Saad’s Halal: The Torpedo

I must admit that I have a bit of bias towards Saad’s, which is a large part of the reason I am addressing it first. I have to get it out of the way to ensure total objectivity, as I have a history with Saad’s, and reviewing their falafel during/after the rest of the series would only unfairly skew my reviews.

It all started senior year of college. Though I attended Haverford College in the suburbs, my excursions into Philadelphia were generally artificial: some trendy new band playing at the Electric Factory, a walk around Rittenhouse perhaps. But during winter break of my senior year, I stayed with a friend who was living in West Philadelphia. It was during my first experience living in any large city that I was first introduced to Saad’s Halal. All it took was that first sandwich to turn me into a regular, and in the two weeks that I stayed in the city I made friends with Saad, and had my first “usual”: falafel sandwich on whole wheat with hummus and hot sauce.

Personally, I call the Saad’s sandwich “The Torpedo,” and one look at the picture should explain it. It is the densest falafel sandwich I have ever encountered, experiences in Palestine included. They pack the sandwich with pickles, tabouleh, hummus, tomatoes, tahini sauce, etc, and is one of the only establishments I have ever frequented which allow you to have it Palestinian/Lebanese-style: french fries inside the sandwich. It comes rolled up in a flat pita, and at the price of $4.50 a sandwich, you can’t really compete with the amount of food you receive. The falafel is spiced to perfection with coriander, cumin, and a little bite from some jalapeño. After you are finished eating, you will feel filled to capacity. I’ve heard “pregnant” used to describe the feeling…

The sandwich isn’t perfect though, and if there is one area that is lacking, it is the falafel itself. The restaurant is extremely popular and much of the falafel is made that morning, so when you order the sandwich the falafel balls are distinctly lacking in the “crisp” that is so integral to the experience. If you are lucky in your timing, and arrive right after the lunchtime rush when the restaurant is out of all their morning stock, they will fry up your falafel fresh and the experience is pure euphoria.

The sandwich also undergoes an end-game collapse, in which the last 3-4 bites are messy, soaked in tahini sauce, and difficult to eat with your hands without looking like you are a newborn baby. Though this situation is mitigated with the addition of fries to the equation: the starch soaks up all the errant sauces. All in all, you can’t beat the Saad’s sandwich, a classic of west Philly.

Later this week I will venture from my immediate geography, cross the Schuylkill and head south to Al-Zaytouna on 9th and Christian.


A New Series on Falafel

Memories of “place” are rooted in our senses, the filter through which our minds record and interact with the world. In particular, the sensory overload of food can jolt a person into remembering even the dullest minutiae from another life. The climatic scene of Pixar’s Ratatouille, for example, shows the insurmountably cantankerous food critic remembering a loving memory of his mother upon tasting the dish prepared by the protagonist.

Growing up in the Palestinian Occupied Territories made falafel an every day occurrence. In my village of Al-Mezra Al-Sherkia, there is a vendor right across the street, meaning that at my whim I had access to fresh falafel. Fried on the spot, lightly dusted with sumac, salt and sesame seeds, steam is visible rising off the crunchy surface. It comes stuffed in a pocket pita with all manner of condiments: pickled turnips, onions, tahini sauce, cucumbers, red pepper paste… the list goes on, as we are a fan of sandwich accoutrement where I am from. Even french fries are stuffed into the sandwich, rather than suffer having them on the side.

I live in Philadelphia now, not the West Bank, and if represented on a Venn diagram, the sensory overlap between the two would look much like the eye of a needle. That is to say, not very large at all. Food sits in that tiny overlap, taking me back to distant memories eating falafel in the summer on the sidewalk, watching men and women dance debka at my cousin’s wedding. Falafel is not merely a niche street food that I enjoy for sustenance and a taste of the “exotic.” It is a way through which I experience and live my cultural heritage and my memories of home.

