Dec. 22, 2023 By Iryna Shkurhan
You can’t go inside King of Falafel and Shawarma on Broadway in Astoria without first stepping on the face of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.
Floor stickers with headshots of highly criticized world leaders who some have accused of crimes against humanity greet customers at the front door, and then again at the register, where orders for award winning falafel are placed.
Lining the walls of the Palestinian owned restaurant are photos taken by the owner, Fares Zeideia, of his homeland. The photos span the many trips he has taken to Ramallah in the West Bank since he moved to New York over 40 years ago. For Zeideia, serving a plate of shawarma without a side of politics is not an option, and it’s been a regular part of the establishment since he opened right after 9/11.
“I actually get more support from customers now,” said Zeideia, who recently added more Palestinian flags and signs outside the establishment. “The more people say, ‘why are you involved in politics’ the more I want to involve politics.”
While some would advise small business owners from staying out of politics for the sake of not alienating customers on the other side, some restaurant owners across Queens are taking a political stance since the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict escalated in October.
And as war remains in the hands of a select group of politicians, regular people witnessing the violence online say it has left them feeling helpless. But that hasn’t stopped them from aligning their spending with their politics. Whether it’s boycotting Starbucks for its alleged ties to Israel, or buying hummus from their local mom and pop eatery, they’re expressing their solidarity.
Zeideia says that the majority of his customers are Americans, and the demographics of his customers haven’t changed much in the past few months. However, he has noticed an uptick in visits from the younger generation recently.
He says that they’re the ones who come to tell him that they are supporting the Palestinian cause. They visit his store, he said, as well as his street carts that he operates sprinkled across the city.
But even before the Oct. 7 attack on Israel catapulted the conflict back onto international radar, the “Free Palestine” tag has been part of the King of Falafel and Shawarma logo. The flags and posters hanging outside the eatery are also not new.
For other restaurant owners in Queens, the reignited conflict pushed them to infuse solidarity into their eateries.
‘I take this situation very personally’
Deeper into the borough, in Flushing, the owners of Grill Point on Main Street hung up several strings of mini Israeli flags just last week. They would have hung them up sooner if the popular establishment wasn’t forced to shut its doors immediately after the Oct.7 attack on Israel due to a gas leak.
The owners also discovered that their sprinkler system needed to be replaced, and the accompanying paperwork kept them closed until mid-December. During that period, significant pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrations erupted across the city and world.
“I think it’s from God that it happened. If we were open it would have been probably a s#!t show,” said Regina Abayev, the manager. “The first week was like mayhem.”
But not long after the flags went up, a customer called to tell them he witnessed a kid cutting up many of the small flags that hung outside on a Monday afternoon.
Abayev attempted to tape the flags back together, but decided to ultimately take down the ones outside. While the employees at Grill Point were disappointed by the hateful incident so soon after their reopening, they let it go knowing that it was carried out by a child.
“I take this situation very personally. The first thing for us when we reopened was to make it known that we stand with Israel, we support Israel,” said Abayev. “We make it known to the community and this is our community.”
She said that despite catering mostly to local Israeli residents, one of the restaurant’s best customers is a Muslim woman who lives across the street. The woman went as far as driving to their other location on the Upper West Side during the period that they were closed.
‘How do you want me to feel?’
Back in Astoria, Zeideia recalled an elderly Israeli man who came in and attempted to rip off the sticker of Netanyahu off the ground. He politely asked him to leave. The man’s son later came in to apologize and a conversation about land rights ensued.
The man told Zeideia that he grew up in Jerusalem, but when asked to clarify which part, Zeideia claimed that the neighborhood is an occupied settlement.
“But you see, you’re still in a settlement. You’re the guys who keep on stealing the land. How do you want me to feel?” Zeideia recalled telling him. “And I said, this is my house [the restaurant] now, what are you going to do?”
The slew of businesses with signage in Arabic, particularly along Steinway Street, make it clear that Astoria has a strong Arab population. The borough’s Palestinian restaurants are concentrated in the neighborhood.
Little Flower, a coffee and pastry shop on 36th Avenue in Astoria, is Afghani owned but that didn’t deter it from standing with Palestine. While the owner didn’t put up any political signage in the cafe, he chose to take the cafe’s solidarity to social media.
As the crisis in Gaza worsened, Ali Zaman, the owner of Little Flower, changed the profile picture on their Instagram page to the Palestinian flag. He also began posting pro-Palestine content related to food, such as an explainer on why watermelon is the symbol of Palestinian liberation.
“I want it to be known that Little Flower stands with the people of Palestine,” said Zaman, who compared the Palestinian struggle to what the Afghani people experienced. “It is absolutely a way for people to say, hey, we’re here, and you’re not going to erase our culture, you’re not going to erase our history.”
The stance resulted in a loss of a couple hundred followers, and a couple disapproving messages, shortly after. Some responded that they would no longer visit the cafe.
“But other than that, I think everyone who’s seen [the posting], they’ve actually had a more positive reaction, more than anything,” said Zaman. “The people who do, maybe have some sort of criticism about our solidarity, we don’t need their business, we don’t need their money.”
Duzan, another Palestinian owned eatery in Astoria, frequently packed with customers waiting for their shawarma bowls, closed its doors on Dec. 11 as part of a global strike for a ceasefire in Gaza. Under its announcement on Instagram, dozens of users commented that they would no longer visit the establishment in between Israeli flag emojis.
At Zyara Restaurant on Steinway Street, a donation box for Palestine was recently set up, with the proceeds going to the Red Crescent Society, an international humanitarian aid group. The owners also put up several flags and posters, such as ‘Save Gaza’ outside.
But all the way in the back of the restaurant, there is a simple outline of the contested region in the middle east, which has been there since opening in 2018. To some, it is clearly Palestine and in the eyes of others, it is rightfully Israeli territory.
But there are also several restaurants serving Israeli fare that have not taken an overt stance, such as putting up a flag or sharing their political affiliation on social media. The restaurants are mainly concentrated in Forest Hills, or Kew Gardens, where there is a significant Jewish population.
While the restaurant owners themselves are staying mostly quiet, local foodies on social media encourage others to give these restaurants some support with a visit. A Facebook group, Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies, encouraged members to visit Elite Cafe, another Israeli restaurant on Main Street in Flushing. A member of the group praised Sushi Kingdom & Asian Fare, a Japanese restaurant in Kew Gardens Hills for putting up dozens of posters of those kidnapped from Israel across their window.