Jun 25, 2016

A Date with the Somali Teenager

Moving to the Plains, I expected to meet a lot of Swedes and Norwegians who hung out at saunas and ate lukefisch, or Germans who did complicated gymnastic routines at Turnerverein.

And, in fact, 30% of the population of my adopted state is of German ancestry, 30% Scandinavian, and 10% Native American.

But I didn't expect to meet Somalis.

Before coming here, all I knew about Somalia was:
1. It's a country in East Africa, bordering Ethiopia and Kenya, 99% Sunni Muslim.
2. The government is in ruins after a revolution in the 1990s.
3. The Somali language is Afro-Asiatic, similar to Arabic and Hebrew.

Shortly after arriving, I learned a lot more:

With the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, thousands of Somalis fled the country and immigrated to Canada, Britain, South Africa, and the United States.

There are about 150,000 in the U.S., mostly in the Midwest, especially the Plains. Since I live two blocks from the Islamic Center, my neighborhood has a lot.  I see women in hijabs and chadors about as often as I did in Turkey.  I hear conversations in Somali and Arabic.  Local grocery stores offer halal products.

 With 17 million speakers (as many as Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish put together), Somali is the largest of the languages in the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic Family.  Arabic and Hebrew are in the Semitic branch, so they are related, but as different as English and Hindi.  It takes an expert to see the connection.

English: I have a big sausage
Somali: Waxaan leeyahay bolse weyn
Arabic: Laday nawe min alkhubz alkabir


English: Come to my mouth
Somali: Kaalay afkayga
Arabic: Tueal 'iilaa fimy


Of course, I didn't plan on using any of those phrases.  Somalia, like several of the Muslim states on the Persian Gulf, has draconian laws against gay people.

I assumed that the Somalis in the U.S. are equally homophobic, and oblivious to the existence of gay people in their midst, even though there was a gay-friendly coffee house with a giant rainbow flag in the window right across the street from the halal market.

Most of the Somalis I saw every day rushed past me with angry glares or tried to avoid eye contact, but I assumed that they were apprehensive of morally-bankrupt Westerners, not specifically identifying me as an abomination.

There were several Somali families in my apartment building, including one at the end of the hall with a teenage son.  I saw him several times, leaving his apartment or checking the mail,  Once his car was smashed in a hit-and-run accident right outside my window.

He was tall and slim, very dark, with a long neck, frizzy hair, and thin features.  Very attractive.  But I was hesitant about cruising him.

Plains, June 2014

One morning in late June, shortly after my visit from Eli from Amsterdam, I am walking down the hall toward the exit on his side of the building, and the teenage son bursts out his door and glares suspiciously at me.


"Subax wanagsan (Good morning)" I say, the only Somali phrase I know.

"I speak English," he says harshly.  "Last year I was in AP English at East High.  I also speak Somali, Arabic, and French, in case you were wondering."

I start to burn with anger.  I was just trying to be friendly!  Besides, he can't beat me in the language department.  "Je vais courir," I say in French.  "Je cours 3 milles chaque matin."  I'm going jogging.  I jog 3 miles every morning.

"It's too hot out," he says, if he doesn't believe me.

"I don't mind the heat."

He continues to glare.  "I'll bet you collapse from heat exhaustion after one block, Awoowe."

I suspect that Awoowe is an insult (actually, it means "Grandpa").  I should just leave, but I'm so used to getting cruised by twinks that an invitation comes out automatically: "Want to tag along and call 911 when I collapse?  If I survive, I'll buy you a smoothie."

He breaks into a wide grin.  "Hang on, I'll get my running shoes."

We jog down the hill, to the University, and then back toward the Islamic Center, an easy three miles.  He tells me that his name is Key, short for Keynan.  He's been in the U.S. for twelve years.  He just graduated from East High, and he'll be enrolling at the University in the fall as a biochemistry major.

The full story, with nude photos, is on Tales of West Hollywood.