82 pages 2 hours read

Abdi Nor Iftin

Call Me American

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Call Me American is a memoir written by Somali author Abdi Nor Iftin, co-authored with Max Alexander and published in 2018. It documents Iftin’s escape from a war-town Somali, buoyed by his love of American culture.

Plot Summary

Abdi Nor Iftin is born in Somalia “probably in 1985” (7). Both of his parents are nomadic farmers who move to the city of Mogadishu during a drought in the 1970s. The residents of Mogadishu look down on the family for being members of the Rahanweyn tribe. Both of Abdi’s parents will always miss their nomadic past. Abdi’s father finds fame as a basketball player, but the outbreak of civil war in Somalia cuts short his success. Abdi flees the city with his family after sees people gunned down in the streets. However, when the family realizes that the whole country is at war, they decide to return to Mogadishu. Abdi’s father does not return with them, however, as the presence of a man puts the whole family at risk. Abdi’s pregnant mother leads Abdi, his brother Hassan, and their sister back to their home in the city.

Mogadishu has descended into chaos. Abdi and his family stay with a former neighbor. Without any food, everyone is slowly starving. Bodies litter the streets. Abdi’s mother gives birth to a baby girl, but the baby dies of starvation shortly after. Abdi and his brother are made to attend a strict religious school where they are beaten until they memorize the Koran. When a small cinema opens near Abdi’s house, he becomes obsessed with American movies, learning English and translating the dialogue for his friends. An international military group arrives in Somalia to provide aid. Abdi’s father returns, but he is scarred by his experiences and unable to find work. The warlords kick the international militaries out of Somalia, thus beginning a violent new conflict between the militias and the Islamists. Abdi’s love of American culture spreads to music and he takes up dancing, much to the consternation of the city’s strict religious leaders. Soon, he gets the nickname Abdi American.

Abdi’s parents hope that he will become a religious scholar, but Abdi has other ideas. Abdi and Hassan are kicked out of the house for disagreeing with their parents. Abdi’s father, having never truly settled in post-war Mogadishu, again leaves the city and his family. Hassan decides that he cannot stay in Somalia so pays a smuggler to take him to Kenya, where he becomes a refugee. Abdi meets and falls in love with a girl named Faisa, but Faisa’s strict religious father dislikes Abdi. Abdi’s sister marries a man twice her age. Abdi and his mother are the only members of the family left in the house.

The Islamists take power from the warlords in Mogadishu, but fighting between different groups continues. New religious laws restrict life in the city, curtailing many of Abdi’s favorite pastimes. Abdi tries to buy his way onto a human smuggling ship that crosses the sea to Yemen, but fails due to a lack of funds. The situation in Somalia deteriorates as a religious group named al-Shabaab begins committing terrorist attacks in the region. Abdi meets an American journalist covering the war. He becomes friends with the American and begins to report on the war for news organizations. Many residents of Mogadishu are forced out of the city by the violence. People (including Abdi and his mother) live in squalor in a newly erected tent camp. Abdi cannot survive in the camp, so he returns to Mogadishu. His journalism earns him fans around the world that help him plot an escape from Somalia. 

With the help of his friends in America, Abdi takes a plane to Uganda and then is smuggled into Kenya. He meets up with Hassan and registers as a refugee. Life in Kenya is tough for Somali refugees: Many are not allowed to work illegally and, as al-Shabaab attacks continue, Kenyan police target them. Abdi and his fellow Somalis try everything to get a visa to America but they face a seemingly impossible task. At Abdi’s insistence, they enter the annual green card lottery although the odds of winning are unimaginably small. Amazingly, Abdi wins the lottery. He manages to gather the necessary documents, passes the interview, and is on his way to America. When Abdi arrives in America, he stays with his friends. He adjusts slowly to American life, amazed by tiny details of American culture. He eventually moves to the city to spend more time with fellow Somalis. He finds a job as a translator and meets an American-Somali woman named Fatuma. He sends whatever money he can back to his family, but struggles to support everyone.