Tag Archive | "Palestinians"

Two States: Two Solutions

By William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter-

“Little Ramallah” in Paterson

There are two distinct Palestinian neighborhoods in the New York area. While both cling fiercely to their shared Middle Eastern heritage, their approaches are fundamentally different.

In Paterson, N.J., cultural pride seems to revolve around what goes into ones mouth. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it is more about what comes out.

“Paterson is more of a culinary culture. It’s the food, the hookah bars,” said Tahani Salah, 25, a Palestinian-American poet born and raised in Brooklyn.

If Paterson is the stomach of the Palestinian community, then Bay Ridge is certainly the mouthpiece. It is no coincidence that groups such as the Arab-American Association of New York are based in Brooklyn. Advocacy groups such as these may serve pizza and soda instead of Middle Eastern meze at their meetings but that does not make them any less connected with their roots. Salah agrees that Bay Ridge is the Arab-American capital of New York. “Bay Ridge is a base of Arab Communities.”

Location plays a large role as to why there is such a different feel to each community. Paterson, which is often referred as “Little Ramallah,” is an isolated society. It lies roughly 30 miles from Brooklyn and isn’t even in the center of Paterson. It is about a mile down the road from the main part of town and is largely introverted. As a result it has a distinctly Middle Eastern vibe that Bay Ridge simply doesn’t share.  Business is conducted in the various coffee shops and hookah lounges over a cup of chai or ahwe (tea or coffee). The pace of life is slower and the hummus tastes better.

No one speaks of “gentrification” in Paterson, although it is part of the lifeblood of Bay Ridge. It is, after all, part of New York City. Yellow cabs frequently trundle down Fifth Avenue (New York’s other Fifth Avenue) and Times Square is just a subway ride away on the R train.

Salah has witnessed the impact of gentrification on the Arab community in Brooklyn first hand. “Atlantic Avenue was full of Arab-Americans. Now there is a Barney’s and Trader Joe’s.”

Widad Hassan, 23, from Sunset Park, describes Bay Ridge as a culture clash. It is not just a clash between the various Arab communities or the other ethnic groups that live in the area. There is a generational clash too. “You see a mom in traditional dress and daughter in jeans,” Hassan said. “Paterson is more isolated, it sticks more to the culture.”

It seems that the terms Arab-American or American-Arab can be interchanged more readily in Bay Ridge. There is a far greater degree of assimilation and at face value it does seem that some of the culture is lost. Although, as Hassan says, Bay Ridge is about pizza and saying “wazzup,” that does not mean the Arab heritage is gone. You just have to dig a little deeper.

The fact that Muslims in Brooklyn flock to Nablus Sweets in Paterson on religious holidays doesn’t mean they are any less devout. It simply means that Paterson does better Baklava.

Both communities were hit hard by the terrorist attacks in 2001. The war on terror and “Islamophobia” shook Arab-Americans regardless of whether they were from Bay Ridge, Paterson or anywhere else for that matter.

What is interesting is how both groups responded. As non-Arabs stopped going to Paterson to eat their hummus (and it really is good hummus) the community became withdrawn, relying on fellow Arab-Americans to keep businesses afloat.

Partly due to extenuating circumstances such as gentrification, the Arab community in Bay Ridge has responded to 9/11 differently. It appears more of a concerted effort was made to integrate into American life.

The cultural pride of Arabs living in Bay Ridge is no less strong than for those living in Paterson, though; it is simply hidden. In fact, because much of the hate that has been directed at Muslims manifested itself in Brooklyn — NYPD spying for example — the Arab-American community there has proven itself to be incredibly resilient.

It seems that the phrase “you are what you eat,” does not always apply.  For them, it might be, “you are what you say and think.”

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Hubble Bubble, Health Department Trouble

by William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter —

The Middle East practice of smoking of hookah is also known as sheesha or hubbly bubbly. For centuries these water pipes have been used to help people relax and socialize. In Paterson, N.J., hookah bar owners believe the City Health Department is persecuting them. Their businesses are going up in smoke.

