
BAYOUMI: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
STRONG: Tell me about the experience of gathering these stories. Was thereanything that challenged your own assumptions that surprised you or shaped you?
BAYOUMI: Well, I mean, I think the -- the -- the biggest thing was probably time66:00management, you know, because the -- hey, I'm -- I'm an academic. I'm a children of -- I'm a child of academics, you know? And I'm fortunate in that regard, and I have an idea about how to manage time. I mean, I think, I -- I work a lot. [laughter] It's not that I don't work. I work a lot. But the ways in which academics work are often determined by the academics, too. So, you know, my workday and my non-workday can often bleed into each other, but I can, you know, if I wanna take some time off here and there to -- to 'cause I have to do this or that then I can often in this -- you know?
But the people I was talking to because I was basing the book in Brooklyn, itwas very important for me to base it within like one geography 'cause I was 67:00trying to get at how people live their lives. And I think if you do that in just one narrow geography then you get a sense of that more acutely as a -- as a writer and as a reader. So, I wanted to choose a very specific place, and so I chose Brooklyn to write about. But the Arab community in Brooklyn and the Arab Muslim community in Brooklyn is largely a wor-- a pretty working-class community too. And so, the people that I was writing about, they -- they were often going to school, but they have -- you know, they have -- had a lot of other responsibilities and obligations. And so it was always -- you know, it was -- I -- I completely respected that, and I was very happy when they would allow me to -- either they would take time out in order to meet with me or they would allow me to accompany them wherever they were going.
And so, you know, one story I wrote about was from -- the s-- the story ofAkram. And Akram's family has a corner store, and so if -- you can't a write a 68:00-- a book about Brooklyn and about the Arab community and not talk about the store 'cause those are -- you know, so many of the stores in -- in -- in New York City and especially in the boroughs are -- are run by either Yemenis or Palestinians. And so, Akram's family is Palestinian, Palestinian . And so, I spent a lot of time at the store when I was writing the book, and now, we were just -- I would just hang out in -- at the front and Akram would be behind the counter and then -- you know, to the point where his father would start giving me soda bottles just to like stack while I'm hanging out there, right? Or -- or the -- the people, the -- the regular shoppers will come in and they would recognize me, and they would ask me where things are in the store and things like -- so, I started to feel like I was even part of the store culture, too. And so that was -- that was really an important part of also feeling like I was getting into the rhythms of people's lives.
But I think I was really impressed with -- like with that element of it. Like,you know, the-- their level of -- of work, like, in so many ways and how -- how 69:00hard they worked to make things work as well. And so, that was true not just on a -- on a labor perspective or even like a physical perspective. But also just -- I was struck by how -- how optimistic they were, and not foolishly optimistic, not naively optimistic, but how dedicated they were to -- you know, all the people that -- the young people I was talking to -- to facing the -- the struggles that they were facing, sort of, straight on but not being overly sentimental about them or overly maudlin about them or, you know, not asking for anybody's like, you know -- self-pity or they weren't self-pitying themselves, you know? So, they -- in -- and I saw them at their most private -- what I think was often their very private moments, too, and so the -- so that was also really interesting.
And to see them, you know, organize themselves as well. Like the last chapter,70:00for example, is I write about a young man named Rami whose father is -- is detained and eventually deported. Although, you know, when I was writing his chapter, the father was still actually in detention, haven't yet been deported, but he's since been deported. And -- and so Rami becomes the -- he's, you know, still an undergraduate, but he becomes the -- the -- you know, the male figure in his household, and he assumes like a lot of responsibility. And not only that, but he becomes more religious as well, and he's -- assumes a lot of -- an important role within, you know, one of the different Muslim communities around New York City.
So, I was spending a lot of time with him. We're going out to all thesedifferent events and, like, hanging out. And -- and just the level of, you know, devotion to the -- to their -- their group and to furthering the aims of the 71:00faith. That was also quite inspirational too.
STRONG: Did any of the stories speak to your own experience personally in Brooklyn?
BAYOUMI: I think all of the stories like spoke to my own experiences on somelevel at some point in my life. I wouldn't say my life in Brooklyn per se.
BAYOUMI: But I was -- you know, in some ways, I was trying to write the storiesas accurately as I could from their perspective but I -- you know, a lot of people when they read -- when they see the book or they read the book, people often comment on the title. And they point to the word problem in the title, and they think that there's something that that -- as if that's the most important word in the title. But for me, actually, the most important word in the title is feel. And I was trying to make a -- a -- to produce a kind of reading experience where you would actually feel like you're living somebody's life. So, there's a lot of detail in the book, there's a lot of sense about how people are feeling 72:00so that required a certain type of interviewing as well and a certain type of hanging out with people. That kind of immersion journalism as it were, right, and so --
And then when I'm writing that, I feel like to access the, sort of, affects andthe emotions that I need as I'm writing it, I did get to kind of like, you know, feel those things too, so I would -- even if it -- not directly relating things back to my own experience, I would recall things in my own past as I was writing each chapter. So, I think somehow, there's a little bit of me in each chapter.
STRONG: Talk to me about the impact of the book once it came out. Was it whatyou hoped -- what -- or were expecting?
