Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways. –Stephen Vincent Benét
Greetings from Westport, Connecticut! My aunt and I are here for a wedding and we woke up on Friday, bleary eyed from having gotten to sleep at two a.m. and awoken by housekeeping pounding on the door at nine. Thinking we were in a cute, walkable part of town—how would we know otherwise, we Uber-ed in from the airport in the middle of the night—we went for a walk in search of coffee.
After quite a bit of searching, we settled for what everybody suggested…Dunkin’ Donuts. As we approached the strip mall just passed our hotel, next to South Beach Tan and before Dunkin’ Donuts, we read in blue lettering: Layla’s Falafel.
“Chris, they might have coffee! Let’s try…”
We went in and a jolly man, who had the air of not knowing how to sit still, greeted us.
“Do you have coffee?” I asked.
“Turkish coffee?” He asked with a slight Arabic-accented-East Coast-English.
“Of course,” he bellowed with a smile, “sit down.”
We sat and watched the comings and goings of the slow fast-food joint. By this time, it was the lunch crowd and we were starting to get hungry so I went to look at the food offerings. He was helping a young girl, she told him in Arabic that she thought I needed help. In Arabic he responded to her that I was a regular. I had never been to the place—or Connecticut—in my life, I did not know this man.
I looked at the food in the display case and he joined me. I asked him in Arabic if he could heat up the manooshay (singular form of manaeesh, the thyme-spice blend (called za’atar) atop flatbread).
“Chameeyay?” He asked, which means lady from Damascus. I said yes and he touched his hand to his head, “ahla w sahla” (welcome). The touching of the hand to the head means he would metaphorically put me on his head, like a crown, it is a sign of hospitality and respect.
Swamped with customers he asked, “Do you know how to make ahwe (coffee)?”
“Yes.” I responded.
“You come make it.” He motioned for me to come to the kitchen.
I twisted my hair and secured it with a clip. I was handed a dallah (stovetop Arabic coffee pot), I filled it with water and added a bit of sugar, and balanced its small base on the commercial burner.
The woman working in the back wanted to help. Rabia was from Morocco. “But don’t be afraid!” She said with a huge smile, “Layla taught me how to make everything, even kibbeh.” Kibbeh are Levantine meat pies that are very labor-intensive.
I made the coffee and tried small talk with the dishwasher in Arabic. He smiled at me and told me, “I’m Porta Rican, aldo evry-wun tinks I’m Arabian.”
Rabia and I searched high and low for demitasses and couldn’t find them. She said she couldn’t ask Dino during the lunch rush. Almost intuitively, he yelled out from the register that the cups might be downstairs. She put down the paper soup cups she had pulled out as a backup and I asked her if I should go with her downstairs.
“No no no,” She patted my arm. I followed anyways. We fished through boxes of to-go boxes and napkins until we found a box of demitasses.
Upstairs I found my aunt patiently waiting. I served the coffee and that was the beginning of a three-hour meal.
We started with the strong Arabic coffee alongside the manaeesh.
When we got our demitasses refilled we were also each handed a piece of baklava. We nibbled and sipped, chatted and enjoyed. Some piping hot falafel with sesame dipping sauce appeared. Next, we were brought a spicy spinach and chickpea dish. Dino asked over the counter if we would like some chicken shawarma. “Just a little one,” he motioned with very Levantine hand gestures. We were brought a second table and a platter with tabouli (Levantine parsley salad), hummus, garlic dip, pickles, and a chicken shawarma wrap.
At this second table Saul and a basket of freshly fried French fries joined us. Saul is on his sixth post-retirement job, hangs out at Layla’s every day, and helps with catering jobs.
The flavors and the people were fantastic. We sat back, pleasantly stuffed, and were thankful we had gone in search of Dunkin’ Donuts.
**This column originally appeared in The Cedar Street Times on 2 November 2018