Why Ilhan Omar’s This is What America Looks Like is not the usual bland political memoir

Ilhan Omar rejects the usual story of finding the American dream, and complicates the narrative surrounding her. 

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This is not the usual bland political ­memoir offering yet another story of finding the American dream. In part, this is because Ilhan Omar is not another dull politician. That much is obvious from the waves she has made in Washington, DC since becoming a member of Congress in 2019.

Omar, from Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, from Michigan, are the first two ­Muslim women elected to Congress. Along with two other women of colour, who are also in their first term, Alexandria ­Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, they are known as “the squad”.

The 181-year-old ban on wearing ­religious head-wear in the House chamber was changed in 2019, allowing Omar to wear her hijab on the floor of Congress. While ­running for Congress, Omar admits, she was worried that this rule would keep her from being able to serve.

Omar quickly gained attention for her progressive stances, aggressive questioning of foreign policy hawks, and contentious statements on Israel (she apologised for one of these comments, a 2019 tweet that suggested Republican support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby” – ie, financially motivated). And she has been relentlessly attacked from all sides, from the far right to the centre left. Donald Trump ranted about Omar in a rally in 2019, prompting the crowd to start chanting, “Send her back.”

Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1982. She was the baby of the family; “a particularly tiny child” and a tomboy. She lost her mother at a very young age, but even so her family lived what sounds like a happy, chaotic but colourful life – until war came and they left for the US.

Omar’s book gives an insight into one of the likely future leaders of Democratic politics. Some of the details are unexpected: I didn’t think the person, living or dead, she would choose to meet would be Margaret Thatcher: “Time and time again,” Omar writes, “she showed up in rooms filled with men and didn’t have to do much to lead them to decide that she should be in charge.”

Omar complicates the narratives surrounding her. We learn how she didn’t want to move from the refugee camp in Kenya where her family lived after fleeing Somalia. In the US she kept getting into fights with the kids who made fun of her, a refugee who didn’t speak English and wore a hijab. We learn about how she started, stopped and then finally returned to wearing a hijab, ­after a visit to Sweden where she saw people practising a less judgemental Islam.

We learn that Omar came to politics after a breakdown. She was caught up in the existential dread of the 2008 financial crash, carrying around the losses of her youth, having pursued a two-year degree that turned out to be worthless, unable to sleep, and feeling as though she wasn’t living for herself. She and her husband divorced (they later remarried and in 2019 divorced again, ­having had three children together). She eloped with another man and shaved her head.

In Minneapolis – which, after the killing of George Floyd, is, like many of the US’s diverse cities, learning that it is not as liberal and tolerant as it might think – she faced tremendous pressure and disinformation as she forged her career. This included criticism from her own Somali-American community, which didn’t approve of female ambition.

In the wake of Floyd’s murder, Omar announced four bills designed to address police accountability and the US government’s response to the protests. She told the BBC: “We have to have systematic ­reforms… When we say we are sick and tired, we mean we are sick and tired. Every single day, we find ourselves in these situations. It doesn’t really matter who might be in charge. What matters is the kind of reforms we are going to be bold enough to push for.”

We learn that Omar told Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, that she sometimes wished supporters didn’t come forth to defend her from vile abuse and conspiracy theories, as she could handle them on her own. She says that she understands that attacks towards her are really attacks on people who look, dress and pray like she does.

As a reporter in Washington, DC I wondered how, in her first term in Congress, Omar dealt with her detractors. All politicians are, and should be, criticised, but Omar was ruthlessly and often hypocritically scrutinised (her Israel tweet, for ­example, is brought up far more often than the fact that Trump, when running for president in 2015, told Republican Jews they wouldn’t vote for him because he didn’t want their money). How did she stand it?

After reading about the little girl who challenged every bully in school to a fight – or just started fighting, no invitation needed – I no longer wonder. She has survived war, a refugee camp, a move to a foreign country, strict social mores, a breakdown, a rebirth. What’s a little political press or chatter from across the aisle? I also realised that the people who would most benefit from reading this book are those who would be most annoyed by it – the political detractors who don’t understand why they can’t write off Ilhan Omar as just another dull politician. 

This is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman
Ilhan Omar
Hurst, 320pp, £16.99

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation

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