A Very Human Being

The reason to go to Simply Falafel is for the excellent Middle Eastern fare, the reason to stay is for a visit with its extraordinary owner.

By Greg Horton | Photo by Trace Thomas

“Come tomorrow at 2:00 and come hungry!” Magid Assaleh says. He shakes my hand and dives back into the chaos that is Simply Falafel on a Saturday afternoon. Magid (MA-jid with the a-sound from “at”) answered a friend’s call in 2012 to step in and help save Simply Falafel; the restaurant was on the verge of closing. We are going to talk about his experience as a Syrian immigrant who has had to watch his home country and his people vilified over the past two years with intensity not seen since Hezbollah won the 2005 elections in Lebanon.

The next day is Mother’s Day, and when I arrive, Magid is busy. He seats me, though, and puts a menu in front of me and takes my drink order. “Excuse me,” he says, for the first of what will be many times. He bustles off to make ice cream for children at one of the tables. Mother’s Day means that every table is occupied by a family, except the booth I occupy. Magid is a natural at working the room, partly due to his nearly 40 years of experience in food service.

He emigrated from Qunaitra, Syria, in 1978, and his first job, ironically, was at the now-defunct Eddie’s Steakhouse, one of the last of the Lebanese steakhouses that flourished throughout the last three decades of the 20th century. His curricula vitae is a list of country clubs, including one in Enid, where all three of his children were born. 

To grow older inevitably means to accept some of the circumstances over which we no longer have control. For example, when do a couple decades of experience at a profession or trade shape the decision to be in that vocation? At some point, Magid realized that it would be his life, and to watch him work is to know that he has excelled at his vocation and enjoyed the life that was shaped for him, and to some degree by him.

Hospitality comes more easily to non-Westerners. Because the three great Abrahamic faiths emerged within the same geographical area, they shared many customs and traditions that had nothing to do with the sacred texts that would come to define their respective communities: Tanakh, Bible, Qur’an. Hospitality is written into those texts, but the traditions certainly predated the composition of those books. In a region where a lack of water meant certain death in the desert or wilderness, an open hand and generous spirit were expected if civilization was to flourish.

“Hospitality begins in the Middle East. We can trace it back 3,000 or 4,000 years, and from there it extends to the West and East. I was raised this way, and I continue my life this way."

After we are finally able to settle into a meal of hummus, falafel, kabobs, leg of lamb, and baba ganoush—he did say to come hungry—Magid, who insists I call him by his first name, addresses hospitality.

“Hospitality begins in the Middle East,” he said. “We can trace it back 3,000 or 4,000 years, and from there it extends to the West and East. I enjoy being involved in hospitality, making people happy, making things happen. I was raised this way, and I continue my life this way. It enhanced the level of hospitality I offer in my restaurants.”’

That openness is even obvious on Simply Falafel’s menu, where all but two items are halal. Like kosher in Judaism, halal governs what is permitted for Muslims in terms of food and its preparation, but unlike kosher, halal refers to more than just food. The word means roughly “permitted,” and it’s opposite is haram (forbidden), a category that includes pork and alcohol.

“Only the chicken and beef kabobs are not halal,” Magid said. The menu does include halal lamb and kafta, as well as outstanding kibbi—think amazing fried meatball. 

Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine are fairly standardized in terms of items, but Magid said the seasoning changes from region to region. Syria and Lebanon use the same seasoning palate, for example. He insists on New Zealand lamb, believing the pungency means more flavor. Taste his lamb burger, and you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree.  

The tabouli is heavier on greens than bulgur here—another regional variation. The signature dish, falafel of course, is worth the trip, as it may be the best in the metro. A personal variation on the baba ganoush is surprisingly delicious. Magid adds pomegranate molasses, which adds some sweetness but also offsets eggplant’s less pleasant acrid bitterness. Finish with Turkish coffee. Just do, and add a piece of baklava. Magid only uses pistachios in his.

“Many of my customers are Muslim,” he said, “so halal is important. I let them know right away that I am a Christian, though, and we have a very good relationship. There is a trust established. The Saudi students from UCO call me ‘grandpa.’ They take pictures with me and send them home. They say ‘We are eating with our grandpa.’”

One of the stories often lost in Western accounts of Syria, Iran and Iraq is exactly what percentage of those countries was Christian prior to the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent dissolution of longstanding good relations between Christians and Muslims in the region. Iraq and Syria both had two of the largest Christian populations in the Middle East, primarily one of the Orthodox traditions. Magid is Antiochian Orthodox; he attends St. Elijah Orthodox Church on NW 150th. The Orthodox churches separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century, so their presence in the region goes back nearly 1,000 years.

"When the refugees came from Iraq or Lebanon in the first decade of this century, they were housed in Syria and other Middle Eastern nations; hospitality laws apply to housing strangers, refugees and immigrants, too. The Syrian refugees received no such hospitality."

Magid doesn’t like to discuss politics or religion, though. He expresses frustration at the treatment of Syrian refugees, and it’s been painful for him to watch the plight of millions of fellow Syrians. When the refugees came from Iraq or Lebanon in the first decade of this century, they were housed in Syria and other Middle Eastern nations; hospitality laws apply to housing strangers, refugees and immigrants, too. The Syrian refugees received no such hospitality, and their plight was politicized by nations with vested interests in the conflict.

Talking about the Middle East with a person from the region will quickly go beyond the ken of typical Americans. When ethnographers study the people of a region, they use the word “hegemony” often. The hegemony is the controlling group and its narrative, and they are the ones who write the stories and histories that dictate how the hegemony understands itself. Those outside the group are forced to create counter narratives that explain their understanding of the hegemony and their relationship to it. The creation of these narratives requires cultural memory, a concept largely foreign to Americans, except those raised in minority communities in the U.S.

The divisions in the Middle East, including the division between Syria and Lebanon, were famously—and many say problematically—fixed in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a treaty created at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Famously is probably an exaggeration for Americans, but it’s not for the people of the Middle East. So fixed in their minds is this agreement, that ISIS references it often in terms of their goal to undo the terms of this treaty. It’s a sobering and distressing truth that some of the most noxious terrorists in recent memory are better informed about the politics and history of the Middle East than Americans. Being better informed than terrorists is a great educational goal.

Complexities like this make conversations about politics dangerous territory for people who understand the situation at a personal or policy level. Why risk trying to enlighten a customer who has most of his news from an American network news show? Far wiser is the small business owner who focuses on a language we all understand. 

“I do not make friends around conversations about politics or religion,” Magid said. “What I think is between me and God, but we have had enough politicians. We need to understand that people are not their governments. We need to be more human, not more political. Oklahoma is my home now. {Editor’s note: Magid was naturalized in 1988.} Second to Damascus.”

Food allows Magid to bridge the cultural divides. His clientele is incredibly diverse, and includes people from dozens of cultures and nations. He takes great joy in sharing his culture by way of his food.

“A woman came in here the other day and said that eating here makes her happy,” Magid said. “That’s the best compliment you can have! I was interested in Simply Falafel because it’s something inside me, a joy. I enjoy accomplishing something unique. I want to share happiness, and people will be a part of something good, where they can express their passion.”

Simply Falafel, 343 Blackwelder Ave., Edmond; (405) 341-4646.