BAYOUMI: I mean, you know, I remember when I -- when the book, before it cameout, I had lunch or dinner with my editor at the time. And I asked her, you know, "So, how many books are published in the US every year?" and I believe her answer was more than 40,000. I was like, "Wow." I just was thinking as long as the book doesn't just disappear like a drop in the ocean, you know, like a 73:00raindrop in the ocean then I'll feel like I had done something.
But no -- I mean, the book has continued to be read since its publication, andit's now in, I think, maybe something like the 24th printing or something like that. They had now just reissued the book in with a new afterword because if it's the -- it's both the 10th year since the book has been published and then, of course, with this administration, it becomes even more relevant. So I had to write -- or not had to -- I was happy to do it.
BAYOUMI: But I -- I wrote a new afterword that will now be in the -- the laterissues of the book, and it was published on The Daily Beast about a month ago. The book has kept me busy, you know. There -- the different uni-- universities have used the book as their common reading across the country. So, next week, 74:00I'm going to New Jersey to -- there's a college there that chose it as a common reading. I'm going to Texas in a couple of weeks following that and then I'll go to, actually, Madison, Wisconsin, 'cause one of their residential colleges also chose it as a -- as a common reading this year. So every year, it's been chosen as a common reading by multiple campuses so that doesn't happen with a lot of books.
So -- and I get -- you know, I get lots of response from readers. Like the vastmajority of it, the overwhelmingly vast majority of it is very positive. And it tends to divide about half-half between people who are of Muslim faith and background and -- and people who are not. And I really -- I -- both liking the book in various ways, and that was very important for me from the very beginning.
I -- I think of writing very much as problem-solving in -- in ways. And so, you75:00have a problem in front of you, a writing problem in front of you, you're thinking of how you're gonna solve it. So, one of the things that I was I -- well a problem that I put in front of myself was can I write a book that can speak equally to two different audiences? So, I wanted that from the very beginning. I wanted this book to be able to speak to people who are Arab and are Muslim and feel like their experiences are in the book without feeling alienated. Like if it's too much of an Islam 101 book and you have to explain like what the five pillars are and what this is and what that is, and people who are coming from inside the community will feel like the book doesn't talk to them anymore, right? But at the same time, if you're too inside baseball then people who are coming -- readers from the outside won't feel like they can access the book. So, I really wanted to find a way that I felt like I could write -- that it would really reach both audiences equally. So, bas-- based on the response, I think -- I think I've succeeded so that's -- that's gratifying.
But, yeah, it's kept me very busy since then and, unfortunately, in a lot of76:00ways. I mean, I say this in the -- in the afterword but -- you know? I mean I wrote the book during the Bush administration and then the book came out essentially during the Obama administration. Right? And I think that I had, you know -- or I know that I had hoped that when I wrote the book, that I had written a book that you'd find in like the -- you go to a bookstore and there's like the current-events table, you know, and then, you know, maybe a few -- a year later or whatever, it will be moved to like history like a -- and it'll be like a -- a kind of -- you know this would be a -- a document that's about our recent history.
But in a lot of ways as I say in the afterword, I feel like what I've done isI've -- I've written a chronicle of the future. You know, I wrote a book that came out in 2008, and people tell me repeatedly now that it's mo-- it seems more relevant now, today than it did in 2008. And this goes back to what we were 77:00talking about earlier. Because I feel like we've been living through a period where the instrumentalization of Islam into our politics has just gained more and more and more momentum. And so, you would have never thought that you could even have the -- you could float the notion of a Muslim ban seriously, I think, in 2008 despi-- and still, even though there was still plenty of policies that were discriminatory, directly discriminatory against the Arab Muslim populations. Whereas now, you'd -- not only can you float it, but in fact, the Supreme Court upheld it, so -- but this is the environment we're now in.
STRONG: A bit of an interlude to -- between this book and the next that, kindof, brings up this moment. In 2011, the AP [Associated Press] story came out and revealed that, you know, Brooklyn College was, kind of, under surveillance as well as Muslim and Arab populations in general. Can you talk to me about the 78:00reaction or the climate at that time?
BAYOUMI: So, when that story came out, I think that there was a lot ofI-knew-its from the Muslim communities around New York City including on campus. People were not surprised. They felt confirmed in their suspicions rather than surprised. It was a confirmation rather than a revelation as people will say. And I completely agree. I mean when I was -- I mean I -- everybody had their suspicions in the immediate post-9/11 period that there was a kind of uncomfortable level of people hanging out and looking and asking questions and things like that. And then as soon as I started writing the book, people were telling me about that same phenomenon.
And then at one point when I was writing the book, one of the -- you know, a79:00kind of secondary character. Not somebody who was a main character in one of the stories but one of the secondary characters in one of the stories started giving me this elaborate story about how he had been followed by this car, this plain like, you know, unmarked car and throughout Brooklyn for -- you know? And he -- and the story was so elaborate with this turn and that turn and how he was convinced that like all the detail was there to convince me. And I was -- at that time when he told me the story, personally like, you know, without saying anything like I thought, "Hmm, that's -- it could be true, but maybe he's also exaggerating the -- you know his concern about this."
