Excerpted from “Call Me American” by Abdi Nor Iftin. Copyright © 2018 by Abdi Nor Iftin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Through a friend of Sharon’s I was introduced to Abdul, a young man who ran an agency in Portland that helped settle new Somali immigrants, most of whom suffered from trauma and emotional stress and spoke no English. Abdul took me to the main mosque in town, and I couldn’t believe all the Somalis, most of whom had cars, jobs, and their own homes. Within a week I said warm goodbyes to my new American family, quit my job on the batting squad, and moved into an apartment in Portland with Abdul and three other Somali guys. The second- floor apartment was in a complex of several nearly identical buildings, spread out on a winding road amid lots of trees, like a suburban street. Many of the apartments had Somali and other refugees, or really poor Americans, and were publicly subsidized. We paid the market rate because we all had green cards and could work. My plan was to get a job in Portland; until then I would pay my four-hundred-dollar monthly rent and utilities out of savings.
It sounded like a TV show: five Somali guys in a small Maine apartment. There was Abdul, the only one of us who had already become an American citizen. Yussuf and Awil worked at Walmart and the Shaw’s grocery store; Mohamed was a taxi driver. The apartment had only two bedrooms and one bathroom, but we just spread out mattresses and slept all over the floor, taking turns in the bathroom. I was in charge of making breakfast, usually Somali sour pancakes called anjara, with peas and some cubed lamb or goat from the halal market. For lunch everyone was off at work; dinner was the Somali version of beans and rice known as ambulo, drizzled with sesame or olive oil and a little sugar. Okay, a lot of sugar. Of course we ate on the floor, with our hands, just like in Africa. We laughed so hard, wrestled, drove together to soccer games and the mosque, and maybe washed dishes once a week.
My roommates had all been in Maine over ten years, making me the new guy in town. But I was surprised how little American culture they had absorbed. I would play the latest hip-hop songs on my phone while I cooked, but they just listened to Arabic chants called nasheeds. No one except me had a passion for America. Abdul was the only one who had even bothered learning English, which he needed for his work. In their jobs stocking shelves at Walmart and Shaw’s, Yussuf and Awil didn’t really need to speak English. They knew where the cans went, how to open boxes, how to punch in and out of the time clock. When customers approached them with a question, they would scurry away—too embarrassed to confront an American and be caught with no English, like being naked. The same with Mohamed, who knew only enough English to collect fares and enter addresses into the GPS of his taxi.
I said to them, “Ten years in America, why don’t you learn English? You could get better jobs! Cashiers make more than shelf stockers, but they need to speak English. And you could have fun on the weekend, going to movies and parties.” But Mohamed, Awil, and Yussuf felt like they were just biding their time until they could return to Somalia. They checked the Somali news every day, hoping peace would come. In a decade none of them had ever been outside Maine, except to Boston to make a flight back to Somalia. They had all returned home at least twice for visits, and they talked about enjoying camel milk and camel meat, which you can’t find in Maine. Mohamed’s dad was the chief of a village in southern Somalia, and Mohamed hoped to inherit the crown when his dad stepped down. When he went back to Somalia, the villagers gave him a royal reception, literally showering him in camel milk. It must have been hard to come back to Portland and pick up passengers at the bus terminal. Of course his family in Somalia thinks he’s rich.
All my roommates were supporting their families back home. None of them had a savings account; every penny they did not spend on their own small expenses went back to Somalia. There were always too many people to support and not enough money. Every week was the same: you got paid on Friday; you sent whatever money was left over from the last week to your mom, or your dad, or your uncle or brother in Somalia or Kenya. Life was one paycheck at a time, so different from my American friends who always talked about their future goals. They wanted to go to college, get a good job, save money to buy a house or travel, the usual things. For most Somalis in Maine, the only future goal besides going home was to have money left over at the end of the week so your family in Somalia could boil some beans and maize.
My roommates were members of either the Hawiye or the Darod clan, each of which has a huge number of people living in Maine. My Rahanweyn clan does not have much of a presence here in Maine, and often I felt disconnected. Every Somali I met asked me about my clan. When I told them Rahanweyn, they would ask me what I was doing in Maine; there are more Rahanweyn in Minnesota or Seattle, they said. But I told them I was not here to reunite with my tribe, I was here to be American. That sounded like a crime to them—to abandon your clan and become an American! To them you could not be Somali without having a clan.
In Somalia, al-Shabaab and even the more moderate imams always told us that everyone in America was a crusading Christian bent on converting Muslims and destroying Islam. So I was really surprised when I got to Maine and saw that nobody I met was interested in talking about Jesus or Christianity. Most Americans seemed like they would rather spend their Sundays outside, or reading the paper, or having brunch, or doing just about anything besides going to church. In Kenya there are so many more Christian churches; pastors even get onto the public buses and preach, waving the Bible and spreading the word. I never saw someone preaching on a bus in Maine or Boston. I learned that when a stranger was nice to me, it was enough to just say “thank you,” not “God bless you.”
