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August 02 , 2010

Elusive Jannah

The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity


As a Somali working since high school in the United Arab Emirates, Osman considers himself “blessed” to be in a Muslim country, though citizenship, with the security it offers, remains elusive. For Ardo, smuggled out of Somalia to join her husband in South Africa, insecurities are of a more immediate, physical kind, and her economic prospects and legal status are more uncertain. Adam, in the United States—a destination often imagined as an earthly Eden, or jannah, by so many of his compatriots—now sees heaven in a return to Somalia.

The stories of these three people are among the many that emerge from mass migration triggered by the political turmoil and civil war plaguing Somalia since 1988. And they are among the diverse collection presented in eloquent detail in Elusive Jannah, a remarkable portrait of the very different experiences of Somali migrants in the UAE, South Africa, and the United States. Somalis in the UAE, a relatively closed Muslim nation, are a minority within a large South Asian population of labor migrants. In South Africa, they are part of a highly racialized and segregated postapartheid society. In the United States they find themselves in a welfare state with its own racial, socioeconomic, and political tensions. A comparison of Somali settlements in these three locations clearly reveals the importance of immigration policies in the migrant experience.

Cawo M. Abdi’s nuanced analysis demonstrates that a full understanding of successful migration and integration must go beyond legal, economic, and physical security to encompass a sense of religious, cultural, and social belonging. Her timely book underscores the sociopolitical forces shaping the Somali diaspora, as well as the roles of the nation-state, the war on terror, and globalization in both constraining and enabling their search for citizenship and security.

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