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Out of the Ashes 

A fire claims the Banks Street Mona's Cafe, but owners Nahid Monem and Karim Taha are ready to rebuild.

Outside the charred remains of Mona's Cafe and Deli on Banks Street, owner Nahid "Nick" Monem is sitting on a milk crate, recalling how he emigrated to the United States from his native Palestine at age 15. "Everybody wants to come to America," Monem says, as flies buzz in and out of his ruined grocery. "It's a dream country."

For years, Monem and his brother-in-law and business partner, Karim Taha, embodied that dream. Long hours of work, ingenuity and patience culminated in a small chain of thriving Middle Eastern grocery/eateries in the New Orleans area; today, Monem and Taha can afford to provide well for their families and employ several of their friends and relatives.

Monem's dream is still intact, but on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, Mona's, like other Middle Eastern businesses in New Orleans and across the country, began receiving bomb threats and other disturbing phone calls. "I didn't think they were serious," Monem says.

These days, Monem is taking everything seriously. Early in the morning on Sunday, Nov. 25, a fire started in a trash can on the porch of the Banks Street cafe, Mona's flagship location. The blaze crept up a wall and swept through the attic, quickly engaging the entire building: restaurant, grocery store, bakery. It took nearly 70 firefighters more than four hours to extinguish it.

By a little after 8 a.m., all that remained was a smoldering shell of the business that Monem began as a struggling pita bread bakery in 1987. The New Orleans Fire Department has classified the origin of the blaze as "undetermined," with fire officials saying it could have been started by something as innocuous as a cigarette tossed into the garbage can sometime after 4 a.m.

Monem believes it was deliberately set. When asked about the irony of facing the type of carnage that he had left Palestine to avoid, the 38-year-old pauses for a moment and shakes his head. "This is nothing, really," Monem says, "compared to back there."

After Israeli troops defeated Arab armies in the Six Day War of 1967, Palestinian rebels led by Yasser Arafat began striking in earnest against Israel and its citizens in a bloody fight for an independent Palestinian state. The land rich in beauty, culture and history remains a battleground, with both sides claiming divine sovereignty.

In 1972, Monem's father, Abdel-Aziz Monem, came to America. He was in his early 50s, and moved to Miami from the village of Beit Anan outside Jerusalem. Monem's mother, Sakienah, then 37, accompanied her husband to America to help him establish a household, then returned to Beit Anan and their eight children.

The elder Monem moved from Florida to Maryland and eventually to Louisiana. Monem's brother soon joined their father in America. Monem's mother and the rest of his family trickled across the ocean by degrees, with Monem arriving in the United States on New Year's Day 1979.

"They moved here, I guess, for a better life," says Monem, describing his now-deceased father as an opportunity-seeker who lived by the philosophy that "if things aren't going well, try somewhere else." And thanks to an uncle already living in the United States, the family had the opportunity to emigrate from their homeland.

"Basic human rights -- they're not there at all," says Karim Taha, who is also from Beit Anan and is married to Monem's sister, Tahani. Taha moved to the United States in 1987. "A person who lives in the Middle East lives in a very bad situation. The government doesn't care about the people; a lot of people will do whatever it takes to leave the country.

"There's too much corruption, violence, no human rights; nobody cares about you. You have no future; even if you go to college and graduate, there is no job," he says.

Monem agrees. "Both sides are suffering. Both sides want peace."

As a youth, Monem was determined to earn money for his family. His father in America, he quit school after seventh grade; at the time, even the best students were abandoning school in favor of jobs. Monem worked briefly as a dishwasher in a restaurant, then got a job in a pita bread bakery.

The teenager spent his days delivering pita by foot, pushing a cart around to hotels and restaurants. When his father found out Monem had quit school, he became angry and sent for his son. "He said he wanted me over here with him."

Monem skipped eighth grade and entered a Baltimore high school. Though the teen was used to hard work, he found ninth grade a challenge. He hadn't attended school in years, and spoke little English. "They gave me extra work so I could catch up. I went to an English teacher after school every day," recalls Monem, who graduated with a B average.

After high school, Monem worked full time at a Baltimore sandwich shop that his brother owned. When his brother moved to the New Orleans area, Monem took over the store.

