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Break bread and break down borders at Al Rayan in the International Marketplace

A culinary and cultural journey through the Middle East

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A meal at Al Rayan can consist of dishes from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Georgia, Palestine, Yemen and beyond - WILL MCCARTY
  • Will McCarty
  • A meal at Al Rayan can consist of dishes from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Georgia, Palestine, Yemen and beyond
Here is a truth: Food is a universal language. To break bread with someone is to have a conversation with them — even without using actual words. A meal helps bring us together and allows us to begin to understand one another. And it’s always easier to smile when your belly is full.

So here I am, sitting in a booth at Al Rayan on 38th Street, waiting for a dish I have never heard of and having a conversation.

When my bowl of saltah arrived, it looked like it could ultimately destroy my mouth. Iridescent red liquid roiled below the surface of whipped fenugreek (also known as hulba).

Saltah is the national dish of Yemen. It’s hot, both in temperature and spice. It’s also unbelievably fragrant. Once it is dipped onto the soft, warm Iraqi-style khubz — a bread similar to pita — it revealed itself to be absolutely addictive.

It’s a good thing it started out as molten lava or else I would have eaten it too fast and missed the most important part of my meal: meeting Abdul Abashaar, the owner of Al Rayan Restaurant.

Abdul is originally from Yemen, but he has lived in America for more than a decade. He is living his own version of the American dream: emigrating from his home country, getting settled into a community in Michigan where he went on to own and operate multiple businesses, and moving to Indianapolis in 2013. He has since opened a grocery store, and now a restaurant. His greatest hope now is to bring his family here to join him, but this is proving more difficult than it once seemed.
Saltah is the national dish of Yemen, it is a hearty, spicy, warming dish. - CAVAN MCGINSIE
  • Cavan McGinsie
  • Saltah is the national dish of Yemen, it is a hearty, spicy, warming dish.
Abdul’s move to Indiana was the result of many things, but when he sits down across the table from me once my plate was taken away, he says it’s been a positive change for him.

“Every day you meet somebody new,” he says of his new home. “In Michigan, it’s mostly people that you know. And there, you are not the first one there that opened that business — here, I think we are the first one. Here, it’s like a new type of business to the area.”

And he’s not wrong. It is a new kind business for Indianapolis. There are some Middle Eastern restaurants around the city and state, but they’re very few and far between — and none are on the scale of Al Rayan. The new restaurant opened just over a month ago, Abdul had to expand from his initial operation due to popularity and not having enough space.

His new spot is wide open with traditional Arabic-style seating along the left side where guests remove their shoes and sit on pillows and pads on the floor, these seats also offer curtains for a private dining experience. There are also classic booth and table options for those who are more comfortable sitting in chairs. The decor is sparse. There is also a nice, white tablecloth dining room for dinner time. It’s a simple-feeling room, but comfortable.

While Abdul is living the American dream — and sharing his culture with his community while doing it — he sees that dream slowly turn to ash for others right before his eyes.

I ask him how people in his community feel about the Trump administration’s recent actions on immigration banning the immigration of people from six Muslim-majority countries including Yemen, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.

“Not good,” he says. “People are feeling not good.”

Sadness clouds his face. Before, Abdul was chipper and excited to talk to me about the food he makes. His dishes hail from more than just Yemen. He tries to serve the best food from all over the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Georgia and places in the Mediterranean.
“A lot of families are being affected by it big time,” he says.“A couple people are stranded at the airports. Because it was in 24 hours, and it was a big change. It wasn’t gradual, it didn’t gradually change. No. It was, ‘One, two, three, this is happening.’ Some people are in the middle of their trip, or in a transit country and they cannot go back home and they can cannot come to continue here.”

For Abdul, this hits as close to home as it possibly can. His wife and two daughters are currently stuck in Egypt. They can’t come here; he can’t go there. All he says about his own predicament, while shaking his head back and forth is, “It’s a tough situation.”

It’s easy to see that he feels hopeless for the moment. He is one of many Indiana Muslims who are dealing with this exact situation right now.

Rima Shahid, the Executive Director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, explained that here in Indiana we have exchange students and international students at our schools who don’t know if they will get to go home and see their families for spring break or summer break — or even after.

Shahid describes an ongoing story that she heard while speaking at a convocation at Brebeuf a few weeks ago:

“There was a young lady there, she was a junior, and her dad is Sudanese. She doesn’t know if, or when she will see her dad again. And so when you meet these people and hear their stories, like this young lady, she was very upset because she’ll be graduating soon and her dad won’t be able to make it as of now.

“So, while we can hear numbers, when you have these human stories that you have to deal with everyday, that is when you realize that this is not just a 120-day ban. This isn’t just them checking up the vetting process. This is people’s lives that are on the line here.”

For people like Abdul, who are so unsure about what the future holds for them and their families, the only answer is to keep moving forward and hope for the best. But that can be hard, especially in a state where Muslims make up only three percent of the population.

