Oral History as a Political Response

Eylem Delikanli is a current OHMA student. In this post, she discusses the potential of first-person narratives to counter Islamophobia in the United States.

Moustafa Bayoumi presented his book “This Muslim American Life” as part of the Oral History Workshops at the Columbia University Oral History MA Program. A professor of English Literature, Bayoumi successfully analyses the War On Terror culture and critically examines domestic racism and its link with the authoritarian structures of the society. He elegantly elaborates almost all form of stereotypes that Muslim Americans experience today. His discussion about the hypocrisy around civil liberties and incompetencies of the key figures who are marketed as public intellectuals of Islam in the West, Hirsi Ali, Reza Aslan, Irshad Manji to name a few are quite remarkable.

Two days after Bayoumi’s presentation, a series of horrific terrorist attacks occurred in Paris killing 130 people. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks. Dismissing previous massacres in Ankara and Beirut, the West once more defined which lives are worth mentioning and which are not. Hence, soon after the Paris Massacre, the Western world joined forces in a unified attempt to defeat terrorism.  In this climate of “War on Terror”, an Islamophobic choir raised voice in the US led by the presidential candidate Donald Trump. He claimed that Muslims should be banned from traveling to the US. As idiotic as Trump may sound, Islamophobia is real and needs to be addressed. 

What is a better response to Trump and his followers than Rasha’s?

In his earlier book “How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America” Bayoumi collected stories of young Arab Americans and their experience after 9/11. Echoing W.E.B DU Bois’ question “How does it Feel to be a Problem?” in The Souls of Black Folk, Bayoumi asks his narrators about their experiences in the US. The stories that his narrators choose to share evade the clichés and stereotypes that Trump and his cohort delve into in every fashionable way. 

Rasha, a Syrian immigrant born in 1983 and one of Bayoumi’s narrators, depicts a remarkable story of racism, elimination of civil liberties and injustice her family had to endure after 9/11. In February 2002, as a working class family, they all were hurried to a detention center in New Jersey without knowing why they were detained in the first place. She remembers the FBI Agent saying “We are cleaning out the country and you are the dirt.”[1] Rasha’s storytelling is simple yet multilayered in its intellectual capacity. When listening to her story one can understand the stereotypical fabric of the society, the unjust, devastating and costly War on Terror culture that many minorities have to endure as well as the complexity of bringing out these issues. Oral history becomes instrumental for Bayoumi to co-create a space for his narrators and himself to resurface what has been truly experienced by Arab Americans to make a bolder and louder statement about Islamophobia in the US.  He questions what we as oral historians carry on our shoulders continuously: who has the authority over the story? Although he yields to trying different approaches to create the story, the narrator is given the authority to tell the story without Bayoumi’s interference. Bayoumi clearly sees and feels the power of the rawness of narratives which at the end connects him to the stories so tightly that he feels betrayal if done otherwise. Here he describes his and imagined others’ reactions to portrayals of Muslims in the media, starting with Homeland:


As an oral historian, I believe that our subjectivities as a researcher and narrator start the process of creating strong narratives. Once that creation takes place, there is less work left to the researcher to bring out the final product be it a book, an audio or an art piece. The invisibility of the researcher or the absence of a heavily theoretical analysis should not be considered a lack of knowledge or weakness but evidence that the researcher has taken on a harder task: to seamlessly integrate these elements into the narrative with no or limited interference in it. Memory is an arena for political struggle, thus, what we as oral historians and narrators produce fall in the category of struggle. I take Bayoumi’s work as such and salute him for employing narratives as part of fighting against racism, Islamophobia and bigotry in the US.

Thinking of the boldness of these life stories, who can slap Trump better than these hard-to-absorb narratives?

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[1] http://nymag.com/news/features/48931/