Eid on Steinway Street, Astoria, 1433 (2012)

22 Aug

The few blocks of Steinway Street just south of the Grand Central in Astoria have become the center drag for Queens’ Egygptian and other Arab community in the past two decades or so.  Steinway is lined, literally one next to the other, with narghile (hooka, shishsa) shops, clubs, pastry shops and coffeehouses, largely Egyptian-owned, some Lebanese, some Yemeni.  What I hadn’t realized till a couple of years ago is that those blocks of Steinway Street were a major hang out for South Asian kids from around the neighbourhood and from all over Queens.  At least the first night of Eid.  I asked more than a few of these kids why they didn’t go to Jackson Height, the densest and most varied of Queens’ South Asian neighborhoods, on a night like this, and all of them said: “There’s nothing there at night!”  It really got me thinking about why this sort of cafe culture would exist in the Muslim world’s Mediterranean countries and not in South Asia.  There’s the tea-house in Central Asia, but there seems to be nothing in lowland Pakistan, India or Bangladesh that’s comparable.  Or is there and I don’t know about it?  Any ideas?

In any event on Eid (as soon they as they can escape their families?) these kids swamp and totally overwhelm Steinway with color and beauty.  It’s really an amazing sight.

(Click — and for textile, ornament and beautiful face detailsdouble-click on ALL photos; they’re big files.)

The gorgeous silk kurta, the traditional sequinned (double-click) shoes and the jeans in between (above).  Can anybody tell me what the beautiful article of clothing his friend is wearing is called?

Hennaed hands.

Only one of these guys was unsuccessful in suppressing the giggles.

My funky glasses and my yaar: “Eid Mubarak!”

And a beautiful friend and guest of the above two.  It’s New York, right?  They musta had a piss taking her shopping.

And some Egyptians…   The best Adana-like kebab in the city (above), what’s called lyulya kebab in Russia and Central Asia.  I don’t know what Arabs call it.  Too bad for the plastic, germophobic gloves; I can guarantee you, from experience, that an evening’s accumulation of grease and sweat off his palms makes it taste so much better.

And (below) an Egyptian couple who now happily have nothing more to say to each other.  Is there a way to fast-forward a marriage to that point?

The photo below turned out to be badly focussed– very unfortunately — because this guy was easily the king of the Steinway St. runway that night in a white satin, red-and-gold sequinned sherwani and red, gold-threaded dupatta.  I said to him: “That’s what you wear for Eid, buddy?  What are you gonna wear for your wedding?”  He smiled and said: “I’m married…”

Then there’s these guys below, who are cool enough to just show up in their tats.

“Askeri” — soldier

And a more hardcore tattoo below (though, actually, just “askeri” is probably more Spartanly hardcore).  It had something in transliterated Urdu or Punjabi underneath the lion but things were too frantic for me to get it down.

And scarfing with his friends.

Below, a Ranbir Kapoor look-alike with his knock-out friend.  Full holiday dress-kit for Bangladeshi women usually means a sari and not fancy salwar-kameez like for Indo-Pako-Muslim or Sikh women.  But you can’t really draw hard lines like that ’cause you never know; it’s India and this is New York.  (“India” is meant here historically, as the whole subcontinent guys, ok?  Don’t bow up on me please.)

And laughing (below) when I told them that he was a Ranbir Kapoor look-alike.

A kiss away from the folks.

Down Steinway.

One particularly heartening part of going out on this shoot…

Muslims in America have been the object of illegal surveillance and harassment, infiltration of their communities, unfair detention, vandalism and just plain annoying and irritating disrespect and meddling for a long time now.  I’ve been on the secondary receiving end of the anger and suspicion that’s all caused — though hardly a victim of it — under a variety of circumstances, some unpleasant, some funny.

