Book Review: Call Me American

My copy of the book.

The American dream is often derided these days by Americans are farcical and mythologizing “bootstrapping,” or giving too much credence to a status quo in need of changing, or worse yet, a nefarious fantasy told by the “elites” in America to hold the citizenry down with what is actually a pipe dream. But for those outside of America, without the privilege of having been born in America, the America dream is as real and vibrant a form of hope as its ever been. Such is the case with Abdi Nor Iftin, a Somali immigrant to the United States, and his 2018 memoir, Call Me American. I don’t state the previous as some sort of political statement, or rah-rah America message (certainly not), but as the acknowledgement of two things: 1.) Whatever our problems in America, which are myriad at the macro and micro levels, they don’t compare to growing up in a place like Somalia, a failed state; and 2.) American culture so deeply permeates the world, even to a failed state like Somalia, that people the world over still see America as a yearnful place of promise and hope. Our culture has and continues to be one of our greatest exports.

Abdi American, as he was nicknamed growing up in Somalia for his love of our macho action movies, such as Terminator and Commando (he loves Arnold Schwarzenegger and can relate to Arnold’s own story of immigrating to America), doesn’t know when he was born. Probably in 1985; he just knew it was under the neem tree. Because in Somalia, birthdays aren’t celebrated. Particularly, with Abdi’s family, who grew up in the bush of Somalia as nomads, traveling around with a herd of animals, the culture didn’t lend itself to an actual birth date. You were born, you took care of your herd, you died. It was a simple life. Abdi’s clan, Rahanweyns, because they were largely nomads, didn’t know anything about America — they didn’t know anything about Somalian politics or its governance or the fact of “Somalia” as a place; they just did their own thing as herders. They certainly didn’t know that Mohamed Siad Barre had risen to power, largely thanks to Barre being a puppet and proxy of the Cold War between the United States and Russia (30 years after Somalia was a puppet of Britain and Italy).

Eventually, Abdi, with his parents (his mom was pregnant with another girl), his older brother, Hassan, and his younger sister moved to Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. It was idyllic, at first, as far as that goes, because Abdi’s father became something of a local celebrity when he joined the national basketball team, and Mogadishu itself was just richer than what they were used to, with clubs, hotels, and vibrant markets. His mother missed the bush life though. She’s a strong woman, who regaled her children with tales of chasing hyenas away from her herd, but also, she’s a deeply religious woman, who believed fervently in the Koran.

By 1991, however, a Somalia civil war erupted between Barre’s government forces and rebels, much of it stemming from clan warfare (there are five clans in Somalia and by clan is how they identify themselves, not by class or race or anything else, with Rahanweyns, Abdi’s clan, were considered the equivalent of poor in America, with the “rich” Mogadishu looking down on them). Barre was eventually overthrown, with I believe the United Somali Congress being the predominant clan in charge thereafter.

The civil war was a hellish time for Abdi and his family, causing them to walk for miles barefoot to escape the violence of bombings and bullets in Mogadishu, and the roving rebels looking to behead, chop, rape, and shoot people, particularly those with any ties to the government. The “near-misses” that his family experienced where they easily could’ve ended up dead is astonishing. It was heartbreaking to experience that time through Abdi’s eyes and telling, seeing his strong mother who chased off hyenas having to bend to the will of skinny teenage rebels with their Russian AK-47s, or his giant, former-celebrity father cowed by those same teenagers. He ended up leaving them for another city in Somalia because it was too dangerous for a man to be with his family, as counterintuitive as that sounds.

Abdi, who I should reiterate, was only about seven-years-old at this time, didn’t have any semblance of a childhood, obviously. His mom, who I also want to reiterate was pregnant, had to drain the sores on his feet, his lips cracked from dehydration, he suffered from dysentery, and hunger. That was his life in the new Somalia, trying to survive day-to-day, whether from human-inflicted carnage and the downstream effects of such carnage, the abject hunger and poverty of Mogadishu, where the former clubs, hotels, and hospitals were riddled with bullet holes and/or turned to rubble.

Then, something amazing happened in Abdi’s estimation: The Americans were coming! America and other United Nations forces came into the country to ensure that all the developed world’s relief efforts actually were going to the Somalis rather than taken by the rebels in power. Abdi was excited because he thought a.) he would get to see Commandos like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and b.) that those big commandos would wipe the floor with the Somali rebels. Of course, he did get to see Americans, or Mareekans, as his broken English at the time referred to them, but it didn’t go like he expected. Yeah, he was gifted a candy bar from U.S. soldiers (which his mother yelled at him for eating pork because, how was she supposed to know what was and wasn’t pork? — Abdi’s book is very funny because of scenes like that between Abdi and his mother), but if you’ve seen Black Hawk Down, you know where this story is going. The scene of rebels repelling American forces, dragging dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu, not only crushed Abdi’s mythologizing of Mereekans, but rendered him without hope yet again that any salvation would come from his hard, brutal life. It also confused him, because of how everything unfolded, he cheered like other Somalis for the rebels, the same rebels who had made his world so brutish, repelling the same American troops he idolized.