I no longer think that. I think it's probably a hundred percent true, you know,knowing what -- now what people know because what the -- the value of the AP story was not only that it confirmed things, but it actually was the fact that they released some -- a -- a good trove of documents. It would be great to have more documents clearly, but they released enough of -- of the documents that had been given to them by some insider. So, somebody inside was unhappy with the way 80:00things were going that they revealed the -- not just the extent but the kinds of surveillance. The kind of ridiculousness to the surveillance, which included, you know, spying on -- on student groups at different campuses, and CUNY campuses were highly represented within that. And one of the reasons, I think, CUNY campuses were highly represented -- there are several reasons I think. For one thing, I think people criminalize working-class populations. And so, CUNY students generally tend to be working class as opposed to NYU students or things like that, right? And then also because it's part of the City University system, there's gonna be less pushback, I think. Bec-- because the New York City Police Department is also a part of the whole city bureaucracy at the same time.
So, you know, it had been revealed that -- at one point that -- I forget like --I forget if it was Yale or Princeton. But one of those also -- students on one of those campuses had also been victims of this spying. And so, immediately the 81:00president of one of those universities -- I forget which one it was -- wrote a -- issued a public letter and said that, you know, this is contrary to the -- not just the values of our university but contrary to the professed values of the United States. We didn't see anything like that coming from the chancellor of CUNY, you know, and I think that that was -- we -- we pushed. There was a -- there was a concerted movement on behalf of many faculty members across the -- the system to get the chancellor to say something like that.
And only -- only when the NYPD finally came to a resolution over their spying --because there were several lawsuits that were launched against the NYPD. And when those lawsuits were concluded, only then did the CUNY establishment come up and say something about the spying, right. And so, I don't think that's a mistake. I haven't written that publicly. Others haven't, and nobody I -- I know has written that publicly. But I believe that it's -- it's connected to the kind 82:00of ways in which the bureaucracies in New York work.
STRONG: Tell me more about the faculty response. What were you guys saying toeach other? How did you talk about how to support students or, you know, encouraged open, intellectual discussion in such a scary time?
BAYOUMI: Yeah. So I mean, you know, on Brooklyn College's campus, there was the2011 revelation, right, but then -- and that was about a period in the past that we don't know exactly when either because the documents were few and concerned, you know, different CUNY campuses as well, right? And they were about the Muslim Student Associations on these campuses too. And in fact, the -- the Muslim Student Association on Brooklyn College's campus tends to be more religiously focused rather than politically focused too. So, that's already told me that the police department didn't even know what they were doing in a certain level. Not that they should be spying on any -- on anybody because it's the student's First 83:00Amendment right to be able to, you know, like ask all kinds of questions about the -- the society in which we live openly and freely without having law enforcement there taking notes and squelching, you know, the -- the open and free debate, which is exactly, you know, the threat that -- that happens when you have this kind of spying on these campuses.
And -- and that's exactly what happened at Hunter College. There is a -- awell-known example at Hunter College where there was a sign that was put outside the club room that said that -- that, "Political Discussions Should Stop Here." So, it's limiting the student's ability to be able to -- to -- to think critically and -- and openly about really, you know, some of the prevailing questions of our day. And if you're not doing that when you're a college student, when are you even gonna do that because that's exactly the moment when 84:00you're supposed to be having all kinds of discussions with your -- with your friends about everything in the world. And not be concerned about, you know, how is somebody going to misconstrue what I'm saying if this way or that way. So, we just -- we're not going to talk politics at all. So, I see it as an -- it's really -- and my colleagues as well all saw it as a -- as a it fundamentally as an attack, not just on First Amendment grounds, but fundamentally, on the -- on -- on -- on academic freedom grounds.
But that was -- you know. I think it's almost important to -- at BrooklynCollege to think about the 2011 period but then there was the 2014 period. And so in 2014, you know, there was another -- there was an arrest of two women who were arrested as being, you know, plotters for a potential terrorist attack in Queens. The women have been arrested in Queens. They had nothing to do with Brooklyn College campus at all. And then it turned out from reporting on that 85:00arrest, you know, in the mainstream media that the -- the -- the reason why they had been arrested or the -- you know. The -- the s-- the story -- the way the story played out was that here there had been an undercover police officer who was involved. And usually with these cases, there's very often an undercover informant or a police officer who's involved in -- and then swooping in for an arrest, right? So, we can talk about the politics of that if you want 'cause they are often, you know, questionable.
But regardless, what happened in this case was that people then knew -- 'causewhen these cases happen, they officer has to pick -- has to come forward, right, because eventually the officer is gonna testify in court as well. So, the officer here came forward or at least she had been identified, right, in the public record.
STRONG: Now, was this actually an officer or just an informant?86:00
BAYOUMI: She was a police officer.
BAYOUMI: Okay. And so, as far as I -- I believe she was -- yes. Actually, I haveto -- I believe she was a police officer.
