Mustafa can’t read Arabic. A Kurdish Turk from Ankara, the capital of Turkey, where more than 90 percent of citizens call themselves Muslim, it’s almost a given that he considers himself the same. But the nine-year resident of the U.S. and co-owner of Café Istanbul in Decatur is far from fanatical about his religion. He abstains from pork, mostly because disdain for it is so ingrained in his culture, not because he really thinks it unclean. He says all the food at his restaurant is halal. In Arabic, the word means “permissible,” but it has come to describe an Islamic food classification similar to Jewish kosher laws. He serves it not because he believes it imbues his restaurant with holiness. It’s enough for him that it brings in profits from the consumers who want their food that way.
We had come to research the halal phenomenon as a business story for my job. Any city’s ability to attract international business will be directly correlated to its ability to make foreign businesspeople feel at home, and we wanted to investigate the accessibility of halal food in Atlanta. Café Istanbul is close to the office, and it was rated by a halal Web site as adhering to the dietary restrictions on at least some level. The food is amazing, and the atmosphere is top-notch Mediterranean. Customers can choose normal, Western-style tables or opt for a more exotic experience: reclining on posh cushions at low tables throughout two other exotically decorated rooms. Not ones for the status quo, my co-worker, Katy and I plopped down on cushions in the corner in a room with tufted, plum-colored silk covering the ceilings and half-walls and columns separating this middle section from the other two rooms.
After feasting on kebabs and other Turkish dishes, I approached Mustafa and dropped the name of a guy I met at a Turkish event a few months back. He runs a Turkish cultural association in town and told me he knew the owners of Café Istanbul, two brothers who were Turks but Kurdish in ethnicity. Introducing myself, I asked Mustafa to confirm what I’ve heard and told him that we wanted an interview once he finished cleaning a mess left by a party of 10 next to us. He was probably glad they were gone. At first hesitant to puff the hookah, one of the girls persuaded herself to partake by muttering, It's an authentic cultural experience, over and over again.
A few questions in, it was obvious from the rapid-fire intensity of his speech that Mustafa was a passionate guy. He was fiery, and not because he had just demonstrated to the big party how to really suck in and exhale the hookah's flavored tobacco smoke. He had an uncanny way of exuding intensity while maintaining a cheerful disposition, even as he volunteered information about the grave situation underway in his home country. The PKK, a Kurdish rebel group classified by the U.S. as a terrorist group, is fighting against the Turkish government from outposts in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Mustafa seemed to think that such extremism gives peaceful, loyal Kurds like him a bad name in their native country. “They might not like me very much right now, but I love Turkey,” he says.
Mustafa also loves the United States. He came three months after his brother Kamal, who while we spoke picked up Mustafa’s slack, scurrying around the restaurant wearing a shirt that said “Got Hookah?” Kamal had won the green card lottery, but Mustafa had to wait for his permanent resident status. When he first got here, he and Kamal worked in an Italian restaurant, but in a strange turn of fate, the brothers decided to visit a local Turkish restaurant they had heard about one Sunday night. The restaurant was closed, but when the Turkish owner came to the door and saw fellow Turks, he ushered them for some drinks and conversation. By the end of the night, Mustafa and Kamal somehow became the proud owners of part of the building that now houses Café Istanbul.
Now a proud green card carrier, Mustafa can’t believe it’s already been nine years since he first came to America. He already thinks a little bit like an American, and that’s gotten him into trouble on occasion. Some stricter Muslims have taken issue with his decision to serve beer—which is forbidden in Islam—in a supposedly halal restaurant. “It’s not their business,” he says, becoming defensive when I ask how he weighs his customers’ varying standards of piety. “If they want to be like that they shouldn’t come to this country. It’s a free country, you know?”
The back wall in Café Istanbul’s largest room is covered by a painted mural. A portrayal of a large, keyhole-shaped doorway topped with a pointed arch draws eyes to a central point in the wall. I ask if this represents the niche in the wall of a mosque that shows devotees the qibla, the direction of prayer toward Mecca. Impressed that I even knew about the qibla (which was originally pointed toward Jerusalem), Mustafa says it’s just a door, but it does have an interesting story. The mural’s painter, a friend, originally included an Arabic phrase above the painted doorway, Mustafa says, scribbling his best impression of Arabic on a pad. One day, a patron complained that Mustafa could not defame the Qur’an by having such words scribbled on the wall. Although Mustafa thought it was just a generic Arabic name, he asked his friend to come back and paint over it to avoid any more disputes.
The few fits of ire the restaurant has drawn pales next to the fanfare it regularly attracts, especially on the weekends. A lively night spot that features belly dancers, imported Turkish beer, knock-you-down Turkish coffee in a somewhat out-of-the-way Decatur location, Café Istanbul threatens to break fire codes every weekend. Mustafa shuffles back over to a table where he had been calculating figures earlier. Grabbing the guest list for the coming Friday, his index finger trails down the page, passing parties of 10 and 15. It stops on a party of 80. “And that’s just from 7 to 9 p.m.,” Mustafa says with pride. Halal or not, Turkish or American, these Kurds must be doing something right.