By Katlen Abu Ata
Patricia Dunn is an American journalist and political activist who lived Egypt for many years. She is the former editor of MuslimWakeup, the progressive web site for reformist Islam, and has written for various publications. Her first book is the novel Rebels by Accident, the story of what happens when a troubled teen is sent to Cairo right around the time of the uprising against the Mubarak regime. A fast read, the book serves as a guide for young Muslim Americans, urging them to take pride in one's heritage and culture. Dunn's message is that although Arab American identity can be quite difficult in this day and age, by voicing one's opinions change is very much possible.
The narrative illustrates the struggle of being a teenager living with the burden of carrying on cultural traditions, while facing a largely prejudiced, ill-informed (American) society. She dedicates the novel to her son, who she says has coped with bullying that targets Arab Americans. "Go back to where you came from," one kid tells her son Ali on the bus. "But I'm American," he says. "Well, all you Muslims should just leave," the kid continues.
Although her oversimplified depiction of the Egyptian revolution and Egyptian society glazes over some important details, Dunn provides an inside look into Egypt during a time of uprising through the eyes of Mariam, a young, Arab American teenager visiting her father's homeland. The theme of being true to oneself is central to the book, while analyzing the difficulty of being a teenager of Arab heritage in post 9/11 America. Dunn is critical of the media hegemony she believes corrupts young American minds; she decries the perpetuation of stereotypes through our news outlets. The novel's protagonist faces the choice of assimilation and social acceptance, or reflecting the values and cultural practices that her family instilled in her, which could mean social ridicule.
Reality hits hard for Mariam as she is forced to differentiate between the society of a country and the government that oppresses them, in this case Egypt and the Mubarak regime. Mariam enters the country with the preconceived notion that Egypt and Islam are "backwards" and oppressive, but is surprised to find that the people of Egypt, her family, Islam, and the country as a whole is a part of her and her heritage. She regrets trying to escape her culture and is embarrassed of the shame that she has held onto for so long. The simplicity of the novel's language and plot makes it accessible to a teenage readership, however, the character is easily relatable to anyone and her struggle is universal at a time when Islamophobia and Arab stereotypes abound.