Being of a mixed background, and having lived in so many diverse places, having worn many different hats, I sometimes struggle to pinpoint what is home to me. I can tell you that I most definitely felt at home every time I drove into Cape Breton, seeing all the lakes, the forests, but mostly the anticipation of meeting my tribe again. My soul rests and I feel a pull towards the culmination of the journey. I feel the exact same way when I pass the Gotthard pass, or drive by Lago Maggiore, because I know soon I’ll be among familiar sounds, smells, and sights, and if anything changed, I would feel comfortable and confident enough to explore the changes, because they too belong to me. I felt a smaller version of these emotions every time I walked into the Caterpillar Café; it was my safe place, where I’d meet other women seeking refuge from the craziness outside, and where kids could be kids and simply play. I had the distinct impression that I could make Turkey my home as well, and so heartily hoped I could, but it was not to be. Turkey encompassed everything I loved about all my places: the tribal feel, the mix of modern and traditional, the ancient history, the mountains, valleys, and water everywhere, the hope and wish to move forward, even the political intrigue could be seen as fascinating, if you weren’t directly affected by it, I suppose. Home isn’t enshrined in a single place, a single family, or any particular object.
As I pass in review all the places that made me feel at home, faces come to mind, smells, the way the breeze hit my face, the sounds, and tastes of closeness and belonging all come flashing through my brain. And this is what got me making Somali coffee the last few days.
Because of this little sisters project I’ve been able to talk with a lot of my old friends, some of whom I hadn’t talked with in years, though never really loosing track of each other. This reawakened a lot of the emotions I felt while in these friends’ company, our shared experiences, our memories. One such memory was with a friend, whom I’ll call Sadiqa (not her real name). I spent a lot of time with her during my first years as a Muslim, and was invited to her home on several occasions. Once I even spent the night. I will never forget it. We would normally sit together and talk about this and that for hours, sipping Somali coffee, while any number of sisters, cousins, and neighbors would come through the doors, everyone with a specific purpose in mind, all seemingly seamlessly working toward a common goal, but this night was Ramadan.
We had supper all together, on the floor, over a spread tablecloth. We ate rice with tamarind sauce, bananas, and goat meat using our fingers. There was sambosa, and one of the sisters had baked a spicy angel cake. We mashed the bananas with the rice to make little balls, and swiftly pushed them into our mouths with our thumbs. I was the guest, but I never felt out of place. Nobody asked questions that reminded me that I didn’t belong, nobody made me feel uncomfortable. Everyone participated in this seamless endeavor to make me feel welcome, without weighing it down with pomposity and unnecessary frills. There were six sisters in that household, three of them were my friends, who also happened to be the oldest, the youngest was very young and liked to spend time with me, and their mother was partial towards me, since I was a recent revert to Islam. If one of the younger sisters felt awkward, they didn’t let it show.
It was Ramadan, so we were breaking our fast together, and afterwards we’d pray tarawih (nightly prayer during the month Ramadan, it consists of ten prostrations, during which a large segment of the Qur’an is recited, with the intention of completing the recitation of the entire Qur’an by the end of Ramadan). My friend Sadiqa had memorized a good portion of the Qur’an, which made her the most advanced among all of us, and the neighbors. She led the prayers. We all stood, facing the stairs (which were in the direction of the Qibla in that particular home), over an extra large sheet that acted as our prayer mat. All the neighboring elderly ladies who couldn’t make the trip to the mosque for the prayer, like most people do, came over to pray behind Sadiqa. It was a magical night, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it had been Laylatul Qadr (the night of decree, or the night in which the Qur’an was first sent down), because that’s how magical it felt. I cried tears of humility before this amazing gift that I had been given; to feel at home in someone else’s home, to feel I belonged to this tribe, to feel the community in the communal prayer, to feel the love of God in my sister’s voice.
When it was time to go to sleep, I was taken to a room, which was set aside for my privacy, meaning someone had to give up their room and possibly sleep on the floor, and I found a crisp new traditional dress in its wrapper on the bed. It was blue and grey. I felt I couldn’t possibly open it, no words were exchanged, but I simply could not bring myself to take it. I always regretted not taking it, because in my confusion, I had somehow ruined the selfless concert, I had given the gift weight, whilst accepting all the other selfless actions with surprising ease. I eventually worked up the courage to ask Sadiqa about the dress, days, weeks, maybe months later. Was it indeed a dress? Was it meant for me? Should I have taken it? She smiled, not wanting to make any deal out of it, yes, it was a dress, yes, it was for me, and no, I don’t have to take it. I wanted to fix it, I wanted the dress. But it was too late. Some things are meant for the moment, they are meant to be savored within a context, outside of which, they simply have no place. They do not belong. The dress was meant as a concrete symbol to remember the days we spent together. My refusal I feared for years might mean I didn’t wish to remember, but in reality, it meant far more than that: it meant that I didn’t need a physical reminder, and that I feared it might somehow diminish the completely wholesome experience I would forever cherish in my mind.
In this same way, each view, scent, taste, texture, has its unique way to take me back to a particular moment, when I felt something specific. Somali coffee, and hearing my sister’s voice over Skype after all these years brought it all rushing back to me, one moment at a time. But home, truly, as a whole, can never be limited to a moment or an object, because it’s the harmonious collection of such aspects of life that make home heimlich.