Laila Lalami in Conversation with Aminatta Forna
Posted in 2022-2023 Readings and Talks
November 15, 2022 at 7:00PM ET
Location: Copley Formal Lounge
This conversation will be moderated by Aminatta Forna. Q&A to follow. Please note that a valid GU ID required for entry. Only open to current Georgetown University students, faculty, and staff. This event will not be live streamed, but it will be recorded.
From Conditional Citizens
This is a story about love and country, and I will tell it to you how I remember it, in strands that took me years to untangle and then thread together. I became an American on a sweltering day in 2000, a day when the marine layer over Los Angeles cleared off before breakfast. The exact date had been circled on my wall calendar with the same blue Sharpie I used to mark holidays, and I thought of it as an equally festive occasion, the culmination of a journey that had begun when I came to the United States as a foreign student eight years earlier. Over the course of those years, I had adopted, almost without realizing it, two of the more emblematic trappings of that particular era: I worked for a technology startup company and drove an SUV for which I had no discernible need. The deregulation of banks, the war in the Balkans, and Bill Clinton’s angry denials that he did not have sex with that woman were in the past. The NASDAQ was at a record high; unemployment was at a record low. The future seemed full of possibility.
The citizenship ceremony was held at the Pomona Fairplex, a 487-acre facility best known for hosting the Los Angeles County Fair every summer. I remember wearing a sleeveless dress, a silver necklace my mother had given me, and a pair of new shoes that blistered my feet. My husband was in the same black suit and tie he had worn at our wedding. Ushers directed us to Building Four, a large, gray hall where I turned in my alien-registration card and was handed a miniature flag in return. Folding chairs had been set up in two columns: those who were to be sworn in had to sit on the left side of the aisle, their guests on the right.
At precisely 9:00 a.m., the first few notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on the loudspeaker, and a hush fell over the audience. The air smelled of fresh roses and heavy cologne, but the mix could not fully disguise the scent of three thousand people gathered in a windowless hall in ninety-eight degree weather. The presiding judge, an elderly man in wirerimmed glasses, came to the lectern and delivered a homily about the rights and responsibilities that awaited us. Citizenship was a privilege we had earned, he said, and we were to honor it by participating in civic life—voting in elections, serving on juries, even running for office. He had kindly eyes and a warm demeanor; it seemed impossible that he would ever pass a cruel or unfair sentence on anyone in his courtroom. After his speech, he moved to the center of the stage and asked us to stand so that we could recite the oath of allegiance. I raised my right hand.
Love had brought me to that moment. When I came to the United States, my intention had been to complete a doctoral degree in linguistics and return home to Morocco, where I hoped to work as a college professor. But one day I met a man who made me reconsider many things, not least of which my distrust of romance. Alex and I had nothing in common—he was a network engineer, listened to grunge music, liked to spend entire weekends hiking up one mountain or another in Southern California. My hobbies were limited to reading. Still, whenever we were together, we lost track of time. I remember us driving to a movie in Century City one night, and missing the freeway exit twice because we were so engrossed in our conversation. After it became clear that our relationship was serious, we realized that one of us had to live in the other’s country. I was young and in love; I made a commitment to my husband and another to his homeland.