“Most Hoosiers have never met a Muslim,” Shahid says. “And these stereotypes may be driven by what’s happening globally, as well as what we see on the news.” She says places like Al Rayan can give a cultural insight.
“I think once you walk into these spaces and restaurants that may be a little unfamiliar to you, once you get to feel that hospitality from the owners, it will dispel a lot of misconceptions that one may have,” Shahid says.

Here is another truth: At a time like now, it is more important than ever that we reach out to those in our community being marginalized and vilified.

As Rima explains, “I think it’s important for people to go and visit these restaurants because, while our nation is so divided and while sometimes we are an extremely marginalized group, it’s nice to feel support from your neighbors and from community members. It’s these small gestures that really touch upon someone, you know, if you just go to their restaurant and just talk to them. Because that’s what we want. We need support right now. We’ve almost been pushed to the fringes of society and it’s nice to just be included.”

For Abdul, even though he feels that there isn’t much he can do right now he has seen a sense of camaraderie in this community that he was unaware of before the ban.

“We [The IMCA’s mosque] received a hate letter,” he tells me and shows me a photo of the letter that he has on his phone. It contains chilling words spewing hatred stemming from unwarranted fear.
The lamb mendi is a Yemeni dish and the most popular dish on Al Rayan's menu. - WILL MCCARTY
  • Will McCarty
  • The lamb mendi is a Yemeni dish and the most popular dish on Al Rayan's menu.
Then Abdul uses his thumbs to zoom out on the photo, and he reveals something amazing.

All around the hateful letter, taped into the shape of a heart on a whitewashed stone wall are hundreds, if not thousands of supportive letters from people around Indianapolis.

Abdul says with a big smile, “It was amazing. We felt that there are good people everywhere. In the center you see the hate letter and then you see all the support letters around it. We felt special, honestly. And then these people came from [a local] church just as supporters and they said, ‘You are part of our community.’ And we felt so welcomed, and we felt these people are great.”

Muslim faith organizations in Indiana are just one of many struggling in the face of heightened xenophobia and racism. The threats have been so intense that many restaurant owners were hesitant to speak with NUVO for this story, or have their photo taken — the reason Abdul does not appear here. Last week, the Jewish Community Center of Indianapolis received a bomb threat, during a rash of threats that threatened JCCs all over the country.

The letter Abdul referenced written by Muslim community leaders in support of the Indianapolis Jewish community. - INDIANA BOARD OF RABBIS
  • Indiana Board of Rabbis
  • The letter Abdul referenced written by Muslim community leaders in support of the Indianapolis Jewish community.
When members of the Indianapolis Muslim community heard this, they reached out in support.

“I received an email from the president of IMCA [Indianapolis Muslim Community Association], and he wrote a very good, supportive letter to leaders of the Jewish community and he says, ‘We are all in this together, we are supporting each other,’” says Abdul.

“We share a lot of things,” he says. “There’s some disagreement about stuff, but we don’t have to look at that. Just put it aside. We have a lot of beautiful things we share. So we sent them supporting letters and we said, ‘Just let us know of any way that we can support you guys.’”

“I think reaching out to your neighbor, telling them you stand in solidarity with them, that would mean a lot,” Shahid says. If you want to take further action, Rima says, “Calling your locally elected officials and telling them that as their constituent you are against this” is always one of the best ways to get anything accomplished.

Looking for more? Volunteer at places like Exodus Refugee Immigration, where you can introduce refugee families to Indianapolis. They allow volunteers to become mentors, which allows you to show some Hoosier hospitality to a family that is looking to make our state their new home. Organizations like the Immigrant Welcome Center, Catholic Charities and others assist work to resettle refugees and recent immigrants in Central Indiana.

The hummus and meat offers a taste of hummus from Palestine, a meat style from Syria and bread from Iraq. - WILL MCCARTY
  • Will McCarty
  • The hummus and meat offers a taste of hummus from Palestine, a meat style from Syria and bread from Iraq.

Sara Hindi of Exodus Refugee says, “I’ve found that food is the most common thing that is shared. I spoke with one of our board members and she mentored a Syrian family, and she mentioned that they will be making grape leaves. So she is going to be learning how to make grape leaves and then for dessert she will be teaching them how to make apple pie. So, there’s not a common language between them, but I think the common language between everyone is food. That is what brings everyone together, and it’s cool to see that.”

You can see Hindi’s words exemplified around Indianapolis every day: people of all walks of life enjoying meals together. Go in any restaurant in the International Marketplace — the corridor of locally owned and operated restaurants, shops and organizations featuring food from across the world around 38th and Lafayette — and you will see exactly what makes America great.

“People here are more welcoming and the diversity of the community here makes the businesses better,” says Abdul when we discussed Indianapolis. “I feel like the city as a whole is a very good place.”

He enjoys having people come in for the first time — people that maybe have never eaten Middle Eastern food, but they come in with an open mind.

He laughs when he says, “I have a couple experiences where the customers say, ‘We didn’t know what to order; we just know by names, we don’t know what it’s made of.’ Or they say, ‘Do you think I’d like it?’ I said, ‘I like it myself.’ And so they tried it and I get 100 percent feedback from them of, ‘It’s delicious; it’s good.’ And I like that.”

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