550 E. Main Street, El Cajon
Najem Al Ekabi sits beneath the forest of red, white, and black Iraqi flags. He’s intent on a video on his laptop.
“Look, see?” he says. “The one on the left. That’s me. Winning the wrestling match. And that is Saddam’s governor of Basra province, presenting the medal. I represented Iraq in the Olympics. And this is my friend Latif Yahia. He was forced to be a double for Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son. They tried to kill him 11 times, thinking he was Uday.”
Wow. I look at the pictures. Najem as a young wrestler fighting a much bigger man, then standing in front of a small crowd, with a military governor handing him a medal. Then him and his friend. I’ve heard about how scary it was to be a sports star in Iraq under Saddam and his son Uday. But to have to be his double, whoa.
Nearly nine, closing time, and it’s just Najem and me and Tayeb, his Iranian cook, in the restaurant. I’m here because of Russell, a buddy who lives in El Cajon. He’d stopped in the other day and loved the beef kabobs, plus the whole Iraqi atmosphere thing. So tonight, on my way back from Santee, I’d jumped off the trolley and tramped down the empty streets of El Cajon, looking for “Babylon.”
Rusty was right about the atmosphere. It’s small, with classy maroon wood tables and black chairs and green-and-blue drapes looping across the acoustic ceiling to give it a tented feel. A giant plasma screen shows TV from the Gulf States. Two walls are filled with Koranic art, holy Arabic messages written in gold.
But it’s the back wall that catches your eye. Those shelves loaded with Iraqi flags for sale and hookah pipes and, ’specially, a bunch of exotic golden bottles of “Attar Mubakhar Arabian Perfume Oil.” Just as well Carla didn’t come. They’re about $20 a bottle.
I sit down after the long talk with Najem. What a guy. What a life. Now he’s getting a bit of peace in his retirement. He says this is actually his son Faras’s business. I pull the menu out. It has the Iraqi flag and a photo of a statue. A lion stands over a man flat on his back on the ground. Doesn’t look good for the man.
“That,” says Najem, “is the Lion of Babylon, in Basra. In southern Iraq. I come from Basra. Everybody knew me. I was their wrestling champion. But guess what? I am Shia Muslim. After I spoke out against Saddam, I couldn’t survive there. See?”
He lifts up his shirt. “I was shot through the back.”
Wow. I can see the big scar on his back, and a kind of red welt sticking out in front, just below the ribs on his right side.
“That’s why I have been 16 years in San Diego. What would you like to eat?”
’Course, the first thing I see on the back is that for $225 you can order a whole cow. Man, wouldn’t I love to throw a party for 50 of my closest friends here, let them have at the biggest kabob ever?
More in my price range are appetizers like hummus for $5 or $7, or Iraqi or Arabic salad, also in $5 and $7 sizes. I’m scratching my brain to remember what the difference is between these two. Oh, yeah. Think Iraqi salad has lots of sumac.
Entrées seem to be all around the $10 mark, but sandwiches are $5.50. Beef or chicken kabob, or shawarma (Arab version of the Greek gyro). They all have the meat wrapped in a bread they make right here in their “tannoor” (tandoor in India), a clay-lined oven. It’s a big, round, genuine, wild-looking bread (from the mighty discs I see Tayeb flicking hot from the oven walls) that makes you wanna just tear it apart and chow it down as a meal in itself.
So I’m trying to decide which sandwich, when I do a quick under-the-table count of ye olde dinero. Hey. I have 14 buckeroos. Should be enough for a full-blown entrée. Now we’re choosing between a plate of four beef kabobs, with a big 14-inch round bread and bits of veggies ($9.50), or four chicken kabobs ($9.50), or chicken or beef tikka, meaning marinated chunks, for $9.99. A kousi, lamb shank, is $11, and a kuba mosul (dumplings, Mosul-style) is $12. Half a chicken with rice is $9.99, and they have a rice with stew for $8, and a grilled fish — masgoof ($11). Najem says you could call masgoof Iraq’s national dish. Masgoof is actually the style of cooking. Ideally, the fish should come from the Tigris River, split open, and gradually smoked ’n’ grilled on an open fire.
Tempted, but figure the price is going to put me near the cliff, so opt for the beef kabob.
And guess what? The four kabobs are a lot, and the meat is, just as Russell said, rich-flavored, with garlic and paprika and, says Najem, sumac, along with onion. The meat, he says, is halal. That means killed humanely, facing Mecca and drained of blood, up in Escondido. So I just nibble away, first a piece of meat, then a chunk of the tandoori bread. Najem talks of his glory days as Iraq’s most beloved wrestler. It’s quite a night.
It’s only when I’m paying the bill that I see the deal of deals for future reference: to-go meat. A beef or chicken kabob skewer costs…$1.25. Chicken or beef tikka is $3.75. It’s only when Najem has trouble translating — he tells me he’s had a stroke — that I realize this old lion is struggling.
I’m coming back, to try that national fish dish, but also because of Najem. We have a hero in our midst! I want to hear more. Must bring Carla next time.
How to get her hooked? Heh heh. No problem. Just mention the Mubakhar Arabian Perfume Oil, and as they say, kabob’s your uncle.