THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Aacha Maa Al Aayle

Finding Middle Eastern Food in Providence

by Rick Salamé

published September 27, 2013


I BIKE PAST AS220, go around the cathedral, cross the overpass, take a left against the traffic of a one-way street, pull into a tiny parking lot, and enter the back door of a squat building made of cinder blocks. The front door of Oasis leads to the restaurant, but the back door opens to the market section. Back here I find shelves stacked with teas, spices, extracts, canned beans, bagged lentils, packaged cheese, thick yogurt and a counter, where there sits a mustached man named Abu Wesam. He smiles.

     When I told him I wanted to write about him and other Middle Easterners living in Providence, he told me I better ask his brother-in-law, Sami. I wandered towards the restaurant and overheard Sami, whose tan and unwrinkled skin makes him look younger than he probably is, taking an order. He came around to the butcher’s counter at the market and began carving up a lamb leg. I asked him if I could come back later and talk to him and he agreed. I wandered around the market aimlessly and started examining a Rhode Island Department of Health poster written in Arabic, which I can’t read. Abu Wesam approached me and asked me what my article was about—first in Palestinian Arabic, then in English. I only understood the second time. I told him, in English, my story is about what it’s like working in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Providence. “It’s good!” he said, and laughed. “Lhamdillah,” I told him in a Lebanese accent. “Hamdilleh,” he agreed, very much the same, yet different.

 

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PAUL BOUTROS WAS BORN AND RAISED in Syria, but now he and his entire family live in Rhode Island. His falafel shop, East Side Pockets, is not too far from Oasis, but it feels worlds away. It’s on Thayer Street, in the heart of the College Hill student bubble. At East Side Pockets, it’s hard to find any pattern to the ethnicities, but easy to notice all the students.

     The first thing I asked Paul was a question to which I already knew the answer: “Who are your customers?” “Over 80 percent are American,” he told me. We were talking on the phone while he watched his son’s football practice. He also gets Arabs, he said, but those are mainly students, too. With the exception of students living away from their families, “Arabs,” he said, “cook at home… For us, you and me, family structure is very important. Thanksgiving? That’s every Sunday.”

     Maybe it’s a coincidence, but in my house in Connecticut, Sundays were always the big cooking days. In the morning, my father would squeeze the water out of store-bought Greek yogurt over the kitchen sink to make lebne, a thick and salty yogurt. In the afternoons my American mom and Lebanese dad would simultaneously cook mujaddara, taboule, mmsa’a, fasolia, fatoosh, and, if we were extra lucky, loobye bil-zeit. The rich smells of roasting eggplant, steaming lentils, onions frying in olive oil to take the edge off, and fresh-cut tomatoes filled the kitchen. After dinner that night, we’d put everything into large bowls covered in clear plastic wrap and play Tetris with the fridge, cramming to fill every open space with food for a week.

     Michel, Paul’s brother, owns Mike’s Calzones, a shop just a few storefronts away. With the exception of shawarma, his menu is Italian-American. Michel, who sold his share in East Side Pockets back in February 2004 so he could co-found Shanghai (which he has since also sold), seems to be something of a chameleon. Confronted with a market demand that calculates more on the basis of price and quality and doesn’t necessarily reward cultural self-expression, distinctions between Syrians, Italians, and Chinese can be nullified and nuances obliterated. Michel, for example, goes by Mike.

 

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JEWAD SEFIANA, OWNER OF TEA IN SAHARA,  is a big man—tall and solid, but not at all fat. He’s from Rabat, the capital of Morocco, and is studying for a master’s at Rhode Island College. Sitting in a quiet, intimate space decorated with North African geometric patterns and listening to Fayrouz, the ultra-famous Lebanese singer, the juxtaposition of Levantine and North African culture would be jarring, if one ignored the iced tea. Iced tea of any sort is much more American than Moroccan, but Jawad’s iced Moroccan mint tea is one of his biggest sellers at his Moroccan café. Yet despite his concession to local taste buds that prefer their leafy infusions cold, Jawad has striven to maintain as much authenticity in the product as possible. He uses traditional ingredients, implements, and methods prior to cooling the tea, something which he says gives him more of a right to use the name Moroccan on his product than other establishments in Providence that aren’t willing to go the extra mile to do it right. “You can’t just call your product Moroccan mint tea because it sounds exotic, there’s a lot more to it than that.” Less obvious, he has also had to make concessions to American notions of what Middle Eastern food is—a set of assumptions that can overlook important cultural and culinary differences within the region. “We don’t really have hummus in Morocco. I actually had to get the recipe from Sami.” Which brings us back to Oasis.

