Middle Eastern Brooklyn

Talk about hospitality! Yesterday’s walking tour of Arabic Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, conducted by the Brooklyn Arts Council Folk Arts staff, was simply terrific.

The area—we made stops on 5th Avenue from Bay Ridge Avenue to 77th Street—used to be Scandinavian, and a few vestiges of previous generations remain: an Irish pub, a German restaurant. But the Middle Eastern community is building on itself here, especially families from Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine.

Sweet Arayssi

The tour began at Princess/El Amira Music, where drummer Gamal Shafik played tabla for us; he gave examples of three common rhythms and demonstrated the range of the instrument in an improvisational solo. We tasted Lebanese pastries, cookies, and candy at Najjar Pastry Shop and Arayssi Pastry Shop, and falafel, pickles, olives, potatoes, and meat pie at AlSalam restaurant. At five-year-old Balady grocery, the Palestinian owners carry 20-30 types of spices, many varieties of coffee, natural soaps, and traditional remedies—besides all the Middle Eastern food. One of the owners, Essen, said his father came to the United States in 1965. Now, he says of Bay Ridge, “The community’s grown to a point where it feels like back home.”

Pyramids JewelryWe took a brief break from food to visit Pyramids Jewelry, run by a former five-star general from Egypt and his wife, and the Arab American Association of New York, which opened in May 2001. They provide social services and cultural resources, helping 5,000 clients a year with health and immigration issues, counseling, translation, legal advice, after-school programs, and dance classes. We also had the chance to see the work of calligrapher and artist Majed Seif, who accompanied us on part of the tour.

At Meena House CafĂ© on Bay Ridge Avenue, Yasser Darwish, who participates in BAC’s Folk Feet program, demonstrated the saidi stick dance, from upper Egypt. We tried hookahs packed with shisha; hibiscus juice; a hot porridge-like sweet drink called sahlab; and more food.

We stopped for a primer on Islam at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge’s masjid (mosque) and then walked to 3rd Avenue for lunch at Tanoreen. The gracious owner, Rawia Bishara, and her daughter supplied eggplant salad and hummus, pita and za’atar bread, lentil pilaf, falafel, olives, tahini, pickled cucumbers and beets, chicken kabobs and salad, lamb kafta, a chicken dish with pine nuts, Egyptian rice and vermicelli, and a distinctive lemonade with rosehips. Wow—it was all first-rate.

At every stop, people took the time to answer questions and tell a bit about their business and how they came to be here. We felt very welcome.

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