El-Mekki Idris brought a tray to our table with two fragrant dishes on it. “This is koushouri, and the other one is fool sandwich,” he explains.
Koushouri is a popular rice, pasta and lentil dish from North Africa. It’s topped with tomato sauce and fried onions. Fool, another popular regional dish, consists of mashed fava beans and spices. At Sudan Cafe, Idris serves it as a sandwich on a soft, home-baked roll.
Mark Antonation, my lunch date, digs into the koushouri first. “Oh this is nice, it’s got some cumin - and the fried onions are awesome,” he says.
Antonation is the food and drink editor for the Denver-based Westword magazine. When President Trump signed the the first iteration of his travel ban in January -- including Idris’ native Sudan -- Antonation wanted to counter the ban by inviting more people to eat at restaurants serving the cuisine of those countries. Libyan food is the only cuisine he has yet to track down.
“I think, you know, eating is just such a communal, friendly thing to do,” he says, “and if you like the food, there’s a better chance that you’ll like the people that make the food.”
People like Idris.
While he says he doesn’t agree with Trump’s travel ban, or understand why Sudan is on the list, he still loves America.
“A great nation, a great people, and after this ban, I found a lot of customers -- I receive a lot of customers, American people, they came here to support me and to support the Sudanese,” he says. “My business is booming.”
Among the Sudanese community, Idris already has a following.
At another table, I meet Moayad Ali Bashir as he sits down to a heaping plate of fool, topped with cheese, herbs, tomatoes and onions.
“I was just doing stuff downtown and I thought ‘I want to eat food from back home,’” he says, smiling.
He came from Sudan almost three years ago. He says he feels sorry for people still living in Sudan and the other affected countries who may not get the same opportunity he did in coming to America. He’s also worried that the ban may lead to misconceptions about Sudanese people in America.
“Sudanese people are familiar with generosity. They are very kind people. They have never committed any of these terrorist actions before,” he says.
Stranded in Malaysia
Antonation and I carefully cross bustling East Iliff Ave. We walk into a dining room ringed with bright red cushioned booth seats, decorated with ornate hookah pipes, fezes and framed passages from the Qur'an.
“Right now the restaurant is so new that they basically only have a couple of dishes,” Antonation tells me as we take our seats at Yemen Grill. It serves food from the war-torn country that also happens to be one of the countries listed in the travel ban.
We tuck into a plate of roast chicken, accompanied by a heap of fragrant rice seasoned with whole cloves, cardamom pods and black peppercorns.
Mark Belawi only moved to Denver from Michigan a few weeks ago to open up the restaurant. For him, the travel ban is personal.
“We don’t know how Mr. President Trump he make this happen,” he says. “My sister. She supposed to come over here, and she cannot travel no more. She’s stuck in Malaysia.”
The U.S. embassy in Yemen has been suspended since 2015, the same year Saudi Arabia declared a no-fly zone over Yemen. The following year, Sana’a Airport -- the country’s main international airport -- was bombed by Saudi Arabia and rendered it unusable.
As a result, Belawi says his sister had to go to Malaysia to apply for a visa. She was approved just before Trump signed the original executive order instituting the travel ban, but by the time she tried to board a flight, she was turned away. Belawi says she’s now stranded in Malaysia.
“United State government can understand our condition,” he says. “Try come over, we work, pay tax, we help this country more than anybody.”
Fortunately for Belawi, business has been good since he opened a few weeks ago, and it’s business that’s proved to be a welcome distraction.
“Just Talk With Them”
Food critic Mark Antonation takes me to one last place: ZamZam Halal Market. We walk in and make a beeline for the back of the store where a counter is stacked with loaves of freshly baked khubz bread. Think pita bread, but softer and with no pocket. Antonation grabs a bag.
“Oh yeah, still warm,” Antonation laughs.
ZamZam’s bulk section is lined with bins heaped with rice, lentils and beans. There’s also a pickle counter with several different varieties of olives, a halal meat counter, walls of colorful spices and a dessert counter filled with different kinds of baklava and other pastries.
Hussain Al Mosawi is a manager; his brother is the owner. His family immigrated to Denver from Iraq when Al Mosawi was less than two years old.
“Yeah no, as far I’m concerned most people think I’m an American,” he said. “I consider myself American.”
Al Mosawi says the now-blocked ban hasn’t hurt business, though they did lose an employee who could not renew her temporary visa. He says the community has been supportive.
“We’ve felt some solidarity from the community, not only the Arab and Muslim community, but we have a lot of Americans and a lot of Hispanics come here. We speak to them, we’re definitely trying to get to know our customers, and we’ve definitely felt they’re on our side,” he says.”They kind of feel what we’re going through and they understand that it’s wrong in some ways - in many ways.”
Even though the most recent executive order does not include Iraq as one of the countries under the travel ban, Al Mosawi says attitudes towards Iraqi-Americans like himself have changed little since September 11th.
“[I] tell people I’m from Denver, and nope your name’s Hussain, they don’t buy it,” he says. “That’s all they can see, they can’t really see further than that.”
Al Mosawi echoes sentiments I heard at Sudan Cafe and the Yemen Grill: He hopes for people to get to know him and his family beyond their names, their skin color or their country of origin.
“We’re just like anybody else. We came here to the U.S. -- us, my family particularly. We’ve had multiple businesses. We just make a living. I’m a student at CU Denver; so are the rest of my brothers and sisters,” he says. “Same thing when I always see the other Arabs here in the store, at our community center -- they’re just normal people, just talk with them.”
And maybe the best place to do that is over a meal. That’s what Antonation was hoping for when he undertook his project to shine a spotlight on places like ZamZam: to create opportunities for understanding.
“Hopefully the project will have a short life because the laws will not affect immigration in the long run,” he says. “And then I can just get back to enjoying food without the political side of it.”