BAYOUMI: I might be getting --
STRONG: We can always check --
BAYOUMI: -- my stories mixed up because there are several of them. But I'malmost positive she was a police officer. And then what happened was that students on Brooklyn College's campus recognized her because she had been hanging around Brooklyn College in the -- in the years -- months and years prior. And she was there not as -- she was telling everybody she's not a student, but she is really interested -- she, so, had claimed to have been of Turkish descent and had claimed that she had grown up in a -- in a secular or nonreligious family and this. So, she wanted just to learn about Islam and so she was hanging out with the young women on campus. And she even went to some, you know, like wedding showers, like, you know, and went on all these -- like, 87:00you know, cultivated im-- immediate friendships, intimate friendships with a lot of these -- with these students at Brooklyn College, especially the -- the women students in the Muslim organizations or also in the -- basically also in the political organizations. Because there was a club called the Unity Club, which is a kind of informal place where the -- Black, Latino, and Muslim students gathered in the -- from all the different clubs. And it was essentially, you know, just a -- an -- an informal meeting of progressive thought on campus and how to try to move progressive politics forward. And apparently, she was the like really interested in coming to all the Unity meetings and --
So immediately when all -- when the people found out about this, they wereaghast. And they thought -- they thought, "Well, we thought that 2011 revelations meant that --" This was something, also, that had happened in the past, although we were not so naïve to think that it would end so quickly either. People were not -- they're not naïve, but when it was convinced -- when it clear that it was -- and convincing that it was still going on as far as 2014, people were upset at that point, both students, faculty, people outside 88:00the campus. There was a journalist, Aviva Stahl, who was very influential in -- in revealing this and investigating it and --
And so, in fact, I organized the -- a discussion around this on BrooklynCollege's campus shortly thereafter and had some of the students talk openly about their experiences. And they spoke very eloquently about the fact that they feel like their -- you know that their -- their rights to assemble freely are being contravened by the fact that there's, you know, an -- like an undercover police officer on campus surveilling them when they're not doing anything wrong at all. And there was no hint that anybody's doing anything wrong either. So, you know, these -- the -- this is also the kind of reality, I think, that people have become, in some ways, accustomed to for better or for worse. 89:00
STRONG: Mm-hmm. Moving forward from there, you alluded a little bit to the timeswe live in, at one point, being unthinkable but there was a process of them becoming thinkable. The whole 2016 election where we did not think this person would triumph and through a series of events, he did. So, I'm curious about the transition into kind of a new reality after that point but also the transition itself. Just tell me a little about that time 2016.
BAYOUMI: Well, I also think -- this is something that I've written as well. Butin this -- in a similar fashion to how I want to caution people from thinking that 2011 is some kind of rupture. I mean 2001 is a kind of a rupture. I don't think 2001 is necessarily a rupture as it is a difference in scale. Right? And so, I also think that we shouldn't think of 2016 as a kind of rupture, so 90:00thinking that our politics were somehow completely different prior to 2016 and now are something else entirely post-2016.
Because the fact of the matter is that every Republican candidate had anIslamophobic platform, not just Donald Trump. And in fact, the Republican candidates prior in elections had Islamophobic platforms. And I think that that's true also in their own ways for the Democratic candidates too. And we did not see a diminution of state repression under the Barack Obama years. We saw it transform into something else. There was no longer sweep arrests like we saw in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. But it became much more targeted and it became much more insidious because it became things like the -- the Countering Violent Extremism programs, which asks Muslim communities, essentially, to spy on themselves for the government, and -- you know. So lots 91:00and lots of trust was being eroded even underneath -- even the Obama administration.
And then to then see that some of the same ideas -- you know, the Bush -- GeorgeBush administration launched a program called Special Registrations or NSEERS officially. Informally, it was called Special Registration, which demanded that, you know, people from 25 Muslim-majority countries and North Korea. It was 24 Muslim countries and North Korea, and there are almost no North Koreans in the United States on the kind of visa that they were asking for, so it's not really a category. So, people from these majority-Muslim countries if you were of the age, I believe, age of about 16 and older, you would have to register with the government. Right?
And it -- in fact, hun-- tens of thousands of people registered with thegovernment, and it launched a huge and massive deportation campaign as well. Not only that but, you know, it meant the people who are crossing into the United States who were coming from those countries would also have to register with 92:00their -- with the government. And in fact, my father told me point blank at this point. I was talking to him because I talk to him regularly in Canada. He said, "I'm not gonna come visit you anymore. I don't want to go through that humiliation. Why would I come to the United States if I have to be registered?" which I completely understand.
Only when the Donald Trump started doing well in the polls did Barack Obama, A,finally visit a mosque in the United States. He had never visited one until then, the very last months of his own administration. And so, it became a -- a question of political, you know, performance rather than national unity, really, for Obama 'cause he was trying to differentiate himself and the -- his party from the party of Donald Trump.
But not only that, but he also under -- the ACLU and other legal organizations93:00were pushing the Obama administration in its final days to remove the notion of Special Registration from the books itself so that it would have to get reintroduced as a policy in order to be reactivated. And they finally did that at the very, very end. So, you see what I'm saying is that like there was this -- this continuity rather than this rupture.
And so then -- I'm just using this as an example. So, there was already aregistration program that had been active and had been used. Had been used not against Muslims in the United States per se, against Muslims who are coming in on some very specific kinds of visas but nevertheless -- and they all had to be male and 16 years of age and from 24 different countries. But nevertheless, that was a registration program that was directed towards Muslims already in the country.
Then when it gets proposed by the Republican candidates during the 2016election, the people on the Democratic side l-- lose their minds. And they say, "Oh my god, we would never have a registration system in this country. I'll be the first person to register," you know, in this moment of -- of -- of political 94:00courage. But they've completely forgotten that years earlier, we had exactly that from -- initially from a Republican president, but it continued throughout the Obama years. At least it was on the books already on the for the Obama years. And not only that, it was already part of our political culture, and people didn't even know about it. So, I think it's tremendously important that we don't think about Donald Trump as a rupture, but we think about Donald Trump as being able to express an Islamophobia that was already active in the country. What he did was he spoke it out loud, but it was already there.