Shannon, my American friend from Bangor whom I had met on the health project in Kenya, and her friend Tina told me they were spiritual but not religious. They lived with their boyfriends, even though their families had big houses. They preferred to live their own way. That individual liberty was such a new concept to me, to most Africans, and it was scary but exciting. It got me thinking that this is a great nation where you can be anyone, as long as you can assimilate and learn the language and customs. That was my task, and I worked at it every day. So many figures of speech to memorize! Someone asked me, “What is your apartment situation like?” I started describing the kitchen, the bathroom, the location. Then he said he meant who were my roommates, how much was the rent, and so on. The “situation.”
I have always been fast to learn languages, but now I was finding that customs and culture were much harder to absorb, and in these cases my language skills often failed me. Discussions about American music, sports, TV shows, food, breeds of dogs, and species of birds just made me sit there like an idiot. Sometimes I felt all I could talk about were my own life stories. People appreciated hearing them, but I also wanted to feel like I belonged here and could talk about American things. So I vowed to keep learning.
I was often invited by my American friends to go hiking, skiing, and other fun weekend things, and I always accepted. On these trips we would split the cost of everything, gas, food, hotel rooms. This is an aspect of American culture very different from Somalia, where it is the custom that one person is honored to pay for the meal. One time my roommates and I had lunch together at the Babylon Iraqi restaurant. After the goat meat and rice I took out my debit card and asked everyone to do the same. “Let’s split it,” I said. But they were all angry and astonished I would suggest this thoughtless American custom. They insisted I pay for it all.
Likewise in our apartment when Somali guests came from Minnesota or Seattle, we would let them share our beds. Two people in one bed. Or I would sleep on the floor in the living room and let them take my bed. But when I visited my American friends in their houses, they asked me to sleep in the living room. They never shared their own bed! I found myself constantly juggling the customs of these two different worlds.
When I returned from the movies or hikes or other fun things to my apartment, I would recount my activities. My roommates asked if I had prayed during all the fun. When I said no, they yelled at me for becoming too American. “You have abandoned your faith for a hike in the woods!”
My roommates also thought outdoor activities were stupid. “Why bother building a camp in the wilderness when you can sleep in your freshly made bed?”
“We came here from refugee camps. Camping is not fun!”
“We hiked hundreds of miles through the bush into Kenya, now we have cars, we don’t need to hike!”
Birthdays were another strange concept to my roommates. Everyone in our apartment except me was born on January 1. One time an American co-worker at Walmart brought Yussuf some cupcakes for his birthday, and it made him so angry. He felt like this American had crossed unwritten boundaries by involving him in an American custom. In Somalia no one cares about age. People are born and die. Period. When he got home, he threw the cupcakes in the trash. My roommates thought I was crazy for picking June 20 as my birthday, but why was that any worse than picking January 1? Of course my family in Yarmouth put a huge effort into celebrating my birthday every year, with a cake and candles and a big dinner. And my American friends on Facebook always left me warm birthday wishes. On June 20, I always felt like I was born an American.
The Somali community in Maine is run by sheikhs and imams, who lead the prayers at the mosques. In Portland, the Muslim Community Center is where everyone gathers to pray, especially on Friday. Sheikh Ahmed is one of the top leaders, and he also owns a halal market. One day he delivered a speech warning Somali women not to fall into the temptations of individual liberty that American women have. “Look, they sleep with their boyfriends who are not married to them!” he said. “And their parents are fine with it! A’udhu billahi minash shaitanir rajim.” I seek shelter in Allah from the rejected Satan!
The women sufficiently condemned, he switched to the men.
“We’ve got a problem in the Muslim community in Maine. So many of our young men are abandoning the culture. Some even live with white families! Some are dating white non- Muslim women; some are drinking alcohol. This is a huge problem. We ask for your support to do counseling for these young men for them to return to the word of Allah.”
I have always considered myself blessed by amazing good luck, which makes it hard to understand how Sheikh Ahmed could have lived right downstairs from us. He would pound on our door at five every single morning, waking us up and demanding we go with him to the mosque for morning prayers. Every day was the same: as we rode with him in his car, he asked us to read the Koran on the way so we should arrive safely at the mosque. Portland is not known for roadside bombs or militia roadblocks, so these prayers seemed like overkill on the short drive, but Sheikh Ahmed wasn’t taking any chances. He recited the Koran every time he stepped out his door. To him Somalia and the United States were the same when it came to death. You could die any day, anywhere, and you’d better read the Koran to be safe.
In the evening, Sheikh Ahmed often came up to our apartment, to make sure Satan was not hanging around. I would have to stop the hip-hop music because he might curse at me. He walked around our house like he was doing an inspection. One time I had two portraits sitting next to my bed, Obama and Schwarzenegger. Sheikh Ahmed recognized Obama of course and told me to remove his image. “It is not good for you,” he said. “Who is this other man?”
“A famous actor,” I said.
