She was as dark as a coffee bean with skin as smooth as glass. Her parents named her Hani, meaning happy, as she almost always had a smile. She was tall and graceful and usually wore a guntiino that flowed with her movement and accentuated her elegance.
Hani would often be seen waiting for the bus to downtown as we all lived in the lake area in Minneapolis, although a generation later many newly-arrived Somali immigrants would tend to live more in the Cedar-Riverside area. The time I speak of was the late 1970s. The bus stop was where I met her as we both worked downtown, even though I drove several days of the week. I always admired her headscarves of which she seemed to have many, but I finally overcame my shyness in order to say more than good morning to her. She also seemed a bit shy, but also confident and self-assured. I tried not to ask too many questions so as not to intrude on her life too much, but my curiosity was piqued by this exotic woman. It didn’t take much to be exotic in South Minneapolis as we all seemed to be fair complexioned Northern European types so Hani stood out in the neighborhood. I was surprised to find out that she was an attorney, fresh out of law school and specializing in immigrant law. This also brought up many questions from me as my parents had been immigrants to this country a few years after the Second World War.
We got to know each other better over a few months and I was invited to a party at her house a few blocks away. I had no idea what to expect that Saturday afternoon knowing that she still lived with her parents. I had no idea what they would be like so I focused to be on my best behavior with my best respectful manners. I was greeted at the front door by Hani’s father, Maxamed, who met me with a big smile and warm handshake. He put me immediately at ease with his openness and introduced me to his wife, Ladan. I knew immediately where Hani’s exquisite beauty came from. I recognized the faint aroma of Frankincense from my old hippie days and felt amazingly relaxed in this home.
Hani’s parents had come to the U.S. in the mid 1960s a few years after Somali Independence from the Italians, French, and British. They wanted stability for their small family and chose to come to Minneapolis with their young children. Maxamed (one who is worthy), was a civil engineer and apparently quite good at designing infrastructural needs for future use. He had secured a teaching position at the university and was loved by his students for his insight and informality. He was often referred to as “Professor Max”.
As more guests arrived and the party grew we gravitated to the backyard. While Max led me through their home we went by a slightly open door revealing Hani with her hair uncovered. I barely recognized her. We went out the back door and into the yard which was surrounded by a tall, solid fence. This had added mystery to these immigrants’ lives, but was in place when they bought the house and offered some privacy from nosy neighbors.
Hani entered the backyard with her thick, black, wavy hair draped well past her shoulders. Her natural grace and beauty always turned heads, yet she was always humble and kind. She was very at ease and mixed easily with the guests, many of whom she seemed to already know.
It was an interesting and eclectic bunch of guests at the party. Students and staff from the university, many from other parts of the world, as well as a few people I recognized from the neighborhood. There was no alcohol being served for those who might find it offensive, although the hosts seemed quite secular, but those of you who know me at all will know that I was there for the food. I was not disappointed.
Some of the appetizers were wonderful. I remember one called sambusa that was a spicy little triangular shaped snack, as well as kabaab, tropical fruits, and some hot dipping sauces. I was in taste bud heaven! There were chicken, rice, and pasta dishes that Hani and her mother had made that were spiced a little differently than what I was used to, but it was all delicious. I did need a fair amount of liquid to cool it all down.
These were regular parties, about one every other month and I managed to get to most of them. I got to know Hani and her family better and found out how supportive they were of the immigrant population of the Twin Cities. They were always there to help people adapt to the culture of their new country without forgetting the old and Hani taught English to non-native speakers once a week at the downtown YMCA.
I moved away from the neighborhood a year or two later to get on with the next part of my life, but never forgot my old neighbors and old neighborhood. Last I heard, Hani was working at the university supporting, counseling, and advising foreign students.
This was inspired by some Somali women I observed at a hospital near the University of Minnesota while my brother was having a procedure last year. They were jaw-droppingly beautiful in appearance and I found myself wishing to talk to them. When my father, Otto, attended North Carolina State University for graduate studies he had an advisor, Professor Hank Rutherford, with whom he stayed in contact until the professor’s death. He told me stories about the foreign student parties and gatherings at the professor’s house and about his other foreign student friends. One of these friends was his roommate, Steve Yang, who taught my father some basic conversational Mandarin. I also have an old roommate who practices immigrant law in an advisory capacity at the University of Minnesota.
I have this daydream of visiting Twin City’s restaurants trying a different cuisine every day until I run out of places to eat. I know that I better start soon. My parents were immigrants and I love immigration stories as well as meeting people from all over the world. I don’t get enough of it, but do the best I can when I can. If you have the opportunity go eat an exotic or ethnic meal and think of me when you do. I’ll be there with you in spirit.