Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue is a place where cultures rub off on each other: Arab culture is left a little more American, American culture a little more Arab. But mingling is only part of what goes on here. Above all, this is a place where both newcomers from the Middle East and Arab-Americans of different generations come to sustain a taste for the food they were raised on and all that it nurtures: family, friendship and a way of life.
Though some of the foods can be found in other parts of New York, many people still trek to Atlantic Avenue once a week or once a month from Manhattan, Queens, Connecticut or New Jersey; people who live nearby may drop in two or three times a week. Whatever the frequency, they all come to buy familiar food at reasonable prices, or to find special items or a special quality unavailable elsewhere: dried lemons, perhaps, or bread baked in a brick oven, or a tray of baklava freshly made from a widely coveted secret recipe. And they come to soak up the atmosphere.
One of the people who shops on Atlantic Avenue several times each week is George Rabbat, who emigrated from Syria in 1958. His wife, Eugenie, remembers how she felt after leaving her large family in Aleppo. "I am lost," she says, "I cry every night for eight years."
The first time she walked into a store on Atlantic Avenue, her then five-year-old son tugged at her hand and whispered, "Mama! Smell the food! I feel I'm in Syria!"
"I hear people speaking Arabic," she says, her voice ringing with the excitement of that moment. "I want to hug them and kiss them! This is my life!"
Some of the shops on Atlantic Avenue have been selling Middle Eastern goods for 100 years, ever since large numbers of "Syrians" - many of whom came from what is today Lebanon, Iraq or Jordan - first started arriving in the United States. By the turn of the century, about 100 Arab families were clustered near the end of the avenue by the waterfront, a satellite of the main "Little Syria" on Washington Street in lower Manhattan. They enjoyed a rich cultural life that was in many ways like the one in the old country, with Arabic newspapers, coffee houses and festivals where they danced the old dances. In those days, some of the young men journeyed back home to fetch brides.
For many of the children and grandchildren of the immigrants living on or near Atlantic Avenue, its shops and restaurants were their only tangible link to the old country. Helen Uniss Khouri, for instance, was born in Brooklyn into a distinguished family from Abeye on the eve of World War I; she did not travel to Lebanon until the late 1940's, and her sister Katherine Uniss Haddad never did get to go. As children, all of their images of the homeland were filtered through the memories of their elders or reflected in the transplanted life of the avenue.
And indeed, life here resembled life in Abeye. For one thing, the house was always full of guests to feed. Helen Khouri remembers sitting with her mother among the Arab ladies in the butcher shop on Saturday morning, chatting as the butcher fixed their lamb, "some for kubbah, (see glossary, page 19), some for stuffing, some for stew...."
"And when he prepared the kubbah," adds Katherine Haddad, serving up her phrases with the rhythm of a seasoned raconteur, "they stood right over him to make sure he took every bit of fat and sinew...They could drive him crazy!"
The tiny, bright-eyed sisters also remember listening to relatives reminisce about food in the old country. With mounting hilarity, they chant the phrases they heard so many times when they were young: "In Abeye, the zaytun are hil-l-l-u (sweet)." The apricots? "Hil-ul" And the grapes, the cherries and so on. Then they demonstrate the way the adults used to hold up a thumb and forefinger widely separated to show the remarkable size of the fruits - "Hayk, hayk, hayk (like this, this, this)!" - and they dissolve into laughter along with their guest.
In the 1940's, the Battery Tunnel displaced the residents of Washington Street, and Atlantic Avenue became the only Middle Eastern center in New York. Raymond Rashid, whose father opened Rashid Sales record store in 1934, claims that when he was growing up in the neighborhood in the 1950's and 1960's, he rarely saw what he called "a real American" - a blond, blue-eyed person.
Yet, the neighborhood was to lose many of its Arab-American families in the 1960's and 1970's. In the standard immigrant pattern, many moved up and out to fancier or quieter neighborhoods. At the same time, many children and grandchildren of the early immigrants seemed to lose interest in their culinary heritage. Charlie Sahadi, the 42-year-old co-owner of Sahadi Importing Co., observed the customers in his father's store when he was a teenage and became worried about the future the family business.
"I saw my parents' generation buying five pounds of olives, 10 pounds of wheat, 10 pounds of rice," he explains, speaking rapidly with a Brooklyn accent and Lebanese gestures. "I saw my generation buying one pound of olives, a pound of cheese and a pound of nuts. And I could foresee my kids' generation buying a quarter pound of this and a quarter pound of that - and without building a customer base that was larger than what we had the business was gonna disappear."
