Baghdad comes to Brooklyn

Baghdad comes to Brooklyn
Tanabel - one New Yorker's response to Donald Trump's 'Muslim Ban' - employs refugee women who are exceptional chefs, bringing mouth-watering feasts to Brooklyn.
4 min read
19 November, 2018
The table is set for Syrian Christmas dinner [Louise Palmberg]
It's February 2017, and Trump has just signed off on his first attempt at passing the "Muslim Ban".

As families across America and the Middle East are forced to re-evaluate their futures, Brooklynite and trained chef Hannah Goldberg knows the time has come to stand up and resist.

"I went to a screening of the White Helmets documentary put on by our temple's Refugee Task Force, and there were so many things to be angry about after the election - women's issues, environmental issues, refugee issues…" she says.

Soon after, Hannah created Tanabel with the aim of inviting chefs from the Middle East to share her kitchen as they build new lives here in the US.

Fast forward a year-and-a-half, and Tanabel - a food and events company that employs refugee women in New York, has become a thriving local business, hosting pop-up dinners, cooking classes and stalls at night markets in the city.

Hannah currently works with three chefs, and Maha al-Otaibi, an Iraqi mother of five from Baghdad, is one of them. She arrived in New York four years ago, with help from the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

On the lookout for a partner in culinary crime, Maha's cooking skills caught Hannah's attention at one of the IRC's pot luck dinners last year.

Fayza Garip and Fadila Maamo, mother and daughter from
Aleppo, with
Hannah Goldberg at their
Syrian Fall Feast [Tanabel]

"When I came to the US, I didn't cook in the same way I did when I was in my country, because I didn't have my family and friends here," says Maha.

"But then Hannah found me at the IRC, and told me about her company, working with food, working with her, and I liked the idea, I really liked it," says Maha.

"It was a chance to meet people from the American community."

So Hannah and her chefs began cooking up high end, intimate fine-dining experiences in Hannah's Brooklyn home for hungry New Yorkers.

Some guests come from as far away as Long Island or the Bronx, others from just down the street, but they're always eager to try whatever is on the menu, from masgouf to pacha - a traditional Iraqi dish made from sheep's head, trotters and stomach.

The duo's recent "Iraqi Fall Feast" was a resounding success - a celebration of "lamb tenderness, plumped dried fruits in cardamom syrup, crushed black limes in a thatch of braised herbs and greens, sizzling charred aubergine with brown butter, and fried cigars stuffed with cheese and mint and pickling quince".

"I learned to cook when I got married when I was 21."

Maha went on to have five sons. "Me and my friends used to compete with each other, whose food is more delicious than the other?

"I'm lucky, I've met kind, polite helpful people here in America. We have an idea [of Americans] in Iraq, you know, after the invasion… but the American people are completely different."

Maha lays the groundwork for a pot of her dolmas,
lamb chops and lima beans [Tanabel]

While New York, and America in general, has seen a depressing rise in hate crimes towards minorities since Trump's election, Maha's day-to-day experience has been quite the opposite.

"For my son's family, the 'Muslim Ban' was a tragedy," she says. "But you know, even when I walk in the city, people come and hug me, because I have my hijab and they can see I'm Muslim. They're trying to do their best."

Tanabel events help to raise awareness about the issues facing refugees in the US, but they're also a way of sharing and preserving traditional cooking techniques. "Slow food, or 'grandmother food' was always my sort of personal north star in the world of cooking," says Hannah.

She wonders how many people, once they come here, will still make the pickles the way their grandmother did. "It's partly the story of modernisation, but also the story of people being pushed into a new life, with different responsibilities."

The next step in Tanabel's evolution will be to branch out into ready-made foods next spring, in order to connect the chefs with a more sustainable source of income.

For Hannah, the process of cooking together, learning from each other, and building strong friendships between women, is just as important as the finished product.

"If there can be any kind of silver-lining to Trump, maybe this is it," she concludes.  

Katy Stone is The New Arab's Opinion Editor.

Follow her on Twitter: @KatyRoseStone