While others have been dining at restaurants like Jean-Georges, Le Madri and Gramercy Tavern to help revive the city’s economy and prove to Osama’s henchmen that New Yorkers can’t be intimidated, my brother and I recently visited a restaurant where, unfortunately, one doesn’t need a reservation at the moment-the Afghan Kebob House.
We aren’t just foul-weather friends of the restaurant, located on Second Avenue between 70th and 71st streets. I wouldn’t call us regulars, but we have visited occasionally through the years. My taste in food is more eclectic than my sibling’s-embracing fish and even vegetables. He’s among the most squeamish eaters I’ve ever met. He will send back a dish if it includes a single mushroom. Spinach turns his stomach. He even has an aversion to fruit.
Essentially, all he eats except cookies is steak-or some other straightforward cut of meat-and French fries. Therefore, Middle Eastern food, which isn’t exactly famous for its sauces or culinary pyrotechnics (save for the occasional flaming kebab) suits his palate perfectly. Give my brother a meat sambosa appetizer, followed by a lamb kofta kebab-pieces of well-done, marinated chopped meat-and a Coke to wash it down, and you’re looking at one happy guy.
I’d like to report that the restaurant was packed and the mood festive. But that wasn’t the case. However, I fault not only current events but also the restaurant’s decor. The Afghan Kebob House wouldn’t win any interior-design awards, not to put too fine a point on it.
There are wall rugs depicting polo riders and ponies, ornamental copper arches, a very bright crystal chandelier and a curious rock outcropping that prompted my brother, in a not entirely successful stab at levity, to propose that it was the same wall where Osama bin Laden was recently videotaped calling for jihad against America.
While that was manifestly untrue, you wouldn’t know it from the turnout. Except for us, only one other table was occupied. Perhaps potential customers were scared away by the possibility that some misguided patriot with the Stars and Stripes tattooed across his chest would lob a brick through the window, a scenario which frankly also crossed my mind.
But we weren’t to be deterred. Foreign food is in our blood, thanks to my father, for whom finding first-rate foreign restaurants amounts to something of a spiritual quest. On Sunday nights when we were kids, he took us to the House of Chan restaurant on West 52nd Street, where he was treated like a head of state. He taught me how to use chopsticks and also introduced me to Korean and Japanese food years before anyone had heard of sushi.
His idea of bliss was taking long summer walks after the rest of the family had left town, his destination the 14-course dinner at the Maharajah Indian Restaurant on Broadway and 92nd Street, or the Cedars of Lebanon on East 31st Street, if he was heading downtown.
International cuisine isn’t a nice extra, it’s part of New York’s essence, part of what makes us the world’s only truly global city. Our freedom to dine on sashimi and tacos and goulash and chow mein must be defended at all costs. That’s why we were at the Afghan Kebob House, even if it doesn’t have a liquor license and the shish kebab I ordered was slightly dry.
Izmar Yalai, the Kebob House’s manager, sat at an empty table near the kitchen, his expression sinking over the course of our meal from sadness to something resembling outright despair. I didn’t understand why. While there wasn’t exactly a waiting list for a table, the phone kept ringing and takeout business appeared brisk.
But I learned from him that the calls weren’t from neighborhood residents hungering for hummus or baba ganouj. They were death threats-two within a period of a few minutes as we sat there.
“The first week was very bad,” explained the manager, who has become something of an expert on hate since Sept. 11. “10, 15, 20 calls a day. ‘We are coming. We’re going to blow you up.'”
Some of his customers have suggested that Mr. Yalai place an American flag over the word “Afghan” on his awning, or change the name of the restaurant completely. He refuses, even though he says business was so bad in September that he contemplated closing the restaurant.
“Why should I change?” he asked. “Just because of them? I’ve been here 15 years. All my clients know me personally.”
There’s something at stake here beyond any sort of macho display of courage and resolve. Mr. Yalai moved to the United States to escape precisely the sort of persecution to which he now finds himself exposed on a daily basis. The Soviets killed his entire family in 1982, he says-his mother, father, brother and sister. He fled Kabul before they could kill him too, his remaining family members and friends dispersing like seeds on the wind. “Whoever was left, God knows where they went,” said Mr. Yalai, dressed in the most Western of outfits-a navy polo shirt, jeans and tasseled loafers. “I have never been able to get in touch with them.”
He despairs for his homeland, first at the hands of the Russians, now with the Taliban. “The people are as much freedom-loving as the Americans-more, not less,” he said emphatically. “Whoever tried to invade us, we beat up and threw out.
“Afghanistan used to be a beautiful country. Women used to dress in miniskirts. No more … forget it. One little part of their face is seen and they’re beaten to death. It’s very sad.”
Mr. Yalai, who appears in his early 40’s, is married to a Texas woman, a customer he met while working at another Afghan restaurant after he moved to the United States almost 20 years ago. They have an 8-year-old son whose greatest pleasure was visiting his father at work and helping out. But he no longer does. One of the most chilling calls the manager received came from someone who seemed familiar with his family and threatened not just Mr. Yalai but also his son.
“I don’t like to bring him,” he sighed. “My wife is scared, too. He wants to come. I give him excuses. He’s still too young to realize what’s going on. For him I fear. He’s my only blood relative now. He means everything in the world to me.”
While some of his regulars have drifted away since the attack on the World Trade Center, they’ve been replaced by other customers. “Right now I’m getting a lot of different clients,” he reported. “They come from Queens, from Brooklyn. A lot of students come to show their support.”
However, perhaps the most welcome show of support came from a regular as the restaurant stood empty one evening around 8 p.m. the week of the attacks. A man that Mr. Yalai said looked Pakistani-there’s no love lost between him and Afghanistan’s neighbor to the south-stood in front of the restaurant and taunted him.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Get out of here. You don’t belong over here,'” Mr. Yalai recalled. “Out of nowhere, this guy comes running, punched him hard on the jaw and said, ‘He’s much more of an American than you are. He’s contributing to the economy.’
“He comes sometimes to have dinner,” the restaurant manager said of his protector. “I think he’s in the movie business. He’s a busy guy. He’s tall and big. He told me, ‘Anybody gives you problems, just call me.'”