The following story is from Doug Rutledge, who, along with photographer Abdi Roble, has been documenting the lives of Somali immigrants in the U.S. since 2003. In The Somali Diaspora, Roble and Rutledge trace the journey of a family from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to new lives in the United States. An exhibit of Roble’s photographs of large Somali communities in Minnesota, Ohio, and Maine is running at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis until Sept. 27th, 2009.
On a very pleasant Minneapolis evening, when Abdi Roble and I were finished working for the day, we found ourselves being driven toward our hotel by a young Somali man, Warsame, whose family we had been documenting. While Warsame was taking us home, our friend Paul, who is also a documentary photographer, called and suggested that we meet and talk about our work. He asked if we could go somewhere he could have a beer. My two Somali friends were quite comfortable with that suggestion. Warsame had recently finished his term in the armed forces, so he clearly was not unfamiliar with American men who wanted to have a beer.
The minute we went to the bar, Abdi and Warsame demonstrated the hospitality typical of Somalis. They took our order and went to the bar. They paid for all the drinks, and retrieved sodas for the three of us, but they asked Paul if he would mind stepping up to the bar to pick up his own beer, an act he performed with grace and aplomb.
One needs to let one’s mind settle on this picture for a moment. Two Somali Moslem men, one an ex-soldier, and both very accustomed to the cultural habits of young Americans, purchasing a beer for an American friend. Neither man felt uncomfortable in a bar or even uncomfortable buying a beer for a friend who wanted it. However, neither man would touch the beer or carry it, for that is hiraam, or “forbidden,” according to Islam.
Now, one would never accuse either of these gentlemen of imposing sharia law or even of imposing the moral code of Islam onto their friend Paul. Indeed, they never so much as mentioned the moral code they impose upon themselves when Paul said he wanted to drink a beer in their company. Their only hesitation occurred when hospitality to Paul might ask them to carry or touch the beer. This they could not do. They were quite happy to be in the bar, and watch their friend imbibe the refreshment of his choice. All they refused to do was to carry the beer.
This moment has always seemed to me to offer a cultural context to the cabdriver affair that haunts the Twin Cities. Like my two very dear friends, Somali cabdrivers hesitate to carry alcohol. They are in America, so they need to make a living here. But sometimes, they find themselves in the awkward position of being asked to carry a substance in their vehicle, an act that they take to be against their religion. If you spend a bit of time talking with the Somali cabdrivers, you will find that they have a variety of backgrounds. Educators, engineers, heavy equipment operators, and farmers all often find themselves being cabdrivers in America, because language and license requirements often prevent them from applying for the careers that their skills might have otherwise encouraged them to pursue.
These are all, it seems to me, potential friends. Cultural differences can and should remain. If America means anything, it must remain a place where people are free to be who they are, believe what they want and yet remain friends with people who believe otherwise. As long as we can all sit down and enjoy our culturally preferred refreshment together, we can share our experiences and be friends. It shouldn’t really matter if we have to carry our own drinks to the table.
Doug Rutledge, Ph.D., is a writer for The Somali Documentary Project and a visiting scholar at The Center for African Studies at Ohio State University.