By 1983, Monem was married and his father and older brother were both living outside New Orleans and working in a tiny grocery his father bought, Jewel's Food Store on Magazine Street. They persuaded Monem and his then-wife to join them. "As soon as I came down here it rained for about 40 straight days. I hated it. It was in the middle of the summer and it was muggy. I lasted three months and moved back to Baltimore."

Monem bounced back and forth from Baltimore to New Orleans over the next four years. By 1987, his daughter Nydia was a toddler and he and his wife were going through a divorce. He was living in Baltimore, and his family persuaded him to start over in New Orleans. "My brother said there was a pita bread bakery available. He said, 'Come down here and give it a shot.'"

The pita bread bakery was a converted auto repair shop on Banks Street whose previous owners had been unable to keep the business alive. "Nobody really knew what pita bread was down here at the time," Monem says.

In the store, named the Middle East Bakery, Monem made pita by hand using the same type of antiquated equipment he had used as a boy working in a Palestinian pita bakery. "I was doing everything," he says. "The employees used to make more than I did." But he had few customers.

"People down South didn't know about pita bread," he says. "At times I was going to close it, but my father stood behind me the whole time. He said, 'Wait. Things will get better.' He would come every Friday to help me. He was older, in his 60s, and he encouraged me to stick with it."

Also helping was Taha, who had recently moved to New Orleans with his new bride. Like Monem, he worked long hours, splitting his time between the Middle East Bakery and Jewel's.

The bakery struggled for lack of customers, and Monem knew he had to get the word out. He sat down with the phone book and began cold-calling people with Middle Eastern names. He would introduce himself, tell them about his pita bakery, and offer home delivery. Before long, Monem had built up a delivery route that took him all around the New Orleans area. "I got to know the whole Middle Eastern community," he says.

At the time, only two grocery stores in the area sold Middle Eastern foods, and Monem saw an opportunity. "In 1990, I said, 'Since we have the clientele for the bread, we might as well start a grocery.'" The Daily Pita Bread Bakery and Grocery opened on Banks Street, and Monem began including grocery delivery to the families who bought his bread.

The shop started thriving, and Taha became Monem's partner in 1991. "Everybody started coming to the grocery store, and then we stopped delivery altogether. Then, in the middle of 1992, we started to think about opening a restaurant."

Monem had experience running a sandwich shop. At first, his menu included shrimp and roast beef po-boys, with a couple of Middle Eastern items -- hummus and falafel -- included almost as an afterthought. Many of Monem's customers were Loyola and Tulane students, and they gravitated to the then-little-known Middle Eastern foods.

"A lot of them came from New York, where falafel and hummus were known," Monem says. "Eventually people started asking for baba ghanoush, and we started selling baba ghanoush."

Monem phased out the po-boys; he and Taha decided to turn the cafe into a full Middle Eastern restaurant, then called American Middle East. In 1993, they renamed it Mona's after a favorite customer whose first name resembled Monem's surname. Both The Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly gave the tiny Mona's glowing reviews, and people began lining up outside the shop. "Business continued, and it was excellent," Monem says.

They expanded the porch and added more tables, and in 1995 bought the building and renovated it one section at a time. By the end of one year, they had a whole new place, and their eclectic customer base continued to grow. "In this place, we constantly have different people," Monem says. "At lunchtime we get people in suits; after lunch we get hippie types with earrings and tattoos, and at dinnertime you see doctors in their green scrubs coming in, and people from the neighborhood."

In the spring of 2000, Monem and Taha opened a second Mona's location on Hessmer Avenue in Metairie. With sumptuous tables and chairs, abundant parking and a carpeted dining room, it barely resembled the original.

In quick succession, three more Mona's sprang up: one on Calhoun Street behind Tulane in September 2000; one on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny the following May; and one Uptown on Magazine Street last month. Like the Metairie Mona's -- which Taha and Monem closed in March after disagreements with the landlord -- the three new eateries are polished and professional, a far cry from the funky Mid-City version.

But it was the Banks Street location that remained the sentimental favorite among New Orleanians. Its grocery drew steady customers seeking authentic Middle Eastern foods, and its bakery supplied pita bread for the other three Mona's locations, plus other area restaurants and businesses. Customers continued to flock to the quirky cafe with its wobbly tables, colorful Palestinian art, oil-stained floor and thick plastic strips in lieu of a door.

