What’s it like, being Muslim in San Diego?
The question arose for me earlier this year when I decided to hit Ocean Beach on maybe the worst night of the winter. It was Wednesday, the end of market day. Rainstorms exploding in off the Pacific, marquees flapping, most market folks packing up, re-boxing their fruit. But not the guys in the black tent near where Bacon crosses Newport. From inside the gust-wrenched canvas, half a dozen men shouted to scurrying passersby to come on in for the ultimate hand-warmer. Guled and Mohammed and Abdi and Hamza and a bunch of other young Somali men were selling the thing I’d weathered the storm to find: samosas, the Middle East and India’s great snack gift to the world. Aah, yes. Down in three gulps. A beef, a vegetarian, and a Californian adaptation (cream cheese and pineapple), all enclosed in hot, golden, flaky pastry.
We got to talking. These laughing guys were all students. All Muslim. All living a double life. Studying by night, selling samosas by day at the various farmers’ markets around town, including here and at UCSD. I’d always known the Somalis were an outgoing group. Somalia embraces the longest seaboard in Africa. They’re coastal people who have survived strangers with different cultures landing on their shores for millennia.
“I mean,” I say to Hamza, “you study, you take this business up hill and down dale six days a week, you go to class, you pray five times every day, and you still manage to get to a mosque on Fridays?”
“Oh sure,” said Hamza. “Why don’t you come? We have good food there…54th Street.”
This Veil Is My Liberation
There are maybe 100,000 Muslims living in San Diego County (many in North County), mostly Arab, according to, well, the FBI, as quoted by the Union-Tribune. More than many identifiable demographic groups, they’re a prosperous, businesslike bunch, people like Charles G. Abdelnour, the longtime city clerk. But many of the more recent Muslim immigrants have come from hard times in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Eritrea, Tigre, Sudan. They tend, like immigrants from Mexico and Central America, to be from the poorer levels of society who take on the jobs that require doing rather than communicating. Saudis, Iranians, Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Indians have penetrated the larger San Diego business and professional world. Somalis and Eritreans, meanwhile, seem to have cornered the taxi-driving market.
If anywhere seems like Little Mogadishu, it’s up on El Cajon around 54th Street. Women in long robes, some with their faces covered, form part of the scenery. You get used to it. Somali restaurants may not be a dime a dozen, but if you know where to look, places pop up with odd names like Coffee Time Daily or Taste of African Cuisine. Inside, it’s mostly young men with their taxis parked outside, or old men with magnificent creamy-white beards and beautifully carved walking sticks. Mainly, it seems these eateries service single men who have come here without their families or who have lost them. Which means they are just the tip of the Muslim iceberg, because most family-oriented Muslims are at home living the life you never see on the street.
But Fridays, at lunchtime, mosque brings everybody out, older men, often in their white cotton robes, veiled women in their finest patterned red and gold and black and blue ankle-length dresses. Even though they’ll be worshipping in separate parts of the mosque, this is when society congregates, does its bonding.
So on Friday I turn up at the 54th Street Somali community center, in the Safari Market, part of a shopping plaza just off El Cajon Boulevard. What must have once been a supermarket has now become a collection of Somali shops selling everything from traditional women’s clothing to cell phones and includes a Somali restaurant called African Spice, which the samosa guys also run. At the other end, a whitewashed hall has become the “Masjid Al Huda” (“Mosque of Guidance”). This is 1 of at least 16 mosques in San Diego, including the impressive main, domed masjid at the Islamic Center of San Diego on Eckstrom. Plus one in Tijuana.
I shake hands with Guled and Mohammed and Abdi and Hamza, and oh my…a gal dressed in robes, not just with a scarf covering her hair, but a blue silk veil covering her entire face and forehead, except for a slit for her eyes. At first you think Thousand and One Nights, then you think, What kind of religion believes God would want to shut off the beauty of youth with this sheath? Plus, you think, Hasn’t she broken some social contract here? Everybody else has exposed their faces, their identities, their vulnerabilities, but she doesn’t have to? She can hide behind the anonymity of a mask, in the name of God? Such a simple act can provoke complex emotions.
Then you think, Isn’t all this your typical Westerner’s rush to judgment?
“This is my sister, Hamdi,” says Hamza. “Would you like to sit with us, talk?”
We go find a table in an area set aside for African Spice, the restaurant. The walls are orange and white with washed green. Beyond the white trellis protecting this section, I notice a couple of middle-aged Somali ladies at Barrako Fashion Shop. One of them chatters into a cell phone she has wedged in her hijab — her headscarf — beside her ear, while both hands caress a silky sheet of blue cloth. Huh. Hands-free. Score one for Muslim hijabs.
Hamdi sits opposite me, those two eyes glowing out through the slit. Their other brother Mohammed brings us drinks. I have a delicious mango mix. Hamdi has tea. Of course I have to ask the obvious question about the severe veil, the hidden face, so shocking to unwary San Diegans: Why wear it?
“I came here [to the U.S.] when I was in sixth grade,” Hamdi says. “From the Ogaden, outside present-day Somalia. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about Islamic religion. So, hamdalila [“Thank the Lord”], when I was a freshman in college, I started practicing. One of Islam’s main purposes is to try to do as many good deeds as possible. In Islam we say a smile to a person is charity. It’s considered a good deed. This [veil] is called the niqab, and it’s something that’s considered as a good deed if a person wears it for the sake of Allah. And that’s why I decided to wear it, to do good deeds, and to please my creator.”