4

The Mideast Lands in a Plantation Shopping Center

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Obama is speaking in Cairo, even quoting verses from the Qur'an, glad-handing Arab leaders, and no doubt settling down for intimate talks with King Abdullah II over a pot of Turkish coffee and some sticky pastries loaded with pistachios. And here's Hillary Clinton, touring the Middle East wearing a headscarf.

I suggest we follow our leaders and go respectfully mingle with our nearest Muslim neighbors, who tend to congregate in a Plantation strip mall on Friday nights for a bit of kibbeh and foul medames.

This thriving commercial strip at Plantation Crossroads caters largely

to Middle Eastern immigrants. A grocery sells hookahs, honey, and

hummus, along with many varieties of olives, finely ground coffee,

nuts, packaged phyllo dough, and long shelves of spices. The coffee

shop next door stays open late so the gents can socialize, serving the

same function as a corner bar for this crowd of teetotalers. A travel

agent arranges flights home, and the calligraphic signs on a handful of

other businesses keep them impenetrable to us. On a Friday night, the

whole area is bustling with extended families, the ladies veiled or

not, wearing long skirts and headscarves fringed in gold, the younger

girls in jeans and tank tops, a few Western couples thrown into the

mix, perhaps an Indian woman in a sari with her Arab husband and a

passel of kids.

The distinctive, lilting music of the Middle

East is piped through the sound system; pop videos and commercials

beamed via satellite from Cairo play on the TVs mounted high on the

restaurant walls -- videos that get progressively more libidinous as

pious mothers herd their broods home and the exhausted male staff kicks

back with cups of coffee and sandwiches. Glowing red figures in a

gilt-framed digital clock keep the date and time in Beirut and Tikrit

and Cairo and Riyadh.

The bustle and energy of the place would

be enough to draw you even if the food weren't so delicious. The menu

at the anchor tenant here, Al-Salam Middle Eastern Restaurant,

is halal, meaning it's prepared according to the standards of Muslim

law. And I'm still dreaming about my last dinner at Al-Salam, still

wondering how they achieved the texture of that labneh, a very thick

salted yogurt spread, sometimes described as a cheese, drizzled with

olive oil and sprinkled with dried mint or other spices.

After

a second visit, I'll write a full review of Al-Salam for the next issue of

New Times. If my first visit is any indication, I'll be back many

times. Now that we've got a president whose father was Muslim, it's

time for us all to cultivate détente with our Islamic neighbors. You'd

be hard-pressed to hold on to any enmity or misunderstanding over a

plate of Al-Salam's baba gannouj. When it comes to kebabs, we're all

in this together.

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