Alia Malek — Amreeka the Beautiful

Circa 2009-10
Alia Malek with the caption of Life in Amereeka

While driving home from a long day at the office, ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper happened upon a National Public Radio (NPR) interview with a woman named Alia Malek, author of “A Country Called Amreeka”. In her interview, Malek described her book as featuring a cross-section of Arab-Americans in an effort to challenge stereotype, foster cross-cultural understanding and respect, and to provide insight into what it means to be an Arab-American today.

The NPR interview ended with a mention that Malek would be visiting Southern California the following week, prompting Cooper to wonder if Malek’s interest in civil rights would translate into a compelling interview for ABILITY Magazine.

It did. Malek and Cooper chatted over malts at the scenic Shake Shack along the Pacific Coast Highway near Newport Beach, discussing the past, present and future of civil right movements in America.

Chet Cooper: Obviously your work has a lot to do with stereotypes and with cultural awareness. Do you see a connection with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and any of the work you’ve done?

Alia Malek: I do. The ADA is enforced by the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, which is where I worked as an attorney. The ADA is a civil rights movement, so I do feel a connection.

I think it’s really all about paradigm shifting, really. What you guys are doing with your magazine is what I tried to do with my book. I don’t want to hear about Arab-Americans every time, only in reaction to when situations happen. I’m really more interested in writing about American society as a whole. If American history is truly a mosaic, then there are still many tiles that are missing. We don’t fully understand the experiences or the history of other people who are as American as we are. And that’s why we don’t have a fully clear picture of who we are as a country. That’s why you have people saying stuff like, “What happened to our country? How could this happen in our country? Where is the America I know?” Some are still trying to understand how we can have a black President. It’s only because many people have no idea who Americans really are.

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Cooper: How did you tackle this sort of thing in your book?

Malek: My book actually starts with the events in Birmingham, Alabama, in ’63. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church is what triggered the passage of the civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So the book opens with a prologue that tries to make tangible how different America and Amreeka were before these legislative shifts really changed America forever.

These changes aren’t oriented to disability rights, specifically, but the civil rights struggle was certainly a starting point in many ways. Barack Hussein Obama would not have been elected if we had not had the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, and the Immigration Act of ’65. These are what truly reshaped both American dynamics and American power. The Supreme Court decided in favor of Brown in the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954 and that’s when segregation was finally held to be unconstitutional. But in 1963 segregation was alive and well and Martin Luther King was trying to get President Kennedy to pass a real federal civil rights law and to put some federal power behind immigration.

The first wave of Arab immigration to the US, from the late 1800s to 1924, was primarily Christian. After 1965, however, once immigration to the US started up again, most of it was Muslim. Today the majority of Americans of Arab descent are Christian.

Cooper: Did you interview any people for your book who have disabilities?

Malek: It’s funny, but Maysoon Zayid was almost a character in my book. Maysoon is a comedienne and actress who was in the movie You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. She founded a home and a rehab center for kids with different disabilities and uses humor as a form of therapy.

Cooper: And that rehab center is in Palestine?

Malek: Yes, it’s on the West Bank.

Cooper: Do you know what part Maysoon played in the Zohan movie?

Malek: I didn’t see the movie, but I think it was a small part. Hers is a pretty cool personal story. 

There’s also a guy with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in my book. He’s in the Oklahoma City chapter, which is called “Coming Out.” It’s about a man coming out as both gay and Arab, just across the border from Oklahoma City in Kansas.

Cooper: And his concern is the backlash?

Malek: Yes. In the chapter, he’s trying to become an American in the early ’90s, when homosexuality was still seen as being like a disease. That kind of fed into his OCD, because he was obsessed that the government was going to find out he was gay. So he wouldn’t stay in hotels with other men, he would only meet them in bars. And he wouldn’t even go out in the city he lived in—he would drive, like, eight hours to go somewhere else. It all kind of fed into his paranoia.