STRONG: You had a famous tweet during that time. Do you want to talk a littleabout that?
BAYOUMI: I mean it was -- [laughter] you know, I dare -- I -- I tweet a littlebit. I'm not -- I'm not actually that adept at social media, not nearly like my friends -- some of my friends who spend a lot of time on social media and very 95:00good at it. But I enjoyed tweeting the debates 'cause you get to be politically stupid and silly and things that I enjoy doing. And so, in -- and so, I had tweeted many of the different debates and -- and then that second de-- It was the second debate when it was a town hall meeting with Oba-- with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And they were supposed to be -- the undecideds were asking them questions. I don't know how anybody -- well, there was another -- so the woman -- a woman asked Donald Trump a question about Islamophobia. I don't know how she could be undecided frankly. But she asked him a question about Islamophobia, and his answer was very Islamophobic unsurprisingly. And he said something to the effect of, "Well, it's terrible, it's terrible, but you know, the thing is Muslims have to begin to report when they see things," or something to that effect.
So, I had tweeted, you know -- I don't know -- a bunch of tweets at that point96:00already. You know, I was getting some ha-has, and some here -- you know, as some people were liking my tweets generally like here and there throughout the -- the debate. And then I tweeted that one and i-- it was -- I think we were three people here 'cause I had some -- some people with me at the time. And sitting right here where you're sitting, I was actually sitting right where you're sitting.
BAYOUMI: And I have -- I was writing my tweets on my computer. So, the TV was onand my computer was on my lap, but -- and my phone was right beside me. So, I hit -- I hit enter. First I asked my friend Hussein. I was like -- 'cause I -- the tweet was something to the effect of, "I'm a Muslim, and I would like to report a crazy man threatening a woman on a stage in Missouri," or something like that, right? And so I was like -- I just wanted to make sure that it was Missouri, you know?
BAYOUMI: So I was like, "Where are they?" And Hussain was like "Missouri." I'mlike, "Okay, just --" so then I hit -- 'cause he now wants some credit for the tweet, too, also.
BAYOUMI: So -- so then I hit enter and then there was like a few like, you know,97:00likes and, you know, sort of just checking here and there. And then suddenly, the phone -- my phone just literally -- like not quite literally but figuratively went crazy.
BAYOUMI: You know, the notifications just, like, wouldn't stop and just like --it just continued and continued and continued and continued. And I guess it -- it -- that in itself had been very successful as a tweet, but then when I guess Shonda Rhimes who's a big, you know, television producer, she tweeted. She retweeted it and she said, "Best period tweet period ever period."
BAYOUMI: And she has like a million plus followers and then, you know, many ofher followers have a lot of followers too. So, Trevor Noah tweeted it -- retweeted it, like all this, so -- It -- then it just -- like it just goes crazy. And even J.K. Rowling ended up retweeting it. And I've actually never read the Harry Potter books, so I can legitimately say that she's now read more 98:00of my work than I have of hers, so --
STRONG: Did you have a favorite spin on your tweet 'cause I know there were manyiterations of it that came afterwards?
BAYOUMI: Yeah. So, I -- it also ended up sparking some kind of hashtag which wasMuslims report this.
BAYOUMI: I -- I thought they were all funny, right? I don't know if I can decideon just any one or two. But, yeah, I thought they were great. And then -- and it was just a tweet. I mean ultimately --
BAYOUMI: -- it was just a tweet. I mean, it was -- back then Twitter if you know-- now, I could even still -- now, there's even a history to Twitter because back then it was still just 140 characters. Now, it's 280. But I thought -- you know, my friend -- my academic friends were coming up to me and my writing -- writerly friends -- both, both communities are coming up to me saying, "You know now, you're gonna be more -- more well known for like 140 characters than anything else that you've ever written?" and I'm like, "I guess, yes."
BAYOUMI: So --99:00
STRONG: Oh, my goodness. Okay. But you did keep writing. You said you -- youknow This Muslim Life was kind of -- it, kind of, came out of the original book, right? So tell me more about that.
BAYOUMI: Well, so, I mean what I've been -- I -- I've been writing articlesrout-- regularly, right, since -- well ever since my --
STRONG: You're an academic --
BAYOUMI: -- professional life, yes.
STRONG: -- it's part of the job, yes.
BAYOUMI: Yes. But part-- and a particular group of my articles concerned -- alarge group concerned, you know, the same issues that are covered narratively in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? So, at a certain point, in fact I was -- in fact, I was visiting my parents in Canada. And my mother who, God bless her, reads everything that I write and as does my father. My father copy-edits my work, actually, so it's very nice. And so, my mother said to me. She's like -- she said, "Have you ever thought about, you know, compiling your essays into a book?" And I, you know, foolishly said to her, "Oh, that only happens when 100:00you're at your end of a career. That's not something that would really work." And then I stopped to think about it like, yeah, I don't know. Maybe it would work.
So then I -- I -- I know the editor of NYU Press just professionally becauseI've done some -- I've worked with them on other occasions and things like that. You know, academics and academic presses know each other. So, one day, I just reached out to him, and I suggested this as an idea, and he's like, "That sounds interesting. Okay. Send me a proposal." So, I sent him a proposal, and we worked on -- on kind of crafting the books so that it had some coherence to it rather than just like an assemblage of essays. And the -- and I think it's very coherent as a book and -- and then I wrote some new material for -- for the book as well.
