- Elusive Jannah: the Somali diaspora and a borderless Muslim identity by Cawo M. Abdi
Elusive Jannah explores the question of how the diasporic condition affects the lives of Somalis around the globe. In this well-written book, Cawo Abdi argues that displacement leaves a permanent mark as those in the diaspora remain in search of a home. She furthermore shows how ‘place matters’ by providing rich empirical descriptions of life for Somalis in the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and the United States. Yet in all these places, as Abdi argues, the search for cultural, religious and social belonging continues, often combined with a search for legal, economic and physical security. While the depth of fieldwork in these three very different contexts varied considerably, Abdi largely manages to portray convincing descriptions of people’s lived experiences and the stark differences between some of their concerns, depending on where they live.
The book’s introduction sets the stage for this comparison and adds the context of the research by positioning the researcher and elaborating on methods. It places [End Page 189] the book in the theoretical landscape of diaspora and transnationalism, and furthermore highlights a challenge for researchers working with refugees and diasporas: the fact that people’s life histories and motivations are more complex than is recognized by legal categories. The first chapter then provides an overview of contemporary Somali migrations, describing causes and routes over time.
Chapter 2, the first of the three core empirical chapters, discusses life in the United Arab Emirates, where Abdi spent the least time, while facing the most restrictions on her research. At the same time, she manages to capture the context well, which she describes as being defined by partial belonging and temporary visas. She shows how religious identification is not sufficient for a full sense of belonging as not having access to rights clearly restricts people’s options of creating a home. She also highlights the great differences between different categories of Somalis living in the UAE, who include those who came before the war, returnees and transnational entrepreneurs with footholds in the West, and newer groups of unskilled migrants and maids. Of course, their situation is determined not only by conditions in the UAE but just as much by their assumed resources and potential to contribute and ‘fit in’.
Chapter 3 describes Somalis in South Africa, based on a range of extensive fieldwork periods and stays between 2007 and 2013. South Africa is described as being defined by insecurity in racialized spaces, which is contextualized by a short description of South Africa as a highly segregated and racialized society, which often clashes with Somalis’ self-perception. Abdi furthermore describes in great detail how Muslims, and in particular Somalis, pool resources and provide assistance and charity in ways that enable many more to survive than would otherwise be the case. The chapter focuses on livelihoods, economic survival and entrepreneurship, although it also places this in the context of xenophobia and violent attacks.
Chapter 4, the last empirical chapter, discusses the lived experiences of Somalis in the United States, where many of those in the UAE and South Africa hope to move. Yet at the same time, it is also a place that individuals move from, once they have received the much-prized US citizenship. Others maintain transnational ties and dream of return. Abdi describes Somali experiences in the US as ‘slippery Jannah’, ‘Jannah’ meaning paradise and linked closely to Islam. She chooses this description because of the challenges the American model poses to the Somali community, in particular with regard to gender relations and poverty.
The book offers important perspectives on refugee life in contexts that are normally understudied, such as when regional refuge is provided in a range of ways. The first strength of the book is its empirical richness. Through many quotes from her informants, Abdi manages to illustrate the uniqueness of people’s lived experiences in different...