“Call Me American” tells of a Somali boy, the son of nomadic herders, who desired to become an American. Save for his love of American movies and pop music, it was far more likely that he would end up in an unmarked grave in his war-torn country. Also, for his undaunted will and persistence in pursuing his dream against extraordinary odds.

The arc of a great story doesn’t get much steeper than that of Abdi Nor Iftin. And Iftin’s memoir is at every turn a great story. It is an inspiration and a reminder, an especially timely one, of how powerful the American dream remains to legions of people across the globe, especially those caught in the grind of religious, political and tribal terror and destruction.

Iftin became known as Abdi American to many in Mogadishu because he could dance and sing and moonwalk like Michael Jackson at parties and weddings – where food was always plentiful for him and his friends, with any extra to be carried home for his mother and siblings. American movies and music also taught him to speak English – which ultimately offered a means of survival in a world that was collapsing around him.

But life hadn’t always been that way.

“My parents spent most of their early marriage walking through the bush with their herds, remembering places by the trees. They walked miles every day into no-man’s territory. No one stopped them or asked who they were,” he writes. “…In some ways the nomadic life is more like life in America than the way Somalis live in cities. In the bush Somali men and women work together, talk freely with each other, and even play games together.”

But drought came, parching the land and killing the herds of the Rahanweyn nomads and others. Iftin’s parents were forced east to seek relief in Mogadishu, along with thousands of other environmental refugees. They arrived in Mogadishu in the wake of their country’s war with Ethiopia, complicated by global interference and greatly compounding the country’s problems. Iftin, his older brother Hassan, and his younger sister Nima were born in the city.

But as terrible as life in Mogadishu was, things were always on the verge of becoming worse. A bloody Somali civil war erupted. When the fighting reached the city in earnest, Iftin’s family fled back into the desert. It was a harrowing journey.

“What nomads do is walk,” Iftin writes… “And so we embark on a walk that I will never forget. For years we called it the walk of death.”

Abdi Nor Iftin Photo by Michael Lionstar

Encounters with rebels intensified, with random killings – mostly of men – caught on the road. So Iftin’s father kissed his family goodbye, telling them that they would be safer without him and disappearing into the bush. Though they would encounter one another again over the years, this separation forever changed the family bond. “I am six years old and learning that nowhere in the world is safe.”

Days later, his pregnant mother led the family back toward Mogadishu. “With our brave mom by our side, we will live or die in Mogadishu.” On their return, Iftin’s mother gave birth to a baby girl, who soon died from malnourishment. When her two small brothers dug a grave to bury her, their shovel hit the foot of body that had previously been buried there.

Hassan and Iftin began attending madrassa (Muslim school). They were beaten daily by the cleric for any and all real or imagined infractions. When they weren’t attending classes, the two brothers roamed the streets searching for food and eventually discovered a small makeshift theatre that showed American blockbusters. The first movie the brothers saw was “Commando,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This and other American films fired a dream in Iftin to one day go to America. Arnold Schwarzenegger became his idol, for Schwarzenegger, too, had once dreamed as a boy of going to America.

Again, things worsened, though that hardly seemed possible. But a chance encounter with American journalist Paul Salopek changed the trajectory of Iftin’s life.

Salopek, impressed by Iftin’s command of English, asked him to provide insider reports on life in the war-ravaged city. The reporter used Iftin’s accounts in an article he wrote for Atlantic, which eventually led to Iftin’s reports airing on a public radio show, which, in turn, led to support from American radio listeners. These American friends joined forces to try to help him leave Somalia. Iftin came to refer to them as “Team Iftin.”

Against daunting odds, Iftin eventually made his way to Kenya, where, against even longer odds, he was randomly selected in a lottery for a green card. Eventually, he flew to Boston, where he was met by a radio listener and supporter, Sharon McDonnell and her daughter, Natalya, who took him into their home in Yarmouth.

Iftin’s account reads like a novel. The writing – the memoir was written in conjunction with Max Alexander – is strong. The story has great suspense, strong characterizations, especially of his mother and brother, and deftly reveals the strong attachment to family played against his constant resolve to seek a better life in America. The book is deeply profound and moving.

Early on in Maine, Iftin struggled to find work and a place for himself. For a time he worked as a laborer on a roofing crew. But he came to appreciate that his talents with language once again could be a powerful asset in his survival. Today, Iftin lives in the Portland area and works as an interpreter for refugees and asylum seekers, providing his services at Maine Medical Center and in the courts.

The full story of his account, “Call Me American,” was picked up and published by Alfred A. Knopf. At a Portland book launch at Print: a Bookstore in June, Iftin recounted the travails of his journey and his continued commitment to his family, which remains in Africa. Near the end of his talk to a standing-room only crowd, he remarked that for the people of Somalia, now a failed state, “everything has been destroyed. All we have left are our stories.”

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by Shelf Unbound,” a review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

frankosmithstories.com

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