I had a MOST extraordinary experience with one of my Somali neighbors!
An elderly Somali man stopped me on the street, looking me in the eyes and with broad gestures, began talking to me and motioning toward my dog. He suddenly bent over and began gently stroking Shiloh’s back, head and face with both hands while continuing to talk to me. Then he stood straight and with wide open arms, he embraced me – not once but twice! Smiling, he politely bowed his head and continued his walk down the street.
I was astounded and stared after him wondering what had just happened.
Our New American Neighbors
I live in a small city that has had a large influx of Somali refugees over the past 20 years. These are people who have fled a very violent homeland, living in refugee camps and eventually being relocated to countries around the world. Almost every one of the refugees went to other cities in the US before coming to Lewiston, Maine. Through their family connections, they heard that this was a safe place to raise their children.
Theirs is a complex and harrowing story. I cannot imagine myself living through the horrors of the war that my New American neighbors have seen. I admire their strength and determination to build a new life in a country and culture so foreign to them. And I respect their need to preserve their history and religion as much as possible.
Living in the city center, as many of our immigrants do, I experience some of the richness that they bring to our community. Savory food. Colorful, flowing dresses. Never did I think I would walk the streets of Lewiston, Maine and hear other languages spoken! It is something I love about London and New York City and now experience at home!
I live three buildings up from the mosque. Five times a day I witness the fathers and sons, elderly men and young men going to prayer. (The women and girls go into the mosque from the rear of the building the next street over.) I admire the Somali Muslim commitment to their religion. It is probably the webbing that has supported them through so much heartache and loss.
The Queen of Lisbon Street
I go for frequent walks in the neighborhood and my companion is a 7 year old Standard Poodle. Shiloh is a very friendly pooch who thinks she is Queen of Lisbon Street, and the the entire neighborhood is her domain. She warns off all other dogs very loudly and generally, greets all two legged creatures warmly.
We learned quickly that our Somali neighbors do not like dogs. The young boys would run away when they saw us coming. The men frequently crossed the street or moved close to the buildings. The women seemed a bit wary.
I heard stories that Muslims fear dogs. They believe that animals are dirty. They eat dogs and cats. I never bothered to ask. I just kept Shiloh at heel, and she learned to keep walking and not try to greet all who pass us on the street.
Over the years, I think the Somalis going to the mosque and I have grown accustomed to seeing each other on the sidewalks. We nod politely, smile, say hello, and go our own way.
What changed for this one man?
I don’t know. There was no one around to translate for us. Maybe he would not have approached me if there had been someone else present. It is a mystery, but it triggered something in me.
I needed answers and finally did some research into Somali culture. I could no longer let myself rely on hear-say and was able to resolve several misconceptions.
- Pets in general are not part of the Somali culture.
- In Somalia, the few dogs that are around are usually in wild packs or guard dogs.
- Wild dogs are dirty.
- Wild dogs and guard dogs can be vicious.
- Therefore, dogs are avoided and feared just as we would avoid any wild animals traveling in packs or our neighbor’s guard dog.
- Islam does not prohibit having a dog or cat as a pet, but because they are unhygienic , it is not permissible to keep them in the house.
- If the saliva of a dog touches you or any part of your clothing, you have to wash the body part and clothing.
- Dogs are part of Allah’s creation and should be treated well and not feared (unless they are wild).
Like many misconceptions in all societies, not all Somalis and Muslims are aware of the facts. (How many Catholics are aware that the Canon Law still requires abstinence on ALL Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.)
I will continue to respect the feelings of my Somali neighbors and keep my dog on a short leash. But now I am doing so with a much better understanding of their fears and beliefs and a knowledge that cultural change is evolving for both of us.