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Volume 26, Number 2March/April 1975

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Arabs in America

The Impact

Written by Philip Harsham
Photographed by Robert Azzi

At least 19 towns in the United States are named for Lebanon, six for Jordan, four for Egypt, and three for Palestine. There are four Cairos, six Damascuses, two Arabis, at least one Baghdad and one Mecca. Undoubtedly, some of those place names were perpetuated more by Americans who knew their Bible than by incoming Arabs or Arabists. But they're there, nonetheless, American monuments to a respected region.

More pointed evidence of the Arab presence in the United States are the Islamic mosques and Islamic centers in such cities as Washington, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco and—still to be completed—Chicago, and the Maronite, Melchite and Eastern Orthodox churches that have sprung up wherever even a few Christian Arabs have concentrated.

Americans use Egyptian camel-saddle stools as footrests, wear Syrian "harem" robes as beach dresses, and play backgammon on Lebanese mosaic-inlaid boards. They serve stuffed grape leaves as cocktail-party canapes and buy frozen baklawa to have on hand for Sunday-dinner dessert. Some have even become competent players of the 'oud.

But nowhere is the Arab presence more distinctly felt than in the restaurants that try to recreate some small corner of the Middle East. Adhering conscientiously to authentic Arab bills of fare, they're keeping alive mahshis and kebabs among Arab-Americans while spreading a taste for those exotic dishes to non-Arabs.

Best known of the Middle Eastern restaurants is without doubt San Francisco's Omar Khayyam's. There, George Mardikian, who emigrated from his native Armenia in 1922, plays host to gourmets from all parts of the world, is known as a prolific writer of patriotic essays, a friend of American past presidents, and as an art collector. But he is known primarily for his Middle Eastern dishes, and deservedly so.

Omar Khayyam's is in a class by itself. Good Middle Eastern restaurants, however, have in the last few years sprung up across the country. In New York, the newest and most pretentious is the Cleopatra, an uptown spot whose owner and chef is Egyptian-born Attiah Mohammed (he gave Egyptian architect Gamal El-Zoghby complete freedom in designing the building). A little further along Broadway is Amir's, a tiny falafel shop from which Lebanese-born Yusif Abdul Samad serves some 300 customers a day—several of them his former classmates at nearby Columbia University. In the Washington area is Abdo's in Arlington, Va., operated by Palestinian-born Abdul Abdo. In Miami Beach it's Omar's Tent, where Lebanese-American Bob Hanna serves—along with traditional Middle East dishes—a surf-and-turf kebab; that's a combination of African lobster tails and young lamb. And in the Chicago area, it's the Mediterranean House in suburban Skokie and the Kebab East in Morton Grove, both operated by Hebron-born Abdel Hamid El-Barbarawi.

Fanciers of the Middle East cuisine can toss out many more restaurant names, usually suggestive ones. There's the Red Fez in Boston; the Caliph's Table in Hollywood; the Cedars of Lebanon, the Phoenicia, and the Uncle Tonoose (Uncle Tonoose is a character made famous by comedian Danny Thomas) in New York, and the Iron Gate and Mama Ayesha's Calvert Restaurant in Washington, D.C. In Dearborn, Mich., Lebanese-born Sam Mallad operates Uncle Sam's Restaurant, an Arab-American favorite that Mallad has had to enlarge three times in the 10 years he's owned it. In Lawrence, Mass., Lebanese-American brothers Abraham, Charles and Joseph Bashara operate Bishop's, a 400-seat restaurant with an adjoining lounge that seats 250. Bishop's keeps nine Arab-American cooks busy serving Lawrence's large Lebanese-American community and patrons of the nearby Rockingham Race Track, as well as others from Boston and its suburbs.

Even the late Abraham Sahadi would be surprised to see how widespread the demand for Middle East foodstuffs has become. And he had a big part in creating it. Sahadi, a Lebanese immigrant, founded A. Sahadi & Company back in the 1890s to import the olives, the sesame seeds, the pistachio nuts, and the bulgur wheat demanded by New York's then small Arab-American community. Now located in nearby Moonachie, N.J., and owned by the purveyors of Lipton's tea, the company is a major supplier of Middle East foods to the entire United States.

Effectively serving as an unofficial distribution aide to the Sahadi firm is an area known to most Arab-Americans—wherever they might live—simply as Atlantic Avenue. Atlantic Avenue is in Brooklyn, N.Y. Walk along its 100 block, between Court and Clinton streets, and you're transported abruptly into a business community that's solidly Arab-American. There's Sahadi Importing Company, founded by Wade Sahadi, a nephew of old Abraham Sahadi. It's now headed by Nicholas Sabah, Wade's partner, and Charles Sahadi, Wade's son. And at almost any time of day both can be found scooping bulgur or olives from vast containers or relaying dried okra, eggplant, and squash to customers crowding elbow to elbow among the goodies. ("You'd be surprised how many non-Arabs we serve," says Charles Sahadi, portioning out dried mulberries to a young Japanese-American housewife. "Arab food is smart now; it's in.") Sahadi's displays 12 different kinds of olives and culinary exotica ranging from a falafel mix "for vegetable burgers" to a French-fabricated couscoussiere for making couscous. From a next-door adjunct it sells brassware, mosaic-inlaid boxes, water pipes, woven goods and other items typical of the Arab countries. And through a thriving mail-order branch, it ships its foodstuffs and wares to retail customers across the country. A few doors down the street is Damascus Bakery, where Syrian-American Tony Mafoud and Lebanese-American Henry Halaby turn out Arab baked delicacies that are shipped to wholesale and retail outlets in 25 states. Sitting in a row with Sahadi's and Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue are Malko Brothers & Cassatly Company, Alwan Brothers Confectionery, and Near East Bakery. Across the street are Malko Importing, Beirut Bakery, and Tripoli Bakery. All dispense much the same foods and bric-a-brac as the larger outlets but there's heated competition on quality and price.

Much of the popularity of Middle East foods among non-Arabs in the United States can be attributed to Helen Corey, a Terre Haute, Ind., Syrian-American who wrote "The Art of Syrian Cookery"  (Doubleday, $5.95). That handsome volume details scores of recipes taught to Miss Corey by her Damascus-born mother. But it doesn't stop there; it adapts those recipes to American cooking habits, then laces in enough Middle East folklore and Arabic translation to pique the interest of even the most non-Arab cook.

Just as non-Arabs have turned to Arab foods, some Arab-Americans are profiting by going the other way. One of the country's most distinguished food stores, for example, is Houston's Jim Jamail & Sons, sometimes called a "carriage-trade supermarket." Founded in 1905 by Najeeb (Jim) Jamail, the store now is run by three Jamail sons—Joe, Albert, and Harry—and sells the highest grades of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, all strictly American. But if the Jamails haven't contributed much Arab food to Houston they've contributed Jamails: there are now more than 500 of them in the Houston area, all springing from Najeeb and two early-immigrating cousins. Yemeni-American Abraham Ali operates the Chesterfield Market in a predominantly black Detroit neighborhood. He sells a little Syrian bread, but more popular with his customers is his selection of such "soul" food as the South's chitlings. It's just possible, though, that Lebanese-American Esser David's business establishments are more familiar to the average American than all those others put together. Formerly a nightclub owner in Akron, Ohio, David now operates a string of restaurants ranging north from Clearwater on Florida's west coast. But even David must go elsewhere for his Middle East foods. His seven franchised restaurants are called Mc Donald's. And McDonald's in the United States is synonymous with hamburgers.

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the March/April 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1975 images.