The days leading up to introducing Somali food at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010 were hectic for chef Jamal Hashi: his restaurant flooded, he broke a rib, and he fainted from exhaustion.
But in the end, his camel-on-a-stick booth at the fair was a massive success, selling out within four days and propelling Jamal’s restaurant career to greater heights. More than a decade later, the drama of that summer is being recreated in an episode of the Apple TV+ series “Little America,” which first debuted earlier this month.
“When I was watching it, it all came back to me,” Jamal said, “because I never sat down to process it.”
The “Little America” episode, “Camel on a Stick,” is considered the first major Hollywood studio production to portray Somali life in Minnesota or the United States. It also features multiple Somali actors and a Somali screenwriter, some of whom are from Minnesota.
The episode is featured in the second season of “Little America,” an anthology series that revolves around true stories of immigrants across the country overcoming obstacles and succeeding in society. Additional episodes of the series cover other communities.
The episode is now available for streaming for Apple TV+ subscribers, and viewers in the Twin Cities can also watch the episode at a free screening at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 15, at the Film Society of Minnesota.
“I would never have thought in a million years that I’d be able to be a part of something like this,” said Faysal Ahmed, a local actor who co-stars in the episode and has appeared in Hollywood films. “I feel like we have an opportunity for our stories to make it.”
Jamal, 41, a successful entrepreneur who has started 13 restaurants in Minnesota and New York, said his biggest concern was that the studio tell his story authentically. Jamal’s story received national media attention at the time, and in 2017 a production agency reached out to him about adapting his story into a show.
Jamal sold the rights to his story to Apple TV+ and NBC Universal, which partnered on the show. He’s now a food business consultant based in the Twin Cities area.
But even as the story took dramatic liberties—a common Hollywood storytelling tactic used to grab audiences—Jamal said the studio succeeded in telling his story by many counts. For one, lead actor Hanad Abdi, who plays Jibril, the character based on Jamal, nails down his wiry, fast-talking personality.
“Aside from the hair, he is me,” said Jamal, referring to Hanad’s shaggy mane.
Jamal has been friends for 14 years with the episode’s co-writer, Idil Ibrahim, who is not from Minnesota.
The episode also accurately portrayed the frenzied days leading up to the State Fair, he said. That included nonstop local media blitzes, importing camel meat from Australia, and frantically cooking it all up for the 2 million visitors who come to the State Fair every year.
In the episode, Jibril runs the most successful Somali restaurant in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which boasts a large Somali population. Across the street, his business rival and sometimes friend Mohamed, played by Oscar-nominated actor Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips” fame, runs a competing restaurant.
Jibril wants to take his cuisine to the next level by showcasing it for a mass audience. The State Fair seems like the perfect opportunity, and Jibril successfully applies for a permit to run a food stand at the annual summer attraction that brings livestock, art, music, and more together for 12 days.
To capture the attention of fairgoers and showcase Somali food, Jibril picks camel meat—a unique enough dish to peak the interest of a mass American audience—and serves it on a stick, the preferred way of eating food at the fair.
Aside from the logistical challenges of selling food at the fair, Jibril must also overcome the skepticism of his own community.
Jibril’s friends chide him for choosing camel over chicken, and for including ranch dressing as a sauce and lowering the dish’s spiciness to make Somali food palatable to a mass audience.
Bringing life experiences to the job
Barkhad, the most prominent Somali actor in Hollywood, personally knew Jamal long before his breakout role in “Captain Phillips.” Barkhad spent his youth in Minneapolis and was college roommates with Jamal’s brother.
Barkhad’s character in “Little America,” Mohamed, is a purist about Somali cuisine and is deeply skeptical of Jibril Americanizing his food. But despite being his competitor, a part of Mohamed wants to see Jibril succeed, which Barkhad said is true to life.
“It’s just the Somali brotherhood,” Barkhad told Sahan Journal. “When there’s competition, you still want the best for whoever’s competing for you.”
More tension arises in the episode when Jibril’s older brother Idris, played by Faysal, takes him to task for not paying his monthly share of ayuuto, a community lending practice to friends and family. Jibril tells his brother that showcasing his food and spending his money at the fair will pay off in the long run and allow him to franchise his restaurant.
“Sometimes, you think too much like an American dreamer,” Idris tells him. “You’re Somali. Your success or your failure reflects on all of us.”
Faysal said the role spoke to him. He said his older brothers treated him similarly when he ventured into an acting career. Faysal has appeared in “Captain Phillips,” the Stephen King-themed Hulu series “Castle Rock,” and “A Stray,” an independent film set in Minneapolis.
Growing up, Faysal said he couldn’t watch a movie or turn on the TV on and see actors from his background.
“For me, acting and doing this actual thing, in the beginning nobody believes it’s going to work,” Faysal said. “There were only a few select people that supported me, and I kind of relate to it in a way—trying to pursue something that you never know what the result at the end of the day will be but just going for it on a leap of faith and hard work.”
Actors in “Little America” said they were able to bring their own life experiences to their roles. In a scene from the show, Jibril reflects on a presentation he gave in school as a child about the civil war in Somalia. He and his older brother ran for the refugee camps, unsure of the fate of their parents and other family members.
“And from there to West Virginia, and from there to here,” Jibril says in the show. “I never stopped running.”
Hanad, the actor who portrays Jibril, said this detail was inspired from his parents’ experiences as refugees. They immigrated to Seattle, Washington, after the civil war, where Hanad was born and raised. Hanad said he spent much of his childhood listening to the history of the civil war and the history of Somalia through his parents’ stories.
“It was pretty emotional when they were telling those stories,” said Hanad, 24. “I just tried to take those moments and tried to apply them into that scene.”
Hanad also brought aspects of his dialect of the Somali language to the role, deviating from the more “old school” language dialect as written in the script.
It’s little details like these, the show’s actors and crew said, that bring authenticity to the episode. The production also hired Abdi Mohamed, a Minneapolis-based journalist who contributes to Sahan Journal, as a cultural consultant for the episode. Abdi also appears in the episode as a regular at Jibril’s restaurant.
Abdi ensured that the extras came from Somali and East African backgrounds, which aren’t common in the Los Angeles area where the show was filmed. The show tapped into these communities in Inglewood, Anaheim, and further away in San Diego.
Abdi also helped make sure the wardrobe accurately reflected the style of Somali youth in Minnesota, and that the props at a halal market matched markets in Minneapolis.
At one point, just before a scene set inside a Somali home was ready to shoot, Abdi said he noticed that the set had black and white photos all over the house. Abdi said he told the production workers that including the photos would be unrealistic.
“I’m like, ‘Well, if we’re a refugee community, we’re not going to have a bunch of photos from home that we were able to kind of carry around with us,’” Abdi said. “‘So, we’ve got to get rid of all these black-and-white photos. It’s not accurate.’”
The production company followed his advice. Abdi said such details went a long way in ensuring the episode’s success. He has just one more request for the next major show or film that plans to depict Somali American life: “We want the next story in Hollywood that includes Somali people to be shot right here in Minnesota.”
How to watch “Little America: Camel on a Stick”
What: The 33-minute long episode will be screened for free. A Q&A session with some members of the cast, including Hanad Abdi and Faysal Ahmed, will follow immediately after.
Where: The Main Cinema, 115 S.E. Main St., Minneapolis, MN 55414
When: Thursday, December 15 at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A at 7:35 p.m.
More information: Anyone interested in attending the screening must RSVP to receive a ticket, which can be done by clicking here.
The episode can also be viewed on the subscription based Apple TV+, which you can access here.