The Smoothie Man

Berkeley smoothie store owner watches the war back home in Syria from afar

Jamal, owner and operator of both Banana Sam’s and Hummingbird Cafe on Euclid Avenue, emigrated from Syria to the United States in 1985 at the age of 24. Jamal left Syria to study in the United States and escape the country’s escalating violence, but was unable to return for 20 years.
Anya Schultz/Senior Staff
Jamal, owner and operator of both Banana Sam’s and Hummingbird Cafe on Euclid Avenue, emigrated from Syria to the United States in 1985 at the age of 24. Jamal left Syria to study in the United States and escape the country’s escalating violence, but was unable to return for 20 years.

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Editor’s Note: Jamal’s last name has been removed from this story in the interest of his family’s safety. 

By the time the customers start arriving in the morning, Jamal has been up for hours. He woke at 5 a.m. and drove from his home in Richmond to an Oakland wholesaler to pick up fruits and vegetables, then to Berkeley. His other home, Syria, is in the news again.

Jamal has made a dozen trips from the car carrying armloads of fruits, vegetables and pastries into his deli, Hummingbird Cafe. Behind the glass counter that runs the length of the store, his girlfriend, Tsendjav “Java” Tumnee, has put out casserole dishes full of hummus and falafel, tabouleh salad and macaroni. Jamal, 53, a stout man with quick black eyes, a couple of days of facial hair and an apron over his checkered shirt, is cutting up fruit with a long knife when an old man walks in around 9 a.m. Jamal tilts his head back to see through his glasses, then flashes a gap-toothed smile. “Good morning to you, sir.”

And so it begins. The shop, on Euclid Avenue a block north of the UC Berkeley campus, is long and narrow, the space between the glass counter and the row of stools along the other wall just wide enough for customers to stand single-file. A mural depicting a large domed building occupies the wall above the juicer and smoothie machine. Another mural covers the entire opposite wall. In the foreground, mallards take off from a river that flows through a tree-lined meadow. Blue mountains rise in the background. Both paintings are of Jamal’s home city, Hama, in Syria. Jamal says he used to fish in that river when he was a kid, before the Islamist uprising against then-president Hafez al-Assad, before the Syrian Army retaliated in 1982 by bombing Hama, before he fled to the United States to study and escape the violence. Before the government fixed it so he couldn’t return.

 The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011 and that an additional 6.5 million are internally displaced. Jamal has been in the United States for almost 30 years, but the war has brought him another kind of suffering. He often thinks of his city, Hama, a battlefield once again, of his old friends and his family. Are they still there? Refugees? Prisoners? Dead? He talks to his sister on the phone every other Sunday, but it is hard to know from their conversations whether everything is really OK. When she answers, he hears a click and a second of fuzz — somebody listening in, he thinks. “ ‘How’s the weather?’ ” he asks her. “ ‘Hot? Cold? Calm? Stormy?’ That’s the code.”

A customer brushes past the plastic shark head that occupies the long counter below the mural. “Go ahead, make my day!” it shouts, and it gnashes its jaws. The customer jumps and looks over her shoulder.

“Good morning, Dan,” Jamal’s girlfriend, Tumnee, who grew up in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, says to an old man wearing sunglasses and a flannel coat over his flannel shirt. “Would you like cream cheese bagel?”

“On a sesame bagel,” the man says. “But hold the cream cheese, and could you scrape off all those little seeds?”

“And we can step on it, make it a little flatter,” Jamal says. He stands at a cutting board, peeling oranges with a cleaver, tossing the peeled chunks in the juicer. The shop smells of coffee and bacon. The microwave hums.

“How’s the baby?” Tumnee asks another customer from behind the cash register.

“I fell asleep at seven this morning,” the customer says — the kid’s starting to crawl, doesn’t want to stay in the cradle. Tumnee and Jamal make sympathetic noises. When the customer leaves, Jamal laughs. He says that when he and his siblings started crawling, his mom tied one of their arms and one of their legs together so they couldn’t wander off — “Like a camel in the desert.” He shrugs and grins. “What do you expect? Fifteen kids. Second-largest family in the whole city.” In the biggest family, all 21 boys looked just alike and had blue eyes with slits for pupils, like a goat, Jamal says. “Real creepy.”

