Missing Tiles in the American Mosaic: The Rumpus Interview with Alia Malek


In late October 2000, Alia Malek, the American daughter of Syrian immigrant parents, started work as a civil rights lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department. She then watched the newly-elected Bush Administration re-direct the Justice Department’s Civil Right’s Division toward a fundamentalist religious agenda and the election of Republican political candidates. (See Malek’s Salon article on the subject).

By early 2003, Malek was unable to reconcile the values of civil rights with the policies of the Bush Justice Department and the government’s response to 9/11. She left the Justice Department on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, ultimately to pursue a career as an author and journalist, another venture in which she could lend her voice to the cause of social justice.

Malek’s first book, A Country Called Amreeka (Free Press 2009), retold U.S. history through the stories of Arab-Americans, thereby offering them a place in a historical narrative that had not previously acknowledged them.

Malek’s second book, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, published earlier this month by the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, collects the oral histories of U.S. citizens subjected to post-9/11 injustices. The book’s narratives document the xenophobia and Islamophobia that rose up in the wake of 9/11, and the federal government’s unjust treatment of individuals on account of their race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.

Malek has written that United States is a mosaic, but that we have excluded certain groups from the picture. “Filling in some of the missing tiles from the American mosaic is what I seek to do in my work and with this book,” Malek writes in the introduction to Patriot Acts.

I met with Malek in Washington, D.C., at a Dupont Circle coffee shop, on a rainy early evening in late August after the earthquake but before the arrival of Hurricane Irene. She is quick, funny, soft-spoken and kind. She is also intensely curious. When my Iphone’s voice memo recorder wasn’t running, she spent practically every minute of our meeting asking questions, and she even slipped some into the interview itself.

We were also joined by my friend Lucia Graves, a journalist in Washington.


The Rumpus:  So, holy smoke, we had an earthquake.

Alia Malek:  Yeah I know, right?

Rumpus:  Where were you for that?

Malek:  On my bed, working on an assignment. I was working on my laptop, and my bed started to rattle, and I thought, “Is the floor right beneath my bed caving in?” And then, as a New Yorker, my first thought was, “but the subway doesn’t pass underneath here.”

Then I saw the walls shake, and I heard stuff falling off bookshelves, and the chandelier downstairs was rattling, and I thought, “How are we having an earthquake? This is not California.”

Then I thought, “Door frame. Run into the door frame.” But when I got there I thought, “This doesn’t actually feel any safer.”


Malek:  The environment is so screwed.

Rumpus: Any plans for the hurricane?

Malek:  I know, earthquake on Tuesday, hurricane this weekend. It’s like the END OF DAYS. I can’t believe it.

Rumpus:  So tell us how the Voice of Witness book came about.

Malek:  After A Country Called Amreeka, I was thinking, “OK, what is the next book going to be about? And I was taking freelance assignments, because when I’m starting to explore what comes next, out of that come little freelance pieces, although I’m always thinking about something in longer narrative form.

Rumpus:  And you said Dave Eggers contacted you.

Malek:  Dave Eggers asked me to participate in a conference call. And I said, “OK.” I was on the phone with him, you know, multi-tasking, and he said, “I want to do this book on post-9/11 injustices, oral histories.”

And I said, “Yeah, that’s great. You should totally do that.”

And he said, “I’m kind of thinking you should edit it.”

And I said, “What?”

So that’s the second book. And that’s why I’m back in the States for two months, to promote it. I’m at my parents’ house until the tour starts on Tuesday. But I haven’t seen the book yet. You said you were able to find it?

Rumpus:  I’ve got a copy.

Malek:  Can I see it?

Malek:  [Examining book.] It’s cool. It’s fantastic.


Malek:  How do you guys feel about the title?

Lucia Graves:  I like the title. I think it’s poetic.

Rumpus:  Your first book was about Arab-Americans, but this book is about a larger group.

Malek:  This book is about a much bigger group of people. I mean, let’s just go through the Table of Contents . . . Adama is West African. Talat is Pakistani. Rima is Palestinian. Gurwinder is Indian. Khaled is Lebanese. Amir is Black American. Rana Sohdi is Sikh, so he’s Indian. Hani is half-Indian half-Pakistani. Zak is a white guy. Then it goes Pakistani, Egyptian, Pakistani, Colombian, Indian, Iraqi, white guy.

So the book is about more than just Arabs, and the people affected by the crackdown on civil rights and civil liberties are not just Arabs.

Rumpus:  There’s a term to describe these communities . . .

Malek:  AMEMSA. It stands for Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian.

But the thing to keep in mind is that the darker elements of the war on terror don’t victimize only those people. I mean, Nick George, he’s white, and he ends up being arrested because he’s going through airport security with Arabic flash cards. He’s studying Arabic, and TSA gets its panties in a bunch over it.

So yes, the immediate impact group is disproportionately from the AMEMSA communities, but not only, and then I think the country as a whole really suffers from this behavior.

