From Close Up


The Brooklyn neighborhood I live in is heavily middle eastern. About forty years ago, Palestinians and Syrians arrived, then Iraqis, Egyptian, Turkey and, lately, Syrians again. The joke around here is, you don’t have to listen to the news to know what’s happening in the Middle East–simply check who’s moved in next door. From the beginning small shops appeared along the main market street–5th Avenue–maybe 4 blocks with a few dress shops, hookah cafe’s, and jewelry stores.  A mosque transformed an old furniture store next door to the Alpine theater. Movie goers continue to mix with the faithful, especially on Friday nights.

Now the community expands all the way up 5th  to about 83rd Street. Restaurants, hookah bars, sweet shops, dress stores and Egyptian jewelry stores cram together. The offerings at the fruit stands have expanded to include raw olives and almonds, quail eggs, preserved lemons, and grains and beans I have no idea what to do with but I buy them anyway.

The biggest food store is Balady Halala Foods at 71 Street and 5th Avenue. I just came from there and this is what I bought:

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Front row (left to right): homemade chicken sausages, 6 lamb shoulders, Moroccan rose blossoms, Moroccan lavender and rosemary, Syrian finger pepper green olives, Egyptian mixed vegetable salad (1/2 spicy; 1/2 plain). Back row (left to right): Turkish olives, one very fresh halal chicken (came with head and feet, which I said yes, please chop off, but next time I’ll get the feet), 6 lamb chops (cost: $11–I’m not joking–and they’re incredible), some kind of herb from Iraq that’s suppose to help my bad stomach, Turkish olives, shish kebab, kefta balls with parsley, lamb kefta burgers, and way in the back a rug from Turkey. All toll, $80, enough to feed my family for a week with the rice, beans and potatoes at home.

Here’s the really great thing, though. It’s Friday which means everyone’s out getting food before worship tonight and the customers are wearing every version of Middle Eastern dress–starting with the hijab and going down to chador and burqa. And then there is me in cut-off jeans, a faded Iron Man tee-shirt, paint and tar-smeared red sneakers, and a beat up old hat to protect my already freckled/wrinkled Irish skin.  I feel naked but no one looks askance. Standing in front of the small butcher counter in back, the women weave me into a conversation about the specials, the slowness of certain men behind the counter, and the quality of the chicken sausages (pretty good, could use a little more spices). It’s just another day in a food market, the women leaning against their carts, passing time–one of life’s little riches.

The simplistic moral of this story is: If people and products from Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, plus Morocco AND the U.S.A. can crowd into a small market on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn and treat each other like they’re one and the same, with a lot of respect and tolerance for differences, for God’s sake, what’s wrong with the rest of the world?  I’m not pointing out a half joke that we are all women, and men are the one’s on the rampage half a world away: I’m just saying it so happens we are all women, pretty comfortable with each other doing what we are doing.

In all seriousness, though, the neighborhood is no utopia. Our neighbors from the middle east have been subjected to major surveillance, may even still be, and I know a few people who think I’m crazy for shopping at Balady Market. I also have an account there, surely something the NSA probably knows already.   But, by and large, the community is comfortably absorbed into the old community. One of the reasons this may be true is that the neighborhood is used to immigrants, as most of Brooklyn is. We’re all at least second generation, some first, and the stories and trials of settling in as the newest arrivals t are very similar, if not identical, to the ones we grew up hearing in our own families.

What’s happening along 5th Avenue, is what many of our relatives did: establish stores and markets that sell what they left behind in their native countries. In recent memory, these stores have passed from the hands of Scandinavian to Irish to Italian ownership. Right before the Middle Eastern stores began to open, Greeks, Russian, and Chinese took over vacant spots. Yet, everyone of them follows the same pattern: rent a store to establish an anchor, stock it with what you know your fellow countrymen will want and need. Eventually, begin to add items the rest of  the neighborhood needs and, in a year or two, your store seems to have always been there, a part of the whole.

In Balady Market, I thought of a song every nursery school kid I’ve know has been taught a particular song for the year-end parent recital–“From a Distance,” a lovely song about how the world looks from outer space.  A counterpoint song would be from the perspective of Balady: just hours before the Friday call to prayer from the mosque, Palestinian, Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi,  Egyptian and an American look all the same, happily standing together, picking up dinner for family and friends, living their lives as we all are meant to do. 

Someone needs to step up and come up with some words and melody!

Oh, and here are the lamb chops before being grilled on top of rosemary branches over a wood and charcoal fire. That’s fresh thyme on top.

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pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at

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