It was Ramadan. In the time of Trump. So you couldn’t just go to some restaurants, you’d have to wait until dark. I don’t fast, but to eat in front of other Arab Americans who do would be an asshole move, undignified. Dignity is my organized religion.
Deep in Brooklyn, at a Yemeni cafe, I sat alone at around 9pm. Few others were there. A white man entered. He was seated so quickly, and with great care. That’s OK; we are a culture that welcomes guests. And after the white man, there was a young boy, about 10, I’d say.
I have a mental picture of the young boy in my mind — the back of his head, as he left. Small. More forcibly alone than I. At my age, there are many people, many specters, at my table for one.
The young boy wanted to eat by himself. His parents, I imagined, had given him enough money to go eat alone like a big man so they could spend some time alone and in privacy. Nine months after this clemently cool Ramadan summer night, may there be a blossoming of new youth. Stronger. More sure. Less terrified.
At first, they wouldn’t seat him. You disturb the customers, they told him. The group of men who run that restaurant wouldn’t be bothered by this young hood boy. They were playing with their baby, who was playing with prayer beads and kept saying the word هكذا, هكذا / hakatha, hakatha — the equivalent of a Valley Girl “like” in Gulfi Arabic. At about five, their son was still cute. The young boy of 10, however, had grown into manhood. Their harshness with him wasn’t cruel; it was meant to be preparatory, I understood.
There’s no one here, he observed. I was there. The restaurant’s men sat him on the condition that he’d shut up.
The young boy sat himself beside the white man, behind me. And moments after, the young man interrogated this white man as though he’d never met anyone like him in his life.
What do you do for a living, sir? he asked— I’m a computer engineer, the white man answered.
Are you from New York, sir? — Yes.
Where’d you hear about this restaurant? — The Internet.
I walked back to Sunset Park, stuffed with slow-cooked lamb, like a queen. Arab families sat at the park, cooling themselves in the wind. Children played with force; they hadn’t fasted. For now, they played, while the adults thought on the future. Of course, I have no children. And if I could, I’d be selfish to start now.
It’s a long walk from Bay Ridge to Sunset Park. There are a lot of little things on the way, of note. A bodega with a depiction of Santa Muerte — Holy Death. A park with an Algerian among Latin and Asian flags and an anti-gentrification banner. Landmarks that tell me how far I’ve come from the Greater Arabia Area, back to a neighborhood of Puerto Ricans and the newcomers — the Mexicans. The Mexicans remind me of California, of home. Their stacked chicharrones de harina and buckets of agua de tamarindo and horchata. Someone’s mother or father serving them.
A man — he looks like a day laborer, like a father of children I knew growing up, like my grandfather after his temp office jobs — stands at the roadside eating an elote, seasoned corn on a stick, bobbing his head to a fast-paced, percussive song blaring on his portable CD player.
I burst into hushed tears. There’s nothing more than this, I think. You come far to scour a city for a moment’s peace and corn on a stick. I’m a little high.
My grandmother calls. WHERE ARE YOU? she yells. It’s as though she’s speaking into a paper cup, across the country.
I just ate a Yemeni stew called salta, with okra and meat in a tomato broth, I tell her.
THAT’S BAMIA, she said, referring to our own style of Arabic okra stew. As though the Yemenis stole it. To her, anyone else trying to cook the same dishes she does is slighting her honor. I didn’t dispute her claim.
We began to chat. My friend in New York had invited her colleagues to her house to break the Ramadan fast, and I helped her cook. My grandmother asked what we made. She made bamia and melokheya. I made tajine and couscous and slata mechoueia.
FOREIGNERS WON’T EAT BAMIA OR MELOKHEYA, she said, laughing emphatically. My grandmother, when she came to this country, went back to school, got a job at a bank, and entertained her non-Arab colleagues. YOU SHOULD HAVE MADE KEBAB AND RICE.
As Bay Ridge turned to Sunset Park, the sound of Arabic turned to Puerto Rican Spanish, an absence of certain S’s, and occasional papi chulos truncated our conversation.
IS THAT THE PUERTO RICANS? my grandmother asked. I was shocked she noticed.
When my grandmother arrived in the U.S., they moved to the Bronx. There, in their building, she made a friend who attended the same ESL class, a Puerto Rican woman. They didn’t understand each other. Literally. But so far from North Africa, and in a time when there weren’t a great many Arabs in the U.S., let alone a kind that mostly stuck to the French-speaking world, my grandmother clung to that woman as a familiar-looking face on the farthest edges of consciousness.
The woman worked at a tie shop. They practiced English together. Thank you for your patronage, come again./ It suits you, madame! Cash or charge card?/ Please try these lamb brochettes and rice.
The Puerto Rican woman gave my grandfather a tie from her shop, and that’s when the unlikely friendship disintegrated. Who does that? my grandmother would say, in the way that Betty White also often effects the patois of a Valley Girl.
But in her old age, and in these times, the end seemed to have re-written itself, I suppose.
Yes, it’s the Puerto Ricans, I told her.
THEY ARE GOOD PEOPLE, THE PUERTO RICANS, she said. I could hear the smile in her voice, passing through so much string and tin from Los Angeles to Sunset Park.
Massoud Hayoun is an Arab American Angeleno writer. He is also a journalist who has reported around the world for Al Jazeera, CNN, and others. Never follow him on Twitter or Facebook; the worst sort of criminals are good at Twitter and Facebook. Unplug and go find love or happiness in an autumnal field.