Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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"Allegiance" Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1356


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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1356 words.)

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what was once a familiar world, is described as a parallel with Lalami’s own reactions to the changedatmosphere of the United States after September 11. Though many hate crimes against Muslims in America occur, Lalami herself, perhaps because she is relatively light-skinned, is mostly subjected to inconveniences. Yet when she questioned a coworker about the necessity of the US attack on Afghanistan, the woman responded with anger, saying, “they [the Afghans] did it to themselves.”

Lalami points out that during this period, the media made few remarks about the history of US involvement and interference in the Middle East and its support of despotic leaders in the Arab and Muslim world. Only a few Muslim commentators would appear on American television to discuss the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And those few, such as Fareed Zakaria and Fouad Adjami, were in favor of those wars. 

Lalami shifts forward several years to Barack Obama’s rise in politics and his presidential campaign. The “birther controversy” is an instance, she notes, of a man being forced to prove his citizenship because of his race, something required of no previous candidate. In her view, the citizenship of many Americans is conditional, because they are expected somehow to prove that they’re real Americans in ways the mainstream—that is, white, Christian, male—population is not. 

In the presidency of Trump, who promised to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and who imposed an immigration ban on Muslims, all of these factors have come to a head and been expressed in a coarser, more naked form. Native Americans and African Americans have historically been marginalized and subjected to broken promises and exclusions regarding property ownership, voting, and government benefits. Lalami notes that her naturalization ceremony occurred at a site that had been a detention center for Japanese Americans who were illegally treated by the government as enemy aliens during World War II. “It is because I love America,” Lalami writes, “that I cannot be silent about her faults.” This sets the tone for the entire book and establishes its main thesis. 


It is significant that Lalami begins her narrative at a relatively quiescent period of recent American history, in the year 2000. Although she doesn’t mention it, the uneventful passing of Y2K and the robustness of the economy created a sense of buoyancy and optimism during that time.

As she describes it, all of this changed with the attacks of September 11, 2001. Suddenly the United States was imperiled, and the president and the country as a whole developed a defensive, belligerent posture toward the Arab and Muslim world—and towards anyone who didn’t side with the reactive policies which resulted in the wars in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq.

These events tell Lalami that despite having become an American citizen, her citizenship is conditional—not only because she is a Muslim and a Moroccan but simply because she is a female immigrant. Yet the point of her opening chapter is, to an extent, that this conditionality is a subset of a larger phenomenon that has been ongoing in America since the continent was first settled by Europeans. Despite the genuine changes that have occurred in American society, not all citizens are regarded equally. The birther movement forced Barack Obama to provide proof that he was born in the United States. No white candidate has ever been subjected to such scrutiny. In some sense, even those who defended Obama from attacks often did so in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Obama’s opponent in his campaign for president, John McCain, defended Obama by saying that he is a good man and a family man—not by saying that it would be acceptable to have a candidate who is Arab and/or Muslim. Though McCain was behaving decently and honorably by defending Obama, the way he phrased his statement implies that somehow, one cannot be a good man and an Arab or Muslim at the same time. McCain may not have meant this, but it is probably an unconscious subtext of his answer as he formulated it. 

What comes through most in the opening chapter of Lalami’s memoir is the fact that she embraces her American citizenship and her adopted country in spite of these endemic flaws. She has married an American and has bonded with her mother-in-law. This bond exemplifies the fact that the United States is a place where people of all heritages can come together and continue the American story.


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