Fla­vors from Iraq in San Diego County

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - [email protected]­times.com

>>> Early on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, up­beat jazz plays in the back­ground of Zad Mediter­ranean Cui­sine as fam­i­lies sur­round ta­bles, pass­ing dishes of shawarma, pick­les, rice, salad and fresh saj bread that was baked be­hind a glass win­dow just mo­ments be­fore. Restau­rant owner Has­san Fran­goul sur­veys the scene, hold­ing a cof­fee ther­mos, sun­glasses still on his head from run­ning er­rands that morn­ing.

“I did this my­self,” he says, ges­tur­ing around him at his 6-mon­thold restau­rant. “It was not easy. But in the end, I feel like I’m a suc­cess­ful man.”

Six years ago, Fran­goul (whose name was legally recorded as Frankol dur­ing his im­mi­gra­tion process, though he prefers to use his true fam­ily name, Fran­goul) ar­rived in the United States as a refugee with his son and preg­nant wife. They were among 3 mil­lion peo­ple forced from their homes be­cause of the Iraq war. More than 18,000 of them re­set­tled in San Diego County. As San Diego rents have gone up, refugee re­set­tle­ment agen­cies have moved new ar­rivals into less ex­pen­sive ar­eas far­ther east, of­ten in neigh­bor­hoods known for their con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics. (Dun­can Hunter, con­gress­man for Cal­i­for­nia’s 50th Dis­trict, was re­cently re-elected af­ter ac­cus­ing his op­po­nent of ties to rad­i­cal Is­lam.)

Still, the grow­ing Iraqi pop­u­la­tion in Fran­goul’s neigh­bor­hood has led to a vi­brant food cul­ture in East County, par­tic­u­larly in El Ca­jon, which has come to be nick­named Lit­tle Bagh­dad. “You can feel home here,” one Iraqi cus­tomer says. As ear­lier refugees like Fran­goul be­come more es­tab­lished, they have be­gun to open restau­rants like Zad, of­fer­ing a di­verse Amer­i­can crowd an au­then­tic ex­pres­sion of Iraqi cui­sine.

“I hope my sons learn from this,” Fran­goul says. “I hope they learn that life is not easy, and you need to de­pend on your­self to build your life.” Be­fore him is a spread of glis­ten­ing veal shawarma, ground beef kefta ke­babs and skew­ers of chicken shish tawook. Though the food and fla­vors are the same, his life looks very dif­fer­ent here in the United States. His two sons go to great schools, love In-N-Out and speak mostly English.

Zad is the Ara­bic word for pro­vi­sions or food taken for travel. Fran­goul sees food as a way to shorten the dis­tance — cre­ate con­nec­tions — be­tween dif­fer­ent places and peo­ple. “The uni­verse is not only the United States,” he says. By eat­ing at restau­rants like his, peo­ple can learn about an­other cul­ture’s “men­tal­ity, how they live, how they help peo­ple, how they eat food.”

Far­ther north in El Ca­jon, Mazin Ma­jeed owns Al Aza­yem, a more ca­sual, diner-style Iraqi eatery. Cus­tomers pay at the counter, but in true Iraqi hospi­tal­ity form, servers run around the ta­bles pro­vid­ing tea, bread, soup and salad free of charge with all sit-down or­ders. While still of­fer­ing clas­sics like biryani, chicken cream chop, bas­turma and shawarma, Ma­jeed also serves spe­cial­ties like liver tikka cut­lets and kubba saray bagh­dadiya, a toma­to­based soup with spiced meat­balls. Ara­bic news blares from a TV on one wall, while Amer­i­can flags and “I Voted” stick­ers (gifts from Ma­jeed’s cus­tomers) adorn an­other.

“Had­hihi hay­ati,” Ma­jeed says, laugh­ing. Reem Est­te­fain, Ma­jeed’s

right-hand em­ployee and a fel­low Iraqi refugee, helps trans­late. “This is our life,” she says.

Two doors down from Zad Mediter­ranean Cui­sine, Ma­nar AlZibay and her hus­band, Nael Al­na­j­jar, run Al Ham­dani Sweets. The dessert shop is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for the di­verse Mid­dle East­ern com­mu­ni­ties of San Diego. The se­lec­tion in­cludes cus­tard-filled znoud el-sit, cheesy ku­nafa, Iraqi de­light and Turk­ish-style sweets that Al­na­j­jar learned to make in Turkey while wait­ing for his refugee visa to process. Lo­cals know to ar­rive be­fore noon to catch a fresh-baked, syrup­soaked kahi with clot­ted-cream gey­mar, an in­dul­gent and tra­di­tional Iraqi break­fast. “Oh, my God, my heart is a big one,” says AlZibay, an ex­hausted smile on her face.

In Septem­ber, Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced a his­toric low cap on an­nual refugees for 2019. His poli­cies have also re­sulted in fewer refugees ar­riv­ing in the coun­try from Mus­lim ma­jor­ity coun­tries, in­clud­ing Iraq.

At the close of the 2018 fis­cal year on Oct. 30 , San Diego County’s an­nual in­com­ing Iraqi refugee count is 12. Though in­com­ing refugees are dwin­dling, the cul­tural in­flu­ence of a home coun­try 7,000 miles away con­tin­ues to bloom in Lit­tle Bagh­dad.

“It’s re­ally some­thing that you would sac­ri­fice your life to see your kids raised in such an en­vi­ron­ment,” Fran­goul says, as Zad swells with the noise of Ara­bic and English con­ver­sa­tion. Above his head, a sign writ­ten in swirling script reads, “Thank­ful.” “I hope that ev­ery Iraqi per­son will have the op­por­tu­nity to raise his kids safely in the United States, or in any safe coun­try.”

Pho­to­graphs by Laura Zablit

CHO­CO­LATE BAKLAVA, from top, at Al Ham­dani Sweets blends Iraqi and Amer­i­can tastes. Reem Est­te­fain and Mazin Ma­jeed joke at Al Aza­yem, where they serve spiced meat­ball soup and more.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.