The Mall of Somalia

Minneapolis's own slice of Mogadishu

It's a dismal day in south Minneapolis, one of those cold midwinter afternoons when the sun shines as though its batteries were dying. At times like this, a good portion of Twin Cities natives wishes they lived somewhere else, like Florida. But, what can you do? Move, gripe, or shut up. At a bustling little mall called Karmel Square--where, until fairly recently, practically everyone did live somewhere else--the frigid weather is a favorite topic of conversation. "We are an outdoor people," grumbles mall regular Abdullahi Hassan. But Hassan, along with many of the estimated 25,000 Somalis living in Minnesota, has come to grudgingly accept snowdrifts and windchill as part of the bargain he makes for a better life. Besides, when he wants a taste of home, he can always make the trek to Karmel Square.

In the food court, the mall's social nexus, the tile floor is littered with dirty napkins and snowmelt. Broken Styrofoam cups float in the ornamental fountain. Plastic buckets, which have been scattered about the room, catch drips falling from leaks in the roof. But the building's lackluster upkeep doesn't seem to bother anyone much. The air is filled with conversation. People constantly greet one another in excited voices. There is a virtual epidemic of hugging and touching.

On this midweek afternoon, the food court is inhabited by maybe two dozen people, almost exclusively Somali men speaking Somali. Most are sipping coffee or sweet tea. A few are munching hunger-quenching snack foods like nafaqo--a delectable batter-fried hunk of mashed potato wrapped around a hardboiled egg. As usual, a bunch of guys are clustered near the television. It's tuned to an English soccer match. At Karmel Square, the TV is always tuned to soccer. Unless there's no soccer. Then it's tuned to CNN and everyone looks a little bored.

Traditionally, Somali culture strictly separates the genders--each has its role, however unbalanced by modern standards. An old Somali proverb says, "Your woman should be in the house or in the grave." So while the men populate the chatty social scene out front, the women dominate the warren of little shops that spread throughout the first floor of the building. There, dozens of merchants in tiny little shops sell the types of fabric, jewelry, home decorations, and assorted curiosities that you won't find at Wal-Mart.

There also are no checkout lines or scheduled work breaks. Truth be told, the commerce at this laid-back shopping center feels somewhat like an afterthought. Karmel Square is a mall in concept. But it's fundamentally social by nature: a place to gossip, converse, and trade job tips. Sometimes, it's a place where people reconnect with friends and relations they haven't seen since they left their home country.

 

At a little after 5:00 p.m., a large, handsome guy hobbles into the food court on a pair of crutches. Accompanied by a friend, he plops down on one of the few vacant seats. He is nattily dressed: turtleneck sweater, wool overcoat, and a Carhart stocking cap. Speaking in halting English, he explains that he lost the lower half of his right leg in 1991, the year Somalia's last functioning government collapsed and the country descended into a nightmare of lawlessness, brutality, and madness. As the fighting overtook the capital city of Mogadishu, the man says he was struck repeatedly in the leg with the butt of a militiaman's rifle. He couldn't find a doctor or hospital, so the leg became badly infected and eventually was amputated.

He explains that he spent more than 10 years marooned in a Kenyan refugee camp, where his wife and kids remain. He's been in Minnesota for one month. This is his first visit to Karmel Square, which might explain why, despite the recounting of these awful stories, he's smiling.

Just as the man's more English-proficient friend jumps in to fill out the details of the story, a loud chanting comes crackling over a loudspeaker. It's the call to evening prayer. The crippled man and his buddy rise from their seats, just as the others do in the coffee shop, one by one. Some make their way to a spartan little prayer room in a distant corner of the building. When that space fills up, the overflow heads to Spectrum Computer, a nearby business that provides internet access, computer repair services, and free floor space where the faithful can spread their prayer mats and bow toward Mecca.

 

Karmel Square is located in a sprawling, 125,000-square-foot building on the 2900 block of Pillsbury Avenue. It is a little off the beaten path, about a half-block north of Lake Street. For decades, the building served as a repair shop for streetcars. Later, it became a machinery warehouse. Then, a little over four years ago, a Palestinian émigré named Basim Sabri spotted it, and the posted For Sale sign, while driving down Pillsbury. Sabri, who had already built a small empire of residential properties in the Whittier and Uptown neighborhoods, snapped up the dilapidated building for the fire-sale price of $169,000. It was his first venture into commercial property, and he wasn't exactly sure what to do with it. With limited funds, Sabri began rehabbing the heating and plumbing. Around the same time, he noticed the dramatic influx of Somali immigrants in the Twin Cities. It struck him: He would build a souk--the Arabic word for a mall or bazaar--to serve the Somali community. It was a novel idea. At the time, Sabri says, there were no other Somali malls in Minneapolis--or, for that matter, in North America.

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