Presenting Le Souk: An Immersion into Middle Eastern Cuisine Right Here in Montclair
When I entered Le Souk, a shop in Montclair that serves Middle Eastern food, sweets, and tea and sells handmade crafts, the cushions, curtains, sitars, and fragrant bowls of herbs welcomed me with an open embrace.
I had the privilege of sitting down with owner Jumana Jaber to talk about her courageous journey that culminated in the opening of Le Souk in June of 2017. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Olivia Rae Okun-Dubitsky from the Academy News: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Jaber: I taught for twenty years at Damascus University, in art and design. I came here through the Institute of International Education and the Scholar Rescue Fund. They give scholars fellowships to come to universities and teach. I taught at Montclair State University as a Scholar-at-Risk for five years.
AN: Where did you draw your inspiration for Le Souk?
Jaber: The inspiration came from a need inside me. I was missing my home. I wanted to create a space that is similar to my culture and memories. Every day, I went through le souk, through the bazaar. I remember the smells, the colors, the environment. People playing music, crowds of people meeting each other. You can sit, meet people, buy spices and herbs, drink tea. My store is a small example of Le Souk.
AN: I looked at your website before meeting today, and something caught my eye. You mention that the university you taught at came under attack during the Syrian Civil War. Can you tell me what that was like for you?
Jaber: I lived in Syria for two years under the war, and it was a very difficult time for us. My husband was kidnapped. My son’s friend was killed. One day, I remember that we had an attack, a bomb, at the university while I was teaching. The students started screaming, and we had to hide in the basement for a few hours.
AN: So, your husband was kidnapped. He was safe after that?
Jaber: Yes. They kidnapped him for a whole day. He was lucky, because a professor of his spotted him. One week before he was kidnapped, one of our colleagues was kidnapped and killed by ISIS.
AN: I’m sorry to hear that. I know that you enjoy creating art with political messages. Has your art and political messaging changed since you came to the U.S.?
Jaber: I like the fact that the art here is more free, and I can express myself more than in Syria. In Syria, you know, we have certain rules related to religion that I don’t agree with.
AN: Can you tell me more about that?
Jaber: In one of my pieces, I drew marriage under Shariah, the Islamic law. One of my friends had a bad experience; her husband married another woman. He didn’t tell her because the law doesn’t require him to. I had that in my exhibition in Syria. Many people were angry that I critiqued the Shariah. When I learned I was coming to the United States, I didn’t have time to think. I packed everything we had in my house in Damascus. We left one week later.
AN: What’s the one thing you want someone to take away from this interview?
Jaber: Close your eyes. Go to Le Souk in Damascus, Jerusalem, Morocco, Istanbul. Think about all these brightly colored things, handmade crafts, the fragrant smells of the herbs and spices, the hum of people talking. This is Le Souk.