The Terrorist Who Wasn't

Hollywood's Manny Ebaid struggles to rebound after the War on Terror made him collateral damage.

Mandoah "Manny" Ebaid walks Harrison Street in downtown Hollywood. It's 10:30 on a Wednesday night in February, and the restaurateur is checking the foot traffic outside his Middle Eastern eatery, Exotic Bites, near Young Circle Park.

People are strolling in and out of the smoke-filled Kelly's Pub next door. At a table outside Ebaid's restaurant, a group of eight is smoking flavored tobacco from a large, multihose arghileh, a Middle Eastern water pipe commonly called a hookah. The evening air, meanwhile, has turned the cranes and barricades surrounding Young Circle into murky shadows.

A slender, 46-year-old man with short salt-and-pepper hair and a warm face, Ebaid smiles and then darts inside and turns on a CD player.

It's time.

Drum-heavy Egyptian music begins, blaring from speakers inside and outside the restaurant. Sound wafts down Harrison Street and over toward Hollywood Boulevard, audible at least two blocks away before it fades into the din of traffic.

Cling-cling.

Rimarah Hare, a striking, green-eyed Brazilian woman, emerges from the kitchen, finger cymbals clanging to the beat of the music. She's wearing a long purple skirt and an ornately decorated top, a traditional outfit for raqs sharqi, or belly dancing, an Egyptian art form that predates Islam. She slithers through the restaurant, her arms outstretched and fingers tapping together, as the men and women in the restaurant look up from their plates to slip $1 bills behind the waistline of Hare's dress.

She dances toward the door as the people smoking the arghileh cheer, clapping their hands and encouraging her to come outside. Ebaid follows and clears the table, moving the water pipe to the side. He takes Hare's hand and helps her climb atop the table. He signals to a waitress inside, up, up, the volume. Hare continues her dance on top of the table as the music fills Harrison Street the same way it would consume an alley in central Cairo. Two cars pull along the side of the road and click on their hazards. The people inside the cars sit transfixed as they watch as Hare puts on a show in downtown Hollywood, in the middle of a weekday night.

Ebaid smiles as he takes in the scene. His smile is his trademark, the thing people associate most with his name. Sometimes, even on nights when he has hours left of meals to cook and dishes to clean, Ebaid looks like the happiest man in Florida. He smiles broadly, like an innocent child, even when he thinks people aren't looking.

"I always smile," he says. "I always laugh."

Ebaid's disposition is a testament to his optimism. Nearly one year ago to this February night, federal officials detained him after his name mysteriously appeared on a list of suspected terrorists. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security incarcerated Ebaid for eight months as they interrogated him and petitioned a U.S. Immigration Court judge to deport him to his native Egypt. Government officials suggested to the news media that Ebaid was in fact a terrorist — guilty until proven innocent.

"You don't expect someone like that to be living in the community," Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti told the Miami Herald following Ebaid's arrest.

The accusation ruined his life, Ebaid says, and nearly bankrupted his business. And the accusation was simply wrong. Ebaid wasn't involved with terrorist organizations. He was a hard-working family man, the father of two young children who go to public schools, and the owner of a growing 3-year-old business in Hollywood.

His case illustrates significant problems with the federal government's terrorism watch list, which has quadrupled in size since 2003 and now includes 325,000 names.

Why the government put Ebaid's name on the list remains a mystery. At the time of his arrest, Ebaid didn't come close to fitting the profile of a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist. He'd been to a mosque only once since he arrived in the United States in 1984. He served alcohol at his restaurant. He hired belly dancers to entertain customers. His wife was not only a Westerner but a Catholic. Ebaid didn't fit the profile of a terrorist. But he unashamedly celebrated his Arab culture through his business, in a city the 9/11 hijackers once called home.

Ebaid became collateral damage in the War on Terror. And he says he suffers permanent scars. Ebaid fears he will be tortured by the Egyptian government if he ever returns to his homeland, where he once dreamed of retiring. He won't walk in public with his children out of fear of what people will say or do to him. He can't go a day without having to explain that, no, he isn't a terrorist. In fact, to this day, he says, people still think he's a fanatic bent on killing innocent Americans. They think he knew 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Strangers approach him and ask questions.

Aren't you the terrorist who was on TV?

Why did they let you go?

Are you part of al Qaeda?

"You don't know how much pain I have," Ebaid says. "I lost everything. All my dreams, everything I worked so hard for, gone. Gone, just like that."

He has every reason to leave South Florida. Ebaid could easily start over somewhere else, in a new city, a place where people don't think he's a terrorist.

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