The Terrorist Who Wasn't

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Ebaid believed that he would be tortured and possibly killed if deported to Egypt. He told Judge Hurewitz that because of the publicity generated by his case, Egyptian authorities were "bound to inflict harm upon me." Even if the U.S. government assured Egypt that the inclusion of his name on a terror list was a mistake, he would still be tortured, Ebaid says.

"I can't win," he says. "Egypt tortures terrorists. If I go back to Egypt and they think I'm a terrorist, they will torture me for information about terrorism. They will not believe that the United States government, the best government in the world for human rights, would put my name on a terror watch list without reason. Egypt will not believe that. If I go to Egypt with the story that the U.S. government dropped the charges, they will think that I have become a spy for the U.S. government. Either way, I will be tortured."

In September 2005, Hurewitz granted Ebaid his request not to be deported. The Egyptian became a free man, but his reputation now prevents him from ever returning to Egypt, where he had hoped to retire and be closer to his family.

Just after Thanksgiving, Ebaid returned to Florida. His friends gathered at Exotic Bites for a welcome-home party.

They ate. They danced. They laughed.

And Ebaid quickly discovered that life isn't easy for an exonerated terrorist.

Ebaid used to love walking along Hollywood Boulevard with his two young children. They'd stroll through the sidewalk cafés on sunny afternoons. He'd occasionally buy the kids ice cream, and they'd walk as the dessert melted and ran down their little fingers. Ebaid enjoyed those days, and he wishes he could have them back.

Since his detention one year ago, Ebaid has sheltered his two kids from the truth of his ordeal. In an effort to discourage unwanted attention, he asked that details about his wife and two children not be reported.

But the outside world keeps intruding. Recently, two older women approached him while he was walking with his children.

"We saw you on the news," one woman said after grabbing Ebaid's elbow. "We're sorry about what happened to you."

After the encounter, his daughter asked, "Why did she say that?"

Ebaid slumps forward as he remembers telling his daughter a lie. "I told her I was doing promotion for the business," Ebaid says. He wipes away a tear.

"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."

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?"

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson