Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

I’ve been eagerly waiting for Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami for over a year. Since I first heard about it early in 2020, I couldn’t wait for it to be published. But although it was originally scheduled for spring 2020, it was delayed to an autumn release. I finally got it last November, shortly before my immigrant husband earned his U.S. citizenship. Now, after a year of anticipation for this book, it felt like the perfect time to read Conditional Citizens.

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami
Number of Pages167
Format I ReadHardcover
Original Publication DateSeptember 22, 2020

Official Summary

What does it mean to be American? In this starkly illuminating and impassioned book, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Laila Lalami recounts her unlikely journey from Moroccan immigrant to U.S. citizen, using it as a starting point for her exploration of the rights, liberties, and protections that are traditionally associated with American citizenship. Tapping into history, politics, and literature, she elucidates how accidents of birth–such as national origin, race, and gender–that once determined the boundaries of Americanness still their shadows today. 


I wanted to read Conditional Citizens mainly because citizenship has been on my mind a lot lately. In part, it’s because my husband, an immigrant from Peru, has spent years working towards his citizenship. What is normally supposed to be a three-year process turned into a more than five-year process for him. From getting his fiancé visa seven years ago to recently helping him study for his citizenship test, it’s been a long road that has affected my view of immigration and naturalization.

Beyond my own small family, I’ve also been thinking about citizenship especially in the past five years, in a world where Trump and his Republican base attacked immigrants and those who aren’t “American” enough, whatever that might mean. With all the political vitriol unfairly aimed at marginalized groups of people, I’ve been seeking discussion that counters their hate and offers a more understanding perspective.

Conditional Citizens examines many of the themes I’d hoped it would, as well as several I hadn’t thought about in relation to its title and premise. Through a series of essays, drawing from Laila Lalami’s personal experiences as well as cited research and additional anecdotes, this books is eye-opening and encourages greater compassion.

Of course, one of the primary subjects here is immigrants, and especially how they are held to unfair and impossible standards. In the United States, xenophobic and racist people often complain when they hear anyone speaking a language other than English. Many people here expect – and demand – that immigrants fully “assimilate,” rejecting their home country’s culture, customs, and language in favor of becoming more American. But these expectations aren’t aimed at all immigrants. They’re primarily aimed at immigrants from Latin America, the global south, and Asia. Immigrants from Europe, however, rarely face such demands and interrogation when they don’t assimilate.

Naturally, racism and caste more widely come up. Laila Lalami is from Morocco, and has faced plenty of anti-Middle Eastern prejudice. Fear of people from the Middle East rose after 9/11, but it already existed, in part due to ongoing conflicts throughout the 20th century. But as mentioned above, racism also affects those from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and people from or descendants of those areas often face extra hurdles to be viewed as properly American.

On a related note, there is also the issue of religion and what’s considered acceptable in the United States. There is a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., largely due to Trump fanning the flames and enacting an awful Muslim ban. Some Americans think that to be Muslim is to be anti-American. See, for example, how Barrack Obama’s run for president was attacked with accusations that he was Muslim – somehow intended to mean he was unelectable. That false notion persisted into his presidency. Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim, is often negatively portrayed because of it. Like people from the Middle East, Muslim people are unfairly equated with terrorism. Compare treatment of Muslims today with how Jews were treated in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. They were not only seen as second-class citizens; it escalated to the horrors of the Holocaust. Such prejudice is cruel and dangerous.

Conditional Citizens surprised me once it moved on from immigration, race, and religion. With those themes, it is very obvious to me the type of conditions and double standards they face. Indeed, such discrimination is highly relevant in these turbulent times. However, I was surprised when the discussion turned to, for example, gender. Of course, I’m well aware of sexism, gender gaps, and so on. Women have long been viewed as inferior, or at least second to, men. But I hadn’t considered that this makes their own citizenship devalued. The same was true when she brought up classism. As someone who grew up poor and, on that note, carries a ton of student loan debt, this should have been obvious to me, too. But again, I was surprised at its inclusion here and swiftly enlightened.

Throughout the book, I appreciated the blend of research and personal anecdotes. It’s grounded, but also personal and emotionally connected. However, it is a tad dry in parts. By the end, I also wished the book had gone further somehow. At only 167 pages, it is a short book. The essays are succinct, but precise, but could they have been developed further? I was left wanting a bit more, some more impact to tie it all together. Still, it was well worth the read.

Final Thoughts

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America is a concise and straightforward book that is wholly important today. I wish we could get the many prejudiced people in the United States to read it, but alas, that would likely prove difficult and may not even lead to the enlightenment I’d hope for. In any case, this is a great and timely book that offers a clear look at the unfair, gatekeeping criteria that poisons our country.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

About the Author

Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the longlist for the Booker Prizer and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe NationHarper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has been awarded fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, a work of nonfiction called Conditional Citizens, was published by Pantheon in September 2020.

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