Embraced with One Arm, Pushed Away with the Other: On Laila Lalami’s “Conditional Citizens”

April 28, 2020   •   By Maggie Levantovskaya

Conditional Citizens

Laila Lalami

“CONDITIONAL CITIZENS ARE people who know what it is like for a country to embrace you with one arm, and push you away with the other,” writes Laila Lalami in her meditation on national belonging. I read Conditional Citizens as a first-generation immigrant, a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union who has been teased for being “a commie” and “a Russian spy” but also complimented on successful assimilation by those who knew nothing of the process. I read Conditional Citizens while holed up in my apartment, immunocompromised and afraid of catching or spreading the novel coronavirus. I read Conditional Citizens as a break from scrolling through social media feeds and learning about ordinary individuals who couldn’t get tested until it was too late, while celebrities got diagnosed and treated. I saw the president lean hard into racism and xenophobia, repeatedly saying “Chinese virus,” and thus tacitly encouraging harassment and violence against Asian Americans. As Matthew Lee observes, the switch from “model minority” to “yellow peril” can happen swiftly and painfully in the United States. This is why books like Conditional Citizens are important. They remind us that the dichotomy of citizen and non-citizen is too facile. Even legal citizenship does not guarantee cultural citizenship, equality under the law, or safety from state brutality.

Questions of identity, place, and belonging have long characterized Lalami’s work. Her third book, The Moor’s Account, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a historical novel about a Moroccan slave brought to America by a conquistador. In her latest novel, The Other Americans, a finalist for the National Book Award, Lalami uses a panoply of voices to animate a Mojave town where the fates of immigrants, African Americans, war veterans, and members of other groups intersect in ways that range from banal to intimate to violent. Most of the characters in the novel struggle with acceptance in a country that pulls them in with promises of freedom and economic mobility, only to later push them away.

In Conditional Citizens, Lalami adopts a different approach. Instead of a fictional narrative with a single arc, the author offers a series of essays, each on a different but related theme, such as “Allegiance,” “Faith,” and “Borders.” The essays contain specific anecdotes, relating primarily to Lalami’s experience in the United States and youth in Morocco. Born to a working-class family in Rabat, Lalami came to the US as a graduate student, not intending to adopt the country as home. It was because of love and marriage that Lalami decided to settle in America and undergo naturalization.

As Lalami recounts in the very first essay of the collection, the warm embrace of her citizenship celebration — complete with burgers and apple pies provided by co-workers — turned into a cold shoulder just a year later. September 11 took place, and it didn’t matter that Lalami was Moroccan; her physical appearance and Muslim affiliation were reasons enough to subject her to scrutiny and microaggressions, even by colleagues who once partook in her “citizenship apple pie.” What followed for Lalami, and the many others who presented as Arab or Muslim in post-9/11 America, were, in addition to harassment, absurd directives to condemn terrorism, despite having no connection to it, and to profess unconditional approval of illegal wars in the Middle East. It was this experience that demonstrated to Lalami that “Arab and Muslim citizenship in this country was contingent on either total silence or vocal support for war.”

What is the price of belonging in the United States? Who is expected to pay it? And what if they can’t? These questions are behind all the essays in the collection, as the author identifies some of the different facets of identity that American “others” must give up for even a shot at conditional citizenship. The demands and double standards of assimilation are deeply familiar to Lalami, who was taught by French settlers in Morocco. They made no significant effort to abide by the conventions of their host society. Yet, it is well known that when North African immigrants came to France, they were held to strict standards of laïcité and denigrated for “[their] noise and smell” by none other than Jacques Chirac. Shaped by this context, Lalami has a sharp eye for similar expectations and inconsistencies in US culture, despite its lip service to diversity and claims to being “a land of immigrants.” The “with us or against us” mentality of post-9/11 America sent a clear message that there was little space in America for those who, like Lalami, spent their entire lives “in between languages, in between cultures, in between countries,” and who dared to criticize American imperialism.

Though grounded in personal experiences, Conditional Citizens moves outward, drawing on data and historical facts to include America’s many “others,” such as the incarcerated, the poor, and the undocumented. The book honestly acknowledges that even conditional citizenship is a privilege, one that is denied to the millions of immigrants who lack documentation and thus a path to citizenship. A resident of California, Lalami brings up, several times, Proposition 187, which promised to take away public services (including health care and a public education) from undocumented immigrants in the state. Those who view the state of immigration today as unprecedented usually forget this repugnant moment in California’s history, which remains a source of trauma for the undocumented who lived through it.

Incidentally, the ballot initiative was approved in 1994, just a year after my family arrived in the United States. Because of my documented status, I enjoyed the privilege of being unaware of the measure. On the other hand, my undocumented peers were ordered to stay home by their parents or arrived at school to find nearly empty halls and classrooms the day after nearly 59 percent of California voters approved the measure. There were other experiences from which immigrants like myself were shielded because of luck and circumstance. Whatever contingencies constrained my sense of belonging, unlike some of my friends, I was never told to hide under my bed by a mother who feared the arrival of cops or immigration agents at the sound of a doorbell. The power of a book like Conditional Citizens is in its ability to open space for this kind of remembrance and accounting without requiring complete identification. It invites the privileged, the contingent and the most vulnerable to contemplate the limits of citizenship and see through the delusion of American exceptionalism.

In addition to referencing numerous laws, texts, and historical events, Lalami consistently brings her analysis back to the Trump era to suggest that the Muslim Ban, the family separation policy, the caging of children in detention centers, the arrest quotas for undocumented, and the political empowerment of white supremacists are more culmination than aberration for the “nation of immigrants.” And yet Lalami does not offer her readers the option of hopelessness and disengagement. On the contrary, her words compel us to keep returning to the question of who belongs in the United States, and under what conditions, and to remember that the stakes of this question are about not merely feelings, or even “entitlements,” but survival itself.

No event in recent history exposes this more than the coronavirus outbreak. As I write this, ICE continues to capture and imprison immigrants despite the fact that medical experts have called its detention centers “tinderboxes for infectious-disease outbreaks.” Rikers Island, considered one of the most notorious jails in the United States, is already experiencing an outbreak of the virus among its inmates and employees. Meanwhile, the farm workers, most of whom are undocumented, continue to labor without sick leave and health insurance. The idea of seeking emergency care leaves the undocumented “petrified,” and presents a problem for public health. But many of these workers are operating under conditions that put them at high risk, all for the benefit of our collective survival.

Conditional Citizens is a tightly crafted and highly accessible book. Those who carry around the US Constitution should consider adding this book to their collection, if only to remind them of how the Constitution fails, by design, to protect those who live among them but experience citizenship as restricted, situational, or entirely out of reach.


Maggie Levantovskaya is a writer, editor, and professor based in the Bay Area.