Travel
When is a Restaurant More Than Just a Restaurant?

My friends Wassef and Racha Haroun are both from Syria, with roots throughout the Middle East, though they have lived in the US for over two decades. They feel they are “hybrids,” a fairly uncommon group of people who has a deep understanding of and gratitude for both Levantine and Western cultures. Both left the Middle East seeking a life free from oppression and seeking opportunities that are open to whoever is qualified. Both watched from a distance as recent matters in their home region began to once again headline the news. They were inspired to do something to counter and breakdown stereotypes about their origin region; something that might build an accessible bridge between the different cultures, religions and geographies. And, so they opened restaurants, first Mamnoon, which means “thankful” in Arabic and Farsi; and most recently mbar, a Seattle rooftop supper club with views to forever (and at least seven mostly Muslim countries,) and a menu that melts the world.

Like many from all corners who have responded to course-changes in Washington, D.C. in recent days, Wassef and Racha feel the need to remind and encourage their teams to keep the energy and soul behind the work alive, and so I reprint here a message to patrons, family and friends from a beautiful couple with a unique perspective, the Harouns:

“The flurry of ill-considered, hateful executive actions by President Trump has shut down futures and thrown lives, plans and dreams into chaos. The harm goes far beyond refugees and immigrants. Americans are facing the prospect of losing standing in the world, increased isolation, a worse security climate, and threatened privacy to everyone. The all-out fear mongering campaign behind these actions is sowing self-doubt and shaking American confidence, making everyday events into causes for panic and crippling thoughtless defensiveness.

The executive order on immigration goes beyond anything I have seen in my lifetime, 25 years of which I have been a US Citizen, and 11 before as a Syrian student and work immigrant in the US. I still remember what it was like for me before becoming a US citizen. I was stuck in the Middle East and could not travel, it took months to get a visa appointment, I was looked on with suspicion at every port of travel.

My prospects for the future were limited and things did not change until I was recruited to work for Microsoft in Redmond. Microsoft didn’t care where I was from; they only cared that I had the qualifications for the work. Period.

Racha’s family escaped persecution from Syria in 1982, and found refuge in Houston where she had to learn English from scratch while attending University of Houston classes. Racha went on to graduate with honors and matriculated into the Rice University Psychology PHD program.

We are the lucky ones. We had the means to travel, live and get educated. Moving to the US was a doorway to a new life with a continuum of opportunities. Our Mamnoon family of restaurants is a direct beneficiary of that.

There are millions of people today under constant threat, without hope or opportunity to improve their lives, or the lives of their children. They come from all parts of the world, but the numbers and trials of Syrian refugees are particularly harsh and the blight is compounded when we start looking the other way, or allowing ourselves to fear a five-year-old child. Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world - thousands and thousands of years old, incredibly rich in civilizations, heritage, cultures and most importantly a very warm social fabric of humans. The refugees are purely and simply victims of extreme strife with no hope.

We are deeply attached to our cultures of origin. We have extensive family ties - parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, school friends, family friends, school teachers, principals, neighborhood kids in Hama, Lattakia, Damascus, Beirut, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Alexandria, Amman, to name a few. Most are impacted by the bans directly or indirectly. The culture is part of who we are, but the story doesn’t end there. When you emigrate, you go through intense new learning experiences and you adapt. I landed in the US at age 17, Racha at 18. We are no longer Syrian-only; we are not Seattleite-only; we are truly hybrid.

We started Mamnoon because our culture was either misunderstood, under- or badly-represented. We thought we could create a compelling, unique combination of food and hospitality from the region with progressive and modern values that are the hallmarks of Seattle. Seattle responded and rewarded us with recognition and patronage that no other restaurant had before. We didn’t hype anything, we didn’t push ourselves as the masters of cuisine or hog the limelight - we worked hard to make Mamnoon eminently accessible and insisted on being true to the food and soul of the origins, even when we were creating something new and completely original.

It’s been five years and nothing makes me feel more proud or satisfied as seeing the diversity in our teams, in the dining room, and the ease and comfort for our guests to simply “be” who they are when they are in our care.

mbar doesn’t have an overt cultural signature, but it’s there. mbar is our take on the Seattle culture of the future. We learned from the amazing things happening in Mamnoon and our city: desire for richer real experiences, increased diversity, increased exposure to cultural influences from Asia, the Sub-Continent, the Middle East, and a desire for more social outlets where people can “be” who they are with as few constraints and walls as possible - in a setting that can only exist in Seattle.

At the end of the day we measure our success as much by our cultural impact as by the numbers. We “get it” and have countless fans who “get it”. Clearly some powerful people feel that changing the US culture through evolution and diversity is bad and are determined to stop it and “freeze” a certain Americanness. We fundamentally disagree and believe that you can’t stop evolution and progress no matter how hard you try.

We are betting big on a future Seattle that is fair, accessible, rich and diverse, with strong distinct cultural influences, a future that is way better for these elements. We are putting all our resources, time, vision and passion behind achieving it, and we are proud and excited to have you on board for this mission. We need all of you to make it happen - especially now with all the headwinds.

Mamnoon to you
Racha and Wassef

Often called the "father of modern adventure travel, and the pioneer in travel that makes a difference," Richard Bangs has published more than 1000 magazine articles, 19 books, produced a score of documentaries, while making time to lecture at the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club and many other notable venues. Moreover, Richard is also a respected conservationist and was the recipient of the 2007 Mark Dubois Lifetime Achievement Conservation Award. 

 

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