After listening to my constant critiques of every falafel sandwich I come across, Miranda suggested I write about them. So, I have decided to start a new series on Al-Bustan’s blog, where I will try the falafel sandwiches at different restaurants across Philadelphia and write about each of them in a post, offering meticulous, yet informed critique. The only factor that will eliminate a falafel joint from consideration is if it is an established chain. Sorry Maoz/Falafel Factory, homegrown Philly-fare only. If you have a suggestion, please, leave a comment! My first post will focus on the standard fare for falafel in West Philadelphia: Saad’s Halal at 45th and Walnut. Stay tuned, Philly.

One more reflection…

Oh boy, I completely forgot to include an excerpt from a wonderful nature teen poet, Chelsea Ann Smith, who participated this summer. This is based off of an exercise we did that examined the experience of rebuilding by first examining the appreciation of life through the writing of an obituary. Here is her piece:

My full name was Landscape, but people often called me anything from nature, trees, oceans, sea, fish or grass. I was everything and have always here, but I have been dying since I have been born. These humans that I allow to use me have abused me. They have been killing me slowly since the beginning.

I was never born, I didn’t come from someone or somewhere, I was the start and I started everywhere in all the possibilities of thoughts at the same exact second. Which is a hard thing for you to grasp. Life is lonely with no parents and no siblings and on one on my intelligent level. Being the smarter around can bring you down.

My landscape is full of caring and you as I am also there for my fellow humans and also for myself. I like to help, put out that helping hand, its my hobby; lights me up inside. My light fades thought, when these humans bring me down, when you destroy my surface with trash and smoke and oil.

The service for me is held everyday, all day. I am dead and I am stilling dying You don’t realize it but you are part of the reason. No one really shows a helping face in honor of me, at the few that do, I would like to thank you.

Here is a link to catch these amazing performances… Thanks again everyone for your time and support of these great young individual poets and artists!

**She is the young lady to the right of this group photo…

Reflections from Camp

Good evening Al-Bustan followers, I hope this blog finds you all at peace. Since camp, I have been busy planning some new things for Al-Bustan as well as moving onto the next stage of my life. Now that I have caught my breath, I wanted to share with you my reflections of camp this past summer.

The beginning of camp was hectic as I was coming back into the country from practicing my own writing as well as placing myself into the position that I was going to be asking the campers. This position was to ask the group of teen campers to share with me what in their lives do they define as broken and how as a community of people, do we rebuild. And of course, through the use of poetry. The range of responses were amazing and the level of trust that these amazing young adults placed in me is a gift that I will protect in my heart forever.

Here are some lines from two of our poets:

“Love surrounds the air

even at night when you raise your hands to say the prayer
prayers carries by angels to God Almighty “

by: Ayesha Haroon


I sat on beauty’s shoulder

And she cried
Her tears slid down her down her soft pink cheeks
I climb inside.
What did I see?
A broken heart
Left not to trust again.
Being sold the same beautiful lie of being called the apple of an eye.
Or they’ll always be there
But instead they leave you with a broken heart”

by: Amira Dublin

Can you see why I believed in them?

After battling their way through confidence issues regarding their actual writing, our next obstacle was having the teens prepare for the performance. Because of the limited time I had with them, we had a total of 2 hours to prepare for the actual performance night. I felt like I was a character in a video game that keeps running into a wall because I don’t know what direction to go next. Once the teens began to believe in their pieces, they began to doubt their ability to perform for such a large audience and then back again to not believing in themselves.

I know as an adult, a parent, we tend to see things in our youth that they can’t even begin to imagine seeing in themselves, if they ever do. But when these teens provided me with the lines they did for their poems, I had no choice to believe in their ability to rise above. This all sounds anti-climatic but I promise you that this performance meant as much to them as anything I have ever done. It was their “American Idol” type of moment. They came together in amazing ways to work on peer-editing their performance pieces as well as offering each other some pointers for their actual performance. They worked on body stance, pace, pause, eye contact and word emphasis. From here we did what this group liked to do the most… chill out and make fun of each other.

Three hours later, as the performance began and their time to go on stage approached, we took a break and headed out into the hallway outside of the performance room and did the “Al-Bustan” poetic chant. “Ew, I feel so good I, I knew I would, ew, I feel so good.” It might be silly in print but after 3 minutes they begin to hear the rhythm and we all can feel the confidence rise in the circle. Finally, we all knew they were ready.

