We’re sitting at Sinbad’s, which sits halfway between Holdrege and Vine on the west side of 27th street, and is—according to Keith—one of only two Iraqi restaurants in Lincoln. The restaurant occupies the center bay of one of the many strip malls on 27th that cater to a particular ethno-cultural minority. Shellhaas, Keith, Matt, and I occupy the center table in the dining room. An enormous silver platter of food occupies the center of our table. The food and Matt are the reasons we are here.
A few months ago Matt, a grad student at UNL, reached out to Shellhaas and I, curious about collaborating on a project to help immigrants, particularly Muslim Arabs, advertise their grocery stores and restaurants outside their communities, navigate the murky waters of business licensing, health code compliance, and decode the arcane rules and regulations of the free market.
Matt’s a fan of Sinbads. He extols the food with contagious enthusiasm. This lunch, interview, review, and photo shoot has everyone a little on edge.
No one is sure how to handle the event. Fortunately, Keith breaks the tension with a “what do you want to know?” Keith is an Iraqi, a fairly recent immigrant, a believer in and a product of the American dream. He talks a bit about the food. He worked at Sinbad’s as a server when he first moved to Lincoln. He came to the states shortly after the US began closing detention centers. Keith worked as a civilian interpreter, spending 24 hours a day behind a mask a beneath gloves so none of the detainees in US prisons could identify him and exact retribution later. Not that he had much left to lose. His father, once an officer in the Iraqi army who served with distinction in the war against Iran took up arms against Saddam during the first gulf war, as did most of the men and boys in Keith’s home town: As Samawah. The intervening decades left him with little family and not much home to return to.
Back to the food. Sinbad’s, like all authentic Muslim restaurants, serves Halal food. This means many vegetables, the lamb, the beef, the chicken, come from local suppliers. It’s a part of Halal, explains Keith, maintaining a relationship with the food and the people who provide it. I’m not convinced I can taste the “local” in my shwarma, but it’s good. Even better is the thick tomato and eggplant soup. We talk some about Arab food, about Arab food in Lincoln of all places. Sinbad’s has been around for a few years. How can a place so “foreign” stay in business in a community so, well, mid-Westernly white? Keith says the clientele is 70% white and non-Muslim. Non-Arab Muslims make up a fair portion of the business, too it seems. Student refugees from Myanmar sit around a table adjacent to ours. They eat here because they can trust the food. Over the course of our 2 hour meeting, several couples and families come in and out. Sindbad’s isn’t exactly bustling, but the business is regular. That’s impressive for 2:30 on a game day. Keith suggests mid-Westerners like Arab food because the cuisine is meat-centric. And, like much of mid-Western cuisine, presentation takes a backseat to quantity and socialization. Keith gestures to the enormous plate we all eat from. It is a lot like a family spooning a common casserole from a baking pan. Also, though the food is strong, it is not spicy. Many of the dishes taste of onion, garlic, and vinegar, common flavors in this part of the country.
I ask Keith if the restaurant suffers because of intolerance on the part of the larger community and he denies any real difficulty. Lincoln, he explains, is a generous and friendly place. Much better than where he lived in Virginia when he first left Iraq. There, he said, despite the larger Arab population, it was harder to find work and harder to find people to listen. In Lincoln, he observes, people help each other. His first winter here, he laughs, was the first time he had ever seen snow, the first time he ever tried to drive in it. Every time he got stuck, people would stop their cars and help him out. Keith seems embarrassed remembering this generosity. He explains people in the mid-West and Arabs have this in common—the desire to help neighbors even if you don’t know each other. He suggests we come to restaurant during Ramadan—after sunset so the staff can eat too. They will share some of their food with you, he insists. It’s like Thanksgiving. Even though the food is different, the people are the same. (Sindbad’s does keep regular hours for non-Muslims during Ramadan.)
I ask Keith what his best food memory is. A memory that is sacred and special to him. I expect to hear about a favorite falafel vendor in southern Iraq where he would sneak a snack on his way home from school. Or maybe a special Eid meal his mother made before she lost her battle with cancer. A story about a barbecue with his dad, a brief father-son cookout moment in the interstices between wars. Maybe even a US Marine sharing part of care package with a masked and gloved local civilian interpreter that let Keith feel like part of something for a moment. But he shares something different, surprising, American. He recounts his first Thanksgiving.
Keith hadn’t lived in Lincoln for very long. He was working at Sinbad’s and enrolling in classes at UNL. He’d been getting his car stuck in the snow and getting pushed back onto the road by locals. He still spoke (and still does) in hard-clipped phrases of soldiers. A “lack of a filter” he calls it. He’d been struggling to navigate the realities of American finances. In Iraq there was no such thing as credit, no such thing as interest, and Keith had been spending a great deal of time with a banker trying to sort out his finances. That banker, Von Harvey, invited him to Thanksgiving, a stranger from another country, with another religion, with a fair number of reasons to distrust and even despise Americans. Keith accepted. Despite his fluency with English, Keith struggled to describe that dinner. There was turkey, for sure, a big one, and salad, and wine, and all that stuff. But more than that—there was family, generosity, and community.
I learned a lot during that two hour interview with Keith. I have pages of notes, Matt has an extensive recording, Shellhaas has scores of pictures. I haven’t sorted out what to do with all of Keith’s narrative about his life prior to moving to the US. I’m also not sure how address all the food the staff at Sindbad’s prepared for our lunch. But more than anything, I learned about us. I went into the lunch expecting to find Lincoln a hard place for Arab Muslims to make a life, to have suspicions about stereotypes and prejudices confirmed. But one banker–a banker of all people–invited Keith into his home for a Thanksgiving meal and for that Keith is eternally grateful. I’m grateful too, to know this generosity of spirit exists. We feed others to feed ourselves. Wherever Von is, I’m sure he’s full.
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