On Tuesday Town Hall canceled an event featuring author Abdi Nor Iftin, a Somali immigrant who fled the civil war for Kenya, where he eventually won a lottery to gain entry into the United States. Iftin was expected to read from his memoir, Call Me American, which tells the tale of his harrowing immigration experience and his drive to live in a country he only knew from the movies.
In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Town Hall says they canceled because the organizations they'd partnered with for the event pulled out, including “a notable Somali organization" that didn't want to participate "in something they see as dividing their community."
Town Hall had hoped to "facilitate a conversation in partnership with Forterra [a conservation organization] and representatives of the local Somali community," according to their spokesperson. But Forterra, who had served as the liaison between local Somali communities, pulled out after receiving complaints about Nor Iftin.
Over the phone the spokesperson for Forterra said the organization was excited to bring Iftin to town as a way of "lifting up the visibility of the Somali community" and sharing plans they've co-developed with members of the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center in Tukwila.
Forterra recently bought an old motel across the street from the mosque "in order to do something to stop the displacement of Somali people from the Tukwila area," according to the spokesperson. They want to knock down the place and build an "international marketplace" in its stead, which Forterra hopes would provide space for businesses lost to displacement and also some "housing that can be affordably owned" by the people.
But once word about Iftin's reading got out, some people at the mosque told representatives at Forterra and Town Hall that Iftin had misrepresented them in his memoir, according to Forterra's spokesperson.
"Out of strong deference for them, we pulled out. We don't have a view as to the accuracy or inaccuracy of the assertions being made, we just know that our partners felt like he wasn't the best person to come and represent the community and be part of debuting this project," the spokesperson said.
The executive director of the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center did not respond to a request for comment, but I'll update this post if I hear back.
Nor Iftin told me over the phone that no one from the Abu-Bakr Islamic Center contacted him directly.
"I'm so saddened and disappointed that this happened," he said.
Nor Iftin says he's been smeared on social media by former roommates mentioned in the book, and he suspects members of the mosque in Tukwila may not have understood or appreciated his perspective.
"It's insulting to me and my credibility—the way Forterra and Town Hall canceled this," Nor Iftin said. "This whole thing is a deception by one man, my roommate, who said I lied in the book about him. There are personal issues between him and I—we got into an argument while playing soccer, and he has just decided to unleash his frustration on me."
A report from the Press Herald in Maine details his roommates' accusations and includes comments from the Somali community there:
The former roommates of author Abdi Nor Iftin say they and the state’s Somali community as a whole are inaccurately portrayed in the book to make them look 'disinterested in cultural integration' and like 'terrible people.' Although Iftin has agreed to make some changes to the book to settle the dispute, he denies any inaccuracies and says he believes the claims stem from jealousy over the attention his story has gotten.
Nor Iftin told me his book isn't an insult to Somalis, and claims that "no Imam, no Somali" has come forward to talk to him about what he meant in the book. "I want them to meet me in public or private to tell them what their concern is. I'm 100 percent ready to explain myself," he said.
One member of the Seattle Somali community, who requested anonymity for fear of threats, told me he's disappointed about the cancelation. "I was looking forward to it! All my friends were looking forward to it!" he said by phone. "[Iftin] brings a different perspective—that we can call here 'home.' We need books like Iftin's book. He should be welcome."
The spokesperson for Town Hall stressed that the cancellation “should not be construed as a judgment of Abdi Nor Iftin, of the veracity of the claims made within or against his book, or as a response to the phone calls and e-mails we received in protest of his appearance. We canceled because the event we agreed to host could no longer take place.”