How one man is helping to make Cleveland visible again – and using literature and culture to do it.
Cleveland, US – Ayman Alkayali is no stranger to feeling like a foreigner.
Ayman’s parents were born in Palestine: his mother in Jaffa and his father in Ramla. During the nakba, the family was forced to leave its home land, moving to Syria. In time, Ayman’s family migrated to Kuwait and then to Tripoli in Libya, where his grandfather taught algebra, and Ayman was born. “We were one of the first Palestinian families to move to Libya,” he says.
But when Ayman was just 16, he left Libya to study German and architecture in Vienna, Austria.
Living alone in a foreign land was difficult. “If you didn’t fit, you were always a foreigner,” he says. “Even if they knew your name they called you a foreigner: ‘Hey foreigner; open the door foreigner; good morning foreigner.’ I didn’t like that at all.”
His older cousin was across the globe, studying engineering in Cleveland, Ohio. Ayman asked him what the US was like and, enticed by what he heard, asked his father’s permission to move there.
‘Keeping up with the Joneses’
Upon arriving in the US, Ayman brushed up on his English at a centre for immigrants and then enrolled in the biomedical engineering programme at Case Western University.
Like many of his peers, he was attending classes, looking for a career, and trying to make money. “The usual … keeping up with the Joneses,” he says.
His interest in biomedical engineering was short-lived, so he switched to electrical engineering and then to mechanical engineering, but the results were all the same. “I wasn’t feeling it,” he says.
He had never been interested in art, but a girl he was dating encouraged him to explore painting. “I couldn’t stop,” he says.
“Then I took a ceramics class, and I fell in love. I absolutely fell in love and thought, I’m gonna pursue art.”
Ayman’s decision to leave university and become an artist did not sit well with his family. His father, a civil engineer, and his mother, who worked at the United Nations, had always stressed the importance of an education.
“We are Palestinians, and as Palestinians, you know, we have faced hardships, and one of the defence mechanisms is to get an education and a very strong degree so you can always get a good job,” Ayman explains. “So everybody is an engineer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, you know, high-earning jobs.”
But for Ayman, art felt like a form of therapy. “I just wanted to express myself and release all that pressure,” he says.
Still, his father continued to stress the importance of an education, so Ayman decided to take courses at a community college. “I decided to go to business school, and be an artist,” he says. Today, he’s thankful for his father’s advice. “He was right and I was wrong. I’m glad that I did it; it gave me a sense of accomplishment,” he says of his degree in business administration.
Ayman continued to create art. “I used organic shapes, childlike art, you know, very colourful stuff. At that time Cleveland was very grey and brown; a dark-colour town.”
“In the 1990s my style wasn’t popular at all. People liked it, but did not buy,” he says.
‘Learning to see’
To pay his bills, Ayman worked in construction and as a chef at an Italian restaurant in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighbourhood, where he also lived and rented a ceramics studio. “Before then I was never thinking about that [cooking], but I loved it. I loved cooking.”
Ayman left Little Italy in 1997 and moved to Tremont – today a trendy neighbourhood on Cleveland’s near west side, which was at that time much rougher. “Nobody walked in Tremont after 5pm,” he says.
In his new neighbourhood, Ayman developed a close friendship with a group of Irish-Americans. “They showed me the whole blue-collar, union community,” he says.
Ayman had never before been exposed to the struggles of working-class America. “That was completely eye-opening to me. It was fascinating and I got to know this country in a much better fashion, and to appreciate the struggling man, the painter, the plumber, the union guys and their families. It was crazy; there is a part of this country that exists this way, a huge part of this country.”
While his social life blossomed, Ayman continued to struggle to show and sell his work. So he came up with the idea of opening a coffee house. His initial plan was to create a space where he could show his work, serve coffee and some food, and have a studio in the basement where he would make custom furniture for clients. He was scouting locations in neighbourhoods he was familiar with when he happened upon a bike shop that was going out of business in Little Italy. It needed a lot of work; there was no gas or electricity. “But I learned from the Irish guys how to deal with rough stuff. They were taking condemned houses and fixing them, so I had the vision. They showed me how to see,” he says.
Ayman spent a year and eight months renovating his shop. Although he did much of the work himself, the renovations were expensive and just one month short of his grand opening, he found himself without enough money to purchase a cappuccino machine. “So I couldn’t open a coffee shop,” he says.
A few friends suggested he sell tea instead. At The West Side Market, Cleveland’s oldest publicly owned market, which dates back to the 1840s, he met a woman who operated a tea stand. “I went to check it out and she had this stand with beautiful herbs all over the place. There was South African tea, Fijian tea, Japanese tea … and the colours were gorgeous. I loved the colours.”
The owner made two kinds of tea for Ayman, and he was blown away. At that moment he had a realisation: “I can afford hot water. It will be a tea house.”
“I was born into Islam, but I saw the beauty of Islam in the United States,” says Ayman.
In his youth, his parents were not practising Muslims. “At that time, in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the Arab world started following the West. They started believing in secular religion and the division between church and state. A lot of them took on the thinking that they had to leave Islam, and Islam is backward.”
But Ayman had started to grow restless with his lifestyle. “I was living, you know, drinking and other stuff and being in the arts, but I needed to find myself. After you accomplish certain things in your life, like I wanted to be an artist, so I became an artist; I wanted to have a couple of write-ups in the newspapers and have recognition, I have that; I wanted to make a little bit of money and I made it; OK, what’s next? These are my worldly desires and I got those. Of course there is room for growth, but what is next? There has to be something more.”
