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When Mohammad Naser arrived in Winnipeg in 2012 as a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus at the height of the Syrian civil war, he went grocery shopping.
It was profoundly overwhelming: he hardly spoke a lick of English, and there he was, pacing the aisles with Google Translate in his hand, trying to read the labels and navigate unfamiliar terrain in search of halal meat and Middle Eastern ingredients. It was an uphill battle.
"I didn’t understand anything," he said Tuesday. "I couldn’t find what I was looking for."
That experience sparked an idea for Naser, who’d worked in contracting and construction before coming to Canada: a Middle Eastern specialty food store where newcomers in Winnipeg could get a taste of home, while people who’d never been to places like Damascus or Nablus could discover new products and cuisines.
In December, that idea turned to reality when Naser, 38, signed a lease on a 6,000-square-foot space in a strip at 1566 Pembina Hwy. In a few months, the space would become Tarboosh Middle Eastern, a specialty store with in-house halal butchering and baking, and Al Basha, a restaurant and lounge.
As the opening date neared, the outbreak of COVID-19 altered the project’s schedule. New barriers to opening came left and right: construction was slowed, products on order from Palestine or Australia, from where much of the halal meat is sourced, was delayed. Orders also became more expensive.
Naser, who also owns the Arabesque lounge on Corydon, dug in his heels. "I have a plan, I have a goal, and I have to go ahead and cannot stop," he said.
Tarboosh soft-opened on May 24, after Eid, and customers trickled in to buy products like fresh-made pita, manakeesh, halal meat from Carman, and frozen Nabulsi kunafa, a Palestinian dessert made with phyllo dough and Nablus-style cheese. A full opening came on May 28.
Inside the store, there is an extensive collection of Middle Eastern spices, olives, oils, coffees, and teas, plus several house-made tahinis and hummuses. When planning the store, Naser obviously didn’t have COVID-19 measures in mind, but the aisles are wide, the ceilings are high, and the space is well-suited to keep cautious customers far apart.
One man walked in and said he was shocked by the vast selection, but even more so by the fact he’d never been inside. "When did you open?" he asked. "Four days ago," chuckled Naser.
There are still hurdles to pass for Tarboosh as COVID-19 continues to have lingering effects on grocery shopping. And Al Basha — the Halal restaurant directly adjacent to the store — hasn’t set an opening date yet, but interior construction is nearly complete. Inside the empty lounge, Naser’s excitement for what the space will become is tempered by anxiety, but he’s optimistic about the future.
"It’s hard, and coronavirus made it harder, but we have a mission and we can’t stop," he said.
In recent years, Winnipeg’s Middle Eastern food scene has blossomed, with restaurants like Les Saj on St. James Street, Ramallah on Pembina, and Yaffa Cafe on Portage Avenue, plus many others, popping up and earning raves. On Portage, Blady Middle Eastern market opened last year and has since become a local mainstay.
It’s a culinary scene vastly different than the one Naser arrived to find in 2012, and he wants Tarboosh and Al Basha to play a part in expanding it even further to the growing diasporic community.
At Tarboosh, some labels are in Arabic with no English, and staff, many of whom are former refugees, speak fluently. It’s the kind of store Naser was looking for when he was a newcomer, and he hopes it can be that for others, too.
"That’s my dream," he said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 9:18 AM CDT: Changes headline, corrects that Mohammad Naser is Palestinian
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