The reason, I should note, that Abdi knows about American movies is that in the mid-1990s, Falis, a Somali woman, created a movie theater and that becomes a gateway for how Abdi learned about America, to see what America looked like, and importantly, how he learned how to speak English. He was able to get so good at English that he gained a following of sorts for his ability to translate the movies to his friends.

Excuse me if I butcher the exact history as I recall it from the book, but eventually, a more radical group took over from the existing rebels, to the point where, instead of five warring clans, there was one overall Islamic fundamentalist group and ideology ruling over Mogadishu and Somalia. Of course, Abdi’s mom was elated with such a development because she thought that is how they ought to live to get into Heaven, and how Abdi ought to live. She particularly encouraged Abdi to go to madrassa, which is an Islamic school that strictly teaches the Koran, meaning the students (elementary-aged) have to memorize all 114 chapters of the Koran, and if that wasn’t enough, memorize the order they go in to be able to recite them. And if that all wasn’t enough, I meant strict: the “teacher,” Macalin Basbaas severely beat with a stick and administered lashings to the students, including Abdi, if they got anything wrong or were wayward in any way (being late to school, for example, as Abdi and Hassan were when they were burying their dead infant sister). Abdi’s mother wanted him to be like Basbaas, to grow up to be a teacher of the Koran. Again, it was a brutal life for Abdi anywhere he turned. American movies and the dream of going to America are what sustained him. What also sustained him, interestingly enough, was American hip hop music! He loved to dance like they did and try to rap like they did. And it’s funny, I think like many people learning a new language through culture, Abdi’s first English words and phrases were curse words from the movies and the hip hop songs.

Abdi was rebellious, though, as his American influences might have already indicated, especially as far as Somali culture and Islamic culture go. For another example, dating isn’t even a thing in Somali, but he “dated” a girl and they would walk together (also dangerous) to the beach. They even kissed once. He didn’t want to be a fundamentalist. He believed in his faith, and he was actually quite good at remembering the Koran (the similar aptitude that helped him to learn English), but he wanted to be American and go to America. He wanted a better life. Abdi and Hassan were kicked out of their home at 14 because of these yearnings, including to leave Somalia. (His mother eventually let both of them back.)

If Abdi had it bad, women had it worse, of course. Everything they did was controlled by men. Abdi’s sister, Nima, wasn’t even supposed to fraternize with her own brothers. She stayed home to learn from her mother how to do household chores. Nima, like many young girls in Somalia, was also subject to female genital mutilation. Then, one day, a 30-year-old-ish man shows up to marry the 15-year-old-ish Nima. Arranged marriages are the norm in Somalia. For this marriage, Abdi’s mother receives a dowry: some money and a goat (if I recall correctly, the goat is typically sacrificed). Soon, Nima is pregnant. There are no hospitals or even anything remotely approaching the equivalent of modern medicine and pain medication. I’ll let your mind fill in the blanks there.

What’s amusing in a dark and awful way, is that these rebels forces who are controlling Somalia at this time are anti-American and yet, are literally supported by robbed American dollar bills! Abdi tells us, “Pictures and names associated with America were crimes, not counting the pictures and names on the American dollar bills they had in their pockets.” With this fundamentalist group in charge ready to wage jihad and praising Osama Bin Laden, Abdi also faces a new, looming threat on top of the usual issues: being recruited as a jihadist to die on the “frontlines” of raging Islamic jihad. His mom, of course, wanted him to, thinking that was a way to get rich. Abdi resisted though, knowing it was a way to get dead.

But also, sadly, as you might imagine with anything American being a crime, once the Islamic fundamentalists took over, that also meant Falis’ movie theater was shut down (a polite way of saying it was attacked), music was too dangerous to play, and in short, Abdi lost his tether to American culture and his dream. For now.

The pendulum of power swung, yet again, when Ethiopian forces, with the help of the United States, swept into the country to crush the fundamentalists, which seemed good at first, until that ushered in yet another reprisal with the formation of al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization.

One day, Abdi’s life changed (not dramatically or suddenly but piecemeal) when he met Chicago Tribune reporter, Paul Salopek, who gave Abdi his first (couple) Pepsis, and does a story about Abdi and his accounting of how the war is “bitter and nasty.” Through other news outlets, Abdi began telling the world what it was like growing up and living in Mogadishu under decades of war at that point. More and more people, mostly Americans, who came to be known as Team Abdi, started to help Abdi get to America.

I wish it was that easy. Oh, these Americans took a personal interest, many of them with connections to the U.S. State Department, and Abdi then jumped on a plane from Somalia and flew to America. Ha. If only. Instead, he found his way, often having to bribe Somali police and then Kenyan police to “Little Mogadishu,” aka a small town in the heart of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya (not to be confused with “Little Mogadishu,” the so-called Somali capital of America in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where many Somali immigrants live) where many Syrian refugees live in de facto incognito mode because of the threat they face from the police and citizens, especially once al-Shabaab started attacking Kenya. Police were constantly raiding the area where Abdi lived with his brother, Hassan. Just like in actual Mogadishu, they were under constant threat from people, bombs, bullets, and that age-old threat, hunger.

After trying myriad different ways to get to the United States, including a student visa — and I can’t stress enough how awful our system is to help those fleeing from Somalia (or any country) to come to America; for example, as part of his “paperwork” (a ridiculous notion for a Somali citizen anyway), Abdi had to get his fingerprints taken at the police station to prove he had no criminal record, the very police he’s had to continually bribe so as not to be deported back to Mogadishu, or worse, beaten and killed — Abdi’s luck continued when he “won” the green card lottery, which is a bit of misnomer since he didn’t actually win a green card, he won the chance to potentially apply to receive a green card.

Eventually, after everything Abdi had been through, from those foot blisters fleeing Mogadishu as a seven-year-old, to living in a hole after his bedroom was bombed to survive, to somehow making it to “Little Mogadishu,” with big help from a Maine woman named Sharon McDonnell, he is able to fly to Maine with his American green card. When that moment happened, and especially when Abdi was safely on the plane to Germany (which then connected to Boston), I had tears in my eyes. When he met Sharon and her daughter at the Boston airport and saw America for the first time, I had tears in my eyes again. He freaking made it! You did it, Abdi American! I’m getting goosebumps writing that and thinking about it again. Abdi made it to this country he yearned for since he was a kid, that he dreamed of, and that made it so damn hard for him to even get here. He resisted becoming an Islamic fundamentalist (and surely, an early death), he resisted joining the Jihad, he learned English, and once he was in America, he didn’t want to continue his Somali culture per se (he did get homesick feeling like an outcast initially in America, and did suffer from PTSD, of course), but he wanted to assimilate. He wanted to be known as an American and looked at as an America. He’s Abdi America! Call him American!

Hands down, this is one of the best memoirs and books I’ve ever read. Abdi’s story is astonishing, especially how much he survived and how lucky he was to survive, much less to actually make it through everything and all the red tape to end up in America. His writing is compelling, captivatingly told, funny and charming, heart-breaking and inspiring. It is the quintessential American dream story! There is nothing quite like it.

In the Epilogue, Abdi talks about how scared, rightly, he was when Donald Trump became the president after promising to shut down immigration from all Muslim countries, including Somalia. Abdi feared reprisals and attacks from emboldened Americans. It also meant his brother, Hassan, was permanently denied ever coming to the United States. People who think what Trump did didn’t have real world consequences are obviously wrong, disastrously so. And Abdi’s life is also hard in America with respect to the fact that his family (and anyone who knows of his family) requests and needs his “American dollar bills” on a monthly basis. He’s trying. What’s beautiful is he found a job translating for Somali refugees who come to America. So, he’s giving back and helping in that way, too.

And Abdi has a new dream: to return to Somali as their president (many of the current leaders in Somalia are emblematic of a reverse brain drain, Somali-Americans), with of course the Islamic fundamentalists the biggest hurdle to that, but Abdi’s message is that you can be an adherent of the Islamic faith and still enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger movies; you can pray five times a day and still dance; you can learn the Koran and learn additional subjects in actual schools; and importantly, have actual sanitation and the basic infrastructure of a modern society. Islam and modernity do not need to be in opposition.

I hope Abdi achieves his next dream. I’d be remiss, if as a final aside, I didn’t mention that I did my thematic sequence (somewhat equivalent to a dissertation) in college on Somalia, so, I’ve long been interested in the country and culture. Again, my apologies if I butchered any of the history of the country; I’m rusty!

If you’re a memoir-reader, if you need a balm for your cynical American soul, I highly recommend Call me American to remind you of what America as an idea means for the world’s poor and disadvantaged and terrorized: a dream of something better, something more, living instead of merely surviving. To be more than born, herding, and dying. To have hope.

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