On Sept. 12, Ahmad Esmatyar took down the sign in front of his food stall at the Emeryville Public Market, afraid the words “Afghan Cuisine” would hurt his sales.
Customer Jon Zalon, a regular, noticed.
“I felt sorry for them,” he said Thursday, digging into his lentils and rice.
Other customers have too. Instead of a backlash, Esmatyar has seen an outpouring of support from customers, and a sales increase by 20 to 25 percent in recent weeks.
The Afghani refugee had been nervous about business since Sept. 11, he said, wiping his apron with curry-stained hands.
But his customers are “very kindly people,” he said, adding that old ladies coming from church on Sunday have brought him candies and flowers.
Others have dropped-off flyers saying: “We are your friends. We wish you happiness and peace.”
Two Jordanian-American customers said they chose to eat at Esmatyar's stall as a way to show support to the Afghani community.
“We were debating Mexican, Japanese, Thai,” said Monadel Herzallah, who drove from San Francisco to eat at the market. But once they noticed the Afghani stall, it made “a lot of sense.”
Pamir Afghan Cuisine is the closest restaurant to Berkeley specializing in Afghani food. But without the sign, and despite the giant TV screen blaring CNN coverage of Afghanistan, some customers at the Public Market don’t even know what they’re eating.
Now, the stall is adorned with a listing of menu specials, and several American flags. The restaurant’s name is visible on only one easy-to-miss sign tacked to an inside wall.
Some customers confuse it with the Indian food stall across the way; there are 14 stalls in the market, ranging from pasta to Korean barbecue.
“I didn’t even know” it was Afghani food, said Keith K., from Richmond, munching on chicken curry. “I thought it was Indian. The food still tastes good.”
The cuisine is similar to Indian food, but the names and some of the spices are different. At lunch hour, customers descend on the food stall to sample its spicy chicken curries, lamb kabobs and veggie karahis (stir-fried vegetables over rice). They wash it all down with a sweet purple Afghani tea.
Many of the market’s customers are computer programmers and software engineers who work at nearby dot-coms. A group of young employees from IDB Systems, a local software company, shared a table. A few had plates from Pamir, but they didn’t know it was Afghani food.
If they had, they might have saved themselves a trip across the Bay. A few weeks ago, the company went out to dinner at an Afghani restaurant in San Francisco to show their support, said Carolyn Jackson.
Paul Thibault, who works for AT&T, said he knew the food was Afghani. But it was the samples of chicken kabab, not necessarily notions of consumer support for Afghanis, that drew him in.
“The food looked good, and appetizing,” he said.
Customer H. Sezen said he empathizes with the discrimination Afghanis may be feeling; as a Muslim, he’s been uncomfortable too.
But he’s not going to eat more Afghani food just to show his support, he said, because you can’t just buy according to current events. Quality has to come first.
“What if they don’t have good food?” he said.
Esmatyar said he had heard of cases in which South Bay Afghani restaurants had rocks thrown through their windows.
But Esmatyar says he has not received threats.
“The situation is no good, but if we’re not safe in America, we’re not safe anywhere,” he said.
“I pray with all my heart for the American soldiers, that their mission is successful,” he continued. “I want to write a letter to Bush and tell him he’s doing a good job.”
Esmatyar said he thinks the U.S. action in Afghanistan is long overdue.
“Afghanis have been suffering before Sept. 11,” he said, referring to the war fought with the Soviet Union, and the Taliban’s rule.
Esmatyar came to the United States as a refugee 20 years ago, fleeing the Soviet invasion. He opened the restaurant 12 years ago, and has worked there seven days a week ever since.
He loves this country, he said, because even though he has to work hard, he has everything he needs.
“At 2 a.m., the shops are open, you can get milk. What other country does this?” he said.
Esmatyar said his regular customers have been pressuring him to put the sign back up.
“I’ll do it when I find out more about what’s going on,” he said, gesturing at the big screen TV. “I’m gonna do it.”