American Inequality: On Laila Lalami’s ‘Conditional Citizens’

April 22, 2020 | 4 min read

The day after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, Laila Lalami’s daughter asked her a question: “He doesn’t have to make us leave, right?”

Lalami, a Moroccan American who lives in Los Angeles, has been a citizen for decades; she assured her daughter that it would not happen. In reality, she wasn’t sure.

“Every time I have thought about this conversation––and I have thought about it dozens of times, in my sleepless nights since the election––I have felt less certain,” she writes in her new essay collection, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.

Lalami has published four novels—most recently the bestselling The Other Americans—this is her first nonfiction book. The original essays draw on the themes of identity and politics that she has written about for outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and The New York Times.

In the book, Lalami tackles what it means to be an immigrant in America––one whose paperwork states that she is a citizen but whose daily life sometimes makes her feel as though she doesn’t belong. With essays like “Assimilation,” “Borders,” and “Inheritance,” the book takes a deep dive into the notion that, despite the ideals of America’s founders and Thomas Jefferson’s promise that “all men are created equal,” all American citizens are not treated equally.

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Born in 1968 in Rabat, Morocco, Lalami grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and later learned standard Arabic and French. She moved to the U.S. 25 years ago to complete a doctoral degree in linguistics, received her citizenship in 2000, and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Talking via Skype from her home in Los Angeles, her tight dark curls resting on her shoulders, she is animated, gesturing with her hands, surrounded by books in her office.

Lalami notes she has always felt, to a degree, that she’s living in a gray area, culturally. “This gray life of mine is not unique…Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed,” she writes. It’s only when some kind of political event or violent act erupts that “gray lives become targets.” She adds that her time in the U.S. has been wonderful in many ways, but she’s “never been entirely secure or comfortable” here.

Lalami says she feels that way because she has experienced being treated as what she calls a “conditional citizen.” The term comes up throughout the essays, taking shape in ways big and small: she writes about those who are “policed and punished” more than others, as well as those who “are more likely to be expatriated and denaturalized.”

Being considered a citizen, Lalami says, is something most people take for granted. “The idea of citizenship is below the surface––it’s not something that you ever think about in your everyday life,” she explains. “You have breakfast with your family, you go to work, you do your thing, you come home, you rest and watch TV or read a book or whatever. It is something you become conscious of under specific circumstances.”

For Lalami, the idea of conditional citizenship began crystallizing in recent years, after interactions she’s had with various government officials. “You become conscious of it when you’re crossing the border, because then you’re sorted by nationality––this line for E.U. nationals, this line for U.S. nationals,” she says. A border agent at the Los Angeles International Airport once asked her husband, who traveled with her, “How many camels did you have to trade in for her?”

“That’s when the idea of conditionality emerges––this feeling that you’re not really American if you don’t support what the government is doing,” Lalami explains. “If you don’t support the troops, if you don’t agree with how things are being done. Everything that distinguishes you from others becomes suspicious.”

Being an Arab American after 9/11 has also impacted Lalami’s understanding of her place in this country. “Bush’s message of with-us-or-against-us carried the implication that one could not be Arab and American, or Muslim and American, unless one was on the side of the United States in its military fights,” she writes in “Allegiance.”

In “Faith,” Lalami highlights her discomfort with being regularly burdened with “having to educate white Americans” about topics that they assume she’s an expert on because of the color of her skin, or her religion. As we talk about the essay, she offers an example: when she was employed at the Getty Research Institute in the late ’90s, a colleague who worked on her floor asked her out to lunch. The reason? He said he had questions about the Middle East.

Lalami laughs. “I’m not from the Middle East!” she says. “I’m from North Africa! And even if I was from the Middle East region, what is the question? Is it about politics? Culture? Can you imagine someone approaching you saying they want to have lunch because they have questions about Texas?”

Citizenship, in Lalami’s view, brings with it a responsibility to learn about one’s country and its relationship to others. When people refuse to do this work, she says, they shirk their “responsibilities as citizens.” Being a good citizen is “more of an active thing than just a state of being: it’s a relationship––and like every relationship, it involves effort and it involves nurturing and it involves work.”

Still, Lalami acknowledges the importance of making an effort to learn. “People who ask are at least curious and trying to learn,” she says. “And especially as an educator, that is something that I have a deep love for. I really do think that people can change their minds. I don’t think that they can change their minds based on reading about politics in the newspaper or listening to a politician or any of that. I think that they change their minds––sometimes without realizing it––when they hear another person’s story.”

In the end, Lalami wrote Conditional Citizens for her daughter. “The most important role I have is with my family––my husband and my child,” she says. “When you think about the grand scheme of things, all of this is going to go away. The only thing that’s going to last is the love that you have for one another.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is a journalist, currently living in Budapest, who contributes to JSTOR Daily, Longreads, Undark, Vice, Vox, and other publications.

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