But today the civil rights statutes have expanded and, even though they’re sort of born out of the African-American experience, they’ve since broadened to include new groups. Disability constituencies are among the newer groups to come under the purview of civil rights groups, and eventually gay people will be also, whether society is ready for it or not. 

Cooper: How many times have you been to the West Bank?

Malek: I’ve lived and worked there three times, and I went one other time just for fun. Cooper: For fun?

Malek: (laughs) Well, no, I guess not just for fun. I took a bunch of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members with me. They’re like Freedom Riders.

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Cooper: In your travels between Palestine and the United States, do you see any differences between the societal and governmental treatment of people with disabilities?

Malek: Yeah, I mean, the acceptance of mental health issues and of people who have disabilities is never really the first thing that a society does in its evolution. In these marginalized and disempowered societies there are so many people suffering, particularly from mental health problems and disabilities. A lot of people have been shot or injured somehow. So yes, you see that in Palestine and you see that in Lebanon. Attitudes about disability and mental health issues need to evolve in any society, just as they need to evolve in Arab-American communities.

Sometimes if a community isn’t politically mobilized to get a president elected or to get a foreign policy changed, it’s going to put a lot of these issues on the back burner, particularly in respect to mental health and disability rights. But I just met a woman yesterday who is getting her degree in marriage therapy with an interest in treating mental health in the Arab-American community.

Cooper: And her thought is that, because of acculturation, there’s a difference between—

Malek: Well, there’s still a stigma associated with having mental health issues and getting treatment, particularly. That attitude prevents a lot of people from getting the help that they need.

Cooper: What are your thoughts about the shooting in Fort Hood, with respect to mental illness?

Malek: I think it’s clearly a mental health issue, no matter what anyone else has wrapped it up in. If this guy has wrapped it up in religious extremism or whatever, fundamentally, it remains a mental health issue. It’s not a cultural or religious determination. But that’s not how they’re talking about it on the news. It’s pathetic.

Cooper: A psychiatrist who works with our magazine said that when you become a psychiatrist, they don’t give you a vaccination for your own mental health.

Malek: You’re supposed to be in therapy yourself, though.

Cooper: Continually, sure, but there’s no vaccination.

You’re human just like anyone else, and you can have mental health problems just like anyone else can. But that message isn’t exactly getting out there.

Malek: One of my friends is a correspondent for the Military Times and is an expert on a lot of health issues. I went on her Facebook page after the Fort Hood situation, because she’s friends with a ton of soldiers, and I was going to see what people had written and if there was a lot of racism being thrown around. Instead, there were just a lot of people saying, “We come back from the service and we don’t get any kind of real mental health help.” I think people who are familiar with that kind of situation recognized this whole Fort Hood incident was a mental health issue.

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I can think of, within the last two years, two other service people who have gone on shooting rampages. Something had cracked within them. And we didn’t sit there and wonder if this had anything to do with Christianity or with being white. So, at the core of this, we’re really diluting a conversation that does need to happen. Why are our service people not getting what they need?

Cooper: I know a public relations person out of Camp Pendleton who is actually working on a program to further the awareness of the need for peer-to-peer counseling, focusing on what’s happening with suicides among these soldiers. The numbers are really staggering.

Malek: They are staggering. And publicly we don’t know enough about that.

Cooper: We looked recently at whether there is a relationship between motorcycle accidents and post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of people who serve in the military come back, buy a bike, and crash before they even get home. These military servicemen and servicewomen are coming out of conflict, looking to recapture some adrenaline, they get up to this high speed on their bikes, and then they crash and die. They’re not trying to commit suicide, but they’re also not really aware of what they’re doing.

Malek: Wow. You know, the last story in my book is about a soldier. We go out to war alongside a Yemeni-American Marine, and we live it very viscerally with him. But the whole point of the book, and of these conversations, is that we’ve got to normalize and make familiar these largely unfamiliar people and experiences. It’s about making visible the stories, the lives, and the history of a people that are invisible.

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