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An Imagined Geography

An Imagined Geography: Sierra Leonean Muslims in America

JoAnn D’Alisera
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    An Imagined Geography
    Book Description:

    For more than a decade a vicious civil war has torn the fabric of society in the West African country of Sierra Leone, forcing thousands to flee their homes for refugee camps and others to seek peace and asylum abroad. Sierra Leoneans have established new communities around the world, in London, Paris, New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Yet despite the great geographic range of this diaspora and the diverse ethnic backgrounds among Sierra Leoneans settled in the same communities abroad, these Africans have come to understand and express their shared identity through religious rituals, social engagements, and material culture. In An Imagined Geography, anthropologist JoAnn D'Alisera demonstrates persuasively that the long-held anthropological paradigms of separate, bounded, and unique communities, geographically located and neatly localized, must be reconsidered. Studying Sierra Leonean Muslims living in greater Washington, D.C., she shows how these immigrants maintain intense and genuine community ties through weddings, rituals, and travel, across both vast urban spaces and national boundaries. D'Alisera examines two primary issues: Sierra Leoneans' engagement with their homeland, to which they frequently traveled and often sent their children for upbringing until the outbreak of the civil war; and the Sierra Leonean interaction with a diverse, multicultural, increasingly global Muslim community that is undergoing its own search for identity. Sierra Leoneans in America, D'Alisera observes, express a longing for home and the pain of disconnection in powerful narratives about their country and about their own displacement. At the same time, however, self and communal identity are shaped by a pressing need to affiliate in their adopted country with Sierra Leoneans of all ethnic and religious backgrounds and with fellow Muslims from other parts of the world, a process that is played out against the complex social field of the American urban landscape.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0172-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter 1 Multiple Sites/Virtual Sitings: Ethnography in Transnational Contexts
    (pp. 1-18)

    In a world of constant movement, recently torn asunder by a vicious civil war, Sierra Leonean Muslims living in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area express the longing of exiled memory and the pain of disconnection in powerfully affecting narratives of homeland and displacement. Constructing community boundaries around the complexities of urban American life and their ongoing connection to Sierra Leone, self, and community identity is ever shaped by a pressing need to affiliate on adopted soil with both multi-ethnic and multi-religious co-nationals, and with fellow Muslims from diverse geocultural backgrounds, a process that is played out against the complex social...

  5. Chapter 2 Field of Dreams: The Anthropologist Far Away at Home
    (pp. 19-36)

    Since my first introduction to anthropology as an undergraduate, I have dreamed of a fieldwork experience in which I would find myself in an exotic place, notebook and tape recorder in hand. I would explore, document, and ultimately describe and analyze a different, remote, and unknown way of life. My imaginings often centered on mysterious, extraordinary, at times frightening phenomena. As such, they reflected the constructed images of “stories from the field” that my instructors had woven through their lectures. Their hardship stories, tales of snakes, bugs, and unstable governments held an undeniable aura of romance. Imagining similar field encounters...

  6. Chapter 3 Icons of Longing: Homeland and Memory
    (pp. 37-57)

    For the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans I came to know, the phrase “I am Sierra Leonean” is the foundation upon which recent and distant memories are evoked and in which definitions of self are woven. Informed by a complex array of individual and group perspectives, these definitions extend beyond the physical realities of a place to construct and mobilize a sense of community that “exists in relationship with a whole ensemble of notions which many others possess: with persons, places, dates, words, forms of language” (Connerton 1989:36). Sierra Leoneans position themselves in relation to an intricate system of social...

  7. Chapter 4 Spiritual Centers, Peripheral Identities: On the Sacred Border of American Islam
    (pp. 58-76)

    Friday afternoon prayer at the Islamic Center swirls with the smells, sounds, sights, and tastes of a diverse group of Muslims who for nearly fifty years have “Islamized” and “stamped into the earth” (Werbner 1996b:l67) their claims to a piece of Massachusetts Avenue. The perfumes worn by men and women from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and North America mingle with the distinct aromas of incense and lamb stew, imbuing every corner of the Center with the “smell of Islam.” Congregants adorned in silk, satin, cotton, and polyester flow through a euphony of Muslim sound—the adhan, Qur’anic recitation, and...

  8. Chapter 5 I ♥ Islam: Popular Religious Commodities and Sites of Inscription
    (pp. 77-94)

    Leaving the weekly Friday prayer, I run into Mustafa outside the gates of the Islamic Center. My usual Friday routine after noon-prayer is to ride with one of my cab driver informants, and Mustafa readily agrees to some company. He tells me we have to hike to the cab. The side streets off Massachusetts Avenue are crowded with congregants’ vehicles, a fair number of them taxis, but Mustafa purposely parks a few extra blocks away because “every step to and from the mosque earns us blessings.” From the outside, his weathered black and white sedan appears to be a typical...

  9. Chapter 6 Mapping Women’s Displacement and Difference
    (pp. 95-123)

    On September 11, 1995, an article entitled “INS Debates Female Mutilation as Basis for Asylum” appeared in the Metro section of the Washington Post. The article begins with a graphic, sensationalist depiction of what can only be fathomed by general readers as ritual torture:

    The two African women, both from Sierra Leone, endured almost identical ordeals at the hands of secret tribal societies: they were abducted, gagged and bound; their sexual organs were partly cut away with a knife; and they were forced to swear they would never reveal what [had] been done to them or face death by witchcraft....

  10. Chapter 7 “We Owe Our Children the Pride”: The Imagined Geography of a Muslim Homeland
    (pp. 124-154)

    “What is your name?” I asked a seven-year-old girl who sat down beside me at the home of Amir and Sama. “Amy, my name is Amy.” Her father, Amir’s first cousin, who was sitting near by, smiled. Sama, Amir’s wife, who overheard this exchange from the kitchen, stomped out and loudly proclaimed to the child: “Your name is Amie, Aminata! You are Sierra Leonean, not American!”

    The child stared blankly, ignoring Sama. Staring back, silent and seething, Sama turned on the child’s father: “What are you doing? Why do you let your child take on this American name? How will...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 155-162)
  12. References Cited
    (pp. 163-172)
  13. Index
    (pp. 173-178)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 179-181)