Call Me American

Abdi Nor Iftin from The New York Times

Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin

    Poised on the Horn of Africa, Somalia participated in the lively trade from the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf. With the arrival of Islam in the 7th century C.E. Somalia was organized into competing sultanates. But its links to trade made Mogadishu both a cosmopolitan and wealthy city. The 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta described it as “a town of enormous size. Its inhabitants are merchants possessed of vast resources.” Even into the early 20th century Muslim scholars there made it a center for Islamic learning. Like most of Africa, the region became a target of European imperialism in the 19th century, divided between Italian and British spheres of control. In 1960 both regions became independent and united into the modern state of Somalia. 

    Many Somalis, perhaps a majority of the rural population, engage in herding cattle and transhumance. Less than 2% of Somali land is arable, but nearly 70% is devoted to pasture. The rural population has little access to schooling, even less to medical care. At the opening of Abdi Iftin’s memoir Call Me American, he tells us the story of his parents, whose families are herders and, within their social sphere, wealthy in the number of cattle they own. But drought will rob his parents of their cattle and force them to make lives for themselves in Mogadishu. Abdi and his brother grew up here. His entire family will feel the tides of national and global developments as they wash through the capital city.

    From 1969 until he was deposed in 1991, Siad Barre ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship. Abdi recognizes the military adventurism and corruption of the Barre regime. But once Barre is deposed, the country has no central authority to impose order, and the functions of society and the state either devolve to armed bands or disappear altogether. Abdi’s description of this time is both lively and harrowing. He talks of the disappearance of his father, of the death of an infant sister, of carrying water cans through streets claimed by trigger-happy gunmen. But he also becomes aware of the wider world through movies and, eventually, other American media. He learns English from the movies – his first words are, “I’ll be back.” And soon he receives his nickname, American.

    A UN force in the early 1990s attempted to restore order to Somalia, and succeeded at first. But the American setback in the Black Hawk Down incident leads to the withdrawal of US support and the removal of US troops. The clan gangs, never fully under control, return. Ultimately, the one opponent capable of taming much of the country and wresting control from the clans is the Islamic Union and later (2006) Al-Shabab. Where the clan warlords competed for territory and lucre, the Islamist movements imposed tight strictures on personal behavior. Abdi’s attraction to global culture, and particularly his nickname, drew the attention of the young gunmen of Al-Shabab. In the Abdi is driven to flee, becoming a refugee in Kenya where the presence of so many Somalis soon becomes a source of conflict. 

    Abdi eventually manages to win a visa lottery and emigrate to the United States. But this bare summary does no justice at all to the difficulties of that process. And his book continues after he arrives in the U.S., showing his continued need to confront economic hardship, culture shock, and racism.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Fauvelle, Francois-Xavier. The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Hogg, Annabel Lee. “Timeline: Somalia, 1991-2008.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Dec. 2008,

Hornak, Leo. “Abdi and the Golden Ticket.” This American Life, 7 June 2021,

Iftin, Abdi Nor, and Max Alexander. Call Me American: A Memoir. First edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Iftin, Abdi Nor. “The Lives of Muslim Terror Victims Matter Too.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Aug. 2016,

“Somalia: Events of 2020.” (2020). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from

“Somalia Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Jan. 2018,

Walsh, Declan, et al. “A C.I.A. Fighter, a Somali Bomb Maker, and a Faltering Shadow War.” The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2021,

Williams, John. “Tell US 5 Things about Your Book: A Refugee Says, ‘Call Me American’.” The New York Times, 15 July 2018,

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