Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science. His book, “This Muslim American Life,” came out in September. It’s a fascinating collection of pieces—sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, always probing and provocative—about, well, Muslim life in America, past and present.
There’s a mini-memoir about the time Moustafa worked as a Middle Eastern extra on “Sex and the City 2″; a Philip-Roth-like story about his discovery of a terrorist named Mustafa Bayoumi in a detective novel (that really did happen); a loving deconstruction of the Islamic undertones and overtones of John Coltrane’s music (“A Love Supreme” becomes “Allah Supreme”); a harrowing essay on how the American military uses music to terrorize and torture its victims (the phrase “Disco Inferno” takes on a whole new meaning); a long and learned history of the relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans.
The book ranges widely, but it’s held together by a single premonition: that the wrenching changes of the War on Terror have been not only legal and political but also cultural. They are not confined to foreign policy or domestic policing; they extend to the most intimate and personal spaces of social life. They have created among all of us—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—a new set of experiences and sensibilities, a new sense of community and collectivity. At the same time, Moustafa’s book is a long, sustained insistence that we understand all the ways in which people—particularly Muslim people—live their lives outside the War on Terror. “This Muslim American Life” documents the oozing influence of the state, but with its sense of humor and history, shows just how much of the Muslim American experience lies beyond that influence.
A literary critic and gifted essayist, Moustafa brings his formidable skills as a reader of texts to his analysis of contemporary political culture. He’s got that eye—and ear—for the way our most incidental phrases, those stray bits of language, betray our deepest feelings. Where other books on the War on Terror focus on high acts of state, Moustafa finds his materials in the most unexpected places: yes, in the fine print of a legal statute, but also in standup comedy, in the parables of Kafka, in the penultimate paragraph of newspaper article. His archive is everywhere.
Moustafa and I have been friends for years, and we’ve often talked over drinks or dinner, on campus and in cafés, about the topics he addresses in his book. But it wasn’t till I sat down with “This Muslim American Life” that I truly saw the unity of his vision. So I decided to do what we always do when either of us has a book or an idea we’re excited about: sit down with him and talk about it.