Ayman began attending services at a local mosque and praying at the tea house.
Then, local converts to Islam began asking him to teach them Arabic so that they could understand the Quran. “The convert community are very strong because, first, they have to study and study, and then make the decision – ‘I’m switching.’ So you have your family, your friends, your background, your history, and it’s ‘Nope, I’m going in a different direction.’ In order for them to do that they really have to come from serious research,” he says.
“Some of these guys came from civil rights backgrounds, so they went through the struggle of racism, apartheid, and lynching. I mean there are people who are very dear friends of mine, brothers, who stood at the back of the bus and used different bathrooms. These people are here, first-hand guys who were beaten up for no reason. These guys are strong, and they are American.”
Inspired by their dedication and strength, Ayman began to view his faith in a new light. “My religion is so beautiful. I don’t know why I didn’t study enough.”
‘Life is not just love’
As a father, Ayman takes the responsibility of installing an understanding of religion in his children seriously. But raising Muslim children in today’s political and social climate creates unique challenges. “It is a struggle for them because they have to fit in. There are parts of society that teach things that completely conflict with our beliefs, and you have to tell them that.”
Ayman encourages his children to talk about what it is like to be a Muslim. “It is hard for them, they have been called ISIS, or other kids stare at them when they pray, but it is good to see how they go through that – everyone has to go through struggles.”
‘Not a Starbucks’
Algebra Tea House opened its doors in August 2001. It was the first non-Italian establishment in the Little Italy neighbourhood.
Stepping inside is to take a stroll through Ayman’s imagination. The front door, tables and shelves were hand-crafted by Ayman, and his paintings cover the walls. The smell of Middle Eastern spices blends with citrus from the orange peel resting atop a wood burning stove. Plants line the front window, soaking up sunlight. There are shelves of books on everything from poetry to Islamic architecture or Palestinian cuisine.
In the early days of Algebra’s existence, Ayman faced great opposition. “Many neighbourhood residents didn’t want me to be here.” There were offers to buy him out, a steady stream of inspectors scrutinised every detail of the shop’s renovation, and people shouted racial slurs as they drove by. “I had my struggles and had to go through that for a tough three years in the beginning. Thankfully, there were residents who stood up for me; without them it would have been a much more difficult fight. I finally went to the mayor and pushed hard in the other direction. While the city was difficult at first, they ultimately became OK. I learned my rights: you push this far and I’m going to go that far too. I took it to a legal perspective. Some people were understanding while some were not.”
Two weeks after Algebra opened, the World Trade Center was attacked. “That was rough. Financially it was a struggle because Algebra was not making any money in the beginning. After 9/11, business just died, and I wasn’t hiding my Islam. I wasn’t apologising, no, this is who I am and if you like it, you like it, and if this place does not go with your beliefs then I don’t want you here. Algebra is not for everybody. This is not a Starbucks, this is for people who understand art, multi-culture, and handiwork, and people who are comfortable with discussing communism, capitalism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, you know,” he says.
In order to pay the rent and his employees, Ayman worked outside the shop, on construction sites, cleaning garages, painting houses, “Whatever it took to keep the doors open. For the first few years we were surviving month to month.”
Fifteen years later, Ayman feels that Algebra is a strong part of the community. “We have a very good reputation. We are part of the discussion if there are issues in the neighbourhood that need to be resolved. We are one of the oldest businesses in the neighbourhood; they accept us for who we are.”
“Algebra is really two things. It is us, the help, and then the customers, and this is what makes Algebra, Algebra. Without the customers we don’t exist: The thinkers and the photographers, and the sculptors and the writers; the poets and the civil rights activists. You hear different languages here, and people are not afraid of discussion.
“I’ve been to many weddings where the couple met here. There are areas in Algebra where you have to sit next to somebody that you don’t know. The counter is curved so it forces you to interact with the person next to you. There is a couch and when the place is full people sit next to each other; we don’t even tell them any more. Sometimes they talk; sometimes they just do their work. This is a place where people are supposed to interact and discuss religion and politics and art and very sentimental and private matters.”
‘Taking care of your neighbours’
Over the years, Ayman has nurtured a politically active environment at Algebra. “We were anti-war, flat out anti-Iraq war. Whenever there was a demonstration against the war people would come here after the rally.”
During the 2008 US presidential campaign Ayman hosted a town hall meeting at Algebra. “We talked about the Palestinian issue, the Iraq war, green energy, revitalisation of the inner city – issues that were not discussed at the time, and we sent all of that to the White House. Of course, nothing came out of it, but we tried. We believed in it in the beginning. I’ll be honest with you, a lot of people here believed in change back then, but after that it was status quo. Obama messed it up for a lot of people, he really did, because he sold the hope and change. He was a preacher singing that song.”
The portrayal of Muslims in the media at the moment concerns Ayman. “Our duty as Muslims is to do what we do here, which is to promote good before evil. We have businesses, we hire people, we are part of the economy. We don’t do stuff that’s illegal and wrong, we just show by our actions. The media can sing hatred and war and fear all day long, but it comes down to this, ‘What are you doing? How did you improve the neighbourhood? Are you taking care of your neighbours? Are you helping a person if he’s not from your faith? If you see something wrong, are you stopping it? If you see something right, are you promoting it?”
As the 2016 presidential campaign consumes the media, Ayman has decided to distance himself from the day-to-day rhetoric of the candidates. “I just have to take care of the immediate needs around me – the community and my family, and when I do that, and everybody does that, then you have a great city, and a great state and a great nation.”