Christopher Mansour glances at his watch and rises abruptly from his seat. To the relief of all present, he ends the staff meeting, and with it another 12-hour workday. It is 7:30 p.m.; he is late for a performance at his son's school. Grabbing his umbrella, he races down the halls of the Rayburn Office Building and out into the autumn drizzle of Washington, D.C.
By 8:00 the next morning, Mansour is back at his desk, working the phones between meetings with his boss, Congressman Dale E. Kildee of Flint, Michigan. Through Kildee, a Democrat, Mansour serves the people of Michigan's ninth congressional district, one of the most heavily Arab-American districts in the United States.
As Kildee's administrative aide, Mansour serves as the congressman's principal political advisor, drafts his speeches, and helps Kildee form his positions on economic, defense and foreign-affairs issues. In 1992, Mansour acted as Kildee's liaison with the Clinton-Gore campaign.
Getting to Capitol Hill, however, was not easy for the soft-spoken young man from Flint. "My Arab-American background was a negative for me in a lot of ways," he says. "I had many people say, 'You'd better hide that Arab background.'"
Mansour works the Hill with understated assurance. Among his achievements is his work on the budget committee that secured funding for Kildee's new national child-care initiative, and billion-dollar annual increases for Head Start and job-training programs.
But another goal of Mansour's nine years in Washington has been to chip away at misconceptions about the Arab world, and his impact is felt. Kildee was among the first congressmen to speak on the record in defense of Palestinian human rights. In 1988, Mansour helped organize a fact-finding trip to the West Bank for congressional staffers; he feels it allowed many of its participants to grasp the Arab perspective for the first time. Mansour later organized a congressional forum on the Middle East which brought some diverse views of the region to Capitol Hill.
Mansour grew up believing that the foods and customs of Flint's large Arab community were standard American fare. It wasn't until he reached high school that he realized that his Arab heritage sparked hostility in many of his peers. It was a rude awakening to offensive remarks and open taunts. "It made me aware, for the first time, that I am different. I am an Arab-American."
Mansour went to Michigan State University, then on to Georgetown University's graduate Arab-studies program. After graduation he went to work for an Arab-American organization and produced an oral history of Flint's Arab community. Later he spent several years in Palestine, working for American Near East Refugee Aid and other groups.
Mansour's experience in the Middle East, in a militarily occupied area, has had a profound effect on his world view. He strives to bring personal insights to the often abstract political discussions that take place on the Hill. "I feel my time there also gives me deeper insight into the lives of people in places like Bosnia and Somalia—insights which most Americans don't have. As a result I have a great deal more understanding of what these situations are really like on the ground."
Najib Joe Hakim is a photojournalist and writer living in San Francisco. He has written on Middle East topics for 13 years.