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A home away from home: owner of Shawarma King looks forward to future despite restaurant

closure
Nicole Einbinder
The Daily at the University of Washington
When Mohamed Issa was in his second year of school at the American University in Cairo, he
had an epiphany.
A stellar student with a 3.9 GPA towards a business degree, Issa realized that he could never fully
achieve his potential for success by remaining in Egypt because he said it is a developing
country.
There was a focal point where I said to myself, If I am that good, what am I doing here? Issa
said. I thought, I should be exploring what my options are.
It was at that moment Issa first began to contemplate the possibility of leaving everything he
knew behind to embark to the unknown. In 2003, he packed up his bags, said goodbye to his
family, his home, and the country he grew up in, and moved halfway across the world to Seattle,
a city he had never been to before.
Now the owner of Shawarma King, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the heart of the University
District, Issa reached the potential he believed he had, while bringing a taste of Egypt to his new
home.
However, the restaurant will soon be closing. A year and a half ago, Sheriman Trade, the real
estate development firm that owns the block, told shop owners that they will be demolishing the
building to build a new parking garage, retail space, and apartment complex. While Issa was
originally told the building would close last December, he continues to wait in limbo until he will
be forced to vacate the location.
Shawarma King: A Home Away From Home
Shawarma King, nestled among various restaurants and shops, is a small space with a bright red
exterior and its name in flashing lights on the front. It fits in among the other gyro shops that line
the Ave. When customers first walk in, the crackle of grease hisses in the background as
employees hurry to cook garlic fries and prepare the strips of lamb, chicken, and beef shawarma
that the restaurant is known for serving.
But then, the characters come to life. The older man who sips his Coca-Cola and eyes the crying
child who cracks a smile as the food arrives. The woman in an elaborate hijab quietly eating her
meat and rice in the corner. The college students sitting on a plush red couch, laughing as they
share a plate of fries.
It is a small community within those red walls, a community that Issa, the man behind the
counter, created for the University District.

He is a busy man, staying up until 4 a.m. on the weekends to close the restaurant, while making
the rounds every morning to buy the freshest meats and vegetables.
He always buys good stuff. He never buys stuff that is older, but waits for the freshest
ingredients to come in, said Sam Waldrop, the manager of Restaurant Depot, one of the stores
Issa buys food from.
Waldrop said that while some restaurant owners send other people in to buy from them, Issa
always comes himself.
After first arriving in Seattle, Issa said he worked an array of odd jobs to save up money and
improve his English. His craziest experience was working at Subway, a sandwich franchise
where the people were welcoming but the adjustment was challenging.
In 2009, he found a permanent position at Shawarma King after he and his cousin bought the
restaurant from the previous owner.
Jeff Shulman, an Associate Professor at UWs Foster School of Business, first came to
Shawarma King around a year ago, after a Sounders game. It was midnight, and the team had
just won.
I came in, and Mohamed said, Ill remember your name, Shulman said. I said, theres no
way. So I came in the next time, and he remembered my name.
Since then, Shulman has been a regular at the restaurant, coming in for the food, particularly
their gyro fries, and to catch up with the staff.
They make you feel at home, Shulman said.
Growing up in Egypt
Issa grew up in a traditional family in the North of Egypt, a farming area in the countryside far
removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. In his small town, everybody knew each other, he
said.
As the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, a month characterized by fasting and familial bonding,
quickly approaches, Issa misses home more than ever. In particular, he misses his favorite meal
prepared each year by his mom: cooked pigeon.
When Issa decided to leave home, he said his family viewed the situation as a disaster.
To this day, Issa said they still ask him when he is coming back to Egypt, a question he cannot
answer.
I miss them a lot, Issa said. But, for the past couple of years, the situation has not been stable
there.

In 2011, Egypt was catapulted into revolution after an uprising erupted in Cairo that resulted in
the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in command since 1981. The
revolution ignited protests throughout the Middle East, with rulers ousted throughout the region
in a period of political turmoil dubbed the Arab Spring.
I was hoping there would be real change [after Mubarak], Issa said. But it wasnt a real
revolution. Its been crazy there, I dont know if I will ever move back.
The Future of Shawarma King
After learning that he could no longer use his restaurant space, Issa immediately began the
process of finding a new location for Shawarma King. He was determined to stay close to the
original location to remain near his customers.
Spokespeople at Sheriman Trade declined to comment about the restaurant closure.
A month ago, a second Shawarma King finally opened at another location on the Ave.
I try to work there for a few hours a day so they can learn, so they can see how Im dealing with
customers as if this is their own home when they come in the store, Issa said. Im trying to
bring the atmosphere that everybody comes here for.
The new restaurant has plain white walls, a stark comparison from the Middle Eastern relics that
adorn the walls of the first Shawarma King, which will remain open until the building is
demolished. However, Issa is already planning his next trip to Egypt, to bring back cultural
artifacts for the new restaurant.
The grease still crackles in the background and the smells of meats and exotic spices still
overwhelm customers as they first walk in.
It reminds me of back home, said Mansour Abdulrahman, a graduate student from Saudi
Arabia who frequently eats at the new location. I love Arabic food, I can speak my language,
theyre like family here.
And Issa, the man behind the counter, wouldnt have it any other way.