Building Community One Kebab, Dance & Word at a Time
To enter the restaurant Lina Abuadas and her husband Mohamid have owned in Hendersonville for 10 years is to enter another world. Mouth-watering aromas of exotic spices and slowly roasted lamb greet you, as does rhythmic music and a huge mural of a person leading a camel. Enticing photos of delicious Mediterranean dishes line the walls, along with Arabic words proclaiming friendship and welcome.
The bank of mirrors to the right have a dual purpose. During the breakfast and lunch rush, and for Friday dinner, they reflect light onto the happy diners gathered around the scattered tables. But after hours, those mirrors become part of an important ritual that builds self-confidence and community.
“We push all the tables and chairs out of the way, and the restaurant becomes one big dance floor,” Lina explained. “At the start of every class, each woman, big or small, young or old, stands in front of the mirror, gazes at herself, and says, ‘I am beautiful!’ We celebrate everyone, and then we dance.”
In the four years since she began teaching the classes, over a thousand women and girls have gathered to learn and share, building strong new friendships and a positive, healthy new relationship with themselves while they learn traditional middle eastern dances.
But even before there was dance, there was food.
Lina and her husband arrived in the United States from Jerusalem nearly three decades ago, and first lived in Texas near her brother-in-law’s family. The harsh climate and impersonal attitude of a big city wasn’t for them. By chance Lina discovered Hendersonville, with a climate very similar to Jerusalem, and a warm, welcoming community eager to embrace a new family.
The first decade they lived in WNC they worked at the Blue Ridge Community College cafeteria. “We wanted to share our culture,” Lina said, “So we started preparing some Mediterranean food to give the faculty and students something besides pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs and cheese fries.” The new menu items were an immediate hit. Lina and her husband felt more people were ready for authentic Middle Eastern food, cooked with love, so they opened Pita Express in 2010. It, too, quickly became a favorite dining spot.
“People are driving an hour just to have lunch here,” Lina said. Even customers who had been going back to New York City for halva, a soft, fudge-like candy made of sesame paste, enthusiastically declared Lina’s version to be so much better. It was after several years of people begging for her recipes that Lina decided to offer a Mediterranean cooking class.
“That first evening, I had 40 people come!” Lina laughed. “It’s a small restaurant – I had to break it into two classes.” Word of mouth quickly spread, and the demand for additional classes grew. To date, over 700 people have learned the secrets of making traditional Middle Eastern foods. Because she is so passionate about sharing the heart and soul of her culture with others, Lina’s cooking classes become almost a spiritual journey for the participants.
“We spend the first half hour learning about where the food came from,” Lina said. “Food is everything, and you truly are what you eat. When you put healthy food in your body, you have a good, healthy life.” Lina estimates about 95% of her ingredients come from the Middle East. As part of her work in sharing her culture, she emphasizes each student developing a personal connection to preparing, and enjoying, each dish. “I teach the students to hold the food in their hands,” she said, “to appreciate it, understand where it comes from.” Guiding her students to honor and respect each ingredient in their meals, Lina says, completely changes both the cooking and dining experience for them. They begin to prefer organic, humanely sourced food, and also start to get healthier. Enthusiastic students range in age from seven to 93.
Food and music build community – so adding the dance classes for women was a natural next step. It was after several people pointed out how similar the Arabic words posted in Pita Express were to their Hebrew counterparts that Lina decided to add language classes. Seventeen people descended on the restaurant for the very first class, including a nine-year-old. Over 500 people have taken the language classes in the past four years.
One of Lina’s star language students is an area Rabbi. The two have become close friends, and frequently speak together about building community at area churches, temples and other gatherings. They recently addressed enthusiastic crowds at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference.
In addition to offering her full roster of dance, cooking and language classes, Lina delights in expanding local residents’ worldview.
“Instead of them having to travel to Jerusalem,” she said, “I bring Jerusalem to them.” She tells the story of one elderly customer who was so southern he had never been outside the confines of Henderson County his entire life.
“He had never been exposed to anything,” Lina said. “He ordered a bacon cheeseburger – we offer both Mediterranean and American foods – and his friend ordered a gyro platter. He took a bite from his friend’s plate and liked it so much, he wanted to learn more.”
He was a farmer, so Lina asked him how he prepared squash. He said he just cut it up, put butter on it, and shoved it in the microwave. “Terrible, and so unhealthy!” Lina said. “I invited him to come to a cooking class as my guest and learn how to make Mediterranean stuffed squash. He took the parsley, onions, garlic and meat – he could choose lamb or beef, or chicken if he preferred – and tucked it inside the hollowed-out squash. We baked it, and he was shocked at how delicious and different it was. Now that’s the only way he’ll prepare it himself, and he drops off fresh squash for me!”
While everyone who enters Pita Express learns about another culture, Lina said the most rewarding part is they’re also learning how we all have so much more in common than we have separating us. Deep friendships are formed, unhealthy habits are healed, and strong bonds are created.
“It’s all about this,” she said, pointing to a scroll on the wall emblazoned with a verse from the Qur’an: “Oh humankind! Behold We created you male and female and We made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another.”
Lina makes sure it’s a joyful and loving connection.
Find out about upcoming classes on Lina’s website at pitaexpresshville.com, or visit Pita Express at 1034 Greenville Highway, Hendersonville, NC 28792.
Emmy-winner, author and psychic medium Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent contributor to WNC Woman. Find out more at jonnarae.com.