This sort of book might be the hardest kind to review. On one hand, it’s a sincere and heartfelt expression of a creative person’s opinions in comics form. Additionally, it’s complex and emotional, and it serves to illuminate an unfortunate aspect of America society in the Bush era.
On the other hand, this comic isn’t especially well-drawn, and it tends to ramble from topic to topic. It also reads more like a long diatribe than a thoughtful comics story. Reading Arab in America gives the readers the feeling that Toufic El Rassi was so anxious to tell his whole story that he didn’t quite get a chance to structure it in the most dramatic way possible.
El Rassi is an outsider in the United States who was brought up to be an insider. He moved to the country at a very young age as his parents fled violence in the Middle East. He grew up in a quiet suburb of Chicago, but he slowly grew to realize that he was different from everybody else.
At around the age of 13, he began to become aware of his ethnic heritage. By the time of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he had begin to become sensitized to the poor treatment of Arabs in America. The reaction to Oklahoma City was initially quite anti-Arab, a horror that has stayed with El Rassi for many years.
Oklahoma City helped radicalize him–and his reaction to 9/11 and the Bush administration’s response to it are the most interesting sections of the book. He sees the war in Iraq as a kind of long-term result of anti-Arab racism and hatred that has pervaded American history. Even when presenting his life outside of political elements, El Rassi presents a very racist American society.
You may be getting the idea that this book is all pretty bleak. Unfortunately, it is. One gets the idea from this book’s narrative that Americans have an unending hatred of Arabs.
At best, El Rassi believes Arabs are simply ignored by Americans; at worst, they are the victims of systemic, never-ending historical racism born of ignorance and anger. Reading this diatribe is all a bit exhausting after a while.
Along with these problems, I have to point out that the pace of the story is pretty frustrating. It features long, unbroken blocks of text on many pages, often juxtaposed with small images.
For instance, readers get a tutorial of the relationship between Israel and Lebanon through a long unbroken block of text juxtaposed with a map of the two countries. I found the pages a bit daunting to get through, and the layout seems to undercut the drama of El Rassi’s story.
When he presents traditional comics narrative, the story works much better. The scene in which he becomes a naturalized US citizen, for instance, is movingly told in comic strip form.
I realize that the story in this book was intended to be sprawling and ambitious, and it seems churlish of me to condemn a young man for pouring his heart onto the printed page but falling short of his ambitions. However, it really does seem that El Rassi is unable to present his ambitions in an easily digestible form.
I’ve never walked in Toufic El Rassi’s shoes. I’ve never dealt with the racism he felt on a daily basis. I’ve never felt the conflicting impulses of patriotism and a frustration with racism. The problem is that El Rassi seems to feel that mere facts of his life would make his story compelling–without concern to reveal his story in the most compelling possible way.
This book is most compelling when it reveals the personal reactions of people to events. When we are shown how characters feel, we feel empathy. When we are told how characters feel, we feel a distance from events–and that’s the problem here: too much telling and not enough showing.
This is an intriguing work, but it could have been so much more interesting. And, yeah, I do feel churlish for saying that.