Islam comes to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee

By Loring Danforth
Lewiston Sun Journal. Jun 9, 2019.

Muslims pray during Eid at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. Photo by Daryn Slover/Lewiston Sun Journal.
Muslims pray during Eid at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. Photo by Daryn Slover/Lewiston Sun Journal.

No one would ever mistake the Androscoggin Bank Colisee for the Great Mosque in Mecca. But for a few hours on the morning of June 4, the day Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking the Fast), the Colisee was, literally, transformed into a mosque. The building where Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston, the home of the Kora Shrine Circus and the site of so many Class A high school hockey championships between Lewiston and St. Doms, actually become a Muslim house of worship.

By 8:30 a.m. the Colisee parking lot was full. At the entrance to the building, administrators from the Middle School greeted their Muslim students and their families. Inside, women entered the rink from the south corner; men from a separate entrance on the north. Hundreds of shoes covered the floor around both entrances. When the service began, the rink was filled with some 1,500 worshipers, many of whom had brought their own small prayer rugs. The walls above them were covered with signs advertising Mailhot Sausages, St. Mary’s Hospital, and Bud Light.

Men sat cross-legged in rows filling the whole eastern half of the rink. They were dressed in clothing from all over the Muslim world — Somalia, Djibouti, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and America. Some wore tight-fitting, knitted skullcaps; others wore small embroidered cylindrical caps; still others wore red-and-white cloth head coverings draped over their shoulders or wrapped like turbans around their head.

Many wore long flowing robes in white, brown, tan and blue. Some wore dress shirts, jackets, and ties. A few elders had beards dyed red with henna. Young men were dressed in the latest American styles — baseball caps with their wide, flat brims facing backward, Tommy Hilfinger jackets and colorful Nike sneakers.

Women filled the western end of the rink from the blue line to the goal line. They were dressed more uniformly, but much more colorfully. The women were all wearing hijabs covering their hair and long flowing dresses in an astounding range of colors — bright yellows and pinks, incandescent reds and oranges, deep greens and blues. Beautiful black floral designs painted in henna covered the backs of their hands and wove up their wrists and forearms.

During the service, several imams, Muslim religious leaders, addressed the crowd in Somali and recited verses from the Quran in Arabic. They chanted the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (“God is most Great”) over and over again and called out to the faithful: “Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful. … You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help. Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have received your grace. … Amen.”

As they prayed, worshipers stood, raised their hands beside their heads, crossed their arms over their chest, bowed, knelt down and prostrated themselves, touching their foreheads to the ground.

When the ceremony ended at about 9:30 a.m., worshipers warmly greeted family and friends with handshakes, hugs and kisses on the cheek. In the parking lot, people gathered in groups to take photographs and exchange good wishes: “Eid Mubarak! Happy Holiday!”

Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar that commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. After the Eid service, they gathered at home for large meals and family celebrations.

The cultural richness and diversity of Lewiston delights me. I am thankful that the many Somalis who have made refuge in Lewiston have not “left their culture at the door.” They have kept their sense of family and their devotion to their religion, not to mention their considerable skills as soccer players. As a friend of mine once told me: “A garden with one kind of flower can never be as beautiful as a garden with many kinds of flowers.”

As I sat in the stands of the Colisee looking down at the hockey rink filled with Muslims praying as their religious leaders chanted “Allahu Akbar,” I was profoundly saddened by the thought that many Americans associate this Arabic phrase, meaning “God is most great,” with suicide bombers and violent acts of terrorism, rather than with the expression of religious devotion.

I was deeply moved by both the strangeness and the familiarity of the scene before me. This celebration was foreign to me in many ways, different from anything I had ever experienced growing up in America. But it also felt very ordinary, very familiar. I thought of my own experiences of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter: new clothes, religious services and big family meals.

Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, captured this paradox well: “When an exotic custom fascinates us in spite of (or on account of) its apparent singularity, it is generally because it presents us with a distorted reflection of a familiar image, which we confusedly recognize as such without yet managing to identify it.”


“Islam comes to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee” at the Lewiston Sun Journal

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Two Worlds Come Together Through Teaching, Learning

By Loring Danforth
Lewiston Sun Journal. Jul 10, 2016.

The Adult Learning Center is located in the basement of the Lewiston Multipurpose Center, downstairs from Longley School and across the street from the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

In addition to offering adult basic education and workforce training courses, the center is the place where immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers from over 20 countries around the world go to learn English. They understand all too well that speaking English is one of the most important skills they need to learn in order to earn a living, provide for their families, and make a contribution to the new community they have become a part of.

These classes, formally known as “English for Speakers of Other Languages,” range from the most basic beginning level for people who know no English and have never learned to read or write, to more advanced classes that prepare people for doing high school work and for becoming United States citizens.

I have taught English to students at the Adult Learning Center for over 10 years; I have taught anthropology to students at Bates College for over 30 years. The two schools are very different, and the two groups of students I teach come from very different worlds.