“We have nothing against the city and government but we used to have a beautiful life, now they make our lives miserable,” said Jamal Hanash, 37, owner of Paradise Hookah Lounge on Main Street.

In recent weeks, two other nearby hookah bars, Lava Lounge and Big Apple, were hit with fines from the Health Department. It is a common problem for these businesses, especially as the weather worsens and smoking legally outdoors ceases to be an option.

The bars generally charge between $10 to $15 for a hookah pipe, which is typically shared between a small group of customers. Pipes are generally smoked over a few hours so the businesses also offer food ranging from snacks to full three-course meals. The hookah bars in Paterson also offer drinks for customers but no liquor.

In 2007 a New Jersey State law was introduced banning smoking indoors in public places. The punishment for violating this is a $500 fine that rises by another $500 each time the business is busted.

While the Mayor of Paterson, Jeffery Jones, 54, understands the role that hookah bars play in knitting the community together, he said that he has no choice but to enforce State Law.

“State tells you to do, we receive funds from them, that’s it,” he said in an interview at his office. “I understand it’s important and has a value but I can’t change State Law.”

The Department of Health had a more straightforward message for hookah bars.

“Hookahs are breaking the law,” said Director Donna Ivy, Director for the Department of Health and Human Services. “We go in and we violate.”

There are exceptions though. Certain restaurants in neighboring towns that sold hookah before any smoking bans were introduced in 2004 have been awarded licenses and are exempt from the fines. The Health Department said that the hookah bars in Paterson are all very recent so none qualify for a smoking permit.

Ramzi Zdouq, 30, owns Ramzi’s Social Club on East Railway Avenue and has had his share of run-ins with the Health Department over the matter.

“I’m paying at least $8,000 and I have eight tickets more,” he said.

The fines are not the only problem for the dozens of hookah bars scattered across Paterson. Musbah Zakkour, 17, who sells hookah equipment to the local lounges and restaurants, said that the stores still make a profit despite the tickets. The problem is that customers are also targeted by the city. If caught smoking in these establishments, customers can also be fined.

“People start getting disgruntled being treated like criminals,” Kakkour said.

In the summer, hookah fans can enjoy their flavored tobacco in relative peace but when winter comes they are faced with a choice, smoke at home or risk a $250 fine. For Basil Kashuka, 35, it’s not worth the risk. He used to visit Ramzi’s everyday, until he found out it was being raided.

“Paying $250 for a hookah, I can’t afford that,” he said.

Hanash of the Paradise Hookah Lounge is over two months late on his rent and fears he will be evicted if he can’t pay the $16,000 he owes his landlord. He has not been given a ticket for months but said that the Health Department has scared away his customers and the damage has already been done.

“They told customers, why are you here? This is an illegal business. They told customers they would be arrested,” Hanash said.

Before the Health Department put people off, Paradise would get in around 200 people on a good night said Hanash. Now he would be happy with 40. He has already had to lay off over two thirds of his staff and during weekdays Hanash only has one helper to prepare coals and serve the customers.

On a recent Saturday afternoon the lounge was deserted, the arrangement of black leather sofas cushioned nothing but dust and the coals on the stove were being heated seemingly more in hope than expectation. Paradise still looks over-staffed.

The strict laws on hookah bars not only affect the store owners, its staff and their loyal customers, but the community in general said Kashuka.

“It’s a meeting place. We don’t drink, we don’t go to bars.”

In a predominantly Arab and Muslim area, he believes that these bars provide a vital forum where people can sit down, smoke and find help. He said that hookah bars are especially useful for the retired or unemployed who are looking for help or assistance. They are also places where younger men and women come to fraternize.

Hanash also believes that as Paterson is largely an Arab community, they should be exempt from the smoking ban.

“This is part of our culture,” said the Palestinian born lounge owner. “In Palestine everyone smokes hookah,” he added.