You know, Dick Cheney was just on television today, still defending waterboarding. I don’t think he realizes how bad that is, that it doesn’t just impact the “bad guys,” that it really dehumanizes us.

Rumpus:  All of us.

Malek:  Yeah. When we traffic in that kind of behavior, it’s not the country the founding fathers envisioned, and I think it also dehumanizes us.

When I lived in the West Bank Gaza, obviously my first sympathies are with the Palestinians. But every time I saw that 18 year-old Israeli soldier dehumanizing someone else, I thought, that person’s soul is dying a little bit right there.

Rumpus:  Why do you think this backlash takes place? I mean, in law school everyone reads Korematsu v. United States. . .*

* Korematsu v. United States, a case in the United States Supreme Court, challenged the United States’ internment of Japanese-Americans in domestic concentration camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Supreme Court upheld Fred Korematsu’s detention, but in 1983 his conviction was overturned by a federal court on the basis of newly-disclosed government documents revealing there had never been any military necessity for the camps.

Malek:  Yeah, I wanted Karen [Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s daughter] to be the foreward writer.

Rumpus:  That was your idea?

Malek:  [Laughing.] Yeah, couldn’t you tell? But doesn’t it make perfect sense?

Rumpus:  She was the perfect choice because that’s the lesson we should have learned.

Malek:  I often tell this story when I give the Amreeka book talk: I was at DOJ, in the Civil Rights Division, after 9/11, and one of my friends in the Criminal Division, a Haitian-American attorney, told me, outside the building, “You are not going to believe what they are talking about.” He said, “We were brainstorming around the table, and some of these folks threw out the idea of de-naturalizing all Arab-American citizens.” You know, taking away their citizenship.

So as far as internment camps go, I don’t think we were all that far away, really.

Rumpus:  So, again, why does that happen?

Malek:  You mean why do we scapegoat?

Rumpus:  Yeah.

Malek:  I think other countries are not as obsessed with race as the United States. We have this tendency to racialize the enemy, to think in those terms. We inquire into who committed this act, and then people of the same race or ethnicity become collectively guilty. We have a history of assigning collective guilt, and of thinking of people of color in collectives.

Rumpus:  In many of the narratives in Patriot Acts, what seems to drive the injustice is that people in authority assume their own inability to deal with people from other cultures. They treat them in brutal ways because they don’t know how to interact with them as human beings.

Malek:  Well, listen, I think in the United States we perpetuate this false idea of what America looks like. I’ve been watching TV abroad, and I’ve been thinking, “Wow, we really don’t live like Gossip Girl.” But Gossip Girl is what America looks like on TV.

Or 90210. If you’ve been to Beverly Hills you know it’s all Persian. But there were never any Iranian characters on 90210.

But our narratives of contemporary America don’t include portrayals of these people. The only time we check-in with Arab-American communities, for example, is in the wake of a terrorist attack. Or when we want to do the Arab-American story.

But Arabs came through Ellis Island at the same time as Italians and Greeks and Eastern Europeans, people we think of naturally as Americans, that we would never doubt as having a place as real Americans.

So I just think we have a false idea of our history and of contemporary America.

Rumpus:  Do you think cultural difference has a tendency to take over our narratives?

Malek: Definitely. There’s a reporter at the New York Times, for example, who attaches so much significance to things that just are not significant. In one of her pieces, for example, she has her subjects always saying, “Inshallah, Inshallah, Inshallah,” which is “God willing, God willing, God willing.” And she made the piece all about Allah, and the importance of religion.

I had the opportunity to tell her, “Americans are always saying ‘My God, my God, my God,’ or ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ And what if someone from the outside came and said, ‘You know, they are always invoking the name of their God’”?


Malek:  You know? I say “Jesus” all the time, but I’m not consciously invoking the name of the “Messiah.”

Rumpus:  That’s funny.

Malek:  Or the veil. The veil takes on all this significance for people that . . .

Rumpus:  I know two women who wear the veil, and for both of them it’s not a big deal. It’s like you’re blind to your own cultural signifiers, but then you look at someone else, and you give something like the veil all this weight that it doesn’t necessarily deserve.

Malek:  And we all do that. And my question to that reporter that day was not, “Why do you have these biases and lenses?” Because we all do. My question was how are you consciously checking yourself?

Because I do it, too, even as an Arab-American. I just came back from Cairo, and I have to check myself sometimes. Or: I’m an East Coaster. And when I go to the “heartland,” it’s tempting to think, “They have a pickup truck, and a shotgun, . . .”  [laughing.] But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, you know what I’m saying?

Rumpus:  It seems that, with Muslim-Americans or Arab-Americans, there’s a prescribed or constructed narrative that the journalism is feeding into.

Malek:  Yes, I think so.

Rumpus:  Does your journalism work against that dominant narrative? Against that grain?