And so, we're -- I mean it's an attempt to try to look at the ac-- the sto--somewhat more academic, somewhat more historical sense of the question that I'm 101:00looking at also in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? more narratively. So, I think of this Muslim Life as a -- a kind of essay-driven book and How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? as a narrative-driven book, as a story-driven book. And so, I look at things like Muslims -- the book is in -- in four sections, "Muslims in History," "Muslims in Theory" about which I don't mean like, you know, are you or aren't you? But I mean in like literary theory or cultural theory or basically orientalism -- thinking about the question of orientalism in its very contemporary iterations. And I talked about "Muslims in Politics," and I talk about "Muslims in Culture," so I talk about things like movies for example, and I talk about -- I have an essay called, "Chaos and Procedure" where I'm discussing how we've moved already in this short life span of the war on 102:00terror from an early stage of representation in the war on terror where the world is this chaotic world and needs a kind of romantic hero who will break all the rules. And Jack Bauer in 24 is like the paradigm of that. To a later representation in the war on terror, which requires an incredible attention to procedure and detail. And if you look at a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, that's a movie like that, and -- and one is very much a male-oriented world and the other one favors women. And so, there's this way in which the national security apparatus is dealing with trying to almost, you know, invite women into it through these kinds of representations I argue in that -- in that paper. And so, I'm trying to look very critically at, sort of, culture in multiple ways. That's just one example of one -- one example among many in the book.
But yeah. So, it's an attempt to try to think about these questions in -- from103:00an intellectual point of view and I think it complements How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? I think of them as -- as -- as you know -- as works in tandem. As I say, one is more narrative and the other one is more essay-driven.
STRONG: And same question about this book, has it had the kind of impact or lifeafter writing it that you had envisioned or --?
BAYOUMI: Definitely. I mean, it's an academic book or it's a university pressbook, I should say. I feel like it's still -- it's still accessible. I know sometimes academic writing can be inaccessible to audiences outside of academia. One of the things that I try to do is to write accessibly without ever feeling like I'm not writing intelligently, you know. So, I'm trying to always speak intelligently to my audience but in a way that I think is accessible. And I think that this book has -- had a large reach in that regard, and people have 104:00responded very much to different chapters, too. So --
There's another chapter that I have in that book called "Coexistence" becauseI've discovered, sort of, randomly one day that there's this cheesy, detective novel called Thou Shalt Kill published in 2011, and it's just like a typical, sort of, pulp fiction, kind of -- you know. There's a murderer, and you've got to -- like detectives have to figure out who the murderer is. And this takes place in Pittsburgh, PA, in the contemporary era. Right? And they're kind of -- you know, hard knocks, right, like Raymond Chandler mold kind of. You know, it's not super imaginative. But there is a -- of course, there is a terrorist figure in the book, and the name of the terrorist in the book is Mustafa Bayoumi, not -- not just Mustafa, not Bayoumi but Mustafa Bayoumi, my name, you know? There's a very slight difference in the spelling, but it's my name. So, I write a whole 105:00essay about meeting your terrorist doppelganger --
BAYOUMI: -- in which I actually -- in the essay, I actually meet him as well andso I -- I'm proud of that essay actually.
STRONG: [laughter] There was also, you mentioned, a reading, part of thePeople's History --
BAYOUMI: Yes, mm-hmm.
STRONG: -- drawing from that book. Tell me about that.
BAYOUMI: So, there's this very important, seminal book in Letters called APeople's History of the United States by a historian by the name of Howard Zinn who passed away. And I'm sure, you know, if people -- I'm sure most s -- I'm sure a -- a huge number of s have read of this book, and if they haven't then, at this point, everybody should have heard of and read this book. Right? It's a very important book, and it -- it -- and this, in a lot of ways, destabilizes our mythological history and fills in a lot of gaps. And, like, really, I think is a -- is a very, you know, really wonderful accounting of history. 106:00
So after Howard Zinn passed away, people still wanted to keep his memory aliveand -- and keep his work alive. And one of the people who -- who wanted to do that was Anthony Arnove who, I believe, was actually I -- I'm almost positive that he was also the literary agent of Ho-- of Howard Zinn as well. So, he's very close to the -- the estate, the Howard Zinn estate. And so, Anthony then began like a dramatic reading series, and it's called the Voices of the People's History, I think?
BAYOUMI: And so, where they took selections from A People's History of theUnited States, you know, going all the way back to the colonial era, to -- until today, and reading very small selections in a very dramatic staged reading. Some of it is also musical. And it sounds like it might be something that, you know, 107:00a college professor would assign because it's just a bunch of readings, you know? But it's an incredible show. It's really just a -- you get this en-- enormous -- not just in education, you get an enormous swell of the possibilities, I feel like, in -- in the character as it were, right?
So then after, This Muslim Life came out, Anthony emailed me and he said, "Ihope you -- this is okay, but I wanna ask you a question. How would you feel if 108:00we included your work in this performance? And I'm floored by this, and I was -- and completely petrified at the same time.
