A celebrated memoir about a Somali refugee who lives in Maine has caused a rift within the state’s Somali community that’s led to name and text changes in the electronic and future print editions of “Call Me American.”

Some members of Maine’s Somali community object to Abdi Iftin’s new book, “Call Me American.” He denies any inaccuracies. Staff photo by Jill Brady

The former roommates of author Abdi Nor Iftin say they and the state’s Somali community as a whole are inaccurately portrayed in the book to make them look “disinterested in cultural integration” and like “terrible people.” Although Iftin has agreed to make some changes to the book to settle the dispute, he denies any inaccuracies and says he believes the claims stem from jealousy over the attention his story has gotten.

The spat has tainted the Maine rollout of the book, released in June, which details Iftin’s harrowing life in war-torn Somalia, his escape to Kenya and his unlikely entrance to America through the annual visa lottery. Iftin, 33, said he has been embraced by Somalis at events around the country, including in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, but less warmly by Somalis in Maine, because of the dispute. “That makes me sad,” he said. “But I will keep moving forward.”

The dispute centers on the relationships among Iftin and his former roommates – Abdullahi Ali, Yusuf Yusuf and Mohamed Awil – who lived together in Portland for more than a year in 2016 and 2017. Iftin, who now lives in Freeport, writes about them in Chapter 16, called “Respect.”

He tells about sharing a cramped apartment, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and taking turns in the bathroom, and describes their lifestyles in detail. “My roommates had all been in Maine over 10 years, making me the new guy in town. But I was surprised how little American culture they had absorbed,” he writes in the book. “I would play the latest hip-hop songs on my phone while I cooked, but they just listened to Arabic chants called nasheeds. No one except me had a passion for English.”

In an interview, Yusuf and Awil said they were outraged when they read that passage and many others. Ali, who has been Iftin’s sharpest critic on social media, attended the interview, but declined to speak on the record on the advice of his attorney. He said he was considering legal action against Iftin and the publisher.

Iftin’s book “has nothing to do with the truth,” Yusuf said. “The only thing that’s true is that we were roommates. He paints a picture of us as disinterested in cultural integration, and it’s just not true.”

Said Awil, “It’s sad to see someone telling negative things just to sell the book.”

Abdi Iftin’s book, “Call Me American,” has caused a rift within Maine’s Somali community. Staff photo by Jill Brady

At the time described in the book, they said, they had been in the United States for five years, not 10, and all three were fluent in English. They’ve all either received or are working toward their college degrees and working to support themselves. All have embraced life in Maine, they said, while retaining important cultural traditions.

Later in the chapter, Iftin writes that an imam “would pound on our door at five every morning, waking us up and demanding we go with him to the mosque for morning prayers.”

“I’ve never heard anyone knock on our door,” Awil said. “No imam ever came to our apartment.”

The book says Yusuf and Awil worked at Walmart. “Not true,” Awil said. “We never worked at Walmart.”

Iftin said his book is accurate and called Ali a bully, saying, “It’s personal. He doesn’t like my views.”

In what he said was an attempt to appease his critics, Iftin has agreed to change their names in the electronic version of the book and any future print editions. Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity for Iftin’s publisher, Penguin Random House, said in an email that “a handful of changes, including names and text” would be made. “Example: we are considering changing ‘they have been in the country for more than ten years’ to ‘my roommates had been in Maine for many years’ Plus a few other sentences – as many as ten – all with the intent to make clearer that Abdi’s observations of this community do not apply universally.”

Abdi Nor Iftin grew up in Somalia and learned English there by watching U.S.-made movies. His dream was always to come to America. He recently moved to Freeport and works as a translator and advocate for Somali immigrants. Photo by Carl D. Walsh

Disputes about factual errors aside, Mahmoud Hassan, president of Somali Community of Maine, said the book as a whole disrespects and “looks bad” for the Somali community of Maine because Iftin presents an image of himself as better than others. “When I read the book, the running theme was, ‘I am the perfect American and immigrant,’ ” he said. In fact, many Somali immigrants have successfully assimilated in Maine, becoming teachers and doctors and owning businesses, Hassan said.

“It’s full of lies and exaggerations. It looks like fiction. It looks like a fairy tale,” Hassan said. “We felt obliged to respond to something like this and to show the false accusations, misinformation and lies, plain and simple, about individuals who are in the community.”

In a phone interview, Iftin vigorously defended his book as an accurate portrayal of his experience coming to the United States and adapting to life in Maine and American culture. He recently moved to Freeport and works as a translator and advocate for Somali immigrants to help them integrate into their communities.

“This (is) an honest story that I wrote about my own experiences in moving to the United States,” he said. “I am not trying to fabricate the story or make everything look great.”

“Call Me American” has received international attention, and Iftin has been interviewed by The New York Times and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.”

Penguin Random House stands behind Iftin’s account, Bogaarts said. Changes are being made “to further anonymize characters” but “no factual errors have been identified. They are questions of phrasing that Abdi is happy to revise.”

A note explaining the changes will preface the book, he wrote in an email.

Iftin said his former roommate Ali began making trouble within days of the book’s release when he posted accusations on Facebook about the accuracy of the book and urged other Somali immigrants in Maine to boycott Iftin’s book events. The effort worked, Iftin said. At an event at the Portland Public Library on June 27 with Mayor Ethan Strimling, “zero Somalis showed up,” Iftin said, and only two Somali friends turned out at an event at Print: A Bookstore a few nights later.

“I was so emotionally devastated,” he said. “I expected a big support from the Somalis but I was deeply disappointed with the absence of them. I understand many people may not want to come to an event in English but at least I thought this book could be supported and they could come and watch.”

He said he approached Ali as soon as he heard about his complaints to try to “normalize a tough relationship. … I apologized for mentioning his name and talked to my publisher. I said, ‘Let’s change his name and his roommates’ names.’ We are doing that, and he is still out there attacking me.”

Iftin said he thinks Ali is jealous. “He is trying to get attention. He hates that I am famous and becoming more popular not only in Maine but also across the United States. I am sad our relationship fell apart, but he’s not going to intimidate me.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Note: Abdi Nor Iftin disputes some of the assertions raised in this story. Read his letter to the editor.