“Please throw him in the trash! Angels are not coming into this apartment!”
The next day he brought us five beautiful calligraphy verses to hang in our rooms and a prayer mat.
After Sheikh Ahmed found out about my white family in Yarmouth, he would come to our apartment for hours of talk and questions.
“Do they let you practice your religion?”
“Do they eat halal meat?”
“How do you deal with the dog?”
“Do they ever ask you to convert?”
“Can we convert them to Islam?”
To him there was no middle ground, no mixing. “You must choose one or the other.” It was just like the clans, I thought. Either Rahanweyn or American, Christian or Muslim. I got frustrated and walked away. Then I started ignoring his morning prayer calls. There are two types of people in the Somali community: those who go to the mosque (the good ones) and those who go to the clubs and drink alcohol (the bad ones). Even though I didn’t go to clubs or drink alcohol, I managed to be lumped into the bad-guy category because of my love for American culture.
The sheikhs in Portland told people to do the same things they expected in Somalia: women should not go outside with- out their husbands, men should wear ankle-length clothes and a beard, and on and on. But here in the United States they couldn’t force people, especially me. I had memorized the Koran; I knew and respected my religion. But still my roommates and I got into heated debates about the message the Koran sends. To them the message was clear: you must be a God-fearing person and stay away from anything that could distract you from the five daily prayers. At their jobs at Walmart and Shaw’s, Yussuf and Awil asked their bosses for prayer breaks. And so every day, somewhere in the back of the building with all the other Somalis, they would throw a mat on the floor and pray to Allah behind the stacks of canned hams and flat-screen TVs.
I came to see that my roommates would never assimilate, and they were not alone. Like the first Italians or Chinese or Slovaks who came to America, the first-generation Somalis, many of whom were already old when they arrived, were too set in their language, culture, and religion. It would be the next generation to call themselves American, and they were the ones giving their parents, and the sheikhs, so many headaches by dating before marriage or even going to nightclubs and drinking alcohol.
Meanwhile, an army of caseworkers, many of them working for Christian organizations, rallied to help refugees navigate this strange new country. There was an opening for an interpreter on the Catholic Charities Maine website. People were needed in hospitals and courts who could help Somalis talk to lawyers, doctors, and judges. I quickly applied and a day later got a call from Lucy in its language department. “Oh, your English is good,” she said. I went for an interview, filled out the usual forms. A week later I was hired, but before I could start the job, I was sent to take a required interpretation course at Southern Maine Community College.
My classmates were all foreigners from Burundi, Rwanda, Iraq, and even Russia. We were taught the medical and legal terms, the dos and don’ts of being an interpreter. They said we must never interact with clients outside the job; that would be unprofessional. I learned about the U.S. health-care system, medical terminology, basic human biology, systems, and treatments.
My first job was at Community Dental, translating for Farhan, an elderly Somali man who had been in Portland for two years. Farhan had a bullet wound on his head from a gunfight in Somalia. I sat across from him, next to the dentist, translating what the doctor said as well as what Farhan said. In the next few weeks I got more and more assignments, traveling to Maine Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, the Department of Health and Human Services, Opportunity Alliance, Portland high schools, job fairs, the courts, and many other places around southern Maine.
I soon realized it would be impossible to maintain a professional distance from the clients. Many times they just wanted to ask me about my tribe or my background, and I felt it would be rude not to converse with them. Also, they often had so many questions about the law or the medical treatment that had not been answered by the lawyers or doctors. This was cultural: Sometimes a doctor would tell a patient to eat things, like yogurt, that I knew Somalis had never heard of. Doctors would ask female patients how often they exercised. I dutifully translated, but I already knew the answer: Somali women do not go around jogging in their hijabs. Often when we left the medical building, clients would pepper me with questions: What does this mean? What did that mean? Sometimes they would complain that the doctor must be stupid, then ask me where they could get traditional Somali medicinal herbs.
I had become an expert on the Portland public bus system, but I knew I would need to drive a car someday, so I started taking a driver’s education course. The class, at Yarmouth High School, was all teenagers. I couldn’t believe the way they sat with their feet up on desks, talking over the teacher and throwing things at each other. You would surely be whipped in Somalia for such disrespect. I paid careful attention, but I did not understand basic things like traffic lights or signs, things the American students all took for granted. The teacher was kind and helped me after class. When I was finally ready to start driving, the first thing I did was smash Sharon’s car into her garage. It took me three times to pass the test for my license, but finally I became a safe and responsible driver.
In November 2015, I had saved enough money to buy a used car, which allowed me to take even more jobs. Now my assignments doubled, and I was interpreting for court cases in both Lewiston and Portland. I was in a courtroom with a Somali couple getting a divorce and arguing over the custody of their kids. I stood between the judge and the couple, simultaneously translating. As the couple’s arguments heated up, my voice rose to match their angry tones. I felt like I was getting paid to be an actor, and in that moment I knew that all those years watching Hollywood movies in Falis’s video shack were finally paying off.