All images courtesy of Reem's.

The Tenacity of Chef Reem Assil

The Palestinian- and Syrian-American chef opens up about the intense racist backlash she faced when her Oakland bakery opened.

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May 11 2018, 2:00pm

All images courtesy of Reem's.

A new restaurant, death threats, early labor, and a James Beard nod.

That was Chef Reem Assil's past year. How was yours?

In May 2017, the Palestinian- and Syrian-American chef opened Reem’s, a neon-filled Arab bakery in Oakland’s diverse Fruitvale neighborhood. As a former community and labor organizer, Assil wanted a bakery that would serve as an intersectional community space. Those first few weeks, as she made mana’eesh dough, an Arab flatbread she’s known for, the bakery was bombarded with death threats over a mural of Rasmea Odeh that hung inside. Odeh, a Palestinian activist, was tortured into confessing to a bombing that killed two Jewish college students in Jerusalem in the 1960s. For Assil, Odeh is a symbol of resistance and an inspiration.

What started as outrage over the mural turned into more than a year of animosity and racism directed at Assil. The controversy has been covered before (New York Times, Food & Wine, Eaterand even Breitbart), but one question remains: How the hell did a woman of color survive an intense racist backlash while running a successful bakery and continuing to kick ass?

It all started the week Assil opened, with one-star Yelp and Facebook reviews. Reviewers complained that there was blood in her bread, and that she was glamorizing a murderer. “I didn’t understand the backlash could be so vile,” Assil says. “The only good Arab is a dead one,” read one message. “Hope someone blows up your place.” Then came death threats. Articles that had already been published ran disclaimers that her mural subject was a convicted terrorist. Negative press called her bakery “antisemitic” and talked about its “genocidal ambitions for the Jews of the Middle East.” “They even attacked a Reem’s Bakery in Qatar,” Assil shares. “This poor bakery was a cake delivery service...they were really vigilant.”

Protesters started showing up at her bakery, many of them local, right wing, pro-Israel Jews.“They liked screaming and had posters calling me “the butcher, the baker, with really morbid depictions of me as a Jew killer,” she remembers. Some of the protests turned violent, so she got restraining orders for her staff and customers’ safety.

“The forces behind the original backlash weren’t the local protesters. They were people all the way from Israel and New York, from fringe groups,” she explains. Messages sent to a community group she works with were so bad, she doesn’t want to talk about them on the record.

Even in the early days of the backlash, Assil understood that it was about more than the mural. “I’m an Arab Muslim Palestinian woman who is outspoken, anti-occupation and anti-colonization. It’s important for us to normalize that resistance is not terrorism.” According to Assil, she didn’t remove the mural because “There is a history of Zionist backlash in the Bay Area for anything Palestinian.” For example, murals featuring Palestinians opposing Israel were censored, and The Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland cancelled a planned exhibit of Palestinian children’s art that focused on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, because a few Jewish advocacy groups found them threatening.

Assil survived by gathering a community network of supporters and ally organizations. “Sometimes it feels like it falls on people of color to defend themselves, but I saw it as a moment to galvanize the folks who have the power, like Jewish Voice for Peace, Arab Resource and Organizing Center and SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice).” Through her community, she found people to monitor her social media feeds and manage protests to relieve some of the pressure on herself. She put out calls for support on social media whenever protesters showed up, and her supporters came out in large numbers to help protect the bakery. “The wonderful thing is that the community has come out with such support of Reem’s,” she shares.

Of course, she was also running her first restaurant, a principled one that takes care of its employees and customers. This included figuring out how to pay her employees a living wage as a small business with little capital, and integrating into a Latinx neighborhood by keeping price points and language accessible to customers from all walks of life. Business-wise, she thinks the attention actually helped the bakery, introducing it to a larger customer base. “But the morale of the staff went down and my leadership took a hit, because I was so emotionally strained,” she explains. “It’s isolating because it’s personalized, and you are dealing with it on your own a lot of times. I slept a lot.”

Did I mention she was pregnant? That means that while teaching new employees how to cook Arab flatbread on a saj (a convex griddle) and handling death threats, she had stomach-churning nausea. It means a just-ran-a-marathon-level of exhaustion while working 16-hour days every week. “This past year, I took care of myself last, and it really did affect my health,” Assil admits. But the protests didn’t help much, either. In late January, when she hosted a private event for UC Davis professor Sunaina Mara and her book, Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine, she had her biggest protest to date, with 30 protesters and 15 supporters. It was understandably overwhelming for Assil. “I shouldn’t internalize it, but it tricks you when you can’t even go to the bathroom eight months pregnant without an escort,” she says. She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that she went into early labor later that week, only 34 weeks along. Her doctors were able to halt the labor, but she couldn’t work for two weeks.

Despite all of these obstacles, Assil has continued her activism through food. it wasn’t easy, especially because it often elicited protests, negative press and bad Yelp reviews. Her bakery hosted a play about Syrian refugees, and held a symbolic birthday party for Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian teen activist who was imprisoned for hitting and kicking an armed Israeli soldier after her cousin was shot by Israeli forces. She helped cook at Reclaiming Refuge, a Nourish/Resist dinner that showcased “women chefs of color creating sanctuaries for people seeking refuge on the periphery.”

In the beginning, she found herself speaking out less to protect herself and her baby. But towards the end of 2017, that changed, thanks in part to her participation in The Asymmetrical Table, a Palestinian pop-up dinner series held in NYC by Jewish Voice for Peace in November. “I realized I have a powerful platform to talk about what it means to be a Palestinian chef and to educate folks about the struggle,” Assil says. It was healing to cook and talk openly about being Palestinian, instead of hiding her identity because it’s a “PR nightmare” (actual feedback she got post-backlash). Another turning point for Assil was when she partnered with the Institute of Middle East Understanding to create a video of her struggles. It was empowering. “I felt a sense of relief...I didn’t want to feel like I was burdening my community to always protect us.” She also wanted to respect members of her community dealing with DACA and immigration problems. “I had to start to rely on my own strength.”

Nothing has slowed Assil’s ascent. This February, she was nominated as a semifinalist for the James Beard Award of Best Chef: West. In early March, she cooked dinner for San Francisco incubator La Cocina’s A Week of Women in Food, and a few hours later, she labored for 16 hours and gave birth to her son. A month later, she opened Dyafa, her fine dining Arabic restaurant with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson’s Alta group. May marked her bakery’s first birthday, proving it can survive and thrive as a business.

At the end of the day, Assil is happy with the work she has done so far. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve changed the narrative around Arab cuisine...I didn’t want to shy away from using the word “Arab” because it’s often seen as a bad word. There are not many people like me out there, shaping that story [of Arab, Palestinian and Syrian food]. And so my journey now is building bridges with those other people, because it’s hard to tell the story on your own.”