Captain John Hayes explains the "two languages everybody understands."
Second of two reports
When Seattle’s young Somalis gathered to celebrate iftar, the Ramadan evening feast, homeland politics dominated the agenda. When the city’s Oromo community gathered for the same occasion a few days later, all politics was local, and very practical.
The Oromo, about half of whom are Muslim, live in southern and central Ethiopia. They’re that nation’s largest ethnic group, but they’ve chafed since the 1800s under the domination of the mostly orthodox Christian Amhara. Some have resisted, clamoring and fighting for an independent homeland. And, in the way of the world, many have wound up refugees, fleeing to grim conditions and sometimes hostile receptions in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Yemen and Sudan.
A few thousand have wound up in the Seattle area — a big change from their pastoral homeland, entailing difficult and, as subsequent events would prove, sometimes dangerous adjustments. They’ve established one beachhead in a low-slung, nondescript building on a side street in Rainier Beach: the Oromo Cultural Center and mosque.
The center doesn't seem to get a lot of outside visitors, and its members were visibly pleased and proud to welcome a high-powered delegation from the Seattle Police Department to iftar last month: Deputy Chief Carmen Best, Assistant Chief Perry Tarrant, Captain John Hayes, who formerly commanded the local South Precinct and now leads SPD's community relations unit, and its new East African community liaison, Habtamu Abdi. Abdi, who's Oromo himself, served as interpreter, since many older men wanted to communicate with their guests but couldn't in English. Captain Hayes would use that limitation to connect with them.
The sun finally set and we could break what had been a very long day’s fast for our hosts, if not for us non-Muslim guests. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar and so migrates around our solar calendar; fasting sunrise-to-sunset is one thing midwinter, another thing when Ramadan falls in summer, as it did this year.
As at prayers, the women and girls stayed separate, inside, together with Chief Best. Men and boys stood or sat cross-legged around a printed cloth spread on the parking-lot Astroturf, where the communal dishes appeared. First came dates, recalling those Muhammad ate after fasting — a quick boost to the blood sugar. Samosas, vegetable soup, and chicken and rice followed. One robed elder stood to offer a welcome and thank Seattle’s police chief (hey, a deputy chief’s a chief) for coming down to Rainier Beach.
The police brass spoke in response; Captain Hayes, 6-foot-7 and built like a bear, stole the show just by standing up. His size commands audience’s attention; his eager, genial, sometimes goofy manner then disarms them. “We all come from different places around the world and speak many different languages,” he declared with the measured tones and emphatic gestures of a practiced storyteller captivating a schoolhouse audience. “But there are two languages everybody everywhere understands. Can anybody tell me what they are?” Young men and elders with henna-dyed beards turned to each and murmured and shrugged, clearly intrigued by the riddle. Hayes repeated his question, drawing out the suspense. “I’ll tell you. The two languages everybody understands are music and food. We’ve just come together and shared food, and now we understand each other better!” (Never mind music, which would not be shared at a mosque.)
Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.