14: Bridging a Gap

14: Bridging a Gap

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Bridging a Gap

Every man is rich in excuses to safeguard his prejudices, his instincts, and his opinions.

~Egyptian Proverb

When I heard the news, I cried. On a Monday evening in late November 2001, the week following Thanksgiving, three gun-wielding teens shot and killed two men at a neighborhood grocery store in the eastern part of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. One of the victims was Hassan Serag, the grocery store’s owner. The other victim was Mosaad Abdelkerem, one of the co-owners of Hooligan’s Mediterranean Restaurant downtown.

Both men were Muslims, and both were from Egypt. They were friends.

Abdelkerem had taken a prepared meal from his restaurant for his friend to break the day’s Ramadan fast. He knew Serag was at the store alone and wouldn’t have an opportunity to eat otherwise.

Along with shock and profound sadness, shame overwhelmed me. I had never bothered to find out the names of the people at Hooligan’s who reliably served me whenever I walked in the door.

For two and a half years, I had been eating lunch two or three times a week at Hooligan’s. It had the best mint tea in town, fast service and was just a block from my office at The Tuscaloosa News.

Hooligan’s was one of the most popular downtown restaurants in this thriving university metropolis. The staff consistently and politely accommodated the onslaught of customers who lined up all the way to the sidewalk on some days. No one was overly talkative, but then everyone was usually busy, including the two co-owners who often managed the order window.

How could I frequent this place of business for so long and never take the time to get to know the people I saw more than some of my own family members?

Just a couple of months before, Hooligan’s had sent all of its employees to donate blood following the terrorist attacks on September 11th. They all wore T-shirts with “United We Stand” imprinted on the back to show their solidarity.

They were an inspiration to the entire community despite the suspicion and fear hovering in the background toward all Muslims during that period. They wanted everyone to know they condemned the attacks, and were as appalled and shocked as everyone else.

Many in the community, including me, initially assumed the shooting was a hate crime. There had been a number of death threats in the past few months. Tensions ran particularly high in the Muslim community.

Even after police said the shooting deaths were the results of a botched robbery by the teenage thugs, apprehension and trepidation remained.

When Hooligan’s reopened two days after the shooting, I went there to find out more about the man whose name I hadn’t known. I also wanted to introduce myself to all the employees and the other owner, and to apologize for my indifference. The other owner wasn’t there; he was in Birmingham, Alabama, making arrangements to have the victims returned to their families in Egypt.

But I introduced myself to the employees, who also knew me by sight but not name. I asked them to tell me about Abdelkerem.

A seventeen-year-old server said the six or seven months she’d been working at Hooligan’s was the longest period she’d worked anywhere. And a lot of it had to do with Abdelkerem’s generosity of spirit. He listened to, counseled and encouraged her.

“He was just the sweetest man. We’re all like a big family here,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe he’s not here. I keep thinking he’ll be here any minute, just running late.”

Co-worker Khaled Ismail, who had been at Hooligan’s for about five months, was close friends with both of the victims and still in a state of shock over their deaths.

“I just talked to Mosaad five minutes before he was killed,” Ismail said. “He was laughing, just calling to check on things here at the restaurant.”

He said Abdelkerem had returned three weeks earlier from his wedding in Egypt and was working to bring his wife to Tuscaloosa. Serag had just recently become engaged.

Ismail said both men were deeply loved by their families in Egypt, as well as their Islamic community here. Their deaths hit everyone hard.

“I’m happy for them because they’re going to heaven,” he said. “But I feel very sorry for us who don’t have them around.”

I went back to my office and composed a column expressing my sorrow and regret. It included a more personal account of the men based on the comments I received that day at Hooligan’s.

On Thursday, my column ran on the front page of The Tuscaloosa News. Many of our readers expressed empathy and thanked me for publicly acknowledging my shortcomings.

Several in the Muslim community also let me know how much they appreciated the tribute. The president of the Islamic Society even invited me to speak at the memorial service on Sunday. I was honored to be included and given the opportunity to express my condolences and apologies.

Also speaking that day were Tuscaloosa’s assistant police chief, the mayor, the district attorney and several other religious leaders in the community. Everyone expressed their concern for the terrible tragedy and their appreciation of the victims’ contributions to the community.

“I am so ashamed that I never took the time to let Mr. Abdelkerem know how much of a difference he made in my life, how much I enjoyed doing business with him, how much he brightened my day every time I walked into Hooligan’s and was greeted by him,” I told the people in the mosque that day. “I didn’t have the conversations with him that I wish I had. His death has made me realize how unconscious I’ve been, and I don’t like what I’ve seen.”

I recalled how excited and proud I had been when I moved back to Tuscaloosa in 1998 after being gone for nearly twenty-five years. I happily discovered my hometown had become an international community, a culturally richer place.

The deaths of the two young men jeopardized what we as a community were achieving.

“There have been unconscionable threats against some of you and rumors that some of you may want to leave here. I hope that’s not true,” I said, directing my comments to the Muslims. “You strengthen the tapestry of our lives. You make our lives better, more interesting, larger. You open a refreshing window to the world. The cultural and religious diversity I see in front of me today is awesome — it’s beautiful. I don’t want to lose that. And that’s what scares me about the deaths of these men. We’re all grieving because of it.”

That day, the members of the Islamic Society heard from all of us who spoke that Tuscaloosa grieved with them and shared their pain. They were part of our community, and we were better for it.

~Jane Self

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