Today, all that can be salvaged from the cafe is a few pieces of pita-making equipment.

Taha is worried. He and Monem have to find a new place to bake their bread -- quickly. "A lot of businesses depend on us," Taha says.

Both of them are standing outside the charred Banks Street building, where the air is thick with a strong burnt smell mixed with the stench of rotten food. A huge Dumpster stands next to the grocery, brimming with smoke- and fire-damaged groceries that are quickly turning rancid. Hordes of flies buzz in and out of the items, labeled in both Arabic and English: sooty jars of pepperoncini and Moroccan sardines; blackened tins of chick peas, fava beans and artichoke hearts; scorched boxes of tea.

People have stolen into the fire-ravaged building at night to grab anything that might be of value, such as bottles of olive oil and singed cigarette packs. "Can you believe this?" Monem asks.

Both Taha and Monem return to the site every day since the fire, and Monem is constantly on his cell phone, talking to the health inspectors, the federal Food and Drug Administration, the fire department, insurance adjusters -- all the entities he suddenly has to deal with since Nov. 25.

For the past few days, Monem's goal has been to get the garbage-collection company to Banks Street to haul the trash away. He's worried about attracting rats and vermin and stinking up the area. "I don't want the smell to go around the neighborhood," Monem says, dialing again. (The company arrives later that evening.) When he gets off the phone, he and Taha talk about potential sites for a temporary bakery. Taha has learned of a muffuletta bakery that might be able to share its space. "I'll call them," Monem says.

Lying on the charred remains of the front porch are bunches of flowers laid there by supporters. A fresh bouquet of yellow and cream roses, sent anonymously, provides a bright spot on a soot-blackened ledge.

Monem and Taha have learned in recent days how loyal their customers are. "People have left flowers, people have offered donations, we've been getting cards," Monem says. "A musician stopped by and offered to help put together a benefit. We said no, insurance will take care of it, and we'll be okay."

Throughout the day, people walk up to him and Taha, offering their sympathies and asking if they are going to rebuild. "Do you have to ask that question, really?" Monem answers with a smile. Taha predicts it will take about four months before the new Banks Street Mona's is re-opened for business. "All we need is our customers' support when we open back up," he says.

Today, that support is evident. People drive by and slow down, calling out words of encouragement through open car windows.

"I opened a card today and I was really touched to see it had a $20 check in it," Monem says. The card read: "I hope that you will not become discouraged by the hateful words and actions taken against you. Please know there are many people in our neighborhood who are proud to have you as neighbors."

"That card is going to hang in the new restaurant, along with the check maybe," Monem says. "I'm planning to frame it."

Although the NOFD has ruled the cause of the blaze as "undetermined," Monem and Taha believe it was arson, though they stop short of guessing a motive. And on this day in Mid-City, their suspicions are soon bolstered. A neighbor, Martha Lundy, approaches, leaning heavily on a cane. She has crossed Banks Street to let them know how upset she is about the fire.

"It just brought tears to my eyes," Lundy tells them. "I just stood there and watched it burn and there was nothing I could do."

Then she adds that she was awakened around 4 a.m. by a strong, strange odor. "I was lying in my bed and I smelled lighter fluid, like you'd use to light a grill. It came through the window. I thought, 'Who is crazy enough to be lighting a grill at this time of the morning?' Then I saw a brightness coming through the window and I said, 'Oh Lord, that's a fire.'" Landry says she got out of bed, looked out her window and saw flames pouring out of the restaurant.

Monem looks up. "Did you see anyone?"

She did not. "I felt bad. I thought if I would have gotten up when I smelled it, I could have seen someone."

Lundy shakes her head and turns toward her home. "There are cruel people in this world," she says in parting. "It doesn't make sense. God made this world big enough for everybody to enjoy."

click to enlarge The fire department has ruled the cause of the Mona's Cafe fire 'undetermined,' but Karim Taha and Nahid Monem both believe it was arson. Their view is supported when a neighbor approaches them, saying she was awakened at 4 a.m. by the strong smell of lighter fluid. - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • The fire department has ruled the cause of the Mona's Cafe fire 'undetermined,' but Karim Taha and Nahid Monem both believe it was arson. Their view is supported when a neighbor approaches them, saying she was awakened at 4 a.m. by the strong smell of lighter fluid.
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