Ibrahim Al-Nashashibi's missions in life have been slowly revealed to him over many years. Born in Jerusalem in 1950, he left for Yugoslavia at the age of 17 to study medicine. He quickly realized that was a mistake. "I thought maybe Dad was right, I'm a lawyer," Al-Nashashibi says many years later in Fairouz, his friendly San Diego restaurant. He studied law in Beirut and Alexandria, earning his degree in 1972 and moving to Dubai to practice law.
Later, he came to the U.S. to get a PhD in international law. Instead, he wound up opening Fairouz in the mid-1980s. Al-Nashashibi's natural gift for hospitality engenders loyalty in his customers, some of whom have come to eat at Fairouz for decades. Even when the restaurant is packed, he stops to chat as if each customer is the most important person in the world.
When I visit my mother in San Diego, we like to eat at Fairouz. We're both impressed with the length and variety of the buffet. It has all the vegan dishes we both like, and the Greek lemon chicken soup and other meaty delicacies she enjoys. There must be nearly two dozen cold and hot salad or vegetable dishes. Little signs let you know which are vegetarian or vegan, which makes it ideal for a group of diners with mixed diets. Between the menu and buffet, you'll find all the Middle Eastern favorites, such as hummus, baba ganouj, lentil soup, grape leaves and chickpea dishes. Fairouz specializes in several lamb entrees. Lamb Mansaf, a Jerusalem dish, is slow-cooked with homemade yogurt. Lamb Awarma claims to be "Mom's special recipe," and features onions, garlic, cardamom and other spices. Vegetarians who want a special dish can try the vegetarian mousaka, which combines baked eggplant with vegetables, tomato sauce and creamy béchamel sauce. Wash it down with rosewater lemonade, iced tea with rosewater or yogurt drink with mint.
If you visit Fairouz Café, you'll sit surrounded by Al-Nashashibi's vibrant paintings. Yes, his gift of painting was revealed to him along the way, too.
A couple of years after opening Fairouz, he started painting in the restaurant between lunch and dinner. "People came in and said, 'I didn't know you were an artist.' I said, 'Me, neither.'"
Through the process of painting, he realized he was suffering from depression. He believes that creative work needs a flame, and his has been fuelled by depression and loss. When his wife of 21 years was in a coma, dying of cancer, Al-Nashashibi had a vision. "I was looking at her in a coma," he said, "when a muse came to me and said I had creative ideas, some in colours, some drawn in words." He started writing his first novel. "I believe in science," he said. "Science says everything in life has a positive and negative." He dearly misses his wife, whom he portrayed as the muse Elegance in a series of muse paintings. He showed me photos of her. An elegant and beautiful woman, indeed.
Al-Nashashibi first became inspired by muses while reading a book of Greek mythology. He was ten years old and had wondered where ideas came from. He painted "The Muses of Jerusalem" for a New York City United Nations exhibit in 1993. Since then, he's slowly been working his way through one muse at a time, according to inspiration. He paints them as faceless women to indicate our sameness inside, no matter our surface appearance.
My favorite Al-Nashashibi paintings are bright, fantastic renditions of old Jerusalem buildings. He uses ink and acrylic paint, with lots of metallic. The colours and aliveness make the historic city seem simultaneously old and new.
Al-Nashashibi has got quite a bit of attention for his art. He's been featured in several documentaries and exhibited as far away as Washington, DC and Japan. His art has made it into collections in Panama, Cairo and Moscow and many other places around the globe.
Despite his success and worldwide acclaim, Al-Nashashibi seems as though he couldn't be happier than when he personally delivers a Turkish coffee to your table and lingers for a minute to chat. When you visit San Diego, stop by the generic looking strip mall on Midway Drive to discover an oasis of art, warmth and delicious Middle Eastern food.
Fairouz is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Located at 3166 Midway Dr, San Diego, CA. Call 619-330-9763 if you have any questions. http://www.fairouzcafegallery.com/
Bergen is the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. Learn more at www.teresabergen.com