The Terrorist Who Wasn't

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

"Sometimes, I think I should just stop everything and go somewhere else," Ebaid explains. "Here, everybody knows me. Even the people who knew me before, who knew me as the happy person, they feel bad for me now. But it still doesn't help me with my children, and that's what matters. They are my life, and here I am. I can't walk down the street with them!"

The loss to Ebaid's business has been similarly difficult. At the time of his arrest, Ebaid operated Exotic Bites on Young Circle, and a small fish-and-chips shop on Harrison Street. He also had plans to open a to-go falafel joint for downtown Hollywood's lunch crowd and a fancier, sit-down Middle Eastern restaurant. While in detention, Ebaid's restaurants languished and legal bills mounted. By the time he returned to Hollywood a free man, Ebaid was broke, with only the fish-and-chips shop still in operation. He turned it into the new location for Exotic Bites, a narrow restaurant of about eight tables and walls decorated with satellite images of Florida.

Despite the troubles, Ebaid remains optimistic about the future. "I believe in my restaurant," he says. "I believe my restaurant helps to build a bridge between two civilizations, Eastern and Western, through my food, my music, my art, culture, and tradition — free of politics and religion. I want to bring people together in unity in one place. It's not just about food and a restaurant. I choose this because it's in my heart."

Manny Ebaid
Colby Katz

But as hard as he may try, Ebaid can't put terrorism behind him. As he sits at one of his dining tables, a man walks in the restaurant and immediately recognizes Ebaid.

"Celebrity! Look at you!" the man says.

"Oh. Hello. How are you?" Ebaid says shyly as he looks toward the ground.

"Look, I know what you've been through — the works. I've been there." The man's friend walks in behind him. "Manny is a terrorist," the man adds.

They laugh.

"How long were you in, six months?" the man says.

"Eight months," Ebaid says in a low voice.

"Eight months, huh?" the man says, turning to his friend. "Then they let him out when they realized they made a mistake." He pauses. "You got any baklava?"

"Of course!" Ebaid replies, springing from his chair. "Of course!"

Nothing seems to hold Manny Ebaid down. On a recent late night, while his employees are cleaning up the restaurant, Ebaid goes into his office and pulls out a large folder filled with handwritten recipes. "I'm going to revolutionize the food industry in America," he says in all seriousness.

The Hollywood restaurateur wants to bring to the United States konafa, a Middle Eastern dessert of lightly shredded pastry dough that is layered and baked. Popular during special occasions and the holy month of Ramadan, konafa is generally mixed with coconut and vanilla to create a sweet dessert in the Arab world. But Ebaid has a twist for the Western palate: He wants to use konafa to create everything from lamb sandwiches to mango-flavored desserts.

"It could replace the hot dog at carnivals," he says, his fist waving in excitement. But he suddenly stops. His face changes. His eyes turn red. Tears stream down both cheeks as he tries to hold back his emotions. He buries his head in his hands. For Ebaid, talking about his goals and ambitions often comes with a painful reminder of how much he's lost.

"The whole thing is unjust. They took everything," he says, referring to the government. "They took my energy, mentally and physically. Instead of putting it in my work and my business, I had to use it to fight these charges. Even today, I'm not getting nowhere.

"Recently, I've had bad thoughts," he continues. "Sometimes I think I want to leave, and I don't want anybody to know where I'm going. Just leave. You can't explain everything. Stuff that comes from inside, the heart, you can't explain it. It's just what I think of sometimes, to go. It's not hiding, not scared, not fear. I feel like I am in a cage. There are no bars, but it's jail with no bars, prison with no bars. And I want to get out of this prison.

"I always smile and laugh. But the last two weeks, I don't know what has happened. I don't want to show this side to my customers. I want people to see me happy, the way I used to be. I'm always smiling, I'm always joking, I'm always dancing. These last two weeks, I have just been feeling the hurt, the pain. And I worry sometimes that people will see the hurt in my eyes. They will see me smile, they will see me laugh, but then they will look into my eyes and they will know. They will see the pain I have in here, inside.

"My life is an open book. There is nothing to hide. I work every day, crazy hours. When would I have time to associate with terrorists? When would I have time to make plans? But I want everyone to know that I do not hate them for what they did. I do not hate anyone. Lately, I've been feeling heat — not hate, heat. It's in my heart and my mind. I don't know what would happen if I lost control of the heat. Thank God. It's like something that burns inside me. Sometimes, I want to take that heat into my hands and do physical pain to myself, hurt me. I would not hurt anybody, though. I would never hurt another man. As you can see, I am not a big man. But I know if I allowed myself to release this heat, to turn outward, I would be more invincible than anything."

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