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Community Kicks

Alnatur teaches his class

by William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter —

Galloping across the blue matting of the gym floor, a toddler in a baggy karate uniform runs over to his mom to show off. Moments earlier he held a piece of wood. Now he holds two. A deadly karate chop did the damage. Much to this boy’s delight.

“Developing champions in life, for life.” That is the message of a new martial arts gym that has recently opened in Paterson, N.J. Its mantra is simple. Greatness dwells within us, it just needs to be channeled.

“Our goal is to create great martial artists and great leaders in the community,” said Master Tarek Alnatur, 34, owner and head trainer of the Elite Black Belt Academy.

The gym now has over 80 students and is fast becoming a community hotspot. Although breaking pieces of wood is impressive, the martial arts academy has bigger plans for the town of Paterson.

Alnatur is Palestinian-born but has lived nearly his whole life in Paterson. He has been running the gym since it opened in June with his wife Suhair and aims to use the gym to improve the local area.

Alnatur said he believes karate classes provide a much-needed positive outlet for young people living in the crime-ridden city. In 2009 there were nearly twice the number of violent crimes recorded in Paterson than the rest of New Jersey.  Last February, 125 police officers were laid off, which has done little to help the problem. Although 37 officers have been subsequently added, the cut still equates to over a fifth of the police force. 368 police officers now operate in Paterson.

“This is the perfect sport to build confidence and stay out of trouble,” said Alnatur who believes that the lessons learnt in the karate Dojo can be transferred into everyday life.

One initiative that the academy has introduced is to establish a greater connection between schools and the gym. In fact, karate students can only move up in belts if they can prove they are excelling at school. “We’re not looking for A, B or C grades,” said Alnatur, adding, “What we are looking for is, are they courteous? Are they showing respect? The pillars of the Black-Belt.”

The local schools have been cooperating by sending forms to the gym with information about how their students have been behaving. “The schools love it,” said Alnatur.

Feedback has been so positive that teachers are referring more kids to join Elite Black Belt Academy in the hope that their performances at school will also improve

“The kids love the academy. If it means improving their grades, they’ll do it,” said Alnatur.

When looking around the brand new studio, the messages of the black belt are clear for all to see. Written in large blue letters on the still pristine whitewash walls are words that symbolize what it means to be a martial arts master. Discipline. Respect. Leadership. These words are not only scattered on the walls, but are recited in every class, by every student.

“Karate is not just kicking and punching,” said Alnatur, it is part of a greater ethos.

Parents are also enthusiastic about the initiative. Nina Ayyad, 37, has only been taking her two sons to the academy for three weeks but is already a fan. She initially signed her kids up to help her eldest son Yousef, 10, lose weight but she said she appreciates what the gym is doing for the area.

“It all helps the children,” she said.

Although Yousef hasn’t memorized the karate mantra yet, he has picked up a few lessons from Alnatur, his business partner Mohammad Sheikh, 26, and their assistant Hamada Sheikh, 19.

“It teaches you if you’re strong not to do bad stuff to people,” said Yousef, as he hid behind his mom.

Alnatur has big plans for his academy and wants it to become a place where all members of the community can congregate. While education is important, he also believes that ethnic integration will help reduce crime in Paterson. Although 90 percent of his students are Arab, most of whom are Palestinian, Alnatur said he wants his gym to become a bridge between ethnicities.

These plans are not just constrained to the gym studio. The academy has organized events such as community picnics to promote interaction.

“Already the gym is having luck engaging Paterson’s Hispanic community,” said Alnatur.

The academy is also working with Passaic County to address the problems facing the community. The gym has put on several evening events with the police to inform parents and their kids of the dangers they face in the area. Speaking at a recent seminar, Detective Javier Castellanos, 44, who has been working in the Sheriff’s Department Gang Intelligence Unit since 2002 said, “in the county we have a gang presence everywhere.” Working in unison, Alnatur and Castellanos hope that greater awareness will keep future generations away from gangs.

Smashing pieces of wood in two is one thing but smashing crime in the community will be an entirely different challenge for Alnatur and the Elite Black Belt Academy.

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