Some businesses did. As late as 1974 one could still walk into the back room of Mahmoud Alwan's pastry shop an experience a small shudder of excitement as if one were stepping out of the glaring street into the dappled light of the Damascus suq. Under a skylight stood a large, bald man in a white apron, his eyes intent on an enormous cauldron of hot oil into which he flicked small dollops of dough with a spoon. "He knew how to flick it just right," recalls a neighbor. Skimmed off at the right moment and drenched in sugar syrup, Alwan's 'awwamat tasted other-wordly.
Around the time Alwan retired and returned to Syria, the old coffee houses and local Arabic newspapers faded away. And because of socio-economic problems, the future of Atlantic Avenue, along with that of much of Brooklyn, appeared to be in doubt. It was too soon to pronounce an end to "Little Syria," however, for just then new Middle Eastern immigrants, mostly Palestinian and Yemeni, began to appear on Atlantic Avenue.
At the same time, many of the foods sold there started to gain a wider audience. Health food was beginning to catch on, and some of the items on the healthnik's list - yogurt, dried fruits, whole grains, nuts - were Middle Eastern staples. In addition, people who began buying bulk food for freshness and price discovered Atlantic Avenue. Simultaneously, ethnic or specialty foods became popular. "Specialty foods," exclaims Charlie Sahadi, "what are they? Imported foods. That's what we sell! So all of the sudden we're in the right place at the right time."
In the end, the 1970's and 1980's turned out to be the right time for both Brooklyn and Atlantic Avenue. To boost Brooklyn, the city pressed merchants and restaurant owners along the avenue to set up an ethnic festival in September 1975. Over14,000 people showed up to browse in the shops and stalls and eat Middle Eastern food. By 1986, attendance at the annual event had ballooned to half a million.
Food is ostensibly what Atlantic Avenue's Middle Eastern section is about, and much of the general public samples it either at the festival or in its restaurants. Though two of the restaurants are owned by Yemenis and one is Moroccan, the hot spices of Yemen and the intricate stews of Morocco are bypassed by nearly all in favor of a Levantine menu. There is some variation in quality and taste among the restaurants - the pastry at Adnan's is said to be the best, and the spicy fish at the Tripoli, the mazzah at Sido's and the lentil soup at Bourock's - but their similarities are greater than their differences.
Just as evocative as the food is the hospitality, for one may receive a truly Arab welcome here - the hand over the heart at the Bourock - and be left in peace to take as much time as desired over a meal or pastry and coffee. A young Yemeni who waits on tables at Adnan's Restaurant and studies economics at New York University, Abdulgalil Alwan, describes hospitality as a way of showing one's feeling towards one's guest, of revealing what is in one's heart. Like many Arabs, he is convinced that the spirit of generosity is not learned, but innate among his people.
Though the manners are gracious here, Abdulgalil Alwan agrees with many others who work and eat on Atlantic Avenue that restaurants cannot produce real home cooking, mainly because of the time required. If his wife, whom he recently brought over from Yemen, were to prepare a real Yemeni meal for guests, it would take "days! A week!"
It is the food stores on Atlantic Avenue that are central to the survival of Arab traditions in the new world, for they make it possible for fine Arab cooks to practice their art. Not only the wholesale and catering business, but also the retail business good, growing at roughly 10 percent a year.
Among the customers are more Arab Americans and more non-Arab American: - "more of everybody," as Henri Halabiji of Damascus Bakery, says. The baken founded with one brick oven in 1930 by grandfather, now produces 17,000 loaves of pita bread an hour in an automated plan elsewhere in Brooklyn.
The Damascus Bakery, Rashid Sale Sahadi's Importing Co. and the Orienta Pastry Shop form a nucleus of old stores that remain from the early years. Though several others have closed, new stores have been opened by more recent immigrants to the avenue. Old or new, each food shop has its own loyal customers. Old-timers may buy bread from Damascus Bakery or out of the brick ovens at the Near East, then proceed to Sahadi's for za'tar spices scooped from jars that are replenished every two or three weeks, or they can cross to the Oriental Pastry Shop for lamb sausage or baba ghannuj.
