Attention, fans of Ali Al Haijaa’s falafel: your favourite deep-fried chickpea fritters are now available in St. John’s seven days a week.
That’s right: The days of late-night lineups at The Sprout are over, and in their place is an entire kitchen dedicated full-time to Middle Eastern cuisine. That’s as of March 28 and thanks to Al Haijaa, the owner of Mohamad Ali, which just opened on Duckworth Street next to Fixed Coffee & Baking.
Ali Al Haijaa stands in his restaurant's kitchen after its first week of business. — Photo by Mackenzie Scrimshaw/Special to The Telegram
Previously, Al Haijaa sold his food at The Sprout, a vegetarian restaurant in St. John’s, where he was once an employee.
The Telegram caught up with Al Haijaa after a busy first week of business at the new location.
Al Haijaa thinks the restaurant’s opening was successful — but not perfect. He found himself short-staffed, which resulted in slower service, and he faced an electricity problem.
Still, Al Haijaa was optimistic about Week 2.
“Hopefully this week coming will be faster and the food better than (the) week past.”
For Al Haijaa, running the restaurant represents the first step toward fulfilling his dream to open multiple locations and to bring his family members — some of whom are in Sweden and others, in the United States — to St. John’s. This is in an attempt to “make the best life for us.”
Already, Al Haijaa’s life has improved from what it was in 2003, when the war in Iraq began. At the time, he was studying at the University of Baghdad, fencing and operating a modest business at a local market with his brother.
When then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was overthrown, that all changed. Al Haijaa spent the next four years in a refugee camp near the Iraqi-Jordanian border, where, he said, the living conditions were dismal.
Finally, in pursuit of a better life, Al Haijaa immigrated to Canada. He wed shortly after settling in St. John’s and, in 2011, became a father.
Today, Al Haijaa said he is working 70-hour weeks. The restaurant’s success is all-important if he wants to fulfil his dream.
What is your full name?