Remember our friend from high school opened up the restaurant called Papa Roosters? Well, that place didn't work out and they quickly shut it down. Randy had helped the owner remodel that ugly whole in the wall into a nice looking place. I'm sad for our friend that it didn't work, but he was trying to manage while still living in Austin and that turned out to be harder than he thought.
ANYWAY, a new restaurant is in the same building and the strangest thing happened...Randy was working on the new owner's home when he was just thinking about opening the new restaurant. He told Randy that he wanted to open up a Middle East restaurant and he was wondering if Randy would come check out the prospective location and let him know if a wall could be taken down or not. When Randy went to check it out he was shocked that it was the old Papa Rooster's location. The wall that Sabah wanted taken down was a wall that Randy had just built for the previous owner. We thought that was so funny. He didn't end up doing the work. The wall ended up staying.
The reason I bring all this up is because...although Randy didn't end up doing the work for Sabah, Randy did get to hear his amazing story about how he came to live in Abilene all the way from Iraq. I wanted to share his story with you, but I wasn't sure if it was too personal so I asked Randy if he thought Sabah would mind if I wrote about it. Come to find out there was an article written about him recently and it had been sent to Randy to read. So, now I don't have to write the article. I just posted it on here.
Sabah and his family are so interesting! I can't imagine all the changes they've been going through during these last few months. Read the article about his family.
Also, Sabah invited Randy to his restaurant and Randy really liked to food. It's not like anything we have here or anything like I cook at home. It's a total different experience. Go check it out!
(All photos by Thomas Metthe)
Through the fire: Restaurateur from Iraq has new life in Abilene
By: Jaime Adame
Sabah Hammoodi keeps a folder with the certificates and photos that document his last few years in Iraq.
He was busy on a recent afternoon tending to customers at Middle East, a restaurant at 4621 S. 14th St. that he opened Jan. 15 after moving to Abilene less than five months ago.
His wife, Muazaz, and oldest daughter, Sara, may be the main cooks, with hummus, falafel and entrees like makloba and beryane on the menu, along with kabobs and gyros.
But Hammoodi, 58, also wears an apron and likes to cook himself, he said.
Between taking orders from customers, fielding phone calls, and popping into the kitchen, he shared his memories of Iraq following the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Opening his folder, he took out a few photos. Mostly, he is smiling in the pictures he has kept from that time, including posed shots with American soldiers.
“She is a major,” Hammoodi said proudly.
Only weeks after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Hammoodi found his life transformed.
Before the war, he drove a taxi on the streets of Baghdad, his home since birth.
Amid the lawless chaos that followed the crumbling of the Saddam Hussein regime, he rushed to Baghdad’s civil airport after hearing a rumor it was being reopened by Americans.
He wanted a job. Hammoodi had worked there for about 15 years, becoming chief steward before economic sanctions effectively grounded passenger travel in the early 1990s.
As he drove his taxi, an old Toyota, to the airport, he stopped at a military checkpoint. There, he agreed to take as passengers two Iraqi men eager to meet with a U.S. Army official in hopes of becoming interpreters.
“They speak with him Arabic,” Hammoodi recalled, smiling broadly.
Hammoodi had learned English in school, as did many Iraqis, and found himself explaining in English what the men were trying to say.
On the spot, he was hired to be an interpreter.
“It’s coming to me from the sky,” said Hammoodi, recalling his reaction at having landed an opportunity to support his family. When told he could start tomorrow, he insisted on starting that same day.
At the airport, the American military maintained a strong presence. Hammoodi’s role shifted away from interpreting after only a few months.
Soon, he began supplying food made at his home to hungry soldiers. He began handling various tasks, like overseeing a coffee shop. He was issued a weapon, and took on field work like projects to install roadway security gates and spike strips.
In the “dark years” of economic sanctions before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hammoodi, a Sunni Muslim, said that for a time he toiled selling cigarettes on the street. His two oldest boys — still only children — were needed to help him as he struggled to support his wife and their seven children.
