DAY ONE: LUNCH
Abdul signals me to take off my shoes.
It feels oddly personal, entering a strange new space in only your socks.
We troop into this large room. Abdul and I stand in the last of maybe a dozen rows of men. Some are dressed in diras, robes, a few with head wraps, others in Western garb.
"Allah-o-Akhbar!" calls the voice from the front room.
It's lunchtime on Friday, Islam's equivalent of Sunday. We're at the Masjid Nur up near 50th and University, where many Somalis come to pray. It's just a converted house, but the name means "Mosque of the Moonlight." Pretty romantic.
The mullah's voice, through speakers, chants prayers in classical Arabic. Somalis have their own language, but the Arabic has the same comforting resonance as Latin does for Catholics. I kneel down, like everybody else, on the balls of my feet and my knees. And then lean forward till my forehead touches the carpet. Then it's up, till you're standing, leaning your hands on your knees, asking Allah -- God -- for forgiveness, and down two more times. At the end, after the mullah says more prayers, we all chant "A-meen." Meaning, as in Judaism and Christendom, "accepted."
It's the similarities, not the differences, that stay with me as we put our shoes back on outside.
"Now," says Abdul. "Let's eat."
We jump in his car and head west along University towards Euclid. Right next to Mid-City Grocery & Produce, a grill-fronted red-and-green building sports a sign you'd miss if you weren't looking: "Taste of African Cuisine."
"It's where Somalis gather," says Abdul. " 'Specially on Fridays."
Some men -- and it's only men here -- are already at tables, playing dominoes. Slap, bang, laugh, argue.
We head into the big dining area inside, and the first thing I notice is guys eating meat, salad, and -- spaghetti.
"Don't forget, we had Italians in Somalia for a long time before independence," Abdul says. "They left. Spaghetti stayed."
Abdul says Somali lunch food is basically basmati rice or spaghetti and meat, like beef, goat, lamb. "No pork. We're a Muslim country," he says. "But if we were in Somalia you'd certainly add the favorite, camel meat."
My ears prick up. Camel meat? Now that would be a first. 'Course, this is not my first Somali restaurant. That was the late lamented Afrique, a couple of years back. The one thing I remember from that place is bananas. Bananas came with everything. And here, sure enough, all the guys are peeling and chopping, squeezing the banana pieces over rice, chunks of meat, salads, piles of fava beans, into soups.
"What's with the bananas?" I ask.
"We love them," Abdul says. "Somalia has the sweetest bananas in the world. Bananas in this country aren't so sweet, but we use them anyway."
He says this meal is called qado, lunch. "You can have rice or spaghetti with goat, fish [mahi mahi], chicken, lamb, or a fadareshin." He pronounces it like "federation." It means a selection, a mixed plate. They're all the same price: $7.00.
I go for the fadareshin, and when it arrives, you can imagine a sort of map of Somalia. The delicious, herby, on-the-bone roasted goat meat makes you think of Somalia's goat country, its mountains and plateaus. The two slabs of fried fish (mahi mahi) tell of Somalia's coastline, the longest of any country in Africa. The basmati rice is the Indian influence, a monsoon-driven dhow trip to the northeast, and the pile of spaghetti shows who came and colonized this country in 1888. And bananas? They're the fruits of the oases in the Land of Punt, "God's Land," as the Egyptians called it, that made Somalia famous in the region.
By now, lots of young guys are sitting around the tables, sharing large plates of rice and spaghetti and meat. Even this early, there's plenty of joshing and laughing. You can tell: Friday after mosque is the release moment of the week. The place feels Somali, with the Arab-sounding language, the smells of sesame and roasting goat meat, and the decor, gray-and-blue tiles and blue-striped orange rafters. "Blue is Somalia's color," says Abdul.
We sit down at a glass-topped table with a flowery plastic cloth. "We have lots of taxi drivers come in," says Abdullahi Gass. He's the owner. "They don't have family in this country. They like to socialize. We order big plates to share."
"Somalis are outgoing people," says Abdul. "We'll put arms around shoulders, tell jokes."
Of course, he means men. That's the other thing that gives this place atmosphere. So...what about the women?
"In our tradition, women prepare the food for the men," says Abdul. "I'm 26. I have two sisters. We just never eat together."
Ibrahim, the guy serving all this food, brings a dark tea ($1.00) with cinnamon, and sugar, plus maybe...is that cardamom? Mint? Or is this just an herb tea? Whatever, it comes sweet, hot, and with a can of Carnation milk, two holes punctured into the top for pouring.
I follow Abdul's lead and break up my banana, strew it around my plate, take a deep breath, and plunge in.
Here's the other thing: you can use spoons, forks, whatever, but the cool, traditional, and, actually, the sensual thing to do is eat with your right hand (only use the left to help). I mix in the banana with the rice (mmm!), the salad, the spaghetti (uh, okay), the fish (yeah), and the goat. Your fingers mush it, mix it, sort it out, feel the wet, the dry, the leafy, the sticky, the different meat textures. You get to enjoy the direct-touch contact with the food. You get to wonder how much you've missed, all these years, using no-touch, metal knife-and-fork proxies. This is luscious!
Trouble is, everyone around me seems to be able to gather up fingerfuls of food and pop it in their mouths cleanly, a bull's eye. Me, my face looks as if I just lost a sticky-rice-throwing contest.