Most Politicians’ Memoirs Are Terrible. Luckily, Ilhan Omar’s Isn’t.
Ilhan Omar, once a refugee, has become a major force in US politics. In her new memoir, she charts her journey from Somalia to the US Congress and explains why, despite hating her politics, she can’t help but admire Margaret Thatcher. Incredibly for a memoir like this, the book is actually good.
I was nervous when Jacobin editors asked me to review Ilhan Omar’s new book. Omar, a Somalia-born refugee, in 2018 became (with Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib) one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
The problem was, I’m a fan. I admire Omar’s courage, and I’m glad someone as tough and visionary as she is fights for our side, the side of the working class. And I can’t help but notice that, like her fellow “Squad” member, Queens congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Omar is gifted with such good looks that it’s nearly impossible for her enemies to deploy the misogynist’s favorite nonviolent weapon: the unflattering photo. Omar gives me hope for the future. If we needed any further reasons for fandom, she’s also raised a great kid: her daughter, Isra Hirsi, is one of the main organizers of the US Youth Climate Strike (Jacobin interviewed her here).
But since memoirs by politicians are usually so terrible — inspirational and dishonest treacle — I feared I’d hate her book. Then I’d have to write a “love the author, hate the book” review or write some essay about her that more or less dodged the matter of the book’s quality. But this story has a happy ending: This Is What America Looks Like is a pretty good book. It is indeed a political memoir, as feared, but Omar and her coauthor, Rebecca Paley, have a straightforward, highly readable storytelling style, and the congresswoman has a compelling story.
“You Walk in Here Like a Man”
A tomboy from an early age, climbing trees with the boys, Omar grew up in an upper-middle-class family of civil servants in Mogadishu, Somalia in a compound that included not only her father and siblings (Omar’s mother died when she was young), but also aunts, uncles, cousins, and a grandfather. Her grandfather, “Baba,” raised his children and grandchildren with strongly anti-patriarchal attitudes, often in defiance of the society around him.
Her happy childhood came to a devastating end when civil war broke out in Somalia in 1989. Three years later, the family had to flee the country, as their particular clan was targeted for genocide and they would have been killed. Omar and her family then spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States, where many people died, most devastatingly an aunt who had been like a mother to her. Omar describes this time powerfully and unsentimentally: of her fellow refugees in the camp, she writes, “They buried loved ones in makeshift graves and went to play soccer.”
Memoirs put the reader in a curious position, because much of what is revealed is none of our business, yet a narrative quickly becomes irksome to the reader when information is too vague. As readers, we are entitled to complain. In this vein, there are some confusing gaps in Omar’s narrative of her marriages. Still, she’s much more candid than most politicians would be, acknowledging a “Britney Spears–like meltdown” in which she shaved her head, left her husband, and briefly eloped with another man.
Since Omar attracts controversy wherever she goes, it’s not surprising that her book has already caused a stir on both the Left and the Right. Each of the controversies is deeply silly in its own way. Right-wingers are obsessing over her marriages and whether her book advance violated House ethics rules. The Left has had its own bone to pick. Omar writes in the book that although “her politics aren’t mine,” she admires Margaret Thatcher. Omar was called an “Iron Lady” as a child for her ability to hold her own and win fights with boys despite her small size, and has always identified with the conservative prime minister’s “internal sense of equality.” A Republican colleague once told Omar, “you walk in here like a man,” perhaps a crude comment but also an insightful one: Omar sees herself as someone who belongs in the halls of power. Predictably, left social media, unable to pause, read, and process anything as unpixelated as a real book, has taken Omar’s Margaret Thatcher statement as an indication of some sort of latent conservatism on her part. That’s just dumb.
More important, along with Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and many others, Omar has become one of the most prominent and courageous faces of the social-democratic wing of the Democratic Party, advocating for single-payer health care, a living wage, housing justice, and a Green New Deal. She’s also been outspoken on Trump’s immigration policies and race-baiting, and a principled critic of US foreign policy. The first person in Congress to wear a hijab — and to end the rule against head coverings on the floor of the House — she is the far right’s worst nightmare, routinely receives death threats, and was at least once the focus of a Trump rally, in which hundreds chanted, “Send her back!”
But there’s good reason to hope that politicians like Ilhan Omar, who genuinely represent working-class voters in their own communities, are the future of American politics. AOC has also been an inspiration to the rising left, but in a way, Omar’s story offers even more hope: AOC won her 2018 primary by 4,000 votes out of 28,000 cast. In a district of similar size, Omar won hers by more than 20,000, with 135,318 votes cast. Given her popularity and grit, she’ll probably be around for a long time.