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Name Recognition

"Osama who?"

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A fight broke out when the Tribune reporter showed up at Osama Foods. She'd come to Lawndale for the scoop on how the store's customers feel about its now notorious name. Turns out they're cool with it--and always have been. But one guy was suspicious of the white lady with the notebook. He warned his female friend not to talk to her, saying she might be a cop. The girl, anxious to show her support for owner Ali Farhan, didn't appreciate the advice.

"She's talkin' to me, man. I ain't talking to you."

The reporter backed into a neutral corner, and suddenly everyone crowded into the store's vestibule had something to say. Yet none of them could shout the girl down.

"I'm just tellin' you--she asking us, 'Do we like the name Osama?' He talkin' bout, 'Y'all don't know what y'all getting y'allself into.' Why you into our business for? She already told us who she was."

"Well, I'm just tellin' about you always hollerin'."

"Well, that's my mouth talkin'," she shot back, seizing the high ground. "I'll fight you!"

"Calm down now, or I'll beat your ass now right here."

"Go ahead! Go ahead! You don't scare me baby! You don't scare me baby! He don't scare me!"

Farhan emerged from behind the counter, gently pulling the girl into the store: "Come on inside, babe."

The reporter followed and began collecting quotes in her notebook. She had brought along a clipping from one of the recent Osama stories in the news. On September 28, the New York Times ran a piece about a cafe in North Carolina called Osama's Place that had received threats. Almost two weeks before that, AP found the panicked owner of Osama's Coffee Zone in Columbia, Missouri.

But things were relatively peaceful around 13th and Central Park. A month after the September 11 attacks, Farhan was surprised to suddenly be fielding calls from reporters wondering if he'd been on the business end of a bin Laden backlash. Farhan said that until recently he'd never heard of the diabolical mastermind of the al Qaeda octopus. Not even the FBI has dropped by. Osama is not an uncommon name in the Middle East.

"Actually," the reporter informed one customer, "Osama is Arabic for 'big cat.'"

Actually, it's Arabic for "lion," says Farhan. The name belongs to his older brother, who bought the store in 1994. Osama Foods supplies a steady stream of customers from the surrounding neighborhood with household staples, chips, candy, smokes, blunts, and flavored rolling leaves. His most popular brand--"chronic"-flavored Royal Blunts EZ Roll Tube--was currently sold-out. All day long Farhan pushed cognac flavor over strawberry.

He wasn't worried for Arab-Americans in this part of town--it couldn't get any worse than Ramallah, where he was born. "It's not an easy life over there," he said. "You are scared to go outside. Scared to go anywhere." In 1991, when he was 12, he was arrested by Israeli soldiers twice, he said, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His father, who already lived in Cicero, brought him to the U.S. not long after that.

Farhan didn't like school much, and soon began helping out in his father's store at 89th and Loomis. In 1996 his brother moved to Indiana and handed his store over to him. Ever since Farhan's stood behind the counter six days a week, 12 hours a day, only taking time off to marry and honeymoon in Hawaii last March. A younger brother covers on Sundays. "When I be off work I want to work," he said. "Sometime when I have off then I get up at 12, I come to work. Sometime I have nothing to do, I will just come to work."

The store employs a couple other guys: a Mauritanian who goes by "Jeff" and Mohammed "Mike" Samhan, a 46-year-old fellow Palestinian. While Farhan works the register, they stock shelves, man the meat counter, and hang out on the floor, horsing around with the customers.

After the reporter left, a group of teenagers came in for blunts and started clowning. "These people don't give a damn about no politics or nothing, man," noted Samhan. "They are worried about getting high. That's why we don't have too much of a problem over here. But maybe if it was a white neighborhood or something, or like in Bridgeview..."

Farhan disagreed. "Not that they don't care!" he said. "They know us. We been in this community for eight years. We never bother nobody. Always do business. We care for the customer. They care for us. I even get a lot of gift on Christmas from the customer. When school start, I passed out notebooks, pens, pencils. I even give them candy for back to school."

Almost everyone who comes in knows Farhan by his first name. The thick Plexiglas around the counter is plastered with photos of customers' babies, proms, and weddings. "I know 95 percent of the customers that come in here," he said. "A lot of kids come in here--I know their mom, dad, granddad. I even have their phone numbers. In case they give me hard time, I call their parents."

Farhan listened as a customer groused about his cigarette prices. The man usually buys his smokes in Indiana, where they're cheaper.

"I smoke Marlboros," Farhan told him.

"You smoke Marlboros? That's some hard-ass cigarettes."

"You go out there next time, buy me a carton, man, for myself. I give you the money--Marlboro Light, short."

The man laughed and waved him off. "Yeah, asalaam aleikum, nigga!" he shouted over his shoulder as he left the store.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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