Suuqa Karmel was an old Midwest Machinery warehouse that was bought in 1997 by the...ahem...controversial Basim Sabri, a Palestinian immigrant who renovated the building along the lines of an indoor, Middle-Eastern marketplace. He divided the building into stalls, where local Somalis--mostly women--opened their small, start-up businesses selling everything from prayer rugs and hijabs to perfume, bed sheets and tea sets. There is a mosque on the upper level, and a branch of Franklin Bank, one of the local banks that caters to the Somali population by offering Shariah-compatible services.
I waited in the parking lot between the two buildings that comprised the mall, and people-watched for a while. Men in dress shirts stopped in at one of the little coffeeshops on their way to and from work, while women and children piled out of minivans, probably visiting the sisters and aunties who were on shift at their stalls. When the rest of the group arrived, we all went in together, though I hung back to get a coffee and a couple of sambusas.
Somali coffee is amazing. It's like diabetes in a cup. I don't know how much sugar and milk they poured into that thing, but it was a lot more like a chai latte from Caribou than the thick, gritty Arab-style coffee I was expecting. Sambusa is like Indian samosa, only better, because it's got meat in it (which can pretty much be said of most East African food--like Indian, but not vegetarian, so better by leaps and bounds). You can get them with ground beef or ground fish--the quintessential Somali snack food.
We got there right at noon, which meant that the mosque upstairs was blasting the Call to Prayer over the loudspeakers, and I was instantly back in the Old City of Jerusalem. The smells were all there--frankincense, fried food and gasoline, and the cramped, winding hallways with their tiny shops stuffed to overflowing with the same ten kinds of item reminded me so much of Christian Quarter Road. I think Basim Sabri was a little homesick when he drew up the blueprints for Karmel.
But the Somalis have found it well-suited to their own entrepreneurial ventures, and as I said, it was mostly women. I bought a guntiino (sarong) from a nice lady whose name I can't seem to remember. I asked how much and she said "For you--fifty dollars." My heart sank. That was bargaining language, and I suck at bargaining. Had I actually been in the Christian Quarter, I would have haggled a bit, but this was Minneapolis, and I'd just taken it for granted that the rules would be the same here as the Kmart down the road. I paid the fifty dollars. I would later find that a guntiino fitted for a tall, African woman would not necessarily fit a short, potty Norwegian-American girl. Natch.
We wandered around there for an hour and a half or so. Me and Sarah, another IV volunteer, stopped in at the Islamic Bookstore for some Somali grammar guides and dictionaries, and eventually, most of the group made their way over to stall #110, where I found five of us girls in line for henna. I hung back for a while; the tattoos were huge and only $5 apiece, a price that screams "hair dye in a tube." I'd seen pictures online of where people got henna tattoos using "black henna," which is not actual henna at all. These unlucky souls found out too late that they were allergic to the chemicals used in it, and erupted in painful rashes that left permanent (though lovely) paisley-shaped scars all over their feet and hands, but gosh darnit, the girl was so good at what she did that I was mesmerized.
I went for it. She had me sign my name in a notebook and date it (for liability reasons, I guess), picked up her tube, and started work on my right hand. She was a genius. She had no pattern to work off of, but each one of us who got the tattoos got a unique design, and I'm pretty sure she was making it up as she went along.
"You're not allergic, are you?" she asked.
I looked at my hand. She was already halfway done; it seemed a little superfluous to ask. Then again, if I knew I was allergic and let her get this far, I'd deserve whatever flaming eruption I got. When she finished, a short five minutes later, I was free to go, and spent the next twenty minutes with my fingers spread out, letting the black paste air dry. Here's my design:
I reasoned if I was going to have permanent scarring on my hands, it should at least look awesome.
I never caught the girl's name. Later, while shopping at Rosedale Mall, I'd run into a Somali lady who knew the girl and said her name was Sabrina, or something like that. So if you're not allergic to black henna, stall #110 at Suuqa Karmel is your place to go.
We had pizza in Maplewood after that, and then the church group went back north to Superior, and I went home. I think the retreat was as enlightening to me as it was to our visitors, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next one.