At first, he was paid about $3 a day to work with the Army. Later, he earned $350 a month, and even received a roughly $50,000 contract related to street improvements.
He also was given air conditioners and appliances, allowing his family to prosper.
Hammoodi rattled off the units he worked with from the Army, Air Force and National Guard.
Behind the counter of his restaurant hangs a large American flag, with well-wishes from American soldiers written in black marker.
At least one small flag is part of the centerpiece for each table, and Hammoodi speaks proudly of his association with American soldiers.
The work did not come without risk, however. In some photos he keeps, Hammoodi is not smiling.
Wearing a crisp white button-down shirt, Hammoodi comes across as a dapper man, with a matter-of-fact way of speaking.
“Don’t believe, you test yourself,” he told one woman, firmly but not unkindly, after she mentioned a dish that had been recommended to her.
While his English isn’t perfect, he spoke freely about his years in Iraq, even a 2005 extortion attempt that led him to fly his family to Jordan.
They stayed even as he returned to Iraq. By 2007, he was working with military contractor General Dynamics.
Violence came from different groups, and he said he was shot at occasionally while doing road work.
The constant fear, however, was to be recognized by some of the violent militia groups as working with the Americans.
Hammoodi said he took precautions from the beginning of his work with Americans. He kept his old airport identification badge in hopes that, if stopped by militia fighters, he could disavow his American employment.
When working with the military, he accepted an escort — but only in the heavily militarized areas. In civilian neighborhoods, Hammoodi said he was unwilling to risk being spotted bringing an American to his doorstep.
Much of the work he did at night, when only military vehicles were bold enough to take to the streets.
After the extortion attempt, he said he took even more precautions, dressing differently on different days, for example.
Then, one day, after leaving his sister’s home at sunset, an older car swerved in front of him and stopped. Another car did the same behind him.
There were four men in each, armed with Russian assault rifles. He was trapped.
Hammoodi spoke slowly when describing the encounter.
“The took me,” he said. He was not blindfolded, so he feared the worst. If he was able to see, he reasoned, he could identify the men — which meant they likely planned to kill him.
He was taken to a house not far from his home.
“They told me, ‘Where is your gun?’” recalled Hammoodi. He denied owning a weapon, understanding that admitting he had a gun would lead to assumptions about where and why he had one.
He identified the group as Jaish al Mahdi, a Shiite group heavily involved in the Iraq insurgency against American forces. They asked for money, but Hammoodi tried to convince them that he was just an airport worker who was not employed by Americans.
On the hardwood floor of his restaurant, Hammoodi briefly sat down, putting his hands behind his back to explain how he was bound while being held at gunpoint.
His captors blindfolded him, he said, then struck him in the face with some sort of hard metal object. There were threats involving a drill, a common torture instrument. He felt a gun pressed against his head, then inside his mouth.
At one point, he begged that, if killed, his body be shipped to his family, by this time now living in Egypt. Now, there were nine children, with the recent birth of twin girls.
The men said he needed to give them the phone number of someone who could verify his story. After one call was made to a friend who did not answer, Hammoodi offered the number of a Shiite neighbor, part of the same Muslim sect that Hammoodi said his kidnappers also belonged to.
As neighbors the two men had been friendly, Hammoodi said, though Iraq has been plagued by sectarian violence.
“He said, ‘I know him, he is good’” and not working with Americans, recalled Hammoodi. Hammoodi thinks the neighbor did know he had worked with Americans. After a flurry of phone calls made by the neighbor to people of influence in the Shiite community, Hammoodi was released that same night.
This time, there would be no coming back. Within two days, he left for Egypt, then America, where he’s been less than a year (The family moved from Denver to Abilene after the marriage of another daughter to an Iraqi who settled in Abilene.
In his folder of keepsakes are hospital photos, taken about two weeks after the beating. They show him with battered right eye and swollen left jaw, where a scar remains.
Hammoodi’s eyes grew red and he sat silently after telling of his ordeal.
“The country who wants to kill you is not your country,” he said later, when asked about returning.
Iraq is no longer Hammoodi’s home. He hopes to make it in Abilene.