Here is the link to the video for a portion of Ayesha’s performance (from 2:29 to 3:10 in the video), just copy and paste the link into your browser:

Overall, the noises from the audience, followed up by their applause made this moment incredibly special for the teens. It made it special for me to see them develop and grow over a few short days. I hope and pray that we all have the opportunity to work together again, if not next year at camp, then maybe somewhere in between.

Thank you for lending me your time and ear and have a great weekend!

An aesthete explains

I work for an arts education organization so you would think the importance of art would be clear to me and yet when I am confronted with someone who doesn’t see the value in creative expression I am speechless, unable to defend my belief that art can be powerful. As the child of two artists I was raised on a diet of Piero della Francesca with a side of Robert Smithson and spent a large chunk of my childhood surrounded by art whether in galleries or in my parents’ studios. However this unique upbringing left me unprepared for a pervasive misunderstanding of art and its relevance to daily life. As I grew up, I was constantly having to defend art’s value and importance to society. Yet, I had trouble conveying my intrinsic love of art. So, whenever I heard a story of art affecting social change, I stored it away for the next inevitable encounter with a Philistine. Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din’s work in Morocco is just such a story, one that beautifully demonstrates the great value of art.

On a Fulbright fellowship, Mohi-Ud-Din spent a year in Morocco introducing street children, orphans, and drug addicts in Kenitra, Tangier, and Casablanca to film, photography, and music through workshops. Mohi-Ud-Din gave these children, who left broken households for a life on the streets, a means and forum to express themselves. Having experienced great hardship and missed out on their childhood and an education, these children needed a way to share their stories. Under his guidance, the kids wrote, directed, acted in, and shot 17 short narrative, documentary, and animated films.

During a summer I spent in Morocco, I learned that there are thousands of children, typically aged 11-17, who have left broken homes and made a life on the streets of major urban centers throughout Morocco. Salé (Rabat’s sister city) responded to the great number of children roaming its streets with L’Ecole du Cirque (The Circus School), which offers street children a typical state-regulated curriculum with optional instruction in circus arts. The school utilizes the excitement of dance, gymnastics, the trapeze, and the tight rope to entice these children to return to school, “resocializing” them to eventually return to living with their families if possible. The school’s students have performed as a troupe throughout Morocco and some have even gone on to join circuses around the world. This phenomenon of children living in the streets is not limited to Salé, and neither is the use of arts to combat it.

Convinced that music and art education could empower these children “to creatively express what they have inside of them, all these issues that they have to deal with” Mohi-Ud-Din exposed the children to art-making. Armed with artistic and technical skills, his students began to tell their stories through pictures, stories, and films. The children used their new found voice to address the many issues they face including poverty, broken families, lack of father figures, and drugs. While many of the films have a serious tone, others are more whimsical, comedic pieces.

When Mohi-Ud-Din screened the films at a cinema in Tangier in front of an audience of 300, including his students, their reactions reaffirmed his intentions for the program. He noted that the students “were beaming with happiness. They were beaming with pride and confidence.” Filmmaking had freed them to share their stories, hopes, and dreams with others.

While the goal of his project may have been to make a difference in the lives of these children, art lives on beyond its creator. As a conduit for understanding and communication, art connects people who otherwise wouldn’t understand each other or even come into contact. Mohi-Ud-Din’s work in Morocco reminds us that though we can never fully understand someone else’s experiences, art, as the most intimate expression of a person’s character, may be the closest we get to seeing the world from another perspective. The hardship that these children have undergone at such a young age is incomprehensible but their films allow us to briefly walk in their shoes.

You can bear witness to these children’s stories this week and next at the 2011 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Mohi-Ud-Din has partnered with Bright Light Theatre Company to produce All Places From Here, a multimedia performance based on the stories these children told through music, photography and film.

The Loading Dock, 1236 Frankford Ave., 8 p.m., through Sept. 17, $17. Tickets here.

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