The Art of Healing: Somali culture, Islam are inextricably linked

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Twice a year in Portland, Muslims stream into Hadlock Field for Eid prayer, lining the turf with white qamis, colorful garments, abayas, and soft, fabric-laced prayer rugs.

As a young girl, this scene always warmed my heart. My eyes trailed the glitter of the dresses and vibrant flowing hijabs. Faces radiated a pristine glow, one of the many benefits of fasting. I watched as a swirl of beauty and power moved in a daze of trailing dresses and silk that brushed against my arms as I walked. A myriad of figures stood tall above my head as I moved through the crowd.

Most years, my mother pulled me along by the hand, helping to cut a clear path. Here in the center – the whole of the Muslim community I grew up in – was the metaphorical staple of what belonging felt like to me. These holidays that brought us together act as a staple for my experience of home, togetherness, and belonging.

After prayer concluded, I would act out the respectful pause before rushing to find my friends through the crowd, searching for faces of their family members to help locate them. Eid celebration continued with a traditional visit to the mall, where the scheduled event of sitting in the Olive Garden parking lot began.

While sitting in one of our parents’ vans we would scream from laughter and yell playfully. Somali girlhood was loud and proud. It was a glorious, fantastic element that filled the air of my world. And the women in my family especially were the backbone of my foundation. With the smell of black seed oil on my grandmother’s brown skin, the lilt of her accent and tongue, and my mother’s lionhearted care and steadfast presence, I knew I would be supported moving through the world. 

However, as I continued to grow up as a Black, Somali-American woman with English as my first language, I struggled with imposter syndrome within both my cultural and racial identities.

Attending white-majority environments in public schools and private institutions only exacerbated this experience; starting in second grade, we were the first Somali family to live in Biddeford. I felt slowly displaced and increasingly unable to claim my cultural identity because of alienating differences between myself and the environment. I sensed undue pressure to act as a representative of my culture. And worse, I didn’t feel I lived up to it.

This issue was heightened especially because of the way I spoke, and how it was perceived by my white counterparts. From their perspective, I didn’t seem Black enough. Yet in the eyes of my wider cultural community, I didn’t seem Somali enough, because I held almost no capacity to speak the language. 

In fourth grade, my grandmother came to live with us, and it was the first time I experienced an undeniable belief I belonged as a Somali. Often as we slept side by side on our shared bed, she taught me the importance of reciting specific passages of the Quran before I dreamt.

Although Quranic recitations are in Arabic, Somali rituals are steeped in Islam because of how Islam was integrated through the years. I was taught no perceivable difference between being Somali and being Muslim. Religion and culture worked hand in hand, and I felt this viscerally. Amidst instability, religion and culture were pillars that provided me with a foundational acceptance that humans cycle through joy and endings. My life experiences instituted a wonder and curiosity towards healing, trauma, refuge, religion, and spirituality.

Over time, I grew to believe and honor that there is no one way to be Somali and/or Black. I know now that my ancestral and cultural history lives in my skin. It’s imprinted in my features and movements. And it swirls endlessly through my blood.

Muntaha Mohamed is an artist and activist who works for Portland Empowered, volunteers with Black POWER, and sits on the board of Mindbridge.