When Jamal was a kid, his dad was in the wool business, and his mom stayed home to take care of the kids. Jamal learned to cook as a boy by helping prepare food for his family. “My mom taught me, my sister, aunt, cousins, neighbors, everybody,” he says. There was a restaurant across the street. He used to watch the old man who owned it grinding garlic for falafel. People would line up around the block, waiting to buy those falafel, he says.

When he was 18, he was drafted to serve in the army. “Mandatory in Syria,” he says. “You can’t complain — who you gonna complain to?” Since 1976, when Syria invaded Lebanon, conservative Islamists had been fighting a guerilla war against the ruling Ba’ath Party, headed by President Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s embattled current president, Bashar al-Assad. In 1982, Assad began a monthlong bombing campaign against Hama, base of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. “Thirty days, bombs, tanks,” Jamal says. “They leveled two-thirds of the city.” Jamal and his brother were able to enter the city in their soldiers’ uniforms, he says, to rescue their father from the center of the city, where he was trapped. They pointed their guns at him, made a show of arresting him, then smuggled him to their aunt’s house out of town.

His home was spared from the destruction, although he knew many that were destroyed, many friends who were killed. After the siege, Jamal was discharged from the army. He returned home and started a juice stand. “Best juice in whole city,” he says. “Those guys downtown used one little piece of banana. I used a whole banana.” Police, government officials, the mayor — everybody came for his juice, he says. But he was looking for adventure, and so when a friend in Los Angeles secured him an F-1 student visa to attend an English-language school, he accepted. He bribed several officials to let him out of the country, then flew to the United States. It was 1985, and Jamal was 24.

smoothie1

Jamal serves smoothies for his customers at Hummingbird Cafe and Banana Sam’s.

During the lunch rush, the shop smells of toast, of roasted meat and melted cheese. “The best food on campus, the best food,” Jamal says to a customer as he rings her up. “You have it now, you’ll want it for dinner.” He darts over to the juicer, feeding in carrots, stalks of celery, apples. His forehead is shiny with sweat. The shark bites a customer’s backpack and shouts, “Have a nice day!” Someone pokes it on the nose and puts his hand in its mouth, but it does nothing.

An hour or so into the rush, Jamal sinks down behind the blender until he is sitting on the floor. He closes his eyes for a second. He stands back up, massaging his forearms. Someone at the front of the line orders a smoothie. Holding the blender with his left hand, Jamal tosses in a banana, frozen fruit, ice, a splash of syrup. The blender growls as Jamal pokes at the mixture with a rod attached to a splashguard.

“A good smoothie takes time,” Jamal tells a customer. “Some people have machines that make slush. This is better.” He corrects himself. “Best.”

When he arrived in the United States, Jamal decided at the last minute to settle in Berkeley instead of going to Los Angeles. He spoke almost no English. His plan was to stay in the country for a couple of years and learn the language, then go back to his juice stand in Syria. But a year and a half after he arrived, he got a call from his brother. Two men had come to the door, asking for him. They said they were friends of his, but the whole family knew what they really were: undercover police, there to tell him to return to the army. They’d seen it before. No warning, just, “Come with us.” Jamal, not supposed to be out of the country, would be punished for leaving. If he went to prison, he would likely be tortured, he says his brother told him. He realized then that he wouldn’t be going home.

“A good smoothie takes time. Some people have machines that make slush.”

— Jamal

“That was a turning point for me,” he says. “I realized it’s better for me here. Before, my thoughts were there.”

So he made his life in the United States. He worked all over, washing dishes and taking jobs in cafes, delis, groceries, construction sites, a tire shop. He moved from Berkeley to El Cerrito to Richmond. He learned English. He married and had a son. He opened his shop. He got divorced. Then, in 2002, he decided it had been long enough — time to visit home. He bought tickets and bribed Syrian officials so they wouldn’t punish him for having left. When he arrived at the airport, he was greeted by a crowd of his sisters and brothers, as well as others he didn’t know.

“They’re saying, this is your niece, your nephew,” Jamal says. “They’re 18, 19 years old, and I’ve never seen them before.”