BAYOUMI: And so, he edited it, and so he took two different essays from ThisMuslim Life, took sections from two different essays and just kind of seamlessly put them together. And -- and then he told me when they were going to first perform it, and so it was the very first time that it was going to be performed with my piece because they -- you know, they're adding new material in there. Like, you know, they change it up here and there and what have you, and so -- so, the very first time that it was gonna be performed with my selection in it was at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in -- I think it was '17? It must have been March of 2017, I think, March or April, so -- I can't remember exactly what month. It was a little over a year ago.
And so, I went, and it was one of the big theaters at BAM. And I'm just sitting,you know inconspicuously in the middle of audience with my partner, and I'm just like petrified, right. Because everybody -- there's this reading of everyone's words, and they're so eloquent, and they're so inspiring and powerful and 109:00significant. And I'm -- I tell a few jokes, like, I feel like. I -- I was afraid that my work wasn't going to come off as serious enough. It wasn't going to come off as -- you know. I don't -- I didn't know what to expect.
But I did know that Aasif Mandvi was going to be reading it, and I have been afan of his for a long time. And he's -- he was on The Daily Show for a long time, and, you know -- and I was really interested to see how that would work. And I think Angela Davis might have -- a reading from Angela Davis might have come right before mine. And so then when, you know, it's introduced that it's going to be my work and then Aasif Mandvi comes up on stage and he starts reading, and I start shrinking like a -- like a violet, I guess, in my seat, and I'm just so nerv-- and then of course Anthony was introducing it 'cause he's there, actually, like the emcee. And he says, you know, "And Moustafa Bayoumi is in the audience today," and so I'm, like, even more like, you know, afraid.
But then when he -- you know the reading by Aasif Mandvi was brilliant, frankly.And I think it worked better than I ever could have imagined. And it's quite 110:00something to see -- to hear your work and see your work performed because you also -- you -- you -- you know and you've -- you've lost control over at that point. Somebody else is doing it. So, that's where I think the difficulty arises, but I was quickly put at ease because he was such a good reader.
And then I've actually met him since then, Aasif Mandvi, and he's performed itseveral times in several different places. And the last time that he performed it was maybe just about a week ago or a little over a week ago at Cooper Union, at The Great Hall of Cooper Union, which is also a historic place in terms of history. Abraham Lincoln spoke there among others. So, yeah, so that -- that -- that work has gone somewhere, and that's been really gratifying to see.
STRONG: As we're winding down the interview, I want to ask you about the futurea little bit. What -- what are you going to be working on next, or what occupies 111:00your mind these days?
BAYOUMI: Well, I'm doing a lot of op-ed-ing still. I'm writing a lot of opinionpieces for The Guardian largely and sometimes for The Nation. I'd like to do some original reporting, some more original reporting again. I've done -- you know, I mean, I consider How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? a book of literary journal, a -- a book of journalism, a book of original reporting, and I would like to get back to that. But it's really -- you know that work takes time. Like to do real, original reporting, it's hard to have another job. And I, sort of, have two jobs at this time because I'm -- I have basically a profession as a lecturer and -- and opinion writer and another one as an educator. So, you know, just for example like in October, I'll -- Okay, I was -- I'm gonna complain to you for one minute but --
BAYOUMI: -- in October, I'm going to, you know, New Jersey, as I said, and then112:00I'm going to Berlin. There's a great -- there's a very interesting conference on -- called Living with Islamophobia at the Jew-- that's hosted by the Jewish Museum in Berlin. So, they invited me to come speak, so I'm very excited to speak there. And then I'll come back and then I -- I'm speaking in -- in Texas where they're using my book, as I mentioned, and then I'm going to South Korea for a conference and then I'm giving two -- and then I'm going -- giving two lectures at Princeton. I'm giving -- I'm fortunate to be giving the Edward Said Lecture this year at Princeton and then after that, there's a reading group that's gonna be reading This Muslim Life, and they're asked -- asked me to come there and then going to Madison, Wisconsin. So, you get a sense of like -- and a-- a-- along with that, you know, I'll be writing opinion pieces, and I'm teaching at the same time, so I'm -- I'm really hoping to get some time to do some more long-term writing on soon. 113:00
STRONG: Same question about New York City, what do you hope for the future ofthis place? How will it, you know, adapt and -- and become better in these times?
BAYOUMI: You know, I don't know how -- what's going to happen. I mean, I hopethat things --
BAYOUMI: -- improve in New York. Certainly, I feel like there's been a concertedeffort on the -- by the political classes both in the city and even at the state level, although, I have many criticisms of Governor Cuomo, but -- you know? And I have some criticisms of Mayor de Blasio, but they've decided that they -- as much as possible that they won't cooperate, for example, with certain elements of the Trump immigration regime, right? And if you look at the figures, that's been true on a -- in a large way. Though, it hasn't stopped, you know, ICE from 114:00courtroom visits, which have gone way up. So, ICE will hang out now even inside courtrooms or just outside of courtrooms and nab people that way. They're not -- at that point, they're not cooperating with NYPD anymore, but they're still being able to accomplish their agenda, you know.
And I fear for the future because who knows what the future will bring? It's notlike we have -- you know, it's not like we have a settled political environment around the rest of the world. And the thing that we really have to understand about our future in particular -- I mean our present in particular is that when it comes to anybody -- but this is especially true for Arabs and Muslims -- is that our fates, the fates of Arab s and Muslim s is directly tied to the fates 115:00of people overseas. What happens overseas impacts us directly very much, and w-- we are powerless in so many ways to change what happens overseas. You know, those are much larger forces than -- than a demonstration here can -- can change. So, who knows what's going to happen? And I feel like there's always a -- you know, maybe I can read one thing?
