A Year in Windom


Windom, Minneapolis at night. Photograph by Xopher Smith

From The Believer:

In the 1963–’64 Windom High School yearbook, there is an entire page dedicated to my Palestinian father. During his one year as an exchange student in Windom, Minnesota, he played on the tennis team, ran track (he hated running, but the other option, wrestling, terrified him), joined the photography club, was elected to student council—“They entrusted me to make decisions for the entire school,” he says, “though I’d only just arrived”—and got voted onto the homecoming court. We joke that he was the Forrest Gump of Windom, able to be everywhere at once, and all in just a year. “Extracurriculars didn’t exist back in Nablus,” he says, speaking of his Palestinian hometown. “We were desperate for any kind of cultural or social activity.”

In the yearbook he is referred to by his nickname, Winnie, short for Winner, the English translation of his Arabic name, Fawaz. He is sinewy and boyish, gap-toothed, his nose still too big for his face. There is a shot of him woodworking, another of him standing poised behind an old-fashioned camera with a caption that reads, “What picturesque cheerleaders!” There is a photo of him sitting beside an older man in thick, black-rimmed glasses, Glen Tews, the junior-high principal and his host father. “Winnie learns the facts of American Life,” states the caption beneath it. The most jovial and ironic of captions accompanies a head-on shot of him standing beside a marked fallout shelter: “Our own little bomb!” In the middle of the collage, in all-caps and boldface type, are the words “OUR ARAB.”

The descriptions are naive, earnest at best, and would be deemed insensitive and offensive today: the voyeuristic and sexist implication of photographing cheerleaders, the patronizing assumption that a foreigner would be unfamiliar with such a thing as “American life,” associating an Arab Muslim with bombs, designating a student by his ethnic background in a possessive, paternalistic tone. But in the early 1960s, the concept of political correctness hadn’t yet infiltrated the American vernacular—it wouldn’t until the 1970s, with the rise of the New Left, exploding onto college campuses and into political discourse in the 1980s and early ’90s. Nor did identity politics extend to Arabs and Muslims, who weren’t yet considered victims of discrimination or excluded in the way that other minority groups in the US were, most notably African Americans, who were demanding equality by braving police dogs and water cannons and state-sanctioned racism via sit-ins, boycotts, and jail sentences. According to my father, part of the reason for this is that there weren’t that many Arabs or Muslims around. “People hadn’t had much exposure to us,” he tells me, “which meant they had no preexisting associations, judgments, or stereotypes.” In Windom, the population was and still is almost homogenously white—92 percent so—comprising mostly Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants: “I don’t remember any Mexican, Asian, or African American classmates.” A quick scan of the yearbook offers a spread of overwhelmingly white faces. “I was the only foreign student at the high school, and possibly in all of Windom.”

In her essay “Back to Buxton,” Eula Biss refers to Zora Neale Hurston’s experience of becoming “tragically colored” when leaving her all-black hometown and entering a predominately white America: “I was not Zora of Orange County any more,” Hurston writes, “I was now a little colored girl.” Though my father stood out in Windom, his othering was surprisingly benevolent, friendly, and inclusive, and unaware of its orientalist gaze. Despite their lack of exposure to Arabs and Muslims, the Americans he met in Windom greeted him with openness and curiosity rather than suspicion and animosity. He speculates that this was “maybe because we weren’t maligned in the media yet”—there were no Limbaughs or Coulters or Hannitys railing against entire ethnic and religious categories of people—“nor were we a target of US foreign policy, or discriminatory domestic ones.”

Indeed, there was no Patriot Act, no surveillance of mosques and Muslim neighborhoods, no travel ban, no inflammatory tweets by a sitting president designed to foment Islamophobia. My father’s year in Windom was before 9/11, before Al-Qaeda, before Afghanistan and both Gulf Wars, before the Arab Spring, before the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crisis.

“Our Arab”, Zaina Arafat, The Believer