The Oriental Pastry Shop is, of all the stores, the most like home for people from Muslim cities or neighborhoods of the Levant, and for outsiders it is the most exotic. Arab music and the scent of cardamom coffee suffuse the air. Except for the golden photograph of the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock and a complete miniature edition of the Koran in large frames, practically every inch of wall space up to the ceiling is crammed with cans, jars and boxes. On either side of the path down the middle, the floor is covered with open barrels of green and black olives, bright red pickled eggplants, and bins of mulukhiyyah dried fruit, dried beans, lentils and licorice sticks. Here and there, somehow hanging or wedged or perched, are a copper shawurma grill, headcloths, 'uds (lutes), drums, brass waterpipes, kettles and coffee cups,
On a Saturday morning early in March, one finds two Iraqi women with a heavy sterling silver tray, buying sweets for a daughter's engagement party on Long Island. A young Palestinian is waiting for a tray of baklava to carry on the plane to California. And Nadim Rabah, who emigrated from Beirut in 1971, calmly waits nearly an hour with his eight-year-old son Ramze for a tray of kunafah. Ramze's mother, American-born, does not cook Lebanese food, but Rabah occasionally does, and he drives from Queens once a month to buy pastry. Other customers come from as far as Pennsylvania and Maryland, and many people ask for the recipes that Anas, the youngest of the three Moustapha brothers, claims he wouldn't even reveal to his mother.
This morning is even busier than usual, but the air in the shop is thick with patience. While they wait to be served, people chat with friends and strangers, taste and talk about the olives. In a pattern not uncommon in the Middle East, most of the customers are men, and there is much banter and teasing.
The whirlwind in the eye of this calm is Ghiath Moustapha, a compact man with flashing eyes, who waits on a customer, answers the phone, yells to his brother Muyassar in the kitchen to fetch some baba ghannuj or another tray of baklava and, when the crowd ebbs, dashes out front to supervise the unloading of a truck.
Wardieh Tabri from Ramallah has been coming to Oriental Pastry from Manhattan for "10 or 12 years," as much for the feeling as for the food. "You come over here, you joke around, you talk. In an American store it's business. You take what you want, you pay and you leave, and that's it."
Tastes have changed a little - people like their kunafah less sweet and they are eating less lamb and more veal - but certain things stay the same because people like it that way. Mohsen Kenini, an Egyptian from Port Said who drops in often on his lunch hour, says he feels comfortable here; he contrasts it to other stores where you have to take a number and wait: "I don't like the new way." It is not the waiting that he minds, but the numbers.
"The new way" is at Sahadi's across the street, the store that Charlie Sahadi recently renovated in accordance with his hunch that the business would have to become more international to survive. Out front, the old sign remains - a cedar of Lebanon and the sand-colored columns of the great temple at Baalbek against a blue sky - but inside there is no clutter on the new quarry-tile floor, and the 14 kinds of olives and pickles are up in stainless steel bins; the shelves are heavy with pasta and fancy teas. Except for the four sizes of burghul and the frozen mulukhiyyah, it could be a store in any upscale shopping center - or in a wealthy section of Beirut.
In addition to regular customers like Helen Khouri and Katherine Haddad, the new store attracts more and more non-Arab Americans, about 40 percent of the clientele compared with Oriental Pastry's estimated 25 to 30 percent.
Twenty-one-year-old Christine Sahadi, whose favorite pastime is cooking, recently opened a section in the back of her father's store to sell a variety of carry-out foods, including Arab specialties such as kubbah. She is building on the tastes she acquired as a child during Sunday meals at her Aleppine grandmother's house, and on techniques learned from her mother.
Though it has gone modern, Sahadi's, like its neighbors, still functions as a casual meeting place, and for recent arrivals it is sometimes a place to begin to find one's way. They find a particularly sympathetic ear in Charlie Sahadi's cousin, Sonia Abounoum, who remembers what it was like to leave Zahlah nine years ago: "You feel like it's the end of the world." When she shows newcomers where to shop or helps them find a doctor or a lawyer, she is doing what shopkeepers on the avenue have been doing for decades.
Some of the newer shops resemble village stores in the old country. They have fewer products than their more established neighbors and, with one exception, there are no American accents behind the counter. Teyba's halal meat and poultry shop sells Islamic literature as well as a variety of packaged and dried foods and souvenirs. A substantial percentage of its shoppers are Black Muslims, and the store is inundated with customers preparing for the 'Id feast at the end of Ramadan.
At Soueidan Bakery one is likely to encounter more "unhyphenated Americans," partly because the store opened recently and partly because its Lebanese co-owner, Musa Soueidan, relishes showing people who have never tasted Arab food how to eat it properly.
