Death in Harlem: A Senegalese Muslim family mourns
It’s a very New York experience to live in religious and ethnic diversity. If you choose to, you can truly live in the middle of a worldwide cultural mecca. Such is the slice of Harlem in which I live. My neighbours are a hodge-podge of long-term residents of Harlem’s African American community, white and black Millenials, first generation Hispanic Americans, Asians, Jews and African Muslims.
It’s very cool.
Sometimes, very challenging.
I’ve watched the children of my downstairs neighbours grow over the years and only recently has there been a hint that they’re not as afraid of my dogs as they used to be. It’s taken five years of back and forth calming children and dogs (often the parents too), patiently training that not all dogs are created evil. Admittedly, I did lose my patience once, sometime into year four, where I practically shouted down the matriarch to calm the hell down upon seeing my dogs–if she could simply learn to ignore them and teach her family the same, the dogs will blow right by them so help me–calm down, calm down.
Embracing ones fears takes time and in this case, I’m certain it’ll take yet more years. I’ve also had to learn in the interim that there’s a culture of fear around dogs for many African Muslim’s. It came as a surprise when a small, yet significant change was made after my mini meltdown. Instead of never speaking to me and continued panicky behaviour at my dogs’ appearances, there’s a rather neighbourly passive-aggressive avoidance whenever the dogs are out.
I’ll take it.
Recently, man and beast reunited again over a very unusual circumstance surrounding these same neighbours. Coming home one night, I came upon their apartment crowded to the hilt with men standing in the doorway facing outward, backlit by an unusual gloomy light. The women were in the courtyard standing in a bit of a clump, murmuring softly. My first thought was one of worry that my dogs would have a meltdown over the crowds of people everywhere. As I rounded up the troops for their nightly saunter, I began playing back in my mind the details of what I’d witnessed.
The women stood out because they were colourfully dressed, yet shrouded in black. I saw peeping under black layers no western wear at all, but traditional Muslim garb as I’d seen worn only during special occasions, down to the footwear. The details of the men came to mind because so many were crowded at the door, blocking the entrance by sheer number, facing outward and shoeless. The dark and solemn quietude of my neighbour’s apartment was what brought everything together for me.
Someone must have died.
Considering the hubbub, my dogs were decidedly on point and well behaved. Both passing the crowds on the way out and on the way in, they seem to sense something was off and out of place. Their usual rambunctiousness surprisingly subdued.
Three days of an endless stream of visitors came and went. I summoned the courage to ask one visitor if someone had died, to which he confirmed that it was indeed the case. My biggest concern was that it was one of the four children or one of the parents. Due to language barriers I never found out who had died but I saw that the family core was still intact over a week’s time.
I find it fascinating the influence different groups of humans can have on each when living so closely together, particularly as New Yorkers. Nods of heads, eye contact or shared hellos may be all the neighbourly exchange that occurs, sometimes over decades. There’s definitely been room for more too–usually from the long-term residents–some of whom are second and third generation Harlemites. Nonetheless, with all the love/hate that many transplants like myself feel, this neighbourly exchange is an amazing reason to get up in the morning, say hello, dogs in tow.
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