At the mention of 28th Avenue and Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, the mind usually conjures up the images of hookah bars and lounges, Arabian music and Middle Eastern food. The conjuration of such mental images is not always the tell tale sign of a hookah enthusiast but can also be an indication that the person is well acquainted with the allures for many to Astoria. The area of 28th Avenue and Steinway Street is now known as “Little Egypt”, a place that is bustling with the distinct ethnic personality of the Arab immigrants that reside and work there. The streets around that area can often be found littered with, usually men, smoking hookah pipes in outdoor seating areas. Women with burqas (Muslim garbs) or scarves concealing their hair and neck can be found walking the street with their children. Arabic music and ambiance fills the air as the aroma of different flavored smoke that is being released. The indications of the outskirts of “Little Egypt” are very subtle. For a newcomer to the neighborhood, the transition occurs in the form of small signs by stores with a hookah on it. These stores sell Middle Eastern product such as hookah, Muslim Garbs, rosemary and so forth. The further one ventures into Little Egypt, the hookah bars start to prop up in succession. Most of these bars are owned by Middle Eastern immigrants and affordable. The affordability of hookah in Astoria is one of the main reasons for the success of Little Egypt. College students to elderly persons can be found at these cafes and lounges. Eastern Nights, a Middle Eastern lounge in Little Egypt is one of the cafes that I found myself in one fine night. After walking around and looking at the brightly lit exteriors of the restaurant, I ended up in Eastern Nights with my sister and brother-in-law. Inside the store as I sipped my Nesquik coffee, I asked the waiter if I could possibly talk to the manager of the establishment. To my surprise, the friendly waiter came back with a promise of an audience with the owner.
The owner of the restaurant Altef Mahadi was very helpful. When asked about his immigrant experience, he told us about how he emigrated from Cairo, Egypt in 1981 and studied in a Long Island University. After he got his degree, he worked as director of banquet in Hilton around JFK airport. He left his job as the director in order to pursue his own establishment and be closer to his culture and community. He established his lounge in 2004. When I asked him about the reason behind his immigration, he replied that he came here in search for a better life. He says one of the hardest experiences was assimilating to the different values and morals of the various ideologies in New York. He proudly exclaims that to him the most important aspect of life are culture, religion and respect.
I was curious about Mr. Mahadi’s experience as a restaurant owner and what he appreciates in the neighborhood. He replied, there are many experiences, good and bad, but what he liked most is the customer relationships that develop. He loves meeting new people and watching bonds form in his establishment. Some of the good experiences that he shares with us is about Ramadan, when the open buffet at the restaurant extends to the hungry and homeless during the breaking of the fast and a fundraising in the community to help send a man’ corpse back to his homeland. Such acts truly exude a feeling of a tight knit community where people are willing to help one another. The interaction with the Mr. Mahadi really made me realize the strong community that has been created in Little Egypt. As I left and thanked Mr. Mahadi, he told me how immigrants have suffered and left their country in search for a better life and to live life knowing that we are the future of this country just as immigrants before us were.