 Going home after almost two decades was a mistake, he says. “After 20 years, my feelings had died down.” But seeing his family, feasting with them, seeing the old juice stand, still run by his brother — “I start missing them again.” At the same time, he realized that Berkeley had become home. “I felt like a stranger,” he says. “I didn’t know who to talk to, where to walk. I am desperate to come back after two weeks.” He visited his family again the next year, in 2003, and then again in 2005. “I really want to go back again,” he says. “But I don’t see how.”

“I felt like a stranger. I didn’t knkow who to talk to, where to walk… I really want to go back again. But I don’t see how.”

— Jamal, on visiting his homeland Syria for the first time in almost two decades in 2002

At 3 P.M., the shop smells of citrus. A group of four walks in, two men, two women. Jamal makes four smoothies and shakes out his arms. “OK guys, last call!” he says to no one in particular. “My arm’s numb, about to close.” He says he’ll be at Banana Sam’s, a second shop he opened down the street in 2009, then leaves.

smoothie3

“I say, ‘Teach me to make smoothies,’ ” Tumnee says. “He says, ‘Only I make smoothies.’ Maybe he’s afraid we’ll open up next door.” She and employee Jose Vazquez laugh. A customer walks in.

“Are you making smoothies?”

Tumnee shakes her head. “Smoothie guy’s not here.”

“Mmm, nice fingers,” the shark mutters.

Down at Banana Sam’s, Jamal leans against the counter, holding his forehead in his hands. “I don’t want to go back up there. Torture, man.” He holds out his hands, every crease stained purple from the juice. He points to small scars from surgery at the top of each palm, then lifts up his shirtsleeves to show similar scars on his shoulders. Carpal tunnel, he says, from the vibration of the blender. Sometimes his hands twitch and keep him from sleeping. He doesn’t want to show his girlfriend or employees how to make a smoothie, because if they did it wrong, he’d lose customers, he says. “I don’t want to franchise.”

He wishes the United States would intervene in Syria. “Half the country displaced,” he says. He thinks the opposition would need only a little help to oust the Assad regime. “No-fly zone, and in two months they are gone,” he says. Three years now, it’s been. The feeling of powerlessness is frustrating, the civil war an ache, a gnawing worry.

Communicating with his family is almost impossible. “I have no clue, no idea who’s still alive,” he says. He talks with his sister still, but it can be hard to know the situation from their conversations. They must be guarded, speaking in codes and metaphors. And, he says, “Sometimes I feel like she’s not telling me everything.”

Tumnee is spreading oil and oregano over slivers of eggplant when Jamal walks back into Hummingbird around 4:15. “Oh man, it’s a long day,” he says. “It’s like a cow: Go to a field, eat grass, get milked, get a kick in the ass. That’s life.”

“Gotcha! Want some more?” asks the shark, unprovoked.

At 5 p.m., the shop smells like oregano. Vazquez takes out the trash and pulls in the chairs from outside. Jamal draws the curtains and dissembles the juicer. Tumnee wipes the meat slicer. Vazquez empties the coffee machine and wipes the counters. Tumnee pulls the last eggplant from the oven. Jamal gathers up all the dirty aprons and carries them out to his car. Vazquez sweeps and mops the floor. “Java, let’s go, 6 o’clock!” he says. “Jose, wrap up, 6 o’clock!” Vazquez squeezes out the mop one last time. Jamal lets down the bead curtain across the back room and shuts off the lights. Vazquez leaves, Tumnee shuts the door and Jamal locks it.

Tonight, he’ll take his son to his ex-wife’s house so she can take him to Boy Scout camp tomorrow. His alarm is set for 5 a.m., so he can drive Tumnee to the airport for a weeklong trip to Hawaii. He’ll be into Banana Sam’s by noon to fry up the week’s falafel. He might take Sunday off, but he thinks he probably needs to spend a couple of hours cooking at Hummingbird. Maybe, if he has time, he’ll call his sister and ask her, “How’s the weather?”

Zach St. George is a second year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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  • Akansha

    Very captivating and well-written article. I’ve never been either Banana Sam’s or Hummingbird cafe but I’ll have to check them out next time I’m in Berkeley!