Letter From Maine: New in Town


Rain in a Dry Land - Somialis take orientation classes in refugee camp in Kenya before coming to America, but many take more classes to learn English upon their arrival. Somialis take orientation classes in refugee camp in Kenya before coming to America, but many take more classes to learn English upon their arrival.

On Lisbon Street, the main downtown thoroughfare in Lewiston, many of the buildings are shuttered. The old red brick factories that still line the riverfront, and that used to disgorge thousands of workers at shift changes, are now crumbling hulks. Old neighborhoods of three- and four-story apartment buildings, all within walking distance of the mills, are now inhabited largely by Somalis. In the park next to City Hall, Somali boys on bicycles tear around a Civil War monument, while Somali women, dressed in full-length flowing jalabib, babies strapped to their backs, walk slowly, in groups of two or three. Several Somali shops -- the Mogadishu Store, the African Multipurpose Store -- have opened on Lisbon Street.

But this, in a sense, is all that many of Lewiston's longtime residents see of Somali life. Even though hundreds of Somalis are enrolled in English classes at the Adult Learning Center on the edge of downtown, relatively few speak enough yet to hold a real conversation, or to explain why they're here.

Omar Ahmed, a tweedy, genial man in his fifties with a scholarly-looking beard, speaks English well, and is a welfare case manager for the city. He had an idea about how to break through to the Americans: he would write a play--in Mogadishu, he had been a teacher and a playwright. In 2003, a Lewiston theatre company agreed to produce his latest work, called "Love in Cactus Village," which Ahmed had translated into English. It was the story of a rural Somali girl who defies her father's wish that she marry a rich man. Ahmed described the play to a local reporter as his way of thanking his new neighbors for their hospitality toward him and his fellow-Somalis.

Ahmed had other motives as well. "I wanted to convince the local people that we come from somewhere, that we had universities, that we don't just come from the bush," he told me. "We have such a rich literature, which has survived from our oral traditions. It's so important not to lose our culture. Only a very minute amount of our literature was written down, and even that portion was destroyed in the war. Even our national museum was destroyed, and wild plants are growing there. You can go see."

Ahmed's play was well received by Lewistonians but the local Somalis found it controversial. Even though most of the roles were played by Somali students from Lewiston High, few Somalis attended the performances. And their absence revealed at least as much about the Lewiston Somalis as anything shown onstage did.

"There were so many different objections," Ahmed told me. "People said, 'They will see us as camel riders, camel herders.' But it's true--we have a feeling for animals." The imam of the local mosque demanded that the town ban the play, because it had men and women performing on the same stage. Theatre itself is haram--forbidden--according to a certain interpretation of the Koran. "These people are saying, 'We cannot have theatre,' " Ahmed said, in exasperation. "I say, 'How can we live?' Other Muslim countries--Indonesia, Egypt, even Saudi Arabia--they have theatre."

Farmland in SomaliaFarmland in Somalia after a rainstorm.

Other denunciations of Ahmed's play may have had little to do with piety or propriety. People are loath to talk, at least to outsiders, about the clan system in Somalia, whose rivalries have helped fuel the civil war there. But it survives in the diaspora, and it continues to divide expatriate communities, where different groups scramble for access to resources. (A young Somali social worker told me that he'd stopped going to the Lewiston mosque, because it was dominated by members of the Ogaden clan. "I refuse to pray next to someone who sees me first as an Isaaq, not as a Muslim," he said.) Omar Ahmed's job as a welfare case manager had been widely coveted among English-speaking Somalis, and some of the disappointed candidates, particularly those who happened to be members of other clans, were perhaps nursing a grudge.

Lewiston officials, though taken aback by the intensity of the protests, remained enthusiastic backers of the production. After all the bad feeling over the Mayor's letter and the visit by the neo-Nazis, they saw Ahmed's play as a step in the right, pluralist direction. But notice had been served: Somali "unity," much proclaimed by self-appointed community spokespersons, was an illusion.

Mainers are known, traditionally, for their self-reliance and insularity. Anyone whose grandparents weren't born in the state is an outsider, "from away." But migrant workers have been a pillar of Maine's economy for many years: Jamaicans and Haitians pick apples, Mexicans pick blueberries and keep the fish-processing factories in business; Guatemalans and Hondurans are loggers. Indeed, lobstering is practically the only traditional Maine occupation still performed exclusively by local whites. But the other racial and ethnic minorities mostly depart at the end of the season, leaving Maine the whitest state in the nation. The Somali refugees can't go home.

Nearly every Somali family in Lewiston has survived terrible things. Of an estimated prewar population of nine million, at least a million people are believed to have fled the country. More than a million are believed to have died in fighting and famines since 1991. A recent survey of Somali patients at Portland's Maine Medical Center concluded, "The prevalence of trauma in this population was 100 percent." The "trauma events" listed in the Portland study ranged from rape and torture to enduring sniper fire and witnessing killing. It found "considerable psychiatric symptomatology." Yet there was no interest in Western psychiatry: distraught Somalis traditionally take their troubles to the imam at their mosque, and they continue to do so in Maine.

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This article originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine on December 11, 2006 and appears here with permission from the author.