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Food for thought at one culinary crossroads in Yemen

COLUMN ONE

When chef Abdulkarim Harazi speaks, customers listen. At the place where beggars dine with bankers, they know that no matter how circuitous or embellished the tale, there'll be wisdom waiting at the end.

November 15, 2010|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — His white shirt pressed, the chef glides through the crowd like a ship in full sail, checking tables, nodding to waiters. His world is full of hurry but he is not rushed. He sits down in the shade, wiping his brow amid a lunchtime crowd of gunrunners, clan elders, beggars and bankers.

They drift down unnamed roads toward his tables, the air sweet with meat, crushed vegetables, sprigs of spearmint. Scores of diners at a time cram elbow to elbow slurping and scooping at the edge of town, where big trucks haul white stone down from the mountains.

They know Abdulkarim Harazi has three wives, 18 children, a worn dagger and the humor of a man not done in by adversity. When he speaks, his customers, sopping broth with soft bread, listen, knowing that no matter how circuitous or embellished the tale, there'll be wisdom waiting at the end.

"You handle a big family with justice," says Harazi, pausing the way he does, eyes bright with mischief. "Justice means sleeping with one wife one night and another wife the next. This brings balance. Justice can't control some things, though, like the passion of the heart."

Harazi's fires spit blue flames and hum like storms, searing blackened bowls filled with a traditional meat dish called fasha and a stew known as saltah. Thick with chilies, herbs, onions, potatoes, coriander and maybe a speck of cilantro, the meals bubble and cool beneath conversations of impatient men.

"Quality and cleanliness are the keys" to a fine meal, Harazi says.

His waiters have blistered fingers and gold-trimmed caps. From sunrise to just before dusk, they serve 1,300 pounds of beef and 660 pounds of vegetables to 4,000 diners at the Fakhi restaurant. Nobody rests, not the ladle men, nor the dicers, knives chopping, oil hissing at the culinary crossroads of the capital, where, for a brief moment and a few dollars, businessmen sit with junkmen for a taste that's the same to everyone.

The main floor is shaded and dim, the tables long. Finding a seat requires cunning and swiftness and dodging men with quick hands. Some have guns, most have daggers. Outside, down steps faded by sunlight, more tables are lined beneath narrow shelters and there's a feeling of an army encamped beneath the hills circling the city. From the road, amid clatter and the glow of fires, the word is that eating lunch anywhere else would be a pitiful miscalculation.

The men — not a woman in sight — speak of private misfortunes and national troubles. A land of deserts, rock ridges and sea coves, Yemen is both beautiful and tormented. Rebellions rattle north and south, Al Qaeda fighters roam the outlands and the Americans are talking about missile strikes and the cost of terror. Poorest country in Arab world, that's what they keep saying, a place of thin wallets and drought. Here, though, you polish your spoon, stay away from the flame and eat.

"It's simple," says Harazi. "The cost of living is too high and the country is too unstable. It's all about food and worry these days. There's no hope because you can't see anyone improving around you. I try to do the best for my children. Education, they must have that."

He's a solid man with thick hands and black stubble, settling into his chair like a priest hearing confessions. He knows that life needs places like this restaurant, reliable and intimate as home but without home's predictability. You never know who might pull up on a motorcycle or amble in from the fringes. Harazi's eyes gather them all, watching, ever watching.

By midafternoon the men are restless, waiting to dip into crinkly bags of shiny narcotic khat leaves that will mellow them out until way past sunset. It's a ritual as common as sleeping or waking. Nearly everyone at the restaurant finishes lunch and chews khat, cheeks bulging, eyes calm, the world suddenly fixable.

"Khat makes you forget about things," says Harazi. "Khat gives you many ideas, but behind them is no planning."

He laughs.

Wheels spin through gravel; a tribal leader in an SUV arrives in the parking lot, draped by dust and a well-armed entourage. Diners pause. No shots fired. Spoons resume. The leader, kissing cheeks, slapping backs, finds a seat.

"Look at that," Harazi says, " Barack Obama doesn't have as many bodyguards."

"How many employees do you have?" someone asks.

Harazi looks around and whispers.

"One hundred, but if the taxman comes, only 20."

The men around him smile. No sin in cheating the taxman.

"You're doing more for the economy than 10 professors put together," says another man.

"Yes," says Harazi, sighing, "but the country doesn't appreciate this."

More smiles.

Two boys with bags of garbage slung over their shoulders dodge taxis and trucks. The smaller of them is scared and his friend leads him to an alley, where he can smell but not taste the simmering food, and watch men with money roll away behind windows that make the world seem prettier than it is.

"The prophet said, I will be fair and just in the things I can control," says Harazi, "but please don't blame me for the things I can't do anything about."

It bothers him, the way this country of 23 million people is going. Good news always happens someplace else; too many men are taking and too few giving. But a dour soul does not bring customers back. He talks of partnerships and expansion, of clever, cheerful dreams that live and die in the span of seconds.

"If you want to open a restaurant in Washington or New York, let me know and I will come and lend experience."

He stands. The crowd thins. Waiters sponge tables, beggars prowl. Three wives and 18 children wait. Tomorrow, it will happen again: eggs cracking and fires rising in a restaurant at the edge of town.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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