LEWISTON, Maine — “You can celebrate anything with food,” Qamar Bashir said, watching as her husband, Hassan Adan, got a lesson on barbecue, American style, in her backyard on Saturday while a camera crew and several dozen Somali and American friends buzzed around her.
The idea — that people from all cultures and backgrounds can come together over food — is the basis for “Celebrate!,” a new reality TV show dreamed up by Courtney MacIsaac, a Portland-based party planner.
Those assembled at Adan and Bashir’s house on Jean Street were there to film the show’s pilot episode, which follows a simple formula: two families with diverse ethnic backgrounds and traditions get together, then teach each other how to cook and how to party.
On Saturday, Bashir and Adan invited dozens of friends from the local Somali community to come to their house to enjoy a pull-out-all-the-stops American cookout, complete with lobster, clams, grilled chicken and haddock, deviled eggs and corn on the cob. The day before, Bashir had cooked a traditional Somali feast, including samosas, a rice dish, doughnut-like buur and a sweet macaroni dish, adriyad tambi, and served it to a gathering of American friends at a house in Portland.
The Somali hosts had never eaten lobster before. Asked if she thought they would like it, Haley Norman, the “American mom” said, “I don’t think they’ll be afraid to try it. I mean, we tried goat the other day.”
MacIsaac hopes the show, which is still looking for network support, will be educational as well as entertaining. “I’ve always loved to travel, exploring foods and cultures,” MacIsaac said. The TV show, which focuses on families sharing in the diversity of their communities rather than cross-cultural drama, “is everything I love to do,” MacIsaac said. “It’s a good way to show people globally that just because you don’t have money to travel, you can still meet new cultures in your own hometown.”
Partnered with Catholic Charities of Maine and the Maine Studios, MacIsaac hopes that the show will find a backer and eventually branch out beyond Maine. “Once we run out of nationalities, we’ll move to the rest of the country,” she said.
“Celebrate!” has seen some early interest from networks like the Food Channel and the Travel Channel, MacIsaac said, but the production team has faced some challenges while filming the pilot episode. Originally, producers had cast a family from Portland to pair up with Bashir, Adan and their two children, but when the family backed out last minute, they had to cobble together an “American family” to take their place.
The family that resulted — the crew’s make-up artist, Haley Norman, and actor David Rosenthal, both of Portland, as the “mother and father,” and real-life neighbors Imogen Webb and Ella Sibole, both of South Portland, as the couple’s “daughters” — presents a somewhat awkward arrangement for a pilot billed as “reality,” but most involved agreed that the show will get the point across regardless.
“The experience is completely real either way,” Norman said.
“It is bringing communities together. I’m honored that people would share (their culture) with me,” Rosenthal said.
All it takes is the willingness to reach out to someone else to bridge the culture gap, he said, “and you’re friends forever.” He praised his Somali co-stars, saying, “You can tell from their energy how kind they are as soon as you meet them.” They’ve already made plans to go out for dinner in a few weeks, after shooting for the pilot wraps.
Adan said that their family was interested in participating in the show because of those opportunities. While he works with Americans at his job as a social worker for Catholic Charities in Maine and has invited a few colleagues to his home, he had never thrown a party for such a large group of native Mainers.
“It’s an opportunity to meet more people. To get to know each other, instead of just seeing each other on the street,” he said.
“The good thing is people are coming together, enjoying the food, learning traditions,” Bashir said. “You form some bonds with the family.”
Those bonds are increasingly important as Somali and other immigrant communities settle into Lewiston for the long term.
“I think, in a few more years, Lewiston will be a more diverse place,” said Tarlan Ahmadov, a Azerbaijani immigrant who supervises Catholic Charity’s refugee settlement program in Portland. A show like “Celebrate!” could play an important role in the transformation, he said.
“I think it’s important to give not a ‘good’ picture, but to give a real life picture,” he said.
Watching the film crew focus in on Adan and Rosenthal working the grill together, he said, “It is something that we are feeling we are American.”
“Yes,” Bashir replied. “We are together.”
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