Shortly after 9/11, noticing that Middle Eastern restaurants were empty and anti-Moslem bigotry was becoming an obvious problem, I published "A Call to Eat" on Chowhound, stating my resolution to eat nothing but Middle Eastern food for a while in support of friends and neighbors who were unfairly suffering for the monstrous behavior of people who happen to share a very broad group affiliation with them. I encouraged others to do likewise.
Unexpectedly, this turned out to be a very controversial suggestion (it even got reported on in Food & Wine). Who knew the notion of sticking up for unfairly stigmatized neighbors would strike people as offensive?
To this day, I know very kind-hearted, reasonable people who can't imagine why anyone would argue with the observation that "The Moslems" are trying to kill us. Hey, "they" attacked us, didn't they? What more proof do we need?
And now, alas, more "proof". I hear the sound of a million American Moslem hearts sinking. Of course, that's a terrorist objective: to provoke America into anti-Muslim bigotry that will marginalize - and, ideally, radicalize - moderate Muslims. If you want a big fight, you need to fuel conflict. It's a page out of the same provocation playbook of Palestinian extremists who bombed not hawkish Israeli temples and religious schools, but dovish secular night clubs and shopping malls. If violence is the ultimate goal, the first thing to do is rile up the peaceable majority and its dangerously conciliatory attitude.
Passing through Fairfield, Connecticut at lunch time today, I spotted a Syrian restaurant called "Safita" whose parking lot, unsurprisingly, was deserted. I entered the empty restaurant, ordered takeout, and talked for a long time with the extraordinarily warm, kindly owner, who had the saddest eyes I've ever seen. He made me a shish tawouk sandwich with toom (Lebanese garlic mayonnaise), and some lentil soup. He asked me if I was local, and I replied that, no, I was driving through. So he asked what had prompted me to stop in. I hadn't planned to get into a discussion about it, but couldn't lie. I explained that I'd eaten nothing but foul madamas and kibbe for two solid months after the 9/11 attacks, trying to drive business (and good vibes) to as many unfairly stigmatized Middle Eastern restaurants as I could. And I figured it might be time to restart that practice for a while.
Looking relieved that I'd broached the topic, he walked up right next to me and whispered a story about how he'd worked in a Middle Eastern restaurant in 2001, and a woman came for lunch every single day. After the attacks, she never returned. He spotted her one day in a supermarket, and asked why she never stopped by. "I'll come in sometime if I ever decide to put on a burka," she spat back at him.
He had tears in his eyes. We both glanced over at his wife, angelically cooking in completely modern Western dress. Not to mention the full bar. I sighed sorrowfully and left with my sandwich - which, by the way, was wonderful. Just as the guy was wonderful. If the Nazis ever came back, he's exactly the sort who'd let me hide in his basement. And, as I pulled out of his empty parking lot, I wondered whether I could convince a few of you to join me in sticking up for the good guys.
Americans are famously indecisive about where to eat. How about defaulting toward falafal for a while? You don't need to discuss politics. Just show up. Spend a few bucks and be neighborly. Step up, just as you'd hope folks would step up for you under such circumstances.
If the idea pisses you off, though, do me a favor and keep it to yourself.
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