Jewish Journal

Mecca in the Valley

by Amy Klein

Posted on Oct. 18, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Deep red curtains, dark lighting, cushiony pillows and pictures of camels and bellydancers adorning the walls: That's what you'd expect from a restaurant reputed to be one of the best Middle Eastern eateries in Southern California.

Instead, what you find is a bright diner-like atmosphere, with orange and yellow arches on the walls, in a strip mall in Sherman Oaks. Oh, and a long line of Americans, Arabs, Druse and Israelis.

Carnival's green awning welcomes guests in Hebrew ("Bruchim Ha'baim") English and Arabic. Newspapers in three languages line the table of the anteroom, as people wait for a table or takeout on this busy Saturday night.

More than a month after the terrorist attack on America, when incidents of prejudice and hate crimes against Arabs -- and people of Middle Eastern appearance -- have climbed to a worrisome pitch, the restaurant seems largely untouched.

"The nice thing about this place is that everyone can intermingle and leave politics out the door," says Michael Jamal, 39, a Lebanese-American Druse from Studio City.

"One thing about the restaurant -- you would think if all these people can sit and eat and enjoy without feeling guilt or tension, this should be an example for the whole Middle East."

Sharon Skolnik certainly didn't come to talk politics or socialize. Skolnik, 26, who came to the United States six weeks ago from Israel, visited the restaurant with her boyfriend for the food. "It's just known to have great food. Everyone knows about it," she says in Hebrew.

Some 50 percent of the customers are Israeli, management say, and the other half are a mix of everyone else.

Arlene Batchley, a native New Yorker who has lived in Encino for years, this time brought her son, Gary, who sports a number of tattoos and a necklace with a gold coin set into a Star of David.

"He said to me that after Sept. 11 no one's going to come here," Arlene says gesturing to the long line. "He was wrong."

The attacks on America haven't scared people away from this Lebanese restaurant which serves Middle Eastern food like moussaka, kibbeh, stuffed grape leaves, shawarma, hummus and baba ghannouj. If anything, say the restaurant staff, people have been friendlier and have gone out of the way to come here.

"There's been no difference from our customers, everyone is open-minded," says Nabil Halaby, Carnival's part owner and manager for the last 12 years. The restaurant was opened 17 years ago by its chef, Afif Al-Hakim, who named it after his first job, at a restaurant of the same name, in the thriving capital city of Beirut.

Halaby, 42, is a Lebanese Druse born and raised in Kuwait until he moved to America at age 16. At the end of a busy evening, he sits around the table with the waitresses, kibbitzing with them in a way that it's unclear who's boss.

"It's not easy working with a mix of Middle Easterners," he says. "They all put their two cents in."

"But we don't get anything back!" jokes Najwa Shaw, one of the waitresses.

"Seriously," says Aline Fahima, "A lot of our customers come in and want to talk about politics or the situation, but we don't discuss it with them, really. Between ourselves, well, we're like family."

Halaby adds his two cents: "Our customers too, we know 90 percent of them, their families, what they like to eat. We see their kids grow up, so they're like family too."

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