Growing up, I desperately wanted to believe that 'Arab' wasn't a dirty word, but life had taught me otherwise. Despite my having been born in America and “passing” as white, my Arab heritage was a constant source of pain after 9/11. I was called a sand n-----, a towelhead, and a camel jockey, and made fun of and harassed for something I had no part in. To make matters worse, my mother decided to start wearing a hijab shortly after the incident. I couldn’t understand her decision at all. It made her a walking target, I argued, prone to the violent outbursts of scared Americans everywhere like The Man In The Truck.
I can still see him clearly, can still feel the air of hot hatred that enveloped him as he shouted at my barely-5-feet-tall hijabi mom in a parking lot, “Get the hell back to your country!”
I’m thinking about all of this as I sit at Dyafa, Reem Assil’s newly opened restaurant in Oakland, CA. I’m thinking of how paralyzed with fear I felt and how I watched my mom rev her car up in response to the trucker, her eyes glinting with a steely fire I had never seen. She followed his car until she was level with his window.
“This is my country,” she shouted back at him with pride.
In this moment at Dyafa I am completely and totally vulnerable, an Arab through and through. I smell the warm, familiar smell of fresh pita rising in the oven and begin to sob into my salad, my whole core rocked with a powerful wave of emotion. It was the first time I had ever seen my culture portrayed in a positive light, the first time I had truly ever understood why representation mattered so much.
Born to Syrian and Palestinian immigrants from Lebanon, Reem Assil is an Arab chef and educator. She’s the genius behind Reem’s, the Arab “street corner bakery” based in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood that quickly netted her a James Beard nomination for Best Chef: West, and just opened her latest restaurant, Dyafa.
Despite all the accolades, Assil finds herself battling the negative connotations surrounding the word “Arab.”
“The word Arab is considered a bad word because of the political climate,” she said in an interview with Thrillist. “I was like, 'You know what? I am going to mainstream that shit because it is not a bad word.'”
I knew what she meant. When I was young and looking for Arab-American heroes I frequently came up dry. There were no pioneers, restaurateurs, actors, or writers I could call my own. It felt like we were all in hiding, trying to pass as white long enough for us to get by.
I, too, was born to Syrian immigrants. I’m the first in my family to be born in America, the “golden child.” Both of my parents are from Damascus, with a few family members from Lebanon and Algeria.
In the spring of 2007 my mom decided to take us on vacation.
“It’ll be nice,” she assured me. “We’ll get to see your aunt in Jordan, visit the Great Pyramids, eat some delicious mansaf…”
I was 16 and my natural chestnut brown hair was dyed with a blonde halo crown on top, half of which was turquoise. I had snake bite piercings, plus an eyebrow piercing I had done myself, and to top it all off, I refused to wear a hijab or jeans as it was literally 134 degrees outside.
Since I could speak Arabic fluently but looked “white,” I could understand things passersby said about me without them knowing, and let me tell you, I did a whole lot of learning. After a lifetime of being called “sand n-----” I thought I’d finally come home to my people, only to discover that they, in fact, did not consider me one of their own. I felt like there was no place for me anywhere. What about us, the American children of hard-working immigrants? To what country did we belong? Who would welcome us with open arms?
I finally found that place at Dyafa. “Dyafa” is Arabic for hospitality, which is the one word I’d reach for to describe the essence of Arab culture. The idea behind Arab hospitality harkens back to the olden days of traveling as desert nomads. If someone came to your door in need, you would take that person in as one of your own. You’d feed, clothe, and love them like any other member of your household, and you damn sure wouldn’t be asking for rent after a week or two. This core idea of Arab hospitality still exists today, and women like Assil are the champions moving it from the home to high-end restaurants.
Dyafa is a warm vision of the Mediterranean, held together with swirling geometric patterns in cool azure blue tiles, brick walls and ornamental cutaway lights. There’s a giant, open counter that lets you watch the pita being made firsthand. It’s shaped and put into saj ovens to rise, and the smell of it greeting me at the door inspires a powerful wave of nostalgia that takes me back to Damascus, the city that housed my family for so many generations.
Reem’s fearlessness, warmth and desire to bring people together are vital components without which Dyafa wouldn’t be possible. Next to my little hijabi mother, she’s the only other Arab-American role model I’ve ever had.
Something is tugging at my heartstrings but I ignore it. I shake the ephemeral cloud away and sit down. To my surprise, each dish on the menu has an Arabic name. I go over them all with my husband, teaching him the correct way to pronounce each dish and laughing at his accent.
As I looked from one dish to another I realized that I was seeing my own culture, my very real Syrian side I had hid for so long, for the first time. It was right here before my eyes, the food my momma lovingly made each night, now being enjoyed by dozens of families with smiles on their faces. There was the familiar fattoush, an Arab salad dotted with fresh sumac, ma’aneesh, the za’atar spiced flatbreads so beloved at Reem’s, and maklouba, a baked rice casserole whose name translates to “upside down.” Even more surprising was the addition of cocktails, the forbidden fruit unavailable to observant Muslims but very much welcome to fallen ones like me. The ingredients in the cocktails, like dates, za’atar, and orange blossom water, were Arab through and through, too.
Having been a food writer for the past five years, I had always wondered what made people cry during a meal. I had seen many clips of people breaking down at restaurants, weeping openly over a bowl of dumplings like their mother used to make, but I had never understood the impulse till now.
At a certain point in my life I eventually stopped telling people I was Arab at all, forever dreading the negative backlash that came with my Syrian heritage. Sitting and eating at Dyafa made me feel proud to be who I was. I was proud of my food, my culture and heritage, proud of our collective resiliency, and indebted to this great woman that made it all possible.
Assil’s success as a chef is undeniable, but to me it’s her power as a community organizer that keeps me in awe. She is, day by day, actively leaching out all of the poison that has seeped into my heritage, working her magic one dish at a time.
The pita bread kept whispering to me. I thought of my family in Syria, heard my mom’s voice as she told me in a broken whisper about how our cousin’s home was bombed, how she had several cousins who vanished off the face of the earth without anyone knowing why. I felt years of persecution and hatred rock my core, felt the injustice of it all—and then felt relief.
I cried and cried. I wept with joy to see that a cultural shift was finally taking place. To see people enjoying my heritage in this way; to feel like a lifelong cloud of hatred was being lifted, to feel accepted, was too much for me to handle over salad. My heart felt grateful enough to burst.
“It’s not about ownership of food, but putting a voice behind it. I want people from my culture to feel be proud of it, but in this Trump era, often times people feel vilified or victimized. I want to give power back,” Assil said in an interview with Eater.
Arab-Americans are no different from any other Americans. We are all the same. We're part of this country, too, and we want to be loved just like anyone else.
Thank you for giving us a voice, Reem. You’re welcome at my house for dinner anytime.