This patch of land

I photographed the 21st annual Taylor Horse Fest Saturday (it’s exactly what it sounds like) and had to appreciate how completely North Dakotan it is to “honor the animal that played such a major part” in the roughly 200-person town’s heritage.

A journalist I respect very much gave me some interesting advice last week: “…keep note of what makes this patch of land different from the rest of the USA.” I’m making it my goal to remember this throughout the rest of my time here.


Ramadan in Dickinson

IMG_0570I haven’t been great about cataloguing my stories so far (I’ve cut most of my articles out of the paper and stuffed them into a plastic envelope thing — real old-fashioned clips!), but I wanted to share this one.

Ramadan started over the weekend, and I used it as a “news peg” for a story about the small Muslim community in Dickinson. I’m not in love with the way my piece turned out — I could have done better, and jeez, that schmaltzy ending — but I love that I got to write it (if only because it was a chance to introduce one of the country’s most WASPy regions to a touch of Islam and a few words of Arabic).

I was expecting to have to work a lot harder to gain access to the community and their prayer service — they would have every right to be remain cautious of a stranger intruding on such a private, personal act, particularly one from the media. And in a town that’s not exactly friendly to ‘outsiders,’ I could understand if they would prefer to stay a little anonymous. Instead, the group was welcoming, eager to talk, eager to share their stories. The imam put in a good word for me, asked that people help out however they could; I had a line of people waiting to speak with me after the prayer service, even if they didn’t know quite who I was or why I was there.

As a mistrusting, often-angry misanthrope, I am always amazed by how open, warm and generous people can be with their time and themselves. Even if the story isn’t a work of art, it’s been one of my favorites from my time here so far to report and be a part of.

This post is already veering into TLDR territory, but the full story is below. You can also read as a PDF here (Forum News Service ‘archives’ all of its stories after five days–which is just bad business sense, in my opinion).


Praying together: Ramadan brings Dickinson’s small Muslim community closer

This weekend Muslims around the world, and in North Dakota, will observe the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and reflection.

Every day through July, from sunup to sundown, they will abstain from eating and drinking.

The fast is a way for Muslims to attain piety, strengthen their relationship to Allah — the Arabic word for God — and feel empathy for those less fortunate than them, explained Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed, a pediatrician who serves as the imam, or religious leader, for the Dickinson area’s Muslims.

The U.S. Census doesn’t track religious affiliation, so there are no exact numbers on just how many Muslims live in the state, let alone Dickinson. It’s not a state unfamiliar with Islam; one of the first, if not the first, mosque in the U.S. was built in Ross.

According to a Pew Research poll, less than 1 percent of the population in the Dakotas identified themselves as Muslim. For Dickinson’s small Muslim community, Ramadan is as much a time to grow closer to God as it is to each other.

A place to pray

Just a few months ago, Dr. Muhammad Jamil thought he was one of just three Muslims in Dickinson.

The internal medicine specialist, along with Ahmed, his colleague at St. Joseph’s Medical Clinic, and one other friend, would use Ahmed’s cramped office for daily prayers at work.

“The main thing in Islam, you should pray together,” Jamil said.

He used to travel the 90 miles to Bismarck every Friday to attend special prayer services at the chapel at St. Alexius Medical Center. It had to make do; the closest mosque is in Fargo.

Slowly, though, Jamil, Ahmed and their friend, Sadi Haque, began meeting other Muslims in the area, ones who, like them, had been praying in small groups, unaware of each other.

“Every day, people hear about us,” Ahmed said. He met new members at Walmart, and Muslims started coming from as far away as Williston and Killdeer to pray.

A group began meeting in Ahmed’s basement for Friday prayers. Haque posted a listing on, inviting others to join.

Gradually, Jamil said, they grew.

Since December, Dickinson’s Muslim community has been filling the Armstrong Room in the basement of the Elks Lodge every Friday afternoon to pray, facing the holy city of Mecca, surrounded by dried flower wreaths and paintings of the prairie — not things you would likely find in the mosques in Egypt, Ahmed’s native country, or Pakistan, where Jamil is from.

Others come from Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Bangladesh, the U.S., usually for work.

“Two months ago I heard of the prayer services,” said Mamadou Toure, a native of Senegal who came to Dickinson seven months ago from Missouri, where he taught at a Quranic school.

Before he met Ahmed and Jamil, he said, “I prayed alone.”

A first for many

For many of the community’s members, this will be their first Ramadan in Dickinson.

A lack of understanding among non-Muslims about what the month signifies, or awareness of what it even is, makes fasting difficult.

“It’s very, very hard,” Ahmed said. “No one else is observing or understanding that you’re fasting. Sometimes we have to put extra effort to please God.”

Seydina Sylla, another native of Senegal who initially came to the city in 2011 for work, spent last Ramadan in Atlanta, a city with a sizeable Muslim population where he was able to take time off of work to accommodate his fasting schedule.