Malek:  Well, yes, it’s playing in that sandbox. Because it’s acknowledging those gaps. But, for example, I think most people think Arab-Americans came here after ‘65, after the liberalization of immigration law. But Arabs started coming over here in the late 1800’s. My first book sort of tried to correct for that.

And I think most people think most Arab-Americans are Muslim, but the majority are actually Christian. The book tried to correct that as well.

Rumpus:  It can be a problem on the Left, too. That we fetishize these cultural differences, make them the most important thing.

Malek:  You have to crawl before you can walk. I think the fact is that you have to re-insert — this is something I’ve said before — contemporary America is a mosaic. And there are a lot of little pieces that are missing. So the picture is not entirely clear. You have to re-insert those pieces, and you have to correct the idea that American was a country of X,Y, and Z people, when it was really a country of A-to-Z people. Who we understand ourselves to be and what we understand our history to be has to be corrected first.

And then maybe we can move past that, and I can just be a chick from Baltimore, along with all the other things that I am.

Rumpus:   And people won’t characterize you by your —

Malek:  But we are not past race. And in the United States today, Islam has been racialized. You know, Islam is practiced by blonde people, by Black people, by all kinds of people. But if you say “Muslim,” we think, “brown, kind of swarthy” — we already have a racialized type to go with that.

The Rumpus:  In Patriot Acts, a lot of the narratives are about Americans not being treated as Americans. Like Adama Bah, she says, “I didn’t know I wasn’t an American until I was sixteen and in handcuffs.”

Malek:  She meant it literally.

Rumpus:  That’s true. Well, you kind of grimaced when I quoted her. Why were you reacting that way?

Malek:  Because that’s what you don’t want to see happening.

Rumpus:  Right. It’s painful.

Malek:  My vision of the United States is that all these people belong. I think we’re a better country for having them, for welcoming them.

What makes the United States so special is that, from its inception, it was ready — even if it did it badly at points — to absorb new peoples. Without sanitizing the US history of what happened to the Native Americans or how African Americans were brought here as slaves, many of us are here in the U.S. because we chose to be here, and to join in creating American society. Culture here feels more dynamic than anywhere else because we are all active participants in its creation.

And that vision? That place? It can be amazing.

Take New York. I love that I interact with so many people, and everyone’s a New Yorker but everyone’s brought a little piece of somewhere else. And look what it’s created! Is New York not one of the greatest cities in the world? I am biased, of course, because I love New York.

I just feel the U.S. has a desire, all of a sudden, to homogenize. But I think that, whether it’s your stock portfolio or genetics, diversity is a wonderful thing.

Graves:  You said “all of a sudden.” Was there a turning point?

Malek:  In the U.S.?  I feel like nativism comes and goes, but I think since 9/11 . . .

You know, I wrote this piece for Granta, about looking back on the decade. And it was sort of like the perfect storm. The 2003 recession, and now the financial place that we’re in. We look a lot like we did in the early 1900’s. The 1920’s nativist rise of this idea, with the xenophobia, this idea that there’s a “pure” America, which is a myth. The 90’s didn’t feel like that. In the 80’s I was more of a kid. But the 90’s didn’t feel like that.

Graves:  So it’s a fear thing.

Malek:  I think part of it is fear. Part of it is we’re not good at accepting blame. We’re always lashing out when things go bad. I think homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, are all three sides of the same three-sided coin. And the struggle is define what America should look like.

But the U.S. is always changing, that’s the thing. Some people want to impose a single idea on America, but America has always gone through constant change, much more I think than other countries. And change is a fantastic thing.

So yeah, I don’t even know what the question was anymore.


I always find it funny being on this side of the recorder.

Rumpus:  What are your hopes for Patriot Acts?

Malek:  My hopes for Patriot Acts are, first, that the experience for the narrators was empowering and cathartic, if catharsis was something they were seeking. I hope readers will be left with a complete picture of the post 9/11 decade, and that the book piques their curiosity to learn more about the communities impacted by this decade, whose stories are otherwise undercovered. And if I can be greedy, I’d like to hope some folks decide they can play a role in what the next decade looks like, and work to make it more humane, more just, and more fair.

Rumpus:  What comes next, after the book tour?

Malek:  I’m already researching my next book. So that means I’m also doing some freelance work, because I’m over there, in the Middle East, and it’s kind of hard not to work when you’re there.

Rumpus:  Do you know what the next book will be about?

Malek:  I don’t know yet. It’s going to be about the Middle East, and the moment that it’s living, but it’s all about deciding how to tell the story. Because history is happening in the moment, but I’m also trying to work in the richness of a long history, to put today’s moment in perspective. So I don’t know yet. I’m still working, seeing how good my access is going to be, what the story is.

Rumpus: Alia Malek, thank you for your time!

Malek:  Thank you!


Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, edited by Alia Malek, is the latest book in the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series.


Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →