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Call Me American
Cover of Call Me American
Call Me American
A Memoir
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Abdi Nor Iftin first fell in love with America from afar. As a child, he learned English by listening to American pop and watching action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. When U.S. marines landed in Mogadishu to take on the warlords, Abdi cheered the arrival of these Americans, who seemed as heroic as those of the movies.
Sporting American clothes and dance moves, he became known around Mogadishu as Abdi American, but when the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab rose to power in 2006, it became dangerous to celebrate Western culture. Desperate to make a living, Abdi used his language skills to post secret dispatches, which found an audience of worldwide listeners. Eventually, though, Abdi was forced to flee to Kenya.
In an amazing stroke of luck, Abdi won entrance to the U.S. in the annual visa lottery, though his route to America did not come easily. Parts of his story were first heard on the BBC World Service and This American Life. Now a proud resident of Maine, on the path to citizenship, Abdi Nor Iftin's dramatic, deeply stirring memoir is truly a story for our time: a vivid reminder of why America still beckons to those looking to make a better life.
Abdi Nor Iftin first fell in love with America from afar. As a child, he learned English by listening to American pop and watching action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. When U.S. marines landed in Mogadishu to take on the warlords, Abdi cheered the arrival of these Americans, who seemed as heroic as those of the movies.
Sporting American clothes and dance moves, he became known around Mogadishu as Abdi American, but when the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab rose to power in 2006, it became dangerous to celebrate Western culture. Desperate to make a living, Abdi used his language skills to post secret dispatches, which found an audience of worldwide listeners. Eventually, though, Abdi was forced to flee to Kenya.
In an amazing stroke of luck, Abdi won entrance to the U.S. in the annual visa lottery, though his route to America did not come easily. Parts of his story were first heard on the BBC World Service and This American Life. Now a proud resident of Maine, on the path to citizenship, Abdi Nor Iftin's dramatic, deeply stirring memoir is truly a story for our time: a vivid reminder of why America still beckons to those looking to make a better life.
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  • From the book

    Excerpted from Chapter Five: Arabic to English

    By December of 1992, the world could no longer sit back and watch the starvation in Somalia. Humanitarian aid had been coming in for months but the warlords grabbed all the food and medicine for themselves and gave none to the people. The situation got worse until finally the United Nations decided to take action. Led by the U.S., twenty-eight countries organized a military task force called Operation Restore Hope. The goal was to supervise the distribution of food and supplies.

    In Somalia we call Americans Mareekan. When I heard these Mareekan were coming to Mogadishu, I asked my mom who they were. I didn't know the people in the action movies were Mareekan. "They are huge, strong, white people," she said. "They eat pork, drink wine, and have dogs in their houses."

    This sounded like the people I had seen in the movies. Whoever they were, the militias looked worried about their arrival. Many rebels started burying their guns; some fled Mogadishu. There was confusion and tension everywhere. I couldn't wait to see Mareekans land in Mogadishu! Hopefully they would look like actors in the movies and would spray bullets all over the militias.

    And so at midnight on December 9, the thunderous roar of Cobra helicopters and AC-130 gunships filled the air. From the ocean came the buzz of hovercrafts, unloading tanks and Marines onto the beach. Our house was close to the airport and the sea, so all these sounds woke me up right away. Through the bullet holes in our roof I could see the gleaming lights of the planes, accompanied by the roar of tanks along the roads. My mother, Hassan and Khadija were all up, even Nima.

    I was eager to see the troops and the helicopters in the morning. At dawn Hassan and I, holding hands, walked down to the airport past streets that used to have sniper nests. There were lots of Somalis in the street, all of them headed the same way, towards the airport. As we got closer, the sounds of the Cobra attack helicopters became deafening. We joined a group of other excited Somalis, some standing on the walls, others on top of roofs, watching as big Chinook heavy-lift copters took off and landed. We could see warships in the distance on the blue ocean; everywhere around the airport, Marines in camouflage were taking positions and setting up gun posts.
    Someone said the Mareekans had rounded up the rebels who were controlling the airport and seaport. The crowd got bigger and bigger, we shouted, laughed and cheered in excitement. Security perimeters had already set up, blocking entrances to the airport. The Mareekan flag was waving, stars and stripes. That's when it hit me: I had seen that flag in movies! These Mareekans were the movie people, and this was a real movie happening in front of us!