Scoffing at the "Americanized" food served in the nearby restaurants, he seeks to emulate the success of the Chinese, which he believes is the result of keeping their culinary cupboards pure. "Not all people want to eat hamburger," he notes. He keeps a bottle of olive oil handy for those who are trying labnah for the first time, and he insists that his lahm m'ajun must be eaten with yogurt to "keep the stomach flexible" and avoid getting fat.
Everyone's business is thriving, and though Charlie Sahadi's dire prediction for the future of the Middle Eastern food business has not come true - on the contrary, bakeries, shops and restaurants have sprung up all over the metropolitan area - it remains to be seen what will happen to Atlantic Avenue itself.
The avenue reflects what is happening in Arab-American homes, where the survival of traditions centering on food presents a complex picture. In some ways, these traditions - the "open door, open heart" - have faded, and Katherine Had-dad is basically right when she says the days of overflowing houses are gone. But viewed from other angles, it is also apparent that the traditions are not dying but shifting - and even spreading in unexpected ways.
Everyone is familiar with the changes that undermine the old ways. Nowadays a call to a friend's home may connect with an answering machine. Women working smaller families and the dispersal of grown children make if difficult to spend much time on food preparation. Even in the old countries, things are changing: In Yemen, says Abdulgalil Alwan, where by tradition you must welcome your guest for three days, "it doesn't happen like the old days" anymore, except in the villages. "People are busy."
As far as quality is concerned, it is worth noting that not all mothers in the past were good cooks; then as now, not every one had an interest in, or a flair for, cooking. They say it's in the hands. Raymond Rashid's mother may be "the best cook to come out of Jadidat Marjayoun," but the beloved grandmother of Helen Khouri and Katherine Haddad, whose Brooklyn Heights home was a well-known gathering place for Arab intellectuals, sometimes burned the food and made the children eat it anyway. Ma'alaysh.
The new Arab cookbooks at Rashid's are usually bought by Syrians and Lebanese; that's one indication that not everyone learns from mother anymore. On the other hand, their popularity also suggests renewed interest in Arab food. And a new video tape by Adila Aziz, Egypt's Julia Child, shows how to make a kubbah dish resembling an open-faced cheeseburger topped with an olive: At least some Arab cooks are interested in new variations on old themes.
Assimilation can work both ways. Numerous Arab mothers boast of Irish- or German- or Italian-American daughters-in-law who have become the best cooks of Arab food in the family. And there are also neighbors and friends who learn how to prepare Arab food. Its appeal to many non-Arab cooks lies not only in its healthful-ness and taste, but also in the spirit in which it is made, served and eaten.
Adaptation is another way of keeping traditions alive. A Palestinian professor of demography living in Manhattan orders ingredients, bread and pastry delivered from Atlantic Avenue to her apartment, and fixes a dinner for 18. A grandmother whose parents came from Aleppo still makes delectable string cheese with black seeds, and then freezes it for her family's monthly visit. Italian butchers in Bay Ridge are trained by their Arab customers to fix kubbah, and one woman freezes hers to take along when she goes to Florida.
In the meantime, new infusions of immigrants, some living 12 or more to a house, help refresh the taste of people living here, even going so far as to bring seeds from favorite tomato and cucumber plants. Abdulgalil Alwan's wife brought her family's ways with her when she moved to Brooklyn last year. Another young Yemeni woman, Samira Almountasser, though born in Brooklyn, would not think of cooking any but Arab food for her family: "It's part of our tradition."
Finally, there are the children or grandchildren, sometimes even male ones, who become enthralled with cooking the food they were raised on.
"Somebody has to show you how to do it," explains Christine Sahadi, who has worked hard to learn how to form kubbah into just the right football-like shapes. "I had to go through it with my mother until I could get them to look like hers. They still don't look like hers, really, but I'm trying." Sahadi confirms that many friends who are second- or third-generation Arab-Americans like her want to eat Arab food -but don't want to cook it. "They wait for their grandmothers to make it." But once her mother's mother was gone, Sahadi felt it was up to her. "If my grandmother can't make it anymore, I'll do it."
"We miss many things," says her cousin Sonia from Zahlah, speaking, as Helen Khouri's relatives did, of sweeter fruits and more flavorful chickens - and speaking as well of the way of life that went with them. Surely, as long as people remember the taste of these things, Arabic will be spoken, and Arab food eaten, on Atlantic Avenue.
Jane Peterson is a free-lance writer who has lived in Brooklyn and Beirut.