     Oasis is a place where you can practice your Arabic if you are so inclined. There are plenty of labels, tags, and posters to read and everyone will understand you if you address them in Arabic. According to Sami Almuhtaseb, about half of the restaurant’s customers are Middle Eastern. It reminds me of a Lebanese restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut that my family used to go to. That small place was full of Lebanese and other Middle Eastern people and there was something comforting about that. It was just around the time of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel and we weren’t sure when we’d go back to Lebanon. The owners were also preoccupied with calling relatives that July. Eating, we were all engaging in a familiar ritual that obliterated some of the national, sectarian, and class differences that would have divided us had living in America not reduced us to this unified block. And we were safe from the kids at my school who would rather go hungry than eat the food at my house when they came over for the first and last time. Solidarity, mutual understanding, and a side of kibbeh. Kibbeh is solidarity. Or as Jawad said, “Native-born Americans have their foods which bring them closer together and we have our food that brings us together and makes us feel comfortable.” In early 2008 our family friends opened up a second location in Greenwich, CT but ended up losing both restaurants when the recession hit later that year. All of a sudden it seemed like all the Middle Easterners in our area disappeared. When a demographic group is only one percent of the population, they really need to be in the same room for you to remember that they exist.

     But Sami Almuhtaseb, the Palestinian owner of Oasis, knows a lot about serving both his community and his neighbors, and about navigating the grey areas of blurry cultural distinctions. In addition to Oasis, Sami also has started seven pizza shops in the area, including Golden Crust Pizza near Providence College and a new one that’s going to be up north on Charles Street. But Oasis has become a space for both Middle Easterners and non-Middle Eastern Muslims from the local South Providence community who worship at the recently opened mosque just down the street. Tariq Wasim—a “revert” to what he sees as everyone’s birth religion, Islam, and a member of the growing African-American Muslim population in Providence—said that Oasis is one of the only places in the city that offers halal food. As such, it has become a meeting place for a differently defined, faith-based community. “Does this connect me with brothers from other countries?” Tariq said, referring to eating at Oasis, “Yeah, it’s different from the mosque where we just exchange salaam and things like that. It’s more social.” When I met him, Tariq and his friends were eating pepperoni pizza, which Oasis offers in addition to halal burgers, meatballs, and pastrami sandwiches, along with chicken tikka masala.

     Yet for guys like Michel, there is something about his own sense of identity that is sheltered from his surroundings. As I sat across the table from him in Mike’s Calzones, a young European-American man in a pink polo shirt walked in and called out, “Hey Mike!” Suddenly feeling awkward, I asked Michel if he feels connected to a Middle Eastern community in Providence and he said, “Definitely. You cannot forget your culture or your language. I go to my mother’s house for lunch three times a week and eat home-cooked Syrian food. I’m sure it’s the same for the Chinese people and the Italian people [working on Thayer]. I bet they don’t eat at their restaurants.” Don’t get him wrong; he likes calzones. But for what it’s worth, he says, “I like being ‘the falafel guy’ better.” I held my breath, looked over at the polo-shirt-wearing customer and asked him, “Do you like being Mike?” “I prefer Michel,” he confessed, “It’s my name.”

 

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L'ARTISAN, A LEBANESE-OWNED BAKERY AND CAFÉ in Wayland Square, is in many ways so European in appearance that Middle Eastern products such as lebne, manaeesh, halloumi, and baklawa look somewhat out of place nestled among the espresso, baguettes, and Greek salads in its display cases. The first time I walked into the café, upon discovering the manaeesh, I remember feeling like I had just found cash in an old jacket pocket. I also remember wishing that I really had—L’Artisan is a little pricy.

     It is a hybridity that exists in the comingling of shawarma and subs at Mike’s Calzones; the iced tea that is still Moroccan at heart at Tea in Sahara; the halal pizza at Oasis; and non-Middle Eastern employees at East Side Pockets who corrected my friend, a native Arabic speaker, on his pronunciation of falafel. Each of these deviations from what could be called “traditional” adapts these businesses to their local markets.

     While all of the men I spoke with for this story have had the experience of maintaining two distinct cultural identities, much of the western influence on Middle Eastern restaurants in Providence is no different than what one would find in the Middle East itself. As Jawad put it, “Even back in Morocco I was exposed to American culture. Speaking English was the cool thing to do.” Personal experience proves that you can find yourself listening to Nora Jones and eating harissa in both Providence and Tunisia. And you can see a sign like the one outside Mike’s Calzones advertising shawarma with a side of coke and fries outside nearly every shawarma shop in Jordan or Lebanon. The only difference is that, in Jordan, the sign would be written with two lines of text—first in Arabic, then in English.

     Whether they are serving the young and casually dressed on College Hill, the skinny and tattooed of Fox Point, the yoga-pant wearers of Wayland Square, the robed men of South Providence, or a kid on a bike, scouring the city, looking for Middle Eastern food in an attempt to feel more connected to home—Middle Eastern restaurateurs are the ministers of a secular religion, enabling rituals that unify all Middle Easterners living in Providence—and are open to anyone who desires admittance.

     You might not see it, but you just have to pay attention.

RICK SALAME B’16 can never tell if he’s homesick or hungry.