    Commando must be here, I thought. This is it. This is the moment I had been waiting for, to meet Commando and watch him blow away all the militias! Helicopters dropped a shower of leaflets with photos and information about the troops. I picked up several of them. "United Nations forces are here to assist in the international relief effort for the Somali people," it said in Somali. "We are prepared to use force to protect the relief operation and our soldiers. We will not allow interference with food distribution or with our activities. We are here to help you." Because not so many Somalis could read, the leaflets also showed an illustration like a comic book of a U.S. soldier shaking hands with a Somali man under a palm tree, as a helicopter flew past. I couldn't wait to shake hands with...

About the Author-
  • Abdi Nor Iftin currently lives in Portland, Maine, where he works as an interpreter for Somali immigrants to the state. Abdi was accepted to the University of Southern Maine, where he will be studying political science.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 26, 2018
    War-torn Somalia is the unlikely incubator for an immigrant success story in this wrenching yet hopeful autobiography. Iftin was five years old in 1991 when a decadeslong civil war engulfed the Somali capital of Mogadishu; his family witnessed massacres by militias, survived death marches, and endured years of starvation. His one escape from grim reality was a movie theater where he learned English watching American action movies, and his enthusiasm for the wealth, freedom, and rough justice depicted in them earned him the nickname “Abdi American.” That spelled trouble, however, when the rise of Islamic extremism brought harsh religious strictures—he was flogged for going to the beach with a girl—and attacks on anyone associated with America. A chance 2009 encounter with an American reporter got him a gig doing radio dispatches for NPR, and more Islamist threats; after his house was bombed, he fled to the enclave for persecuted Somalis in Kenya, and finally, after navigating the labyrinth of U.S. immigration rules, moved to rural Maine, where he now works as a translator. Written in limpid prose, Iftin’s extraordinary saga is not just a journey of self-advancement but a quest to break free from ethnic and sectarian hatreds.

  • Library Journal

    January 1, 2018

    Having learned English by imbibing American pop songs and movies, Somali-born Iftin secretly posted dispatches to NPR and the Internet when the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab took over his country. A tough path took him to Kenya, America's annual visa lottery, and finally Maine, where he works as a translator for fellow Somalis while studying political science at the University of Southern Maine. Bravo!

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2018
    Born to extreme poverty in 1985 in war-torn Somalia, Iftin chronicles the extraordinary obstacles he overcame to obtain residency in the United States.The author's parents--and almost everybody of their generation in a lower-caste Somalian tribe--lived outdoors as nomads, raising camels and goats. They had never heard of the U.S. and only had a vague idea of Somalia as a diverse nation that had been colonized by Italy. Six years after Iftin's birth and shortly after a devastating war with Ethiopia, Somalia descended into a tribal civil war that left millions dead, starving to death, or homeless. Amid a seemingly hopeless life filled with daily study of the Quran and corporal punishment from teachers if the memorization was less than perfect, a preteen Iftin became a combination of dreamer for a better life and street hustler to supply his family with scraps of food. He found a way into a ramshackle video store, where he violated Muslim tenets to view American movies, painstakingly repeating phrases to himself to learn English. "The things I saw in the movies seemed unreachable," he writes, "but at least I could learn the language they spoke." Eventually, the narrative shifts from his life of quiet desperation on the streets to his then-unrealistic plan to leave Somalia. The author reached a fetid refugee camp in Kenya and was able to obtain a visa to enter the U.S., where he knew nobody. Explaining how Iftin reached the U.S. would involve a series of spoilers, but suffice it to say that he did achieve entry four years ago, after which he found lodging, paid work, and formal education in Maine, where he plans to attend college. The author felt secure and optimistic there until the election of Donald Trump.A searing memoir filled with horrors that impressively remains upbeat, highly inspiring, and always educational.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist (Starred Review) "Absolutely remarkable and always as compelling as a novel... An essential immigrant story, one that is enlightening and immediate."
  • Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) "[A] wrenching yet hopeful autobiography... Iftin's extraordinary saga is not just a journey of self-advancement but a quest to break free from ethnic and sectarian hatreds."
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