The Fall 2001 issue of the Harvard Educational Review included an article by Loukia K. Sarroub titled “The Soujourner Experience of Yemeni American High School Students: An Ethnographic Portrait.” In the article, Sarroub chronicled the experiences of Yemeni American girls and of one girl in particular living in the working-class community of Dearborn, Michigan, a city where 30 percent of the population is Arab. Sarroub explored the girls’ lives, in which culture, family, gender, religion, and school intersected to produce complex identities and experiences. In her new book, All American Yemeni Girls: Being Muslim in a Public School, Sarroub draws on the same data set that she used to write the article. Between 1997 and 1999, Sarroub interviewed and shadowed six Yemeni girls who were born in America, wore hijab (the scarf worn by Muslim women), and attended the same high school.
Sarroub’s book explores themes similar to those found in her article, but also includes data regarding the girls’ literacy practices, their teachers’ perceptions of the girls, and a reflection on the changes experienced by Arabs and Muslims since the attacks of September 11, 2001. In chapter 1, Sarroub introduces readers to her research participants, methods, and questions, which concern how the Yemeni American students made sense of their identities in the context of home and school, and how the school responded to students’ cultural and religious differences.
Chapter 2 is essentially the article Sarroub published in this journal. In it, she explores two of the girls’ primary concerns: marriage and education. She does so with a portrait of Layla, who had aspirations of attending college but felt limited by her father’s expectations that she marry. Girls’ education is valued by Yemenis living in America, but so is marriage. The families described in the book often arranged for their daughters to be married or engaged at a young age, as is customary in Yemen, which usually interfered with the girls’ educational aspirations. The tension the girls faced regarding the uncertainty of their education and marital status is also explored in chapter 6.
In chapter 3, Sarroub discusses the girls’ experiences of being watched by the Yemeni boys in the physical space of the high school cafeteria, hallways, and classrooms. The girls avoided speaking to Arab and non-Arab boys in the cafeteria and hallways, fearing that the boys who had emigrated from Yemen would report their behavior to their families. In the classroom the girls were more relaxed, especially when there were few recent Yemeni immigrants in the room. The girls explained that what happened in the classroom was not discussed outside the four walls and that they knew the boys in their classes well.
In chapter 4, Sarroub explores the different types of literacy in which the girls engaged. She refers to Sylvia Scribner’s three metaphors of literacy — literacy as adaptation, literacy as power, and literacy as a state of grace — to show how the girls’ literacy reflected both their Islamic beliefs and their interest in popular culture, as well as the “in-between-ness” of their cultural identities. Their surreptitious consumption of teenage magazines and stories about dating demonstrated their adaptation to American culture, but also, when they critiqued these materials through Islamic beliefs, revealed their pride in Islam. The girls also spoke of reading the Qur’an to gain knowledge; some felt the experience was empowering and that it made them more spiritual. Sarroub uses this view to illustrate the metaphor of literacy as a state of grace. She also details some of the girls’ participation in religious discussions in private homes facilitated by women in the community. These descriptions illustrate how these settings were both liberating and confining. They were liberating in that they offered a space for the girls to socialize and engage in intellectual activity, but confining in that they reinforced gender expectations that the Yemeni community placed on the girls.
Findings regarding the school’s Arab American and non-Arab high school teachers’ perceptions of the students comprise chapter 5. Sarroub entered the school soon after a cafeteria fight had broken out between Arab and non-Arab students. Faced with clear evidence that ethnic tensions existed in the school, the administration began to seek out ways to accommodate the Arab and Arab American students, which included hiring a community liaison. While the administration attempted to work with the school’s Arab population, it was clear that most of the teachers knew little about their Yemeni and Yemeni American students. In interviews, the teachers, some of whom were Arab American, expressed frustration with the students. Some teachers complained of the students’ failure to assimilate to American culture, their absence from class for Friday prayer at the mosque, and the students’ gender segregation. Sarroub argues that the teachers needed a greater understanding of the communities and students with which they worked.
The book concludes with a brief description of Sarroub’s entrée and acceptance into the school community and her return to Dearborn after September 11th. She eloquently describes how Arab and Muslim communities have had to rethink their place in America, as the attacks have rendered them the target of increased scrutiny and surveillance. As Layla told her, “We don’t know who we are anymore.”
Sarroub’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on immigrant communities’ cultural and educational experiences in America. While those interested in immigration and/or Muslim or Arab American communities will find this book particularly useful, its commentary on gender, adolescence, and school accommodation will appeal to many.