I will really know Somali only when I eventually become part of that community. I’m still struggling with that step, because I can only dedicate one small part of my life to learning this language. I don’t live and work with Somalis, my family doesn’t speak the language, so I have to make time for this language, most importantly, to seek out conversation partners. After making myself known in the community, I hope to find people who will include me and help me.
Saturday I found one of each. I was greeted warmly, as one who belonged, by the cook at a restaurant I frequent, and on another occasion, a new acquaintance literally took my learning into his hands as he grabbed my pen and started correcting my work.
I doubled-dipped on Saturday and went to two different Somali restaurants. These visits were a long time coming, since I haven’t been for a few weeks. In the morning, I went to my familiar cafe at the Somali mall. Later, I was meeting a friend for lunch, and when he suggested a local Somali restaurant, I was excited to oblige.
The main cook at the Somali restaurant said to me the phrase in the title of this post, and I felt like someone thought I belonged there, in this restaurant, among these Somalis; I had my foot in the door of the Somali community. After hearing this, I said to my friend, “I come here sometimes.” He replied, “I guess so!”
The above greeting marked a milestone for me, an unofficial welcome to the community.
The cook made this statement to more than my ears, but also within the hearing of the other people in the restaurant. The other Somalis in the restaurant heard him address me in Somali.
I am one who can be addressed in Somali.
Just as importantly, he addressed me as another one of his regulars. While I can’t imagine I’m more regular than the other folks in the restaurant, his recognition left an impression on all that I belonged there.
I belong there.
At the cash register, when they rang me up and told me the price in Somali, the other men at the counter paid attention with surprised expressions on their faces. As usual, I had to ask him to repeat and he broke it down with hand gestures, but I was able to say back the numbers correctly. That was enough to get some smiles from the bystanders.
Earlier in the day, when I went to a different cafe for a tea, luck found me an excellent teacher.
I took my tea and thought about where to sit. As I do, when I overthink situations, I tensed up and dove in. I sat down right next to some gentlemen who were not paying me any attention: no welcoming looks. I decided to act Somali and simply start talking to anyone who would answer me back.
After chatting with one of them, Saciid, I got taken to school. He was strict. When I would speak, he would correct my grammar: “No, it ends with ‘o’ say it.” And pronunciation: “Say it again. ‘O’.” When a guy next to me asked if I play soccer, and I couldn’t understand, Saciid placed his hand on my arm and slowly, word-by-word, repeated, “Adigu. Ma. Ciyaartaa. Banoniga.”
I repeated it back. “Don’t you have a notebook to write it down?” he scolded me. I quickly got out my phone and wrote it down.
“Let me see it!” he said as he took my phone. “No. Banoniga. What’s this letter? No, it’s ‘o’, not ‘u’. Write it. Give me the pen, ‘o’.”
Bossy, but very helpful. I always like it when native speakers will teach me, and I was relieved that Saciid took some of my learning into his hands. I later learned that he not only had eight children, but three grandchildren. Clearly he was a patriarch accustomed to teaching—and good at it.
Saciid wanted to find out more about me. He asked in English where I was from, I answered in Somali. “No. Just answer.” He was tired of teaching, evidently. “Where are you from?” And I relented and continued the conversation in English.
He asked about my impressions of his people. “What do you think about Somali culture?” he opened. I told him one of my favorite things is the way that Somalis respect elders and family. I also described how I love how open and generous Somalis have been as I learned their language.
Saciid has lived in Minnesota a long time, since around the beginning of the Somali civil war, which started in 1991, so he understands Minnesotan culture better than I do. We talked about the relative importance of hospitality in Somali and Minnesotan cultures, and he laughed deeply and knowingly when I told him the old Minnesotan joke, “Minnesotans will happily give you directions anywhere except to their house.”
The topic of religion came up. “What religion are you?” he asked, and seemed surprised when I answered him, “Christian.” Later he got confused. A man entered the cafe and said the traditional Muslim Arabic greeting, “Salaamu aleykum!” And I answered, “Wa-aleykum salaam!” with everyone else.
“Why do you say that if you’re not Muslim?”
“What am I supposed to say? Subax wanaagsan (‘Good morning’)? That’s the only answer I know.”
“Yes, but it sounds very Muslim.”
“Runta (‘true’). But that’s what I learned how to say.” That seemed to satisfy him, since we couldn’t think of a better alternative.
Upon leaving, I said, “Mahadsantahay, macallin Saciid!” (literally, “Thank you Teacher Saciid,” a way to address a teacher respectfully). I was grateful for the lesson on Somali and the great conversation about culture and religion.
Together, these experiences showed me again how learning Somali brings me quickly and deeply into the Somali culture, the culture of many generous, kind people.