I’m exhausted by hearing the same questions and answers about the Somali community over and over, as if they only contribute sexists and terrorists.
A few weeks ago I went to a talk by a local Somali community organizer, who helps with women’s health. During the question and answer time, the well-educated, well-intentioned audience asked two questions:
- How is the Somali community reacting to terrorist recruitment?
- Do Somalis treat their sons and daughters the same?
Right on script.
When I write a blog post and look for related articles, all that I can find concern terrorism and occasionally piracy. I see the top three articles right now are,
- “Somalia – News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu“
- “Minneapolis: 3rd of 8 Muslims who plotted in mosques to join ISIS to plead guilty,” and
- “News website editor gunned down in Mogadishu.”
I thought I saw a different sort of story, about “building community reslience,” and then discovered it was an anti-radicalization, anti-terrorism grant from the US Justice Department. Even the good news is about terrorism.
I read about how many Somalis are on welfare in Minnesota.
Many people like the refrain of how Somalis “refuse” to assimilate to US culture. They’ve repeated for eight years the story of Somali taxi drivers who refused to transport passengers with alcohol or dogs. I also hear the trope of the Somali cashiers who won’t handle pork products.
When I look up popular Somali musicians or artists in the English-language press, I find that we only know one: K’naan. (Better than nothing, right?)
So here is a “typical Somali” based on what I read in the media:
- potential terrorist
- repudiators of American culture
- without contribution to arts and culture
Is that really it?
Since I started learning the Somali language in the Twin Cities, I cannot avoid a big lesson in the complexities of the Somali community and culture, both here in Minnesota and in the history of Somali culture.
In order to find public places to practice my language, I am able to frequent the many Somali businesses around town. I learned that so many Somalis are successful entrepreneurs thanks to their tight-knit community and strong beliefs.
Googling “Somali” reveals “a nation of poets.” When I went to the internet to learn more about Somali language, the Somali people‘s deep love of poetry contstantly confronted me. This language has poetry that has lived longer than its written alphabet. The American Somali poet, Hersi and the Canadian poet, Boonaa Mohammad write and perform profound poetry in English. The great Somali poet, Hadraawi, creates fantastic poetry in the Somali language, which you can find in English translation.
Any overture I have made in the Somali language has been met with kindness. I can’t speak to the entire culture, but I have never personally experienced prejudice, discrimination, or even ill-will from Somalis. When I have been the only white person in a Somali cafe, or sitting next to Somali folks on public transportation, Somalis have been nothing but generous and open with me, chatting in Somali and English. When I visited the local mosque for a funeral in the Somali community, I felt fellowship with everyone.
Where can I find more articles about Somali artistic endeavors? Where can I learn more about the Somali community’s strong faith, which shuns interest and so encourages generous lending to one another? Where can I read about the generosity and solidarity among Somalis as they fight the tension that tears communities apart? Who writes about the strong Somali abbee, engaged in their children’s education, and the powerful hooyo, helping their family navigate the diaspora without forgetting their ancestors’ home?
Without the Somali language, I cannot know my Somali brothers and sisters, but I only know the caricature the Western media present me, and the tired tropes that turn them into villains.
With the Somali language, I discover how much I have in common among the members of my community, and how much I have to learn.
How has language changed the narrative for you?