Now, for a variety of physical, age, accent and attitude reasons I guess I could pass for a New York cop.  I also wear my cross on an employee i.d., dogtag-type chain and that probably doesn’t help.  Nobody in Afghanistan, expat or Afghan, believed I wasn’t a contractor without lengthy explanation and convincing on my part and that’s really not a perception you want to be the object of when in Afghanistan.  When I came back, the passport guy at JFK saw my Afghan visa and said: “Contractor?” and I said “NO! ENGLISH TEACHER!”  I was once thrown out of a mosque in Elmhurst (off-prayer time) by the custodian and his broom, one of those old Peshawari guys with the orange beards, yelling: “Go out! Go out!”  And an exchange with two Afghan butchers who I had gone to for my lamb one Easter because I was having halal-observant friends over was completely friendly and animated till I started throwing around some of my recently learned Farsi.  That was followed by a complete silence through which they kept busily hacking away without even looking at me.  And when two Pashtun guys with meat cleavers make it clear they don’t want to talk to you, it’s best to shut up.  They didn’t even speak the price to me at the end; just physically showed me the receipt.  I payed, took my animal and slunk out.

But I only put two and two together when I went into another halal butcher in Jackson Heights to get some chickens for something I was going to make for a party we were having with my students, many of them also halal-observant.  I walked in; said “Salaam,” even did my little “adab” forehead gesture and everybody just stared at me.  Then a very energetic, smiling young Pakistani guy came out of the back and with arms wide-open says: “Officer, what I can give you?!”  After a “what-do-I-say” second, I told him what I needed.  “Ok, officer!”  He started skinning and chopping at the chickens.  “So, barbecue time, officer?”  It was right before Memorial Day.  I said, “No, I’m actually gonna make a korma with that chicken; that’s why I’m asking you to take the skin off…”  “Wow, nice.”  Silence.  “You know, I’m not a cop.”  “Ok, officer, no problem,” smilingly.  “I have students who only eat halal meat, we’re having a party….” I continue trying to explain.  “Ohhhhh, that’s very nice, officer, you’re good guy.”  “And I’m learning Farsi because…”  Then I just gave up; put my arm up on the counter, leaning up against the glass, just watching him — him with the chickens, as he kept grinning and occasionally mumbling to himself: “Ok, officer…yeaaaaaaaa, chicken….no problem, officer…ok, officer…”  He was getting to the last of the chickens and he looked up at me and we stared at one another for a moment, full eye contact, like three feet away from each other…and we both fell into a giggling fit.

I never did figure out whether he believed me, didn’t believe me, was pulling my leg and shittin’ with me the whole time — I don’t know.  They all replied “Khuda Hafez” to mine as I left.  I did my little forehead gesture.  The older men returned it.  Who knows.  I don’t know.  Once on the street I thought to myself: “Can they really think that any American ‘inteligence’ organization — FBI, NYPD — can be that stupid that they think they’re going to teach a big white guy some half-assed words of Farsi-Urdu, and send him in to….” and then said, yeah, they have every reason to think they can be “that stupid” because they probably are.

Back to Steinway Street.  The night we went on this shoot I was doing my introductory spiel to every group of kids we would walk up to: “These are just for a blog I write…I’ll take them down if you don’t like them..” and, to several more hesitant looking groups of guys: “…I’m not a cop or anything,” to which they replied, to the man, and in stereo: “I wouldn’t give a shit if you were.”

Aferin!  That’s the spirit, brothers.  Stay strong and keep it up.

Thanks to all of you guys for your smiling, cooperative, welcoming participation in this little project.  I can’t express my appreciation enough.  All the best to you, your friends and your families.

And for the rest of us, trapped in the aesthetics of nineteenth-century, false bourgeois humility and, now, its descendant, the fake hipness of charcoal and black, PLEASE keep wearing those clothes, and be enormously proud of them.

Many, many thanks to Johana Ramirez, who took the photos and accompanied me on this adventure.

Again, if you want any of these taken down, you know where to find me.  Any of those who didn’t make it, sorry; it was only a matter of space.  I’m putting up a Flickr page as soon as I can where all the photos taken that night will be posted, so you’ll be able to find them there.

And again, thank you.  Peace.

Nick Bakos

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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