The Terrorist Who Wasn't

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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.

But he won't. Ebaid wants desperately to rebuild the life that government officials carelessly destroyed.

"Hollywood is my home," Ebaid says. "My children go to school here. My business is here. I've worked hard for what I have. I'm not going to leave, no matter what people say or think about me."

Tragedy brought Ebaid to the United States. In the early 1980s, Ebaid was engaged to marry his cousin in Alexandria, Egypt. The youngest son in a family of five children, Ebaid was a semiprofessional soccer player who worked for his brother's air-conditioning and heating business. He expected to marry, have children, and live the rest of his life in Egypt.

But one evening, his life changed. His young fiancée was in the kitchen cooking dinner. A fire erupted.

"Her whole body burned," Ebaid says solemnly. "She died."

Everything in Egypt began to remind him of his loss. He wanted to run away. And in 1984, at age 24, he was awarded a scholarship to study at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York.

"I didn't come here like everybody else — to make money," Ebaid explains. "I was sad back home, completely sad."

But coming to the United States didn't turn things around completely. Ebaid did poorly in school, unable to concentrate on his studies and obsessing about the fire.

"Because of what had happened in Egypt, I felt completely dismantled," he says. "I would sit in front of the book and read the same line for hours, and I could not absorb it."

After three months, Ebaid dropped out of college and went to work in restaurants in Long Island for several years. In 1992, he opened his own eatery, the Shish Kabob, in Long Beach. During the warmer months, he also operated a concession stand serving falafel and kebabs.

Around the same time, Ebaid met his wife, Maria Flores. A Mexican-American Catholic, Flores helped Ebaid transition from Middle Eastern to Mexican cuisine. In late 1993, they opened Aztec Café in Miller Place, New York, and a year later, they opened a second restaurant, a Tex-Mex place called Cactus Jack, in Mineola, about 40 miles away.

In February 1997, Ebaid and Flores had their first child, a little girl, and the family began to make arrangements to move to Florida in 1999. The couple sold their restaurants and first moved to North Miami Beach, giving Ebaid time to get to know the area and figure out the best place to open a restaurant. He wanted to find an area with a lot of well-educated people and tourists from other countries — a demographic he believes is best-suited for a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Ebaid in February 2002 finally settled on downtown Hollywood, where he believed the mixture of office workers, Jewish residents and visitors, and international travelers would bode well for business. He found his kitchen manager in Quintin Cortes Rodriguez, a jovial, 63-year-old Puerto Rican who worked at a butcher shop that Ebaid frequented.

"Before I even had time to think about it, I agreed to work for Manny," Rodriguez remembers. Exotic Bites' other employees include a cook and two waitresses from Israel.

In just a few years, they built Exotic Bites, at the time located on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Young Circle, into one of the most visible restaurants in downtown Hollywood. Ebaid and Rodriguez "became family," as Rodriguez says. In fact, Ebaid's two children refer to Rodriguez as "grandpa."

Ebaid can be difficult and demanding, Rodriguez admits, but he's also very kind. After Hurricane Frances clipped Broward in September 2004, cutting power to thousands of homes and businesses, Ebaid passed out food and drinks to the homeless in downtown Hollywood. "He was like a saint, a real saint," Rodriguez says.

Ebaid can also be a generous man. On November 28, 2004, while Ebaid was busy taking care of patrons, someone dashed inside the restaurant and grabbed two multihose arghilehs, worth about $150 each. Ebaid gave chase, and the man quickly jumped into a truck and drove away. Police were unable to identify a suspect. Less than two weeks later, on December 12, it happened again. A young man ran inside the restaurant, grabbed an arghileh, and scampered down Hollywood Boulevard. One of Ebaid's customers noticed the theft and chased down the man, dragging him back to the restaurant, water pipe in hand.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson