Fear and bias bite into falafel sales
In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, the US government advised the public to be aware of suspicious persons, avoid certain landmarks, and prepare for future terror attacks. The government did not advise anyone to stop eating at Arabic restaurants.
Yet across the country, Middle Eastern restaurants saw sales drop dramatically as Americans spurned falafel and kebabs as the symbolic food of the terrorists.
In some parts of the country, businesses owned by Middle Easterners were sprayed with malicious graffiti and vandalized. Many Arab business owners placed the blame on the media portrayal of Arabs as turbaned terrorists.
Though Arabs of various nationalities reported problems, one group, the Iraqis, appeared hardest hit.
In 1999 there were dozens of Iraqi eateries in the US. Today, less than a handful remain. Their names, once exotic curiosities, are now familiar to Americans only as the battlegrounds sites for the ongoing war: Taste of Mosul, Abu Nawas, Najaf Treat, and Babylon Bistro.
In response to declining business, many restaurants changed their names so they were more ambiguous: "Iraqi Cuisine" in Los Angeles became "Middle Eastern Cuisine." In Dearborn, Mich., "Taste of Mosul" is now "Taste of Arabia."
However, even in Dearborn, home to the largest Iraqi population in the US, people avoided the association that came with eating at Middle Eastern eateries.
"I think Arab people here were afraid to be seen together," says one Dearborn restaurant owner who asked to remain anonymous. "People would see a large group of Middle Eastern people, even if they were just eating dinner, and assume the worst."
Other factors contributed to the loss of business, including the general economic downturn following 9/11 and the restaurant industry's notoriously high failure rate. (Only one of eight restaurants in the US makes it into the fifth year of business.)
What may have hurt most, though, were media reports indicating that some Arab businesses were funneling money to shady terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Several Iraqi restaurant owners have since claimed that the reports fueled discrimination, which has been their biggest economic hurdle.
"I have been in the US for 11 years now," says Salah Al-Hindawy, owner of Arabian Cuisine in Louisville, Ky. "I hate Saddam Hussein, and I was very happy when we went to war with Iraq, but still my business has suffered because people don't want to eat at an Arabic restaurant."
In 2000, business was good for Mr. Hindawy. He had just expanded into a larger facility, and kibbis were flying off the barbecue as fast as he could roast the meat. He had a good relationship with his local community and dreamed of opening more restaurants in the area and eventually retiring early.
Today, he is struggling to get by.
At first he tried reaching out to the local community. To highlight his American patriotism, he hung flags outside his shop and appeared in local TV and radio spots to speak in support of the war in Iraq. But business kept dwindling, until even his regulars walked past the store without looking up or meeting his eyes.
"A lot of families around here lost family members in the war in Iraq," says Hindawy. "I believe that - though they do not mean to - they hold some of that feeling against us, and do not eat at the restaurant."
All of this is not new, says Yvonne Hadda, a professor of Islamic history and Christian Muslim Relations at Georgetown University in Washington.
"In 1979 when there was a hostage crisis in Iran, a lot of Middle Eastern restaurants lost business," says Ms. Hadda. "A lot of Americans felt they needed to boycott these people because the government had declared them our enemy."
The same thing happened during the Gulf war, Hadda says. Even Egyptian restaurants lost business because of their Middle Eastern association, despite the fact that Egypt was a US ally.
"I think people see stereotypical portrayals of Arabs on TV and they run with it," says Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League.
"People should be opening themselves up to learning about different cultures, not closing themselves off to stereotypes," says Ms. Qatami. "In the end of the day, that is what America is all about. It is a mosaic of different cultures that need to fit together."