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"A Country Called Amreeka" Reading Guide

by Jacob Smit on 2024-04-09T11:39:34-07:00 | 0 Comments

National Arab American Month encourages us to explore titles like A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold through Arab-American Lives by Alia Malek. This book covers a number of big historical moments and in a way that places you right there, through the eyes of someone who lived through the experience. 

The history of Arab settlement in the United States stretches back nearly as far as the history of America itself. Arabic names are everywhere in America, but our eyes glaze over them; we sometimes don't know how to pronounce them or understand where they come from.  A Country Called Amreeka gives us the faces behind those names and tells the story of a community that has become essential for us to understand.

Syrian American civil rights lawyer, Alia Malek brings this history to life, not to separate Arab Americans but to fold their experiences into the mosaic of American history and deepen our understanding of who we Americans are.

It works beautifully, because in each chapter the author inhabits the voice and life of one Arab American at a time-stopping historical moment-- and invites us to live that moment in the skin of one Arab American.

Read separately, the chapters in A Country Called Amreeka transport us with entertaining and harrowing vignettes; read together, they add a new tile to the mosaic of American history and a fresh, urgent, and exciting perspective on a teeming community whom it has become essential for us to understand.

We meet fellow Americans of all creeds and colors, among them the Alabama football player who navigates the stringent racial mores of segregated Birmingham, where a church bombing (1963) wakes a nation to the need to make America a truly more equal place; the young wife from Ramallah -- now living in Baltimore -- who had to abandon her beautiful home and is now asked by a well-meaning American, "How do you like living in an apartment after living in a tent?"; the Detroit tough guys and the pot smoking suburban teenagers, who in different decades become politicized and serious about their heritage despite their own wills; the homosexual man afraid to be gay in the Arab world and afraid to be Arab in America; the two formidable women who wind up working for opposing campaigns in the 2000 presidential election; the Marine fighting in Iraq who meets villagers who ask him, "What are you, an Arab, doing here?" We glimpse how America sees Arabs as much as how Arabs see America. We revisit the 1973 oil embargo that initiated the American perception of all Arabs as oil-rich sheikhs; the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that heralded the arrival of Middle Eastern Islam in the American consciousness; bombings across three decades in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and New York City that bring terrorism to American soil; and both wars in Iraq that have posed Arabs as the enemies of America.

These are dramatic narratives, describing the very human experiences of love, friendship, family, courage, hate, and success. There are the timeless tales of an immigrant community becoming American, the nostalgia for home, the alienation from a society sometimes as intolerant as its laws are generous. A Country Called Amreeka's snapshots show us the complexity of its characters' multi-dimensional lives with an impassioned narrative normally found in fiction.

[Summary excerpts: BookList, Kirkus Review, Publisher website.]

Here are some of the compelling questions that will get you thinking and reading the book for answers: 

  • What did you learn about what is it like to be Arab American?
  • What does American history look and feel like in the eyes and skin of Arab Americans?
  • What does American history look like for those stereotyped as oil-rich sheiks or terrorists?
  • What did you learn from this book about the history of Arab settlement in the United States?
  • How did this book help your understanding of what it means to be an immigrant in America?

Other subjects to explore and learn more:

Arab Americans - Case Studies

Immigrants – United States – Case Studies

Search the Library Catalog for: A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold through Arab-American Lives By Alia Malek 

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