Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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Conditional Citizens Characters

The main characters in Conditional Citizens are Laila Lalami, Alex’s mother, Lalami’s mother, and Lalami’s father.

  • Laila Lalami is an author, novelist, and professor of languages. Her academic and personal experiences equip her with a nuanced and often critical view of American society, though her criticisms are motivated by love of country.
  • Alex’s mother is Laila’s mother-in-law. She and Lalami bond over their shared experiences of becoming naturalized citizens.
  • Lalami’s mother is a Moroccan woman whose Christian and Muslim backgrounds symbolize the rich religious history of her country.
  • Lalami’s father is a secular Muslim, but he still holds certain traditional Muslim views.


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Laila Lalami

The book’s author, Laila Lalami, is also its central character. The book is partly autobiography and partly memoir, as well as a discourse on the subject of what is required fully to belong in America, as her title indicates.

Lalami was born and raised in Morocco, principally in the city of Rabat. As with most Moroccans, she is of Arab descent and is Muslim, though she describes herself as an essentially secular person. She doesn’t wear a headscarf or follow dietary restrictions, and her family is not especially observant. Lalami’s mother, in fact, was educated in a Roman Catholic orphanage was influenced by both Muslim and Christian traditions.

Lalami emigrated to the United States in the early 1990s in order to attend graduate school in California. She eventually became a university professor of foreign languages. In the United States, she met and married an American man, Alex, who is of Latino descent. In 2000, Lalami became a United States citizen and fully embraced her new country and her identity as an American.

Lalami is a scholar, an intellectual, and a language expert. In addition to teaching, she is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. As evidenced by the information in Conditional Citizens, she is also an historical researcher and is knowledgeable about American history. 

Lalami is critical of the United States and the manner in which it has not allowed all of its people to attain full citizenship privileges. In her view, citizenship is conditional, based on factors such as race, religion, and gender, which have been used to exercise power and control by the majority over other groups.

Lalami openly recounts personal incidents that illustrate the themes of her book, including several occasions when she was sexually harassed. Yet the dominant impression one receives of her is that she embraces the United States as her country and that her criticisms are based on her love of her adopted land and her wish for it to be a better nation.


Alex is Lalami’s American husband. He is of Latino descent. Relatively little is said about him throughout the book, except that he is supportive of Lalami and generally shares her views on the issues she deals with.

Alex’s Mother

Lalami’s mother-in-law, a Cuban-born American, bonds with Lalami in a special way, partly because both are naturalized United States citizens. Her struggles with dementia are a key subject in the early part of the book. As she gradually loses her bearings in the world, Lalami views her decline as a kind of parallel to the feelings of being marginalized and alienated many people shared in the wake of September 11, when the atmosphere of political and public discourse changed.

Lalami’s Mother

Born in 1941 in Morocco, Lalami’s mother was orphaned and brought up in a Roman Catholic girls’ school. Her first religion was thus Christianity, but when Morocco gained independence in 1956, the girls were dismissed from the school and told to “practice your own religion now”—that is, Islam. Throughout her life, Lalami’s mother retained, to some extent, the practices of both religions. She symbolizes the multicultural or cross-cultural background of Morocco, with its previous status as a colony of France.

Lalami’s Father

Also a native Moroccan, Lalami’s father is a Muslim, though basically a secular one. Yet he adheres to the conservative cultural beliefs of his time and place, especially, as Lalami observes, those concerning gender roles. For example, when he and Lalami were once watching a television interview with the first female pilot for Moroccan Airlines, he takes exception to the woman saying that...

(This entire section contains 881 words.)

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she would rather have this job than fulfill the traditional role of wife and mother. Lalami, apparently believing her father to be more liberal than this, was somewhat surprised and disheartened by his attitude.

The Channel One Manager

While working at a television station in California during her early years there, Lalami had to deal with a manager who was constantly acting inappropriately with the female employees, hugging and touching them and generally being obnoxious. He addressed one of the women as “sweetheart,” and in response, Lalami told him, “Please don’t call her sweetheart.” Shortly thereafter, Lalami was dismissed from her job, the reason cited being “budget cuts.” But it is obvious that her firing was a form of retaliation for her having objected to the manager’s harassment.

The Famous Journalist

When Lalami was in Casablanca, Morocco, working for a magazine, a well-known journalist whom she respected grabbed her wrist in the middle of a meeting and then demanded that she sit in his lap. The other men present found the incident amusing. No real repercussions took place, and Lalami initially told no one about it. It’s an example she gives in answer to the commonly asked question of why women who have faced sexual harassment don’t always immediately speak out about their experiences.

Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill

Among the public figures mentioned in the book, Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill stand out because Lalami deals extensively with the issue of sexual harassment. She also considers the related phenomenon, repeated throughout history, of women being disbelieved when they give accounts of men’s lascivious or violent behavior.