Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami
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"Allegiance" Summary and Analysis

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Lalami begins her memoir at the moment of her naturalization ceremony in the summer of 2000. At the Pomona Fairplex in Southern California, she and several thousand others took the oath of Allegiance and became citizens of the United States.

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Her narrative places this moment in the context of the times: the aftermath of the deregulation of the banks, the Clinton scandals, and the height of the NASDAQ bubble. She explains that her original intent had been to come to the United States merely to attend graduate school and then to return to her native Morocco to teach at the university level. But, she implies, her love for her husband, Alex, became the principal factor in her choice to remain in the United States and become a citizen. 

She recounts the process of applying for permanent residency and then studying for the citizenship exam, noting that because she had already extensively studied American history, the exam was not particularly challenging for her. When she returned to her workplace after the ceremony—a start-up tech company—her colleagues threw a party for her and served hamburgers, apple pie, and lemonade, quintessential American foods. 

In the time since then, many things have happened that have altered the positive and innocent expectations she had in 2000 about what is involved, for a person with her background, in being “accepted” as an American and in having the full status of citizenship. For example, she applied for and obtained a passport with no problems. Yet a striking and revealing incident occurred when he and her husband were going through customs. The border agent attempted to joke with him by asking, “So… how many camels did you have to trade in for her?” Lalami is stunned by the insensitivity of this supposed humor. Arabs and Muslims are depicted stereotypically and negatively in American popular culture, she observes. 

During the 2000 Presidential Campaign, a man approached her and hands her a flyer from the Muslim Public Affairs Council urging her to vote for George W. Bush, who had apparently made overtures to the Muslim communities in America and courted their vote. In the first few months of Bush’s presidency, Lalami indicates, some attempts are made by his administration and by Congress to continue this rapprochement by addressing issues of concern to Arab and/or Muslim Americans, such as racial profiling. But when the September 11 attacks occurred, these efforts ceased. The mood in the United States became one of anger and paranoia. Lalami herself felt profiled, with even her coworkers making accusatory remarks and viewing her as a potential enemy. Bush’s rhetoric was belligerent and uncompromising, not permitting any gray area regarding the issue of why the September 11 attacks occurred or what to do about them. 

Lalami discusses the process of memory, particularly the way in which we recreate past events when we recall them. She remembers seeing the September 11 attacks on television, specifically the images of people jumping from the windows of the World Trade Center. Such jumps actually occurred, but she acknowledges that they were probably impossible to see on a television screen. Lalami intersects her memory of public events with her relationship with her mother-in-law. She has bonded with her husband’s mother, who is Cuban, in a special way, and Lalami is distraught when she begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. The similarities in background between Lalami and her mother-in-law are striking. Both are naturalized American citizens, and both believe in the American dream of success— of rising up from nothing. Lalami’s mother-in-law’s loss of memory, her inability to find her bearings in what was once a familiar world, is described as a parallel with Lalami’s own reactions to the changed atmosphere of...

(The entire section contains 1356 words.)

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