Friday, August 05, 2005

Neighborhood #8 (Najeeb's Falafel)

In our ethnic but not ethnically diverse neighborhood, there is a Middle Eastern restaurant that Lillet and I used to call Al Qaeda Falafel, only because we judged their chances of success to be no worse than had they really been so-named. Here, the taqueria and the little sliver of a sushi stand are but blips among the Italian restaurants, Italian delis, and pizzerias. We could not imagine a particularly warm reception for this new venture here, in this neighborhood where the New York Post is the paper of record and Al Jazeera is most likely believed to be the name of your uncle's bookie.

And we were right. The restaurant was always empty — one of those places that provided a daily surprise just by still being there. I winced when I noticed the desperate measure of placing a little Italian flag in the window. But one day Lillet came home with a glowing review for the cardamon iced coffee and then I had an excellent vegetarian platter and — wow — the rosewater lemonade was amazing!

I noticed right away two ouds hanging on the wall, and that the music being played was that of Simon Shaheen, the Palestinian oud virtuoso and one of my favorite musicians. I saw him perform only once, at Stanford some 15 years ago, but that concert has been in my head and heart ever since, like only a small handful of others have (Sun Ra at Soundscape in 1979 ... Dariush Talâ'i at Théâtre de la Ville in 1996 ... but this is another post).

A few days later Lillet and I stopped in for some lemonade and I noticed that several CDs were displayed for sale, all by Shaheen. I had to ask. "Do you have some relation to Simon Shaheen or are you just — like me — big fans?" No answer, really, from the counterman. He only went into the back to fetch a man with curly, salt-and-pepper hair and an imposing mustache. His name was Najeeb. Najeeb Shaheen, that is, Simon's brother. He could not have been more gracious to us, nor more excited to learn that my love of his brother's music was genuine. We were enthusiastically invited to their next concert — their next concert, as Najeeb is part of one of his brother's many ensembles.

I stopped by for dinner just the other evening and talked to Najeeb again. He has the most charming combination of Arab courtliness and a liking for the aggressive slang of jazz musicians. How was the concert in Minneapolis, I asked. Oh, my friend. We killed. We inflicted much damage upon this audience.

While we were talking, a handful of hipsters came in, and Najeeb welcomed all of them by name. Perhaps there are enough here now to allow his restaurant to thrive in the land of sausage-and-peppers.

When I think about what I have loved for all my life about New York, it is things like this: that your neighbor might not only be the brother of one of the world's greatest musicians, but that he is also more than happy to talk about him; that you can get an excellent meal for $10 and also talk to the man who made it about Fairuz, the legendary Lebanese singer; that the owner of your neighborhood falafel stand genuinely cares about your white-boy interest in the music of his culture and will turn you on to a CD recorded in 1972 by telling you, Trey, these guys are just smoking here, they will slay you!


Blogger Joel said...

Trey, I love your entries about your neighborhood. This one is very beautiful.

(...and I know there si nothing to do with that, but it reminds me the Seinfeld episode with Babu, haha).

Joel :)

9:00 PM  
Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

Makes me sad about my favorite neighborhood falafel palace that closed a year or so. The best shish kebab platter this side of your nieghborhood!

Mr. H.K.
Postcards from Hell's

And I Quote Blog

6:19 PM  
Blogger Adam E. Robinson said...

Well, at least you get some form of culture in your neighborhood. I'm from WV - that's all I need to say...

7:16 PM  
Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

It's Tuesday. I had falafel for lunch.... YOUR fault. The power of suggestion from reading your post yesterday!

Blogging is power!

Mr. H.K.
Postcards from Hell's

And I Quote Blog

12:10 PM  
Blogger Trey Desolay said...

Lucky for you, Mr. H.K., that I didn't choose to write about the White Castle around the corner! ;-)

Joel, thank you again for your kind words. I laughed out loud to recall that Babu episode.

12:09 AM  
Blogger z. said...

I'm going to have to try that place... We've walked by there a bunch of times! We tried the place up on Union a couple weeks ago. It was ok, but I look forward to Najeeb's because it's closer.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

i love najeeb's and i love najeeb. I shot a movie there last weekend, and he was very gracious about it (which im sure had nothing to do with the fact that the whole crew got food.) Your enjoyed your review, althoughed id like to point out that najeebs slang may not have to do with aggressive jazz musicians but is an arabic thing. I have been studying for two years, and one of my favorite discoveries was the fact that the verb qatala means both to kill and to master something thoroughly....i love it.

11:05 PM  

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