February 2, 2011
Middle East unrest triggers concern, even on Alhambra’s quiet Main Street
This story originally appeared in the Alhambra Source.
The Arab-language television blared with protesters filling Cairo’s streets and the conversation flew — in the front of the patio in Arabic, in the back in Hebrew. Alhambra’s quiet Main Street may be a long way from the Middle Eastern unrest, but the issues were close at hand for Jordanians and Israelis who came to Wahib’s Restaurant for a lunchtime spread.
For 30 years, the Lebanese restaurant has been a gathering place for Middle Eastern residents of the San Gabriel Valley, as well as Alhambra’s multicultural mix. On Tuesday, three Jordanian professionals sipping tea with mint leaves sat at the prime spot below the television discussing how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could stay in power despite millions taking to the street demanding his departure — and what the consequences would be for their own country, where the king dismissed his cabinet on Tuesday. In the back sat two Israeli contractors, wraparound sunglasses pulled back over cropped hair, having a post-lunch espresso and cigarette. The unrest in the Middle East was also a deep concern for them, but their greatest fear was that Israel’s neighbors could soon be subject to Islamic fundamentalists.
Wahib’s catering manager, Essam Arrowod, was one of the Jordanian men at the front table who had stopped to watch Mubarak address his nation. He said that ever since protesters took to the streets in Tunisia the back porch has been crowded, particularly at night. “Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, they come and watch this,” he said. Some, like Arrowod, are among the 100 or so Arabs he estimates live in Alhambra; others come from all over the Southland. Even though they now have satellite Arab-language television and could watch from home, they come to commune with others who share a common bond to the Middle East.
Those talking politics on the back patio are generally Arabs, but on Tuesday the two Israeli contractors stopped by after evaluating installing solar panels at a home in Alhambra. They came because it’s the “best food, and it’s very close to our food,” said Gil, an Israeli who refused to give his last name. But while he and his colleague kept to themselves and spoke in a different language, they shared the deep concerns about the ripple effects of the unrest in Egypt and the consequences for peace in their corner of the Middle East.
Nearly two decades ago, Gil was witness to a rare tangible step toward peace, when he watched as peace agreements were signed that opened the border separating Israel from Jordan. “I felt great, wonderful,” he said. Despite knowing that Israel would have to make sacrifices, then in the form of precious water, it was no problem “as long as people can still live and not [be] killed by war.” For a time after that, Gil, who speaks basic Arabic, was even working in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, over the border from Eilat, the Red Sea port city where he lived.
Since that hopeful moment, peace talks have collapsed and Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors, including Jordan, are increasingly strained. Gil moved to the United States in 2003, but still keeps a very close tab on developments in Israel, checking national news a couple of times a day on his Iphone. With the fall of Mubarak, he said, “we don’t know what direction Egypt is going. We have to be aware.” His colleague stated the concern for Israelis was that it had just lost its strongest ally in the Middle East. The unrest in Jordan only added to his worries.
Arrowod said he also feels he is planted in both the United States and the Middle East. He moved 24 years ago with the intention of studying political science and returning home one day. But now his children go to Granada School in Alhambra and consider themselves Americans, and he can’t see himself returning. Still, even as he considers Alhambra his home, he will always feel Jordanian. “The Arab world is part of us,” he said. “It’s our culture, our country. Our heart and our loyalty is divided between Jordan and the US.”
At times like this, he said, Middle Easterners living in Alhambra want to find others who share their concerns — and that’s why they end up at Wahib’s. “The danger is coming to Jordan,” he said. While he did not believe the government would collapse, he worried about its position as a relatively weak country in the Middle East. And while he thought Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Mubarak’s relationship with the Jewish homeland was a trigger to the unrest, he also worried about Jordan being alone speaking for maintaining relationships with Israel. “We have to get together and build a strong economy,” Arrowod said. “King Hussein used to say we are all the children of Abraham. Arab and Israeli are brothers. Enough. Enough.”