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by Jeffrey Kassel
WHEN I VISIT the old neighborhood to see my sister or visit my late mother’s house, I usually stop off at Essen Mart, a glatt-kosher heaven on Avenue M in Brooklyn. The neighborhood used to be secular, then Orthodox, now khasidic. Essen Mart makes wonderful soups, and I usually bring home a quart of mushroom-barley, sometimes chicken soup. In the summer, they make a mean schav, as good as my grandmother used to make. When I get home, I eat my fill, and save the quart plastic container for other uses, and put the plastic bag with the 7,845 other plastic bags I have saved. You never know.
I have a friend Milton, gay like me. He has a terrific voice, like an announcer on TV. In his youth, he worked for NBC out in California, and he also did some stints in acting, but he needed to make a living, and like most actors, he ended up not acting but finding other professional work.
Milton never lost the acting bug, and one of his joys is dubbing music as well as film and TV for his friends. He had given me some CDs and DVDs from HBO and PBS programs, as well as a couple of musical theater recordings. It took me about a month, but when I was ready to return them to Milton, and we had made plans to meet for dinner after attending a City Center afternoon, I grabbed the recordings, bagged them, and headed off.
Milton was happy to get the recordings back, as he always passed them on to other friends. This time, he was giving them to Mahmoud.
Mahmoud was born in Haifa in 1935, and when he was 13 his family fled the violence in Palestine and ended up with an uncle in Amman. Mahmoud always knew that he was different. Even though many men in his Arab culture had relationships with other men, Mahmoud never developed interest in women. He knew this would eventually get him into trouble in Jordan, so in 1957 he emigrated to New York.
MAHMOUD WAS WELL-EDUCATED and fluent in English. He became a real-estate agent, but he had another idea to help pay the bills and help his family back in Jordan as well. Mahmoud had many gay friends and some of them worked in what we used to call the ‘garment’ or ‘rag trade.’ Lots of friends worked in design, display, and fashion, and Mahmoud realized that the many women in his family back in Amman needed cloth to make loose clothing, as well as scarves, shoes, undergarments, and accessories. While Muslim women usually dress quite modestly when in public, at home they indulge in fashion. So twice a year, for about two months at a time, Mahmoud traveled to Jordan laden down with parcels to sell to his family. There was much more available in New York than in Amman, and over the course of fifty years, twice a year, Mahmoud supplied the women of Amman, and made a reasonable markup.
Mahmoud was glad to receive the recordings Milton had made for him. He put them under his entertainment unit, and focused on getting ready for his upcoming merchandise trip to Jordan. Mahmoud was now 80, and though still strong, he had health issues. Over the years he had cut back on how much he brought to sell. This year, he was checking four large suitcases with women’s garments. He packed the garments in paper and plastic bags that he had obtained over the previous year.
He flew on Alitalia to Rome, and then stayed on the same plane that proceeded to Amman. Mahmoud knew the routine. He had gone through Immigration, and customs, about a hundred times in the last fifty years. Customs was a breeze. He preferred to use his American passport, not his Jordanian passport, when entering and leaving Jordan, as government authorities gave super scrutiny to Jordanians. He breezed through Immigration. Then he had to collect his checked suitcases. As usual, he hired an attendant to load the suitcases onto a large hand-cart, and they headed for customs. He always had to head to the red line, for people with something to declare. He usually paid a small tax, about $15, and always tipped the customs agent another $15. Sometimes he gave the official something for his wife: a pair of shoes or a head scarf. Mahmoud had the attendant unload the luggage, place the baggage on the inspection counters, and open the baggage.
Mahmoud didn’t know this customs inspector. The inspector was paying slightly more attention to the merchandise. Mahmoud placed the American currency discreetly on the counter, and the official quietly pocketed it. Then it happened. The inspector had been politely opening bags and then closing them. He had seen merchandise packed in recycled Duane Reade drugstore bags, Pathmark Supermarket bags, Conway Department Store bags. Next, he pulled out a heavy-duty bright orange bag that said, "Essen Mart Glatt Kosher" (written in English and Yiddish) and "our specialty Simchas Bris Bar Mitzvah Chupah."
When the agent saw what looked like Hebrew lettering, he blew his whistle and two guards armed with sidearms instantly appeared. Mahmoud tried to explain to the inspector that he had no idea how he had gotten this Jewish bag, and he had no idea what it said. Needless to say, Mahmoud was detained, his goods confiscated, and the Essen Mart Glatt Kosher bag was carefully seized as evidence.
Mahmoud was lucky. He held American citizenship, and so the usual methods were not used by the Jordanian authorities to extract a confession of spying. They did try to bully him sexually. After all, Mahmoud entered Jordan with suitcases filled with women’s clothing. Interrogation revealed that Mahmoud had never married and had no children which, to the Jordanians, was prima facie a proof of homosexuality. They did threaten to call for a doctor to physically examine him, but Mahmoud was smart enough to insist that they call the American embassy.
What the Jordanians did next was call their counterpart at the Israeli embassy in Amman. The Shin Bet security agent at the Israeli Embassy was asked to examine the Essen Mart bag. Benji, of the Shin Bet, confirmed that the bag was partly written in the Hebrew alphabet, but he said he could not read it as it was not Hebrew, but Yiddish, and Benji explained that his family had come to Israel from Iraq, and he could not read Yiddish. Benji decided to call in his colleague in Shin Bet, Yossi, who came from a family that spoke Yiddish.
Yossi took one look at the Essen Mart bag, and fond memories came back. Yossi assured Benji that Essen Mart had terrific food. Every time Yossi visited Brooklyn to see his parents he stopped off at Essen Mart to pick up the best cholent he had ever eaten. Yossi did a “light” interrogation of Mahmoud, and concluded that Mahmoud was telling the truth, and was not a security risk to Israel, nor was he anyone the Jordanian authorities should detain.
THE JORDANIANS, nevertheless, decided to expel Mahmoud, confiscating his Jordanian passport, and permitting him to leave on his American passport. However, the American embassy needed to be contacted first. The liaison from the FBI at the embassy was called in. He discussed the case with his Jordanian and Israeli colleagues. He alerted the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, as well as Interpol. Neither agency had a file on Mahmoud, and the American embassy authorized Mahmoud’s return to New York.
The FBI agent scanned the Essen Mart bag into Mahmoud’s file, which now became part of the permanent record in Washington and Brussels. Washington, as well as the European Union, placed Mahmoud on the ‘no-fly’ list, and upon his return to New York Mahmoud found himself unable to travel again.
The story was picked up by The Forward on their website, and Essen Mart experienced a three-fold increase in business. They even added some new items to their menu, fuul and kibbe, as a show of support for Mahmoud. Even Al Jazeera did a feature, and because of all the publicity, and so many asking for Mahmoud, Essen Mart hired Mahmoud to be the host of a first in culinary history, their new Glatt Kosher and Halal Holy Land Café next door.
Jeffrey Kassel is a retired civil service worker who a founder of his union, the Public Employees Federation, and served as a union officer for twenty-eight years.