For my first interview I was invited into the home of my friend and high school classmate, Khadija-Awa Diop.
For as long as I’ve lived in Jersey City, (and as much time as I’ve spent at the mall) I’ve never actually been in one of the high-rise buildings in Newport. They have always intimidated me in a way, because I never knew what went on inside. As I rode the elevator upstairs I was excited, and felt incredibly privileged to be embarking on this experience. Admittedly, given it was my first interview, I was also a little anxious. The moment I walked into the space I noticed a framed essay by the television screen titled “Real Woman Honoree.” A feeling of warmth came over me, I felt at ease and at home.
Though I’m not sure if they’ve continued the tradition, when Wawa and I were growing up, the Jersey City Public School system had a Real Women essay contest for elementary and middle school students. Students were encouraged to interview and write essays about any woman in their lives that inspired them. On the very last year we could compete, in the 8th grade, I wrote about my mother. Khadija did too. And though we attended the same awards ceremony one fateful night somewhere on Bergen Avenue, we wouldn’t meet until years later at McNair Academic High School.
The similarities between our families started but didn’t end there. Before Khadija-Awa arrived I met the Real Woman honoree herself, Khadija-Awa’s mom Kani Diop, as well as her grandmother Nene Thiam, her brother Mohamed Diop and her cousin Khadija-Kani. I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention Khadija-Kani was one of the most intelligent, well spoken 11th graders I have ever met in my entire life. It is the holy month of Ramadan and everyone in the family is fasting (yes, “even water”) but Khadija-Kani makes sure to offer me something to drink the moment I sit down.
Nene Thiam reminded me a little of my own grandmother. When she walked in everyone stood to greet her, and although she spoke almost no english she greeted me warmly with just her smile. She sat on the couch (though with her regal traditional Senegalese outfit she seemed more fit for a throne) and as we waited for everyone to arrive she watched a Senegalese show on Youtube. I thought to my own grandmother watching Iranian TV clips on Youtube with my dad at home. Living in the diaspora, no matter where you come from, has a similar rhythm and sound.
Slowly, other family members and guests trickled in. Everyone was meeting here and we would later be traveling to a community center in Journal Square by car. I would be riding with Khadija-Awa, Khadija-Kani and Khadija-Awa’s uncle, Mouhamed. Khadija-Awa later told me Mouhamed is a fantastic cook. When I first described meltingpot to him he asked me whether I cooked persian food, “You can’t have a project like this and not cook yourself!” I laughed and instinctually answered with “tarof,” a persian tradition in which you maintain politeness by being humble, never accepting gifts, and fighting to pay the check, “Yes I cook some, but never as well as my mother of course.” Before we leave, Mouhamed, traditionally dressed in a traditional Senegalese suit with a blue and purple sheen, laid a small deep turquoise velvet prayer rug on the floor at the perfect angle, and prayed. Afterwards we packed up the food and prepared to leave. Downstairs Mouhamed tells me, “Sorry for my messy car.” I smiled to myself because given the fact his car was incredibly clean, I felt he was following the “tarof” tradition as well.
We pull up to a community space I had no idea existed, in the heart of Journal Square. Inside, the wood details include paintings of settlers and natives. I wonder if the white man on the panel could ever have conceived what would be happening in the space that night. Kani Diop had organized a meeting of local community members, as part of her work with the African Women Global Initiatives, and sponsored by Jersey City Councilwoman Joyce Watterman. The name of the event was Community-Based Solutions for African Family Challenges. It was a meeting of African Jersey City residents of all ages, and a few community leaders, to identify the issues that their community has, and work towards searching for solutions.
The meeting itself was a safe discussion space and off the record, so I will not recount the conversation here. I will note however that Kani Diop made sure to call on the younger members at the table, and asked them to share their own challenges and experiences. The most powerful form of community-building is the kind that emphasizes youth engagement. It’s also the most sustainable. And you’re absolutely right if you’re wondering whether Khadija-Kani took the opportunity to contribute a profoundly well spoken comment. I’m glad you were paying attention.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the group motioned to establish a Council of African Families to advocate on behalf of their community in local politics (the motion was seconded) and I snapped their inaugural pic!
By then the sun had gone down and it was time for everyone to break their fast. Khadija’s mom comes over and offers me a date. She explains “for us it’s customary that everyone break their fast with dates,” and I mention it’s the same in Iran. Then we eat! The recipe is below:
Diop Family Senegalese Mustard Onion Chicken
The typical onion sauce contained in this recipe is a base that is used on a lot of different things. It is incorporated in Yassa, which is a chicken dish that is served with rice. But if you do not consume meat, it’s a flavorful base that’s easy to incorporate into a vegetarian dish!
You can save the recipe card below ;
“This is what I really miss when I’m at school. I can make this stuff but you know it hits different when its home cooked.”
Khadija-Awa is currently studying for her Masters of Science in Journalism at West Virginia University. Her dream is to create documentary films that touch on the histories and realities of many different non-Western cultures, and their customs, traditions, beliefs and ways of life.
For Khadija-Awa food is more than just sustenance, it's family. “I remember being really young sitting in the kitchen with my mom grinding spices and cooking together...Its always a family space when we cook. Even on top of that, you feel a lot closer to your family, and a lot closer to your culture. That’s why I find it so comforting.”
Khadija’s family moved to Jersey City in 2008, just in time for the last 2 weeks of 7th grade, when Khadija went to M.S. 7. Originally they lived in the Heights off of Manhattan Ave and route 1&9. “My first experience in Jersey City was getting used to the traffic. There were cars coming off of 1&9 at all hours of the night.” As part of her early memories she also recalls going to Pershing Field and the Stop & Shop on Central Ave. “I used to cross Central Ave every day to either take the 82 or take the lightrail.” A central ave stan after my own heart.
"I brag about Jersey City everywhere I go. It feels at home because so many people can feel at home here."
“I really consider Jersey City my home, because of the fact that I can see myself in so many different people and so many different things that people do here, different types of outfits they have and different types of restaurants. I brag about Jersey City everywhere I go. It feels at home because so many people can feel at home here. It doesn’t matter really where you come from, it doesn’t matter how long your parents have been here, what really matters is that you have a place that you can call home, that you have friends, and you have your family here. You have a space where you can make a space, which is not true for a lot of places. You don’t always have the room to make space for yourself.”
As we are talking a notebook comes around for attendees to sign as a witness to the creation of the Council of African Families. “With stuff like this, it’s a way to preserve the culture.”
As we discussed concerns we had for the community moving forward, Khadija-Awa and I agreed on how it important it was for us to amplify the voices of our residents. As Khadija-Awa put it, “It’s really important for people to make their own history. With America as a whole and western culture it’s so easy to tell people what their history is and how they should think about themselves, but if we take the time to tell people what we know about ourselves it’s harder to suppress that.”
I hope this interview begins to do that message justice.