Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sometimes racism is how you see it

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WASHINGTON -- At the corner of 12th and G streets in downtown Washington the other day at lunchtime, there were 10 fabulous, full-sized food trucks, namely:

Tasty Kabob

Surfside Fish Tacos

DC Taco Company

Popped Republican Popcorn

Hula Girl

DC Empanadas

Liberty Chicken and Gyros

Korengy Korean Bibimbap.

Just around the corner from the others, in a repurposed 50-year-old bread van with "Historic" on its licence plates, was the famously tasty and suddenly poisonous Fojol Brothers of a made-up land called Merlindia.

At the front window of this battered wagon, taking orders for butter chicken, lentils and other subcontinental staples, was a young Caucasian man in a frizzy, rainbow-coloured toupee.

The Fojol Brothers of Merlindia, who in reality are a kitchen cabinet of white dudes trying to distinguish themselves in an overcrowded field of fast ethnic food, have been serving curries from their mobile cafeteria while wearing pastel turbans and fake moustaches for the past three years. They were so successful with their original imitation Singh-Singh shtick that they have expanded into two more fictitious realms -- Benethiopia and Volathailand.

Then, out of nowhere, a couple of weeks ago, a Facebook posting by the son of an editor of the Washington Post accused the Fojol Brothers, which is not their real name (nor are they brothers), of racist stereotyping and urged that they at least be boycotted, if not simmered in ghee and served with chutney and naan.

The web posting was hardly subtle; it began with the salutation "Dear Idiots," painted a portrait of "a cascade of sitars blaring from a smoking clown car filled with faux-mustachioed goons," slandered the alleged goons' customers as "entitled young bohemians" and "monied ignoramuses," and was signed by "A White Boy Who Don't Play That S***."

This rant was augmented by a petition on the website that declared "white people wearing turbans and fake mustaches and playing Punjabi music while serving Indian food is stereotype and mockery" and demanded that the Fojol Brothers "Respect Asian and African cultures -- stop the brownface minstrel act!" More than 1,000 people (from as far away as Halifax) signed in just a couple of days. So there was more on the menu at 12th and G than just a noonday meal.

Over at the Popped Republic wagon, one of the offerings was a so-called "Obama Mix," a bi-coloured blend of brown caramel and white cheddar. But I didn't see anyone picketing this attempt at a political gag.

I walked a few blocks to another corner where more food trucks were elbowing each other like elephants at a watering hole. This was the grassy triangle between the Department of State and the U.S. Federal Reserve. There were taco and kebab stands down here, plus the Fojol Brothers of Benethiopia in another Historic van. But I didn't see Hillary Clinton or Ben Bernanke fuming in the queue.

This time, it was a white guy in a Rastafarian tuque and handlebar facial hair who took my order for a plate of cabbage and carrots with injera, the gauzy Ethiopian pancake that is used as both sponge and spoon. But the music coming from the speakers on the truck was hardly equatorial; it was Hey Jude and Tiny Dancer.

"Is all this controversy hurting your business?" I asked the ersatz Rasta, who turned out to be Peter Korbel, one of the founding Fojols. "We're just a small business trying to make a living," he answered, and went back to stirring his peas.

After my lunch, I was walking back to the Metro when I came upon a chanting cluster of about a hundred Africans who were holding signs that said "STOP SUPPORTING THE WORST DICTATOR ON EARTH" and "FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS NOW." These were Eritreans whose country had broken away from the real Ethiopia after decades of war.

"Down, down, Isaias!" the people chanted, demanding the removal of Isaias Afewerki, the first -- and still, after 20 years -- only president of their independent homeland.

A man came up to me and wondered what an entitled young bohemian like myself was doing in the protesters' midst. I explained that I had just come from a food truck whose proprietors wore Rastafarian headpieces and Punjabi turbans because they thought it garnished their cuisine with verisimilitude. My new friend explained what the protest was about and told me that he was an immigration lawyer (in Virginia) named Michael Andegeorgis.

I told Andegeorgis about the Fojol Brothers and I asked him if he thought that racial typing and was ever-present in this capital city and these United States, be it as blatant as a bag of brown-and-white popcorn or as silly as a turquoise turban on a pretend Punjabi.

"I appeal before immigration courts and the judges are extremely fair and reasonable," he replied. "I can't say that I have ever seen a trace of racism since I came here 10 years ago.

"In America, people complain about the intrusion of government into private life," the African said. "But to me, this is heaven."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 J11

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