BAYOUMI: Because I wrote about this here in another interview that was done withme last year. And I just want to read my last answer if you don't mind?
STRONG: I don't mind at all.
BAYOUMI: So, this is from the excellent journal called Middle East Report. Andthe question was, "Do you see any sign of hope to challenge the predicament of anti-Muslim sentiment and policies in the US today? Does protect -- does protest -- excuse me. Does protesting against the Trump administration open avenues to 116:00engage with the legacy and presence of Islamophobia?" So, it's somewhat similar, although a US-centered not New-York-centered question to the one you've asked me.
So, here's my answer. "I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that hope andoptimism are diseases. Why does every interview have to end on a message of hope? We -- why do social movements always have to be full of optimism? Yes, we have to struggle to make a better world, to alleviate the suffering of others, to find and restore the dignity of ourselves and everyone around us. But it's also true that the struggle is never-ending. You don't hope for a better world, achieve it and then go on vacation to celebrate.
And what exactly is hope anyway? Hope can mobilize us to necessary action, butit can demobilize us from what we have to do. Think of the Obama years -- premised on hope. If you're considering getting involved in social challenge -- 117:00social change because you're hoping you'll succeed, you might as well buy lottery tickets instead. Yes, we have to improve our world and fight the forces of regression and repression, but we do so not because we may win if we do, but because we will lose if we don't. This may sound depressing until you realize that the struggle itself brings joy. Justice is found only in the midst of the search for justice, and change only happens by engaging in change. That's all that matters. Everything else is marketing."
STRONG: Hmm. So, talk to me about your relationship with struggle, then, in yourown life.
BAYOUMI: I think everything I do or so much of what I do is daily a part of thestruggle. And I think the struggle is everybody brings his or her talents to the struggle. So, for some people, that's being able to produce an amazing music video that's going to showcase something that we all need to see. Other people, 118:00it's going to be pro-- writing an incredible, graphic novel. Other people, it's going to be organizing a demonstration and bringing people out. Other people, it's going to be, you know, a song that's -- that will -- that -- you know, music can change. Music has a lot of impact on social change. I think so much of what I spend most of my efforts, I feel, are spent somehow in trying to bring some kind of social change. Whether I hope that it's going to happen, that's another question.
STRONG: How do you sustain yourself then?
BAYOUMI: You know, you do it like anybody does it, which is through a lot ofsupport and community around you. You also know when to turn off. Sometimes, it's important just to turn off and recharge. And it's just, you know, that you actually get energy from being engaged in the struggle, so yeah, I don't -- it's 119:00not -- it's not -- the sustenance is, I think, less hard than you think. And actually it's -- than one thinks. But I also think that it's -- you know it's fun like on a certain level. And we should be recognizing that social change also has a really -- has a big element of fun because you're creating a new world at the same time that you're doing it.
So, one small example of that, you know, could be the demons-- those largedemonstrations that we saw from the Women's March to the -- the first anti-Muslim ban march, you know, back in January of 2017 and February -- into -- into February. But, you know, I don't know if you were at the -- at either one of those marches or any of those marches from that period, but they were a blast at the same time. Like everybody's super creative. You know, the signs are really funny and interesting, and I think that stuff is so important because I think that what we're doing is not just that that's ephemeral. It's not ephemeral. It's actually, you know, all part of a move-- a -- a long movement, you know, that's all part of creating the society that we want to live in.
STRONG: Anything I should have asked you that we missed?120:00
BAYOUMI: Hmm, I can't think of anything.
STRONG: Okay. Well, if you do think of anything, let me know.
STRONG: And again, thank you so much for your time. I really --
STRONG: -- appreciated talking with you today.
BAYOUMI: My pleasure. Thank you.
Oral History Interview with Moustafa Bayoumi
Moustafa Bayoumi was born in 1966 in Zürich, Switzerland. His family immigrated to Canada when he was a toddler and settled in Kingston, Ontario, where his parents taught at the local college. He moved to New York City in 1990 to attend graduate school at Columbia University. After earning his doctor of philosophy, he taught postcolonial literature at Brooklyn College. He was a prolific author on issues surrounding Islam and the Arab world, regularly appearing in The Guardian, The Progressive, and other similar publications. He also wrote the books How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America in 2008 and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror in 2015.
In this interview, Moustafa Bayoumi discusses growing up in an Egyptian academic family in Kingston, Ontario. He expands on his own studies, especially pursuing his PhD at Columbia University; teaching at Brooklyn College; and becoming an author. He also speaks about American politics and law enforcement, especially surrounding the surveillance of Muslim American students at Brooklyn College; racial profiling in New York City; the consistent presence of Islamophobia throughout both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations; and the escalation in Islamophobia he has observed during the Trump administration. In addition, he touches on the broader demographic changes and gentrification in Brooklyn. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.
This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.
CitationBayoumi, Moustafa, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, September 25, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.41; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Bayoumi, Moustafa
- Brooklyn College
- Columbia University
- Said, Edward W.
- College teachers
- Muslim Americans
- Muslim authors
- Police-community relations
- Political activists
- Racial profiling in law enforcement
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Kingston (Ontario)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories