I am lucky enough to live in a community that has become home to a large and diverse immigrant community–one that, in my opinion, is vibrant enough to rival even some of the biggest cities I’ve been too. There’s clearly something for everyone here, and it’s a beautiful thing because it offers support and stability for the newcomers, and gives even those of us who are born and bred North Carolinians an opportunity to experience other cultures without so much as stepping on a plane.
Maybe I notice all the ethnic shops because I actively seek them out, but once you start looking, these little gems are not hard to find. There’s one strip mall I particularly like because it contains nothing but shops and restaurants run by immigrants. It’s the kind of place you’d never look twice at if you were just driving by, but when you pull into the parking lot you find a Japanese grocery and gift shop, an African grocery, a Halal bucher, a Mexican carniceria and grocery, a Himalayan-Nepali shop and restaurant, an Indian fast-food and snack bar, some clothing shops, and more. Wandering in and out of shops, getting little snacks and bites along the way, is always an interesting way to spend the afternoon….kind of like visiting Epcot without the $150 Disney ticket.
Today I was over there, ducking in and out of shops and picking up my usual collection of favorite snacks, when I spotted one I’ve not visited before. It said it was a bakery, and lured by the prospect of fresh pastries, I ducked in. Immediately upon entering something seemed wrong. There were no cases of cakes. No baskets of fresh rolls. Not even so much as a cookie anywhere. Instead, there were a few shelves of middle-eastern staples and not much else. Disappointed but not wanting to admit defeat, I busied myself examining the sparse offerings.
Behind the cash register a small man is chatting in Arabic to a couple of other shoppers, and after their departure, I wander shyly out from behind the shelves with a tub of sumac. “Did you want bread?” the man asks me in his rapid, broken English. Bread? I immediately perk up and look around. Still not seeing anything that looks like bread, I give the man a confused look. He leads me by the arm over to the corner of the shop, and for the first time I notice a clay oven in the back of the store. “Bread.” He tells me. “Ready in a few minutes.”
I decide to wait and see.
A few seconds later a much younger man comes out of a back room and approaches some shallow wooden boxes stacked along the wall. He grabs them and tosses them onto a table, and unwraps them to reveal in each one a row of 8 freshly risen, peculiarly shaped loaves of bread. “This is Mohammed!” The older man gestures toward the younger man. “I am Hussein.” Giving scarcely enough time for me to offer my own introduction, he launches into a passionate explanation of his craft. “nothing but flour, yeast, salt and water,” Hussein tells me. “Called Samoon. S-A-M-O-O-N. We are the only bakery in the state to make it!” The younger man, Mohoammed, has by this time carefully lifted each loaf out of its rising box, dusted it with flour and sesame seeds, and is shuffling them in and out of the oven. “250 Degrees!” says Hussein.
As the hot loaves begins to hit the bread baskets, I pick one up and slide it into a paper bag. “How many did you get?” Hussein asks me. When I tell him I only got one, he tears my bag away from me and tosses in another loaf, “for tasting.” I move toward the register, but Hussein isn’t ready to let me go yet. Gesturing at a photo on the wall, he points to a woman and tells me she is his sister. “She has women’s shop down the street!” He tells me he will introduce us. He then takes off out the door, giving me little choice but to trot along after him. As it turns out, his sister sells formal dresses a few doors down. As we walk toward her store, he tells me a little about his family. I clearly remind him of his daughter, a girl about my age who is a doctor in Baghdad. We look at pictures of her on his iphone. She, along with Hussein’s wife and other children, are trapped there, unable to come to America and unable to even leave their homes because of the threat of danger on the streets. They cannot work, they cannot go to school, and many of the doors that allow refugees to come to this country have closed for them.
Finally reaching the little dress shop, I meet Hussein’s only relative in the US, a matter-of-fact woman who has lived in North Carolina for 40 years. He introduces us in Arabic, and she gives me a quizzical look. “He says you are his daughter,” she tells me. I’m unsure what to make of this, but am thankfully spared from having to respond as Hussein launches into a heavy discussion in Arabic, which goes on a few minutes before he turns to me and informs me that he will be leaving me now and returning to his own shop, but I should stay with his sister (I assume he expects me to buy a dress). He bolts out the door and I am left standing in the dress shop, not wanting to offend but also not wanting to purchase a wedding gown quite yet.
After a brief moment, I turn to the lady behind the desk, scouring my brain for something to use as friendly smalltalk and which will also provide me with an easy exit from the dress shop. I decide to ask some clarifying questions about the little bakery down the street. “He says he has only been in business a few months?” I ask. “Oh yes. Two months and three weeks.” She answers. “He is having some problems finding another baker though, that is what he was just talking about.” “Tell him I’ll come bake for him anytime!” I offer jokingly. Unfortunately, this is taken as a serious offer. “You bake?” She gives me that quizzical look again. “Well, lets go see what they think about that.” She hurries out from around her desk and out the door, leaving me once again unsurely trotting along behind, this time back toward the bakery.
Once back in the bakery, the lady is explaining in Arabic my offer to the two men. Mohammad gives me a look of utter disbelief, and wants to know if I can handle standing next to the heat of the oven. I tell him I work as a cook, I am used to high heat. He still seems unsure, so he tosses me a fresh loaf of bread straight out of the oven. “Can you touch it?” he asks. I pick it up…it is pretty hot. Hoping I’ve held on to it long enough to prove my toughness, I toss it back in the basket. He looks slightly impressed but not convinced. After a few more minutes of dubious questioning from them, I’m pretty sure that I have no chance of making it as an Iraqi baker; neither of the two men are ever going to believe that a little english-speaking white girl is going to be able to stand next to a hot fire and not melt. Hussein shuffles into the back room and I finally muster up the courage to ask if i could please, finally, buy my items. His sister comes over to the register and checks me out. Before leaving, I tell Mohammed I’ll be back and maybe next time he can let me try. He tells me I need to practice first. But he smiles as he says it, so maybe he’ll let me try my hand at making Samoon afterall.
It’s a funny thing, in this world of large chain superstores, we complain about going into shops and them being so big we can’t find what we need, we have to walk all around the store, or things moving to different aisle. What we should really be mourning is that we no longer find people. We can walk around a 200,000 square foot store and not talk to a single other person. No wonder half of America is depressed. There’s no community, no sense of belonging. When you don’t even need a cashier to check you out at the grocery store anymore, it’s every man for himself. Maybe what we need is for everyone to begin buying their groceries from stores with shopkeepers who gladly go out of their way to get to know you, to share their bread with you, and call you their daughter without even needing to know your name. In a world with that sort of caring, it’s hard to think that anyone would ever feel forgotten.