“Saha wa Afia” – translation not necessary…

by jasmine

Yesterday, I had one of those days where I don’t just enjoy my job – I’m passionate about it; I’m inspired by it. I had an assignment to profile local Middle Eastern Cuisine, and I had gone to interview the owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant in El Paso, Texas.

Now, I love Middle Eastern fare, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from this interview. My boss had insisted on coming with me, skeptical as to whether or not the owner would be willing to take instruction from a young female with some authoritative role. In this case, my job was to conduct the interview and facilitate the photo shoot. At that point, all I knew was that I was going to get free lunch (who doesn’t love free food?).

His name was Alex. With salt and pepper hair, he was a man built of a warm 5’8” stature with an even warmer smile. He extended his hand and I took it – a respectful and friendly grip. This interview was going to be a cakewalk.

Skipping through the logistics, my meeting with Alex turned out to be one of the most wonderful conversations I feel like I’ve had in ages.  And of course, that colloquy was over the most decadent and delicious cups of Turkish coffee – Alex’s icebreaker.  This coffee was unlike any brew I’ve ever tasted – and I’m a coffee enthusiast by the way.  It was served in this tiny, worn teacup (kind of ironic, right?).  Alex explained that this coffee was stronger than your typical American espresso.  The aroma awakened my senses and straightened out my spine.  I felt my ears perk up like a dog as the rich fruit flavor coated my palate.

He began to share his story with me.  How he had made a B line straight for the U.S. when Saddam invaded Kuwait in the early 90s.  His family had owned several businesses, one being that within the supermarket industry.  When “Mr. Walmart” had put them out of business, Alex concocted an idea that he knew corporate America could never hold a candle to – he would open a Middle Eastern grill and market and call it “Jerusalem.”  He wanted to correct the misrepresentations of Middle Eastern cuisine.  He would create the recipes and menu items on his own; and fill the restaurant and neighboring market with 10,000 imported items from Bosnia, Arabia, Pakistan, Jerusalem, India, Russia, Turkey and many other Middle Eastern countries.  He would create an eatery founded upon authentically good food that bonded good people.

Alex admitted that when they first opened, it was difficult to convince the El Paso market of the wonders of Middle Eastern food, but eventually they couldn’t fan away those seductive fragrant spices.  His establishment has become an El Paso landmark; the location to go for a true Middle Eastern food experience.  Alex offers an unusually refreshing perspective on his success, crediting 9/11 and the war in Iraq…

And here’s the perfect place to insert furrowed brows and a head tilt searching for further explanation…

He continued by saying that the war and 9/11 had awakened people – supporters and critics alike – to what was happening in the Middle East.  Soldiers had been exposed to the cuisine oversees, and wanted it back stateside.  He had capitalized on the opportunity to educate and share.

I should point out that throughout our conversation, Alex frequently began and ended his phrases with, “I tell you the truth…” in his thick accent.  And I believed him every time.

Additionally, he mentioned that he’s made several mistakes with the restaurant, but continues to learn from them and the customer feedback.  Surprisingly, he is also very open to sharing his recipes with his clientele.  He finds it fun, making it clear that he’s never been worried about customers attempting to compete with him.  It’s about those customers bringing home the experience they’ve had in his restaurant.  He reasons that if he gives the recipes to them, they’re not going to hurt his business, they’re going to enjoy and come back for more.  “It’s really good to help people,” he simply says.  Thinking with my PR-savvy mind, this was a man who had the key to success.  He knew how to effectively build and manage relationships with people.  This was a man who affected people.

We went on to discuss our mutual love of saffron and truffles (the fungus, not the candy) when my wandering eyes caught sight of the words, “Saha wa Afia” printed on the front of the menu.

Disregarding the parenthetical, I wanted him to elaborate.  He relayed that it was a traditional Middle Eastern expression that was his personal conviction, and always wished upon his customers when they finished a meal.

We noshed on hummus, falafels, grape leaves, baba ganouj, kebbah, and chicken and lamb shawerma.  A feast fit for a Princess Jasmine. ;)

As our meeting came to a close, I felt reinvigorated.  My conversation with Alex had me inspired.  His ability to relate – and his fantastically dry sense of humor – had given me an extra pep in my step.  I felt enlightened.  I love people.

As I departed Jerusalem Grill and Market, I turned to Alex and said, “Saha wa Afia,” working through my pronunciation.  I figured he didn’t hear that as often as he said it…and he should.  He appreciatively laughed at my efforts and smiled.

When was the last time you were inspired by a conversation with a stranger?

Saha wa Afia, and let’s chat soon!