‘Talk About It All the Time’: Alia Malek’s ‘Patriot Acts, Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice’

There are two events in NYC this week related to Alia Malek’s Patriot Acts: One tonight at CUNY Graduate Center (6:30 p.m.) and May 5 at Cooper Union for the PEN World Voices Festival’s: “Life in the Panopticon: Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance.” In light of these twin events, ArabLit contributor Jennifer Sears takes a look at Malek’s recent collection Patriot Acts.

By Jennifer Sears

In wake of recent allegations of monitoring by the New York Police Department of Muslim and Arab student populations outside of New York City, the stories collected in Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, edited by journalist and former civil rights lawyer Alia Malek, will likely continue to gain resonance as increased surveillance and security tactics become the norm of everyday life in the United States. Published last fall as part of McSweeney’s Books’ Voice of Witness series, Patriot Acts presents eighteen narratives from students, business owners, teachers, parents, and others who have experienced unjust treatment from colleagues, school mates, community members, and public officials since 9/11 and the security measures implemented in its aftermath in addition to a lengthy reference section.

Stories in this volume include Adama Bah’s, a high school student arrested in the middle of the night, accused of plotting to be a suicide bomber, and forced into juvenile detention. Mothers such as Talat Hamdani and Shaheena Parveen tell of losing sons while others, such as Rima Qamri, describe the sudden, unexpected task of becoming a single mother, raising children and within potentially hostile communities.

A few stories will be familiar to readers, such as Khaled El-Masri, incarcerated in Germany, and Ghassan Elashi, co-founding member of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, who remains in a Communications Management Unit. This CMU is a heightened security facility within the federal prison system created by the Bush Administration after 9/11. (Alia Malek writes at length about CMUs in the Nation.) The story of Balbir, a Sikh man killed on September 15, 2001 while working in the family-owned gas station made national news as one of the first reported hate crimes after September 11. In Patriot Acts, his brother Rana Sodhi recounts the anxieties all members of the family experienced days before and after his brother’s death and the response of the local Phoenix, Arizona community.

Alia Malek

The title of Mustafa Bayoumi’s volume of narratives titled How To Be A Problem: Being Young and Arab in America, published in 2009, made an obvious reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk. Importantly, Patriot Acts also positions these experiences in the larger context of the country’s complicated race relations during civil unrest and war time. Patriot Acts opens with a forward by Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu who refused military orders to relocate to Japanese internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942. Karen Korematsu explains how after her father’s conviction was overturned in 1983, presiding judge Marilyn Hall Patel stated: “in times of international hostility and antagonisms, our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.” In the context of this volume, Fred Korematsu’s story shows the necessity of persistence and diligence in speaking out and defending one’s dignity, particularly during times of duress when paranoia and doubt quickly become entrenched in the individual and in larger society’s psyche.

Indeed, many speakers in these narratives express melancholy and bewilderment at the sudden assumptions and connections thrust upon them on the morning of September 11. In her brief introduction, Malek recalls her own reaction (“Lord , please don’t let it be Arabs…”), her immediate self consciousness of being Arab and, oddly, a false sense of responsibility.

Such reactions happened everywhere, of course. I remember, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, watching a Kuwaiti friend put on a do-rag and start practicing a Dominican accent on the afternoon of September 11. Similarly, an Egyptian friend living in nearby Nutley, New Jersey didn’t let his mother, who wears the hijab, leave his apartment during those initial weeks.

Seemingly insignificant on their own, these fleeting memories of vulnerability illuminate the vulnerability, isolation, and illogical self-doubt that harsh security measures and practices exacerbate and prey upon. Ongoing stories of injustice continue to be shared through word of mouth, but in Patriot Acts, they are validated in print. We read about young men questioned and interrogated for wearing the wrong t-shirt in an airport, carrying Arabic flash cards, or traveling too often to visit family in Canada. We read about tracking devices put onto vehicles. Gathered together, these individual injustices form an obvious pattern, one that fits into history.

Not surprisingly, many of the subjects featured in Patriot Acts have become educators and spokespersons, dedicated to raising awareness about injustices and hate crimes and to promote understanding of their lifestyles. One example is Amir Sulaiman, whose televised performance on Def Poetry jam caught the attention of the FBI. Put on a no-fly list and made to endure such intense investigations, Sulaiman felt pressured to leave his teaching job at an elementary school. His initial reaction was to hide. He communicated with family and friends via payphone. After consulting other poets including Sonia Sanchez, who survived intimidation tactics employed during the Civil Rights era, Sulaiman learned that through his going silent and his willing disappearance, he was helping those who were after him. His fellow poets and activists advised him: “You have to be out in front of people and you have to talk about it a lot. Talk about it all the time.” This collection of stories, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice enables these voices to talk about “it” even louder.


Order the book or see all of McSweeney’s Voice of Witness Series

Alia Malek’s “Gitmo in the Heartland” published in the Nation in April 2011 investigates Communications Management Units in detail.

Two related events in New York City:

May 2, 6:30-8:30, “New Modes of Profiling: Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in Post-9/11 United States” at the CUNY Graduate Center, Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center.

May 5, 1-2:30 p.m. at the Cooper Union, PEN World Voices Festival’s: “Life in the Panopticon: Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance”