Sunday, June 08, 2008

Review: Graphic Novel: Arab in America, by Toufic El Rassi

Toufic El Rassi's Arab in America (ISBN-13: 978-0-86719-697-3, 117 pp, 2007) is an autobiographical graphic novel about growing up and maturing as an Arab in suburban Chicago. It is published by Last Gasp Books. I also saw it being sold at Copacetic Comics and Things From Another World. The lowest price I found was at A friend of mine from Chicago sent me the volume, so I did not purchase it from any of these vendors.

I read this volume in one sitting, which to me is the most important litmus test about the authenticity of this book. I began to think about the memorable moments in my life:

  1. When do you realize you are different? (1st day in 2nd grade at new school in suburban Augusta, GA: are you black or white? Let's fight! Alhamduillah, I was the biggest kid in my grade, and I had a good mean streak as well.)
  2. When do you see your parents unable to defend themselves against an unjust attack based on their religion or ethnicity? (I can't share this, but I remember that time very well.)
  3. When did you fail to defend someone else who was attacked for his/her appearing to be of an unwanted group? (In Augusta, GA, I would not have had any problem knowing what "nigger" meant, as oppposed to Toufic and his little brother.)
  4. When did an authority figure (teacher, policeman, airport official) single you out for harsh treatment? (Detroit airport, 1994, only passenger whose luggage was searched by customs on a flight returning from Amsterdam(?)).
  5. When did co-workers or bosses discriminate against you? (This one you suspect, but you can almost never prove!)

The graphic novel has similar scenes from the life of Ustaz Toufic.

Ustaz Toufic's discussion of his friends Hamid, Laila and Ahmad is another highlight of the novel. Are our paths geniunely our own, or are we simply reacting to the pressure around us?

Another great feature of this graphic novel is that it "teaches" history to our attention-deficit disorder generation. It is a discreet bibliographic essay, introducing the reader to Amin Maalouf's book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes and William Blum's Killing Hope and Rogue State.

At the same time, Ustaz Toufic does not portray himself as perfect. He admists his weaknesses in resisting peer pressure and his sexism/temptation in dealing with women anti-war activists. So a warning to the holier-than-thou crowd: book contains profanity, some poorly drawn female flesh and portrayals of the author in non-shariah compliant positions!

I recommend the novel for its authenticity, honesty and information content.

The Young Adult Library Services Association nominated it for an award in the Great Graphic Novels for Teens category.

Ustaz Toufic was also interviewed for an upcoming documentary entitled Beard Club.

On August 14, 2008, is scheduled to begin shipping Moustafa Bayoumi's book How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which I think will be exploring similar issues. (Hint: It's on my wish list!)

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