“Not like here,” he said. “Islam is not like it is in Atlanta, or other states.”

Sylla said he is asked all the time why he isn’t eating or drinking; his part-time job at Applebee’s makes fasting especially hard.

“If I could, I’d take a break,” he said. “But I just try to ignore it.”

Sylla said he focuses instead on the fasting itself, and what it means to him: it’s “food of your soul,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t know what is hunger,” he said. “If you’re Muslim, rich or poor, you fast anyway. In worship of Allah, you have to do it.”

Ahmed said he hopes one day that Dickinson Muslims will have a place of their own where they can worship Allah: a masjid, or mosque, in a storefront somewhere.

The Elks Lodge has been very welcoming of the prayer service, Ahmed said, but the group has been outgrowing the Armstrong Room.

The group will have to hold iftar, the special meal to break the fast, at a member’s house; Jamil said they’re considering going all the way to Bismarck to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan, in July, but he hopes there are enough people here that they can have a celebration in Dickinson.

It’s less important where they pray, though. What matters is that they do it together.


St. Joseph’s Health

CHI St. Joseph’s Health held a ‘dusty-shoe tour’ for media today — a sneak peak into their new facility in Dickinson.

A month in

I realized today that I have been at my job exactly one month, and in Dickinson one month and one day (give or take). It seems much longer ago that my apartment was still swamped in boxes; now I look around at my newly-painted bookshelf and photos hanging neatly on the walls and I wonder when, and how, I got settled here.

Not that I’m “here” yet, not by a long shot. I may have gotten my Dickinson Public Library card a week ago, but I still can’t tell you my address off the top of my head. I keep putting off getting a new driver’s license and registering my car here. Most days I still feel like I’m on some kind of working vacation, a fleeting jaunt to a different life that I’ll return from any day now and think, ‘Well, that was certainly an experience.’

A month isn’t much of a milestone — just another menstrual cycle in the grand scheme of things, really* — but I figure a little added reflection at this time can’t hurt. So, here the past month, in numbers. I have:

-been fired zero times

-written 33 articles

-hanged 26 pictures (sorry, neighbors)

-learned four chords on the guitar

-gotten two nosebleeds

-been to one African church service

-roped (what we city folk might call “lasso”) one unsuspecting lectern

-been on two dates, with one guy

-watched six seasons of Sex and the City

-cried just once (setting off one of those nosebleeds)

(UPDATE 5/27/14: Oh! Forgot to include my first/last time speaking at a Kiwanis Club meeting. The whole time I couldn’t process the strange time warp that was occurring.)

I’ve met I don’t know how many new people and made what I hope are at least five new friends, gone out for countless beers (that I had to buy myself! I was under the impression that randy Oil Patch men would be doing all the buying here). and played a dozen or so games of pool, because that is what you do here.

Now for the next month.

*should delete, won’t delete

In North Dakota now.

I’m in North Dakota now.PRAIRIE2

I say it more for myself than anyone who might read this blog; consistent readership has held steady at my sister and my coworkers, and by this point, I should hope they all know where I live.

It’s still to early for it to really sink in. Sitting around my apartment, with my blinds closed to the brown grass and dusty parking lot outside of my windows, it’s easy to forget which city I’m in: I could be anywhere. I still find myself feeling momentarily surprised when I walk out of my apartment to see a parking lot and not a metro stop.

It will take a while to adjust to this new everyday. To driving again, and at a legally mandated snail’s pace. To country music on all two of the radio stations my car picks up. To lots of white people, and lots of men, and lots of cowboy hats. To quiet.

I have an unending reserve of patience for animals, children and the elderly, which leaves very little patience to spread around to everything else, least of all myself. I’m finding it hard to wait to feel comfortable with no guarantee that it will happen. I want to be happy right this second, and I want to find my place here.

So much of this experience reminds me of when I was in the Republic of Georgia. I lived in a town that couldn’t have had more than 1000 people; it didn’t even have street names. Three months of misery culminated in a very public, very ugly crying fit on a bench outside a tech store in the capital because I couldn’t buy an internet stick without my passport. I called my mom on my dinky government-issued phone because I needed to hear that I could come home, any time I was ready, and I knew that my sweet, enabling mother would say those exact words.

I didn’t take her up on the offer, of course; somehow, those first three awful months of internally kicking and screaming at everything about the country gave way to three months of, if not quite love, then mutual respect. I started to understand how to navigate my way around life there. My language skills got better, I travelled to other parts of the country, I found myself a proper Georgian man who knew just enough English to not talk too much.

The culture shock of North Dakota isn’t quite as quaint and novel as it had been in Georgia, but I’m trying to keep the two linked. I have to give this a chance. Every time I try to justify leaving far too early and going back to D.C. with my tail tucked between my legs, I remind myself that I owe this place, and myself, a little more patience.