There’s a popular shawarma video from Turkey that made the rounds on Facebook this summer. On his couch at his family’s apartment in Durham, Abdulmouin Mohammad Taib Almubarak pulls out his phone to show it to me.
“Look at that,” he says through an Arabic interpreter. “The human beings behind it aren’t even showing.”
It’s true. Only one man is visible to the side of the half ton of meat, a wide mound stacked on a rotating spit. The man wears a red apron and, with a serrated knife dwarfed by the shawarma behemoth, shaves pieces onto a disc of pita bread.
Shawarma is important to Almubarak, who built his career as a chef in the Middle East making that dish. But today, he’s preparing poke bowls in Durham.
He pulls up an image on his phone to prove it: he’s wearing a white chef’s coat and a tall chef’s hat. The shawarma in the photo weighs 120 kilos, he says, and reaches as high as his nose on his roughly five-foot-seven frame.
“This was in Saudi Arabia,” he says.His first restaurant was in Beirut, a kabob joint he owned with his brother for nearly a decade. They named it Kabob Al Halabi, meaning kabobs in the style of Aleppo street food. He was just twenty-two when it opened. The restaurant paid homage to the style of meat popular in Syria, where they came fromand where Almubarak remembers learning how to cook at his mother’s feet in their home kitchen in Homs, helping her dice vegetables.
Those early knife skills helped Almubarak develop his niche as a swift, meticulous chef. “By the time I got to the restaurant, my hand was well-adjusted,” he says.
Today, he works day shifts at Melina’s Fresh Pasta, smoothing out dough and pinching ravioli, and night shifts at ZenFish poke bar, using his knife skills to slice through salmon.
Almubarak, forty-three, undertook this laborious journey with pleasure. But it also came out of necessity. He was moving in and out of Syria, a country that had been undergoing conflict for years, seeking better opportunities. His family mostly stayed in Syria while Almubarak did short stints elsewhere. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, however, the live fire and military tanks plowing through Homs only increased. Almubarak left for Saudi Arabia that September, looking for a pathway for his family to join him.
“But when we spoke on the phone,” he remembers, “I would hear gunfire in the background. I went back to protect them and be with them. And when I got back to Syria, it was impossible for me to leave.”
Soon after, “the missiles and planes intensified. Then we encountered a period of quiet. We knew it was time to get out.” The family briefly found refuge in Jordan. Their home in Homs was eventually looted by rebels.
Today, Almubarak, his wife Ronda, and their four children enjoy a different pace of life in Durham. They arrived in 2016 via Church World Service, which resettled twenty-two refugee cases from Syria during the 2016–17 fiscal year.
When we meet, Ronda is wearing a tailored navy blazer and a purple leopard print headscarf. The couple talks about cooking on the weekends for friends (“I’m like his sous chef. He makes the big dishes and I do the sweets”) and for catering gigs in which Almubarak teams up with his eldest son, who is in high school, and a Palestinian friend who runs a catering truck.
“It was hard, thinking about coming [here], because of what we’ve been seeing and hearing,” says Almubarak. He remembers watching news reports of gang and gun violence in the United States, which worried him, too.
Almubarak has this weeknight off, so he’s staying home with the kids while Ronda attends an English class. He rummages through his spice cabinet to demonstrate the breadth of Syrian cooking while his four-year-old son balances on his toes to grab each spice bottle. Almubarak’s hands gesticulate quickly when he talks about spices: “Our red pepper, we let it dry in the sun. We grow it from the soil. It is fresh. Totally different from what’s sitting on the shelf.”
ZenFish owner Janet Lee says she adores Almubarak and his family.
“Not only is he the prep cook, but he’s now become our father figure,” she says, “making sure we’re all fed and taken care of. He’s become family. He’s been here since day one. He’d bring amazing food from home for us to eatlike kabob, tabouleh, rice and chicken, hummusespecially during Ramadan. That’s our favorite part. Yeah, I can’t wait for Ramadan next year.”
Almubarak smiles widely, blushing with pride. I ask if he also likes Lee’s food.
“Raw fish?” he responds. “No, no, no. We would never eat that.”
He’s serious about that. While he loves breaking down fish at work, he prefers to cook it, not eat it raw.
He says he’s grateful to have found work in Durham kitchens, where he and Ronda have made friends. His dream, though, is to open his own restaurant.
With shawarma, of course.
In-person interpretation by Sijal Nasaralla.