A new addition to The Contemporary Writers’ Series
Having a platform to express one’s voice and convey one’s story is an opportunity that should not be taken for granted–– though tensions may rise when said-story involves the revealing of certain truths that might have otherwise remained concealed.
Just ask Abdi Nor Iftin, author of Call Me American–– a memoir that poignantly, yet matter-of-factly details his roots of growing up in the violence-ridden and war-torn Somalia. As he navigated through adolescence, Iftin found solace and enjoyment in American films. From Terminator to Rambo, the films spurred a deep fascination with American culture for Iftin, and a fierce passion to one day live in this country. He was even able to learn English from watching his favorite action films and listening to American music.
Surviving against all odds, Iftin lives to tell the remarkable story of his life and journey of becoming an American through his memoir, as well as through various lectures across the country.
On Thursday, Oct. 24, he visited Canisius and talked to students and faculty members alike on the process of writing such an intimate and truthful autobiography, and reinstilling an underlying sense of appreciation for and pride in freedoms typically overlooked by Americans.
“The idea of writing my story came to me when I got into the United States,” Iftin said. “I could finally be honest about my feelings and my emotions through my memoir–– this is a place where you can be somebody. It’s the only freedom I’ve had my whole life.”
Growing up in a community that implemented strict religious beliefs through violence, Iftin grew accustomed to being surrounded by a constant state of anarchy and a lingering threat of death.
“There were times where I couldn’t even walk from one neighborhood to the next because it was too dangerous, with snipers everywhere,” Iftin explained. “Imagine if there were no police in this country. What if a neighbor could kill you on the street and not be held accountable? That was exactly what happened in Somalia. If someone had shot me back then, the killer would still not be held accountable. But I live to tell this story–– what it really means to grow up and survive in that kind of environment as a child.”
During this tumultuous time, Iftin found refuge in a local movie shack, where he was enthralled by the aforementioned films and eventually became a translator for other moviegoers. His desire to celebrate western culture was ill-received by most of those in his community, including his parents, and was made especially difficult after the rise of radical Islamist groups in his country.
“I received the nickname ‘[Abdi] American.’ During each stage of my life, I felt more motivated to continue pursuing my American dreams. This was up until 2006, because then al-Shabaab came and destroyed everything, including the movie shack,” he said. “I wondered where I was supposed to go from there, but the good news was that I had the skills of presenting myself in English.”
Such skills landed Iftin the opportunity to have parts of his story broadcast on the BBC World Service and This American Life, after he connected with a reporter who was visiting Somalia and was thoroughly impressed with Iftin’s knowledge of Western culture and the English language.
“I felt empowered. For the first time in my entire life, someone was listening. People heard my story,” Iftin emphasized. “I realized the power of storytelling.”
The immense potency of storytelling is certainly conveyed in his memoir, though challenges presented themselves when he began writing such a genuine depiction of his life.
“There were many moments I almost gave up writing my book,” Iftin admitted. “It was mostly family issues. My mother cried because I was digging up childhood stories, asking her if she remembered the day she woke up and we saw the graves and the dogs eating peoples’ bodies. I had to gather all my strength to convince her. She and I have completely different views on things, but we have a love between us that can never be broken. I will support her until my last breath.”
In addition to being a resilient and inspiring human being who was willing to thoroughly answer each question asked, Iftin displayed genuine kindness and personability, engaging in conversations with the students and faculty, signing books and truly encapsulating a warmhearted presence.
“What I have been through has made me strong,” Iftin said. “I just realized that, within you as a person and as an individual, you have every strength to be who you want to be.”