Most people don’t think of Minneapolis as a place for urban adventure or international encounters, but this weekend I found both here.
I pulled up to the Somali Mall on Saturday morning, assuming I would find a place for sambusas, sweet chai, and Somali conversation. Shivering as I paid for street parking, I saw a head peek out of the door of “Safari Coffee.”
“Subax wanagsaan!” (“Good morning!”) I hollered.
“Subax wanagsaan!” he answered. “Come in for samosas and tea! It’s cold out here!” Every hope that I had was answered in the first minute. And he was right about the cold, at about 0 F (-17 C) with a steady breeze. I always wonder how these Somalis handle the shock.
Once I came inside, I brought out my new fool-proof conversation starter: “Afka Somali baan baranayaa” (“I’m learning the Somali language”).
This opener launched into a conversation with a young professional and a middle-aged truck driver. Vocabulary can always be useful, I discovered, as “truck” has been in my Anki deck for many weeks, and now I could finally play this card. This man had worked as a truck driver back in Somalia during the 80s. He spoke little English, while the younger guy spoke fluent, though accented, English. I ordered my sambusas (with fish—my favorite) and tea, speaking only in Somali, and sat down with them in front of the soccer match on TV to chat about work.
After a while, a group of young guys came in, and we got to talking about languages. A couple spoke Arabic and wanted to practice (show off?) with me. I spoke with them, but switching back and forth between Somali and Arabic threw me for a loop, but fun mental gymnastics.
One guy’s statement made me think, “You speak a lot of languages, but I only speak three: Somali, English, and Arabic.” How often do you even hear, “I only speak three languages”? That’s a great feat!
More significantly, how often do monolingual Americans see these “foreign” faces and ignore how intelligent and skilled they are in languages? They often hear the accent in English and shut them out. As I’ve said elsewhere, these people go unknown and unappreciated.
The young guys told me that Somalis come from hundreds of miles to this mall. One can encounter Somalis from St Cloud, Minnesota (about 70 miles / 110 km), and even Nebraska (at least 375 miles / 600 km). They come for “supplies,” but I’m not sure what they buy.
When I brought the sentences I learned to my teacher, I learned that the Somalis I was talking to originated from all over Somalia, as the phrases I learned included Southern dialectical features.
From all over Somalia to all over the US Midwest: all come together at the Somali Mall!
The guys I started talking with grew quiet as they watched the soccer match, so I turned to the other TV that was showing Somali programs. I immersed myself in the sound of the Somali TV and the words scrolling across the screen, and listened to the voices speaking Somali around me.
After an hour or so, I had learned some phrases about where people lived and how long. I practiced numbers, buying and getting change. Written Somali can differ strongly from spoken language, so I got to work through some of those differences. In the end, I took a trip to a new culture only ten miles from my house!