BY TENZIN DHAKPA
Running a Yemeni restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is one of the many splashes of diversity that trickle into the melting pot that is New York City.
It’s been 35 years since the restaurant opened, originally managed and owned by my father and his brother. Being immigrants themselves, they wanted to have something reminiscent of their home in this giant city and what better option than food? Unfortunately we haven’t earned any Michelin stars yet, probably due to the fact that most people couldn’t get their heads past the exotic looking Yemeni options that are plastered on the front glass window, lit up by glowing neon lights. Or maybe it was because of the 90’s floral wallpaper that enveloped the shop or the seemingly random Ferris Bueller’s Day Offposter that hung by the register. I don’t think my dad or his brother ever saw the movie but it was their own way of trying to connect to the foreign culture around them.
Two years ago, my father let me take over the store after he and mother decided they wanted to move out of the bustling city, to a small suburban town in Massachusetts. Being an owner of a restaurant is by no means an easy gig and I often find myself closing or working well past dinner. The counter by the register became where I spent my nights, either texting family and friends back in Djibouti or letting my father know how business is doing.
She entered with a sleepy look on her face, perhaps a student at NYU and in need of a cheap bint al sahn or mandi to fuel her library hours.
“Is the shakshuka still available or is that only for breakfast?” she asked.
“Sorry that’s a breakfast item,” I replied.
Her stomach growled. Embarrassed, she looked down at her frayed black Doc Marten boots.
“Do you want the shakshuka?”
She shook her head and asked for the cheapest menu item and pushed forward a messy pile of dimes and quarters amounting to three dollars. I gently pushed it back.
“One shakshuka, on me” I said as I turned to the fridge to get the eggs. Despite not being the easiest (or cheapest) meal to make, I wanted to make it to perfection for her. Pity wasn’t the reason, rather it was something that my father would’ve done.
10 minutes later, I placed the bubbling plate of shakshuka and warm grilled bread in front of her. She expressed her thanks many times over and attacked the meal hungrily.
“Where are you from?” I inquired.
“I’m Indian, but I was born here, you?”
“Interesting, I’m actually from Djibouti,” I noticed the confused look on her face, so I smiled and pointed to the large map of Africa framed on the wall.
“It’s across the Red Sea from Yemen. It’s sort of like the Kashmir of North Africa.”
She nodded but it was clear she had no idea what I was talking about due to her scrunched up eyebrows. As she continued to devour the steaming meal, I went back to the kitchen and made a pot of mint tea and sat back down. I poured us both a cup.
“Where did you go to college?” she asked, searching for some small talk.
“I actually studied in Paris for a while. It was alright but cops would constantly ask me for my ID, as if my skin tone was too out of the ordinary for them. Sometimes it seems as if Djibouti is the only place where nobody asks questions. The only place of peace.”
She had stopped eating and was staring at me with a new look in her eyes, her brows raised in sympathy.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” she said.
“Don’t be, it’s a part of the world we live in. One day, you must visit my country. You will be welcomed with open arms.” I replied.
I pulled out my phone and showed her several of my friends on Facebook who have started their own small businesses of their own back home. She smiled as she scrolled through some pictures.
“It looks like a beautiful land with beautiful people,” she commented.
Her phone suddenly vibrated the table and she answered it immediately. She spoke in hushed tones and ended the call quickly.
“I’ve got to go, my boyfriend forgot his keys to our apartment.”, she explained as she put on her jacket and draped her purse over a shoulder.
“Thank you so much for the meal, it was wonderful!”
“Not a problem at all, I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
And with that, the bell clanged as she exited out into the cool evening. I checked my watch, 12:45 AM. Closing time.