Monday, August 23, 2010


A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in Lewiston, Maine, around near the Kennedy Park section of downtown. We grabbed some lunch at a takeout counter … these flavorful fried pastries called sambusas filled with spices and goat meat … then walked a few blocks so he could show me a building under construction.

It was a new mosque. Or, to put it precisely, a dilapidated building being transformed into a new mosque.

My friend is only 17, but his excitement and pride over this building was palpable. I couldn’t step inside with him … I don’t know whether that’s because I’m a woman and the particular entryway where we stood was designated for men, or because it was still under construction … but we poked our heads in. There were cubbies for stacking shoes, sinks for washing, and inside the mosque itself a simple, cavernous space carpeted in a geometric design. The outside of the one-story building was non-descript: there were no decorations or signage that indicated this was a mosque. Next door was Mailhot’s Sausage, a juxtaposition which struck me as not just a little ironic, given what happened a few years ago at the other mosque in Lewiston.

Of course, this juxtaposition of cultures, of races and religions, is happening all over this town. And business goes on as usual. The old mosque on Lisbon Street is right next door to the U.S. Senate offices of Republican Olympia Snowe. The halal grocery store sells Muslim-approved meats across the street from the French sausage shop. In a week teachers at the Lewiston schools will call their rolls … Abdi; Bouchard; Mohammed; Ouellette … the traditional Franco names alongside the Somali. Standing in the center of Kennedy Park, little black girls with colorful skirts to their ankles and their heads covered in hijab race past me on their way to the playground. Meanwhile the spires of the Catholic basilica tower in the direction of Bates College, and the immigrant mothers file into the Trinity Jubilee Center, where diapers, canned goods and clothing are available for whomever needs them.

The hard words and anger coming from New York City right now, where plans to build an Islamic Community Center and mosque only blocks from Ground Zero have sparked such controversy, seem very far away and … dare I say it? … stupid, given the reality of Lewiston, Maine. Yes, this small city has struggled mightily to accommodate a tidal wave of largely non-English-speaking Muslim refugees in the last few years. It hasn’t always gone well: the incident I mentioned earlier involved someone tossing a pig’s head into the Lisbon Street mosque, defiling it. The public schools have been brought to their knees, trying to educate hundreds of children who couldn’t speak English, and in some cases couldn’t write in any language.

But then … I have this new friend. He’s 17, he’s Somali, and he has a smile which can light up a room. He plays soccer with breathless abandon; he studies hard and looks after his brothers; he’s planning to take the SATs, attend his senior prom, and go to pasta parties with his soccer teammates. He tells me about Ramadan and the challenges of playing pre-season sports without drinking or eating all day, introduces me to Somali cookies, and walks me through his world with a gratefulness and wonder that make me ashamed of any little thing I’ve ever complained about, ever.

His new mosque, reconstructed on a rubble-strewn site that no one else wanted, is a source of pride and spirituality for him. It’s a brave, optimistic outpost of faith for people tossed here from refugee camps.

The big issues of the world are too much for me. I don’t know how to make sense of men who strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded markets or crash planes into buildings. I don’t understand why you would defile someone’s holy places. I don’t know why one would mock women who express their faith by covering their hair in a hijab or dressing in a nun’s habit.

So I’m just very glad to know my young Somali friend, who has shown me that while building a mosque, or building a community, or rebuilding a life, is never easy, it’s nothing to fear.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Last week I received exciting news that my agent sold foreign rights for my next book, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, to a publisher in Germany.

This has led me to thinking a lot about … Jersey. Granted, my book is only nominally about New Jersey, despite the title. (Which, incidentally, I got from a tee shirt my mother gave me when I was a teen.) “Jersey” is only the background noise in this novel; the theme is friendship.

Nevertheless, I’ve been wondering how Jersey translates for a German teen: the turnpike, the jokes, the shore …

The shore. That’s when it hit me. That reality TV show, Jersey Shore, which is about a group of twenty-somethings living in a summer rental in Seaside Heights, airs all over Europe. Not only are German teens familiar with Jersey: they think Snookie is The Garden State’s poster child.

If you don’t know who Snookie is, and if you graduated from high school when I did you probably don’t, Google her.

Anyone who buys my book thinking the main characters remotely resemble Snookie is in for a big disappointment. And anyone who thinks the eight drunken, foul-mouthed, albeit stunningly tanned, roommates from this series represent “typical” Jersey girls and boys is … far from completely right. Only one of those actors is actually from Jersey, as it turns out. Most hail from Staten Island. So there.

Thus, in a somewhat defensive mode, I decided to compile a list of Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know About New Jersey. As I compiled I had to admit: my beloved home state (because even though I was born in New York and will most likely live out the rest of my life in Maine, I am a Jersey Girl) has its highs and lows. In all fairness, I’ve included both:

1. (high) Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Judy Blume, and Aaron Burr, are all New Jersey natives. (Hmmm … Burr might be a low …)

2. (low) New Jersey has more toxic waste dumps than any other state in the nation.

3. (high) The light bulb, phonograph and motion picture projector were invented in Menlo Park, New Jersey, by Thomas Edison.

4. (low) New Jersey is the car theft capital of the world. More cars are stolen, per capita, in Newark, than in any other city in the world.

5. (high) The honeybee is the New Jersey state bug.

6. (low) North Jersey has the most shopping malls in one area in the world, with seven major shopping malls in a 25 square mile radius. (I made this a low because I spent too much time in malls as a child and now have serious aversions to shopping.)

7. (high) The first baseball game was played in Hoboken, New Jersey.

8. (low) The first Indian reservation was in New Jersey.

9. (high) Atlantic City is where the street names came from for the game “Monopoly.”

10. (low) New Jersey has the highest population density in the U.S.

And, of course, New Jersey has the absolute best, most amazing tomatoes. What the orange is to Florida, the peach to Georgia, and the blueberry to Maine, so is the tomato to Jersey.