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This Portland Restaurant Wants to Remake Iraq's Image

Portland's Dar Salam isn't your run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern restaurant. Owner Ghaith Sahib, who survived a car bomb in Baghdad in 2005, and his American wife have made it their mission to rehabilitate Iraq in the American mind through their food.
May 6, 2015, 3:17pm
Photos by the author.

There was nothing out of the ordinary on that fateful day in 2005. The war had begun only a couple years prior, but things had somewhat died down in Baghdad since Saddam Hussein was toppled and American jets had stopped dropping bombs on the city.

Ghaith Sahib had recently returned to the Iraqi capital from Beirut, where he had been waiting out the initial violence of the invasion. On that day, he was sitting in a line of traffic on his way to Al Mansour University College, where he studied business management. Suddenly, about six cars up from where he was parked, he witnessed an explosion. The next thing Ghaith remembers is waking up in a hospital room, with a doctor telling him that he'd been in a coma for three weeks and that he had a ten percent chance of surviving.

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But he did survive. Now, a decade later, Ghaith lives in Portland with his wife Tiffany, an American and Oregon native. The two of them run a restaurant in the northeast of the city called Dar Salam ("House of Peace"), serving the traditional Iraqi fare Ghaith grew up eating in Baghdad.

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With its golden walls covered in framed photos of both ancient and modern Iraq, traditional handicrafts, Iraqi currency, and a flat-screen TV playing a lengthy slideshow of Iraq's history, the restaurant pretty much doubles as a museum. And that's the point.

"It's not just food. It's food and culture," explains Ghaith. "We try to show the other part of Iraq. The peaceful part."

The story behind Dar Salam starts with a romance. Tiffany and Ghaith met in a hostel in Amsterdam. Ghaith, a refugee, was working there for a free bed and meals. Tiffany was there on a short-stay, working for a nonprofit that helped women to exit the sex industry. Like most relationships that lead to marriage, it was a serendipitous encounter in hindsight, as it was by complete happenstance that Ghaith ended up in Holland in the first place. He had left Iraq in 2006 after six months of recovery following the car bomb explosion. It was simply too dangerous to stay. His family of five got split up. He never finished his business management degree.

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Ghaith initially went to Syria, the only place granting visas to Iraqis at the time. But he hated it there and stayed for only nine months before acquiring a visa to India. He used a phony passport to eventually get to Holland, where he was granted asylum.

Ghaith comes from a well-off family. His mom was a seamstress and his dad was an Arabic teacher in Baghdad. "It was a good life. I had my own car. We had a big house," he says. Growing up he never thought he'd end up living outside of Iraq.

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As a boy, he developed an interest in cooking. "It was not common for Arab men to spend so much time in the kitchen," laughs Tiffany. He was never formally taught how to cook, but the skills came naturally to him. "I'd go to a restaurant and try the food, and even if I didn't know the recipe I'd know what kinds of spices were in it, how they made it," Ghaith says.

Friends in Amsterdam encouraged Ghaith's cooking and told him he should start a food cart. As Ghaith and Tiffany's relationship matured, they decided to move to her hometown of Portland. A year later, the couple bought a food cart for $600, fixed it up, and called it Aladdin's Castle Cafe. Ghaith made his Iraqi dishes and Tiffany handled the logistics.

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The cart quickly became a huge success, so they decided to expand. They wanted something more than just a restaurant, though. The couple envisioned a place where people could be together and share a communal experience, so The House of Peace was born. The black and red sign from the old cart still sits above the bar, an homage to their humble beginnings.

One of the most remarkable features of Dar Salam is its openness as an Iraqi restaurant. In the wake of the Iraq War, many Iraqi restaurateurs in the States found it better to advertise their fare as Middle Eastern, or even just Mediterranean. Many were afraid that the violence and chaos associated with post-war Iraq would hurt business.

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"Initially we were scared to say we were an Iraqi restaurant," says Tiffany. "I was worried that someone with resentment or anger about the war would come and cause problems for us and damage things, or maybe even try to kill someone here, because it's happened in the US."

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But part of their reason for starting the restaurant in the first place was to help clean up the image of Iraq, to help people recognize that it is a place of rich culture and history, not just war.

"We were amazed at how well-received we were as a business and as a family," says Tiffany. "We've actually had a lot of veterans come by and meet the family and talk about how much they loved Iraq when they were there. It's been a really nice surprise that people who were in the war have parts about their experience that they were fond of," says Tiffany.

"Some people who had gotten injured in Iraq have come here," adds Ghaith. "We shared sadness together and we shared funny stuff together. It was really, really cool," says Ghaith.

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In 2013, a kitchen fire burned down most of the restaurant. But all was not lost: A group of Iraq War veterans came together and helped raise money to rebuild it. The Sahib family had helped one of the veterans who led the fundraiser translate a letter from a long-lost friend he'd met during the war. He'd held onto the Arabic-scripted message for eight years before he knew what it said. "It was a beautiful turn of events," says Tiffany.

Most importantly, what separates Dar Salam from other Middle Eastern eateries is its food. Nothing is bland or Americanized. Consider the Iraqi dolma or mahshi—a big, beautiful rice-and-vegetable-stuffed onion. The intensely purple beet salad—a mixture of chopped beets, lemon, and yogurt—looks like melted Playdough, but it's flavorful as hell. The lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs are juicy and perfectly spiced. There are vegetarian and vegan options, too (this is Portland, after all). And this summer, the couple plans to open a new restaurant in a bigger space, where they'll have room for bellydancers and other performers.

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"It's cool to see people appreciate what we do," says Ghaith. "People come here and they shake my hand and they hug me and say, 'Thank you for the food. Thank you for the experience.' It's good."

After talking for a nearly an hour, it becomes clear that Tiffany and Ghaith's House of Peace is about much more than just food. They see themselves as cultural ambassadors. After so much damage to Iraq—and to the Middle East in the American mind—they're here to help pick up the pieces.

"We have a daughter and she's half Iraqi," says Tiffany. "We want her to grow up in a world where that's not a negative thing."