I have been privileged to have the opportunity to bring these two worlds together — worlds so far removed from one another, but worlds that also have a great deal in common. Both worlds are filled with students eager to learn important skills and teachers who find joy and fulfillment in sharing their knowledge with others.

Each May, during the Bates College Short Term, I teach a course titled “Encountering Community: Ethnographic Fieldwork and Service Learning,” in which students learn how to conduct individual anthropological research on a topic of their choice. They also participate in a program of service learning, which for many years has involved helping African refugees learn English.

Many Bates students find their work at the Adult Learning Center among the most valuable experiences they have during their college career. Every year I ask students to write a short essay in which they reflect on what their teaching at the center has meant to them.

The essays show clearly that it is possible to establish meaningful relationships with people who are very different from you, people with whom you do not even share a language in common. The essays also convey the powerful message that African refugees are individual human beings with unique personalities and a lifetime of experiences.

Finally, I hope, these essays give us some insight into the courage and the dignity with which Lewiston’s newest residents are dealing with the tragedies, the challenges and the opportunities they have faced since their departure from their old homes in Africa and their arrival in their new homes in Lewiston.

We offer a sampling here.

Loring Danforth. Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.
Loring Danforth. Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.


“Two Worlds Come Together Through Teaching Learning” at the Lewiston Sun Journal

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Lessons from Saudi Arabia

By Loring Danforth
Lewiston Sun Journal. Dec 9, 2012.

The lobby of our hotel in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia was lavishly decorated with leather, glass, and marble. When the elevator door opened, I saw a young woman standing inside, wearing a black floor-length robe, a black scarf over her hair, and a black veil that covered her whole face, except for her eyes. I froze; I didn’t know what to do. Should I enter the elevator or not? Then, after the briefest pause, the young woman looked at me and asked matter-of-factly in English, “What floor are you going to?” “Third,” I said, and entered the elevator. My dilemma was solved.

Last spring I spent a month in Saudi Arabia with a small group of Bates College students. We visited Dhahran, the center of the oil industry on the Persian Gulf; Riyadh, the conservative capital in the center of country; and Jeddah, the more liberal, cosmopolitan port of entry for the millions of pilgrims – “guests of God” – who have traveled to the holy city of Mecca from all over the Muslim world for 1,400 years. The narrow streets of the old city of Jeddah are full of people from Yemen, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In several empty lots I saw Somali boys playing soccer while their mothers sat on nearby doorsteps talking with their neighbors.

Many Americans have dangerously inaccurate views about Islam. A well-known politician who visited Bates last year told students that Muslims were “fundamentally different from Americans.” This is clearly not true. Many Muslims are Americans, and many Americans are Muslims. Perhaps he meant to say that Muslims are fundamentally different from Christians. But this is not true either. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are “People of the Book,” since they believe in one God and share a common religious tradition that includes the Torah, the Old and the New Testaments, as well as holy figures such as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Noah, Moses, and Jesus.

Any view that sets up a fundamental opposition between different “kinds” of people – Black and White, Christian and Jew, Protestant and Catholic – must be avoided at all costs. Dichotomies like this distance and dehumanize “other” people; they can also lead to the kind of violence we know from South Africa, Nazi Germany, and Northern Ireland. Such a view also implies incorrectly that all Muslims are somehow “the same;” it ignores the tremendous diversity that exists within a Muslim world that includes countries as different as Morocco in North Africa, Albania in Europe, and Indonesia in Southeast Asia.

This same politician told Bates students that all Muslims, unlike all Christians, believe that the Qur’an must be taken literally and is not subject to interpretation. Again this is not true. Muslims have just as wide a range of understandings of the Qur’an as Christians do of the Bible. In addition to the two major divisions of Islam – Sunni and Shia – there are four major, and many minor, schools of Sunni Islam, as well as a mystical tradition of Islam known as Sufism. Followers of some forms of Islam do not even consider followers of other forms to be real Muslims.

Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil reserves and powerful military, is one of the most important countries in the Muslim world. It is a totalitarian state ruled by an absolute monarchy. Saudi citizens do not enjoy many of the rights that Americans take for granted, such as the right to elect their leaders and the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. This unfortunate situation is not a result of the fact that Saudi Arabia is Muslim country, any more than the fact that some Central and South American countries are totalitarian states is a result of the fact that they are Christian countries.

During our stay in Saudi Arabia we encountered people with many different interpretations of Islam. Some Saudis said that the Qur’an forbids women from driving. Others said that the Qur’an does not forbid women from driving. Still others said that the ban on women driving is the product of a traditional patriarchal society and has nothing at all to do with Islam. A group of Saudi university students I spoke with disagreed strongly about whether I, as a Christian, could touch the Qur’an. One young man told me I could not touch the Qur’an since I was not “clean.” When I protested, he modified his position: “I was not spiritually clean.” I protested again, and he said: “I was not spiritually clean in a Muslim way.” To this I agreed. A young Saudi woman dismissed his whole argument out of hand. Of course I could touch the Qur’an. How else could I learn about Islam?

We met Saudi Muslims who reminded me of conservative fundamentalist Protestants, others who reminded me of mainstream Catholics, and still others who reminded me of liberal Unitarian Universalists or Quakers. One Saudi woman claimed that scientists have proven that homosexuals are immoral and that God had sent AIDS to punish them for their evil ways. A few days later a highly respected Sufi leader told us that life should be based on the principal of balance. “The Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, and the Qur’an,” he said, “are our tools to create balance and order in society. Unity in diversity is an example of balance. Jews and Christians and Muslims share a great deal. Islam is the religion of freedom. Allah is the God of everyone, even people who don’t believe in Him. We are trying to share our love with you right now – Muslims and Christians, Saudis and Americans.”

On our last day in Dhahran we visited a mosque at the invitation of a young Saudi man who had a bushy black beard and wore a long white robe. “We’re so happy you guys are here with us today,” he said, welcoming us to his mosque. “We have differences in culture, but this is an opportunity for us to get together and resolve our differences.” Then the imam, the leader of the mosque, invited us to attend the mid-day prayer. A group of twenty men gradually formed two lines across the mosque. A businessman in a coat and tie stood next to a construction worker wearing a sweat-stained robe and ragged turban. They held up their open palms in prayer, knelt down and touched their foreheads to the red carpets that covered the floor, and rose to their feet again.

A few days after our return to Lewiston, I was walking down Lisbon Street early on a Friday afternoon. I saw a Somali man who had been a student in the English class I teach at the Adult Learning Center. Services at the mosque had just let out. He was excited to hear that I had visited Saudi Arabia. He had lived in Jeddah for two years before coming to the United States and settling in Lewiston.

In the end, Muslims and Christians – like members of other religious, political, or ethnic groups – are different in many ways. But they are also very similar; they share a common humanity. This is the paradox of cultural diversity. The world is very large, but it is also very small. Lessons learned in Saudi Arabia can be put to good use on Lisbon Street.


“Lessons from Saudi Arabia” at the Lewiston Sun Journal

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A Somali Fisherman Catches a Shoe

By Loring Danforth
Lewiston Sun Journal. Oct 10, 2010.

“Beat. Bite. Bat. Boat.”

I was teaching a group of immigrants, most of them Somali immigrants, to pronounce different vowel sounds during a beginning English class one morning at the Adult Learning Center in Lewiston. I asked if they knew what “boat” meant.

“Water,” said one person.

“Swim,” said another.

A Somali woman wearing a bright shawl over her head and a long dress picked up a yardstick and pretended to pole a small boat through the water. People began to laugh. Someone said, “Fish.” Suddenly the pole became a spear, and she began spearing imaginary fish swimming across the floor. She was back in the village where she was born, on the shore of the Jubba River in southern Somalia.

She sat perfectly still, carefully searching the linoleum tiles. She jabbed the spear against the floor first to her right. Once, twice.

Then to her left. Again and again. I took off my shoe and slid it toward her on the floor. She speared my shoe, lifted it up, and put it on the table beside her. The spear was now a knife. She chopped off the fish’s head, scraped off its scales, and began fishing again. Then she caught my other shoe. Another Somali woman came up to the boat.

She wanted to buy a fish for dinner. She paid for it with a piece of paper ripped from her vocabulary notebook. “Ten dollars,” she said.

Then she put the fish on a pan over the fire she had lit on the table.

When I reached over to pick it up, she scolded me: “Hot! Fire!” Then she served it to me on a piece of paper. It was delicious.

By now the entire class had dissolved in laughter, smiling, joking and speaking Somali together. It was eleven o’clock; class was over.

One by one, they stood up, put away their notebooks and pencils and left the room. “Goodbye, teacher! Thank you! See you Thursday!”

A small miracle had just taken place. With a little imagination, a yardstick, and a shoe, the Somali immigrants in our class had been magically transported back to their world, to a Somali village before the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, before their houses had been destroyed and their family members killed. Before they walked for days to reach refugee camps in Kenya. Before hundreds of thousands of Somalis had died or been driven into exile.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like if a civil war broke out in Lewiston tomorrow. Armed men break into my house and threaten to kill my family unless I give them all of our money and all of our food.

They burn down our house, and we start walking to Boston. After 10 years in a tent in a refugee camp there, we suddenly find ourselves transported to a Somali village. We’re totally dependent on others. I can’t provide for my family. We have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. I don’t know how to speak Somali and I don’t know how to spear fish.

When this Somali woman was spearing fish — in her imagination at the Adult Learning Center or in reality back in her village before the civil war — she was fully engaged in her world. She was proud; she had valuable skills and a purpose in life. She was a fisherman; she could catch fish to feed her family. She was a merchant; she could sell fish to earn money for her family. She was a productive member of her society.

In Lewiston, things are different. She can’t speak English; there are no fish to spear or sell. Some people resent the fact that she is here. They complain that she lives off government programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing. But she is trying hard to learn English, acquire new skills and find a job. Her children are going to school; they will grow up and make a positive contribution to their society — to our society — just as generations of immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Greece and China have done before.


“A Somali Fisherman Catches a Shoe” at the Lewiston Sun Journal

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