Ali El Sayed’s dark blue beret lists rakishly atop his head. His white cook’s tunic barely covers his broad girth. He is a big man, a happy man and a loud one as he deftly navigates benches and tables in his tiny, colorful Egyptian cafe. The heavy scent of pungent spices fills the air. Yellowed family photos and artifacts of his North African culture festoon the walls as El Sayed dishes out comedy and serves a plate of sizzling something to a pair of amorous evening patrons.
“Here we go, baby! Some octopus. Take that!”
He steps back, like a middle-aged magician, pleased at the culinary creation. He’s slipped some “hanky panky” in it, he jokes, to ramp up the table’s romance. Back in Egypt, from where he emigrated many years ago, he was a pesticide chemist. Now he’s a chef and owner of the Kabab Cafe, and more -- sort of a sage of Steinway Street, a bittersweet lover of the American dream, and an icon of Queens’ immigrant communities as profiled in a new multimedia exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art.
The exhibit is based on the book “Crossing the Blvd: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America.” The book is filled with the first-person narratives of El Sayed and 78 other immigrants living in the New York borough that is the United States’ most ethnically diverse locality. The exhibit runs through March 14.
Immigrant life in Queens, as told in the intimate, rich, comic, ironic and sad stories of the refugee and immigrant masses, is the life of people so often seen but not heard in America’s big cities, except in places where their critical mass has rewoven the nation’s ethnic fabric.
“I came here, I was a chemist and a communist. Now I’m a chef and a miserable capitalist,” El Sayed told the book’s authors. “It didn’t matter I had a college degree. I was an immigrant, so I got a job as a dishwasher. By the end of the year, I was a chef. I knew I was never going to be a rich man so I said, ‘Let me do something I really like.’ I went to the chef’s program at the Culinary Arts Institute. I was so happy to do something very far from the disastrous business of killing insects and animals and people. I love people! I don’t want to kill them. I want to feed them.”
Archie Bunker doesn’t live here anymore -- not in the Queens of “Crossing the Blvd.” Queens today, with 100 nationalities and 138 languages among its 2 million people, is a cultural kaleidoscope where Bhutanese rub shoulders with Ecuadoreans, where Nigerians coexist with Tajiks. New enclaves have overtaken the Irish, Italian and German ones of old. Commercial strips like Steinway Street (named for an old Steinway piano factory there) now house shops owned by Latinos and Arabs, Asians and Africans.
What links them all is the desperation and desire that brought them here. As one immigrant says, “America can do without you, but you can’t do without America.”
The book takes its title from Queens Boulevard, a 12-lane thoroughfare that symbolizes the dangers and obstacles that immigrants face, not least of which are the routine traffic deaths that have made this boulevard notorious. A husband-and-wife team of documentary artists, Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, produced the book and exhibit. She is an actress and oral historian who teaches at New York University. He is a photographer and writer specializing in innovative book design who teaches at the State University of New York at Purchase. They live in Queens amid the waves of human movement into and out of the borough. And as artists who don’t create within the mainstream, they share with their subjects the mentality of being different.
“We feel like we’re outsiders, like we’re aliens, not hooked into the mainstream,” Lehrer says.
From 1999 to 2002, Lehrer, 48, and Sloan, 47, traveled through the immigrants’ lives. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks became an integral part of their work, especially in chronicling the lives of Arab Muslims. The authors recorded immigrant stories, photographed their world, learned the prized possessions with which they fled their homelands. They focused on the “new immigrants,” those who benefited from the 1965 reform of U.S. immigration laws that once gave preference to people from Western Europe. The lifting of that restriction opened the door to immigrants worldwide.
Some of them came through support networks, others “arrived like shrapnel flung from distant wars often fueled by American foreign policy,” the authors write. But for such spare references, the book is largely nonpolitical and nonideological. The narratives, the authors say simply, often “reveal the human toll wrought by the machinations of post-colonial empires, played out in the hot zones of a Cold- and post-Cold War world.”
There is Bovic Antosi of Congo, imprisoned in his country after the ouster of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then held in detention by the INS for two years upon entry into the United States. There is Shekaiba Wakili, an Afghan immigrant who returned to her country to find her mother, Sultana Wakili, from whom she was separated through divorce and war. And Ana Maria Asuncion of the Philippines, who endured rape at the hands of her own U.S. immigration lawyer.
The narratives are engaging, especially the one about the raging bull. The bull was to have been the showpiece of a rodeo staged by two Mexican immigrant brothers, Lazaro and Juan Navarro, hoping to bring a bit of home to their new community. But the bull got away. Its flight is told in the book from the perspective of the Mexican, Indian, Ecuadorean and American-born witnesses who saw the beast rampage through the streets of Queens and meet its bloody end in a police fusillade.
The stories are so different, and yet many of the immigrants’ lives are so similar.
“Every single immigrant has similar problems,” says Morshed Alam, a 1984 Bangladeshi immigrant, a chemical engineer and founder of the New American Democratic Club, based in Queens. “They have a money problem. They have a public education problem. They have a job problem. They have a health problem.”
And Alam should know -- not only from his own experience, but from those of the 11 relatives he’s supporting, not to mention the six more who’ve obtained visas and also will be immigrating. The immigrant struggle is the basis of Alam’s politics. The only solution, he says, is for immigrants to form coalitions across their ethnic groups. It works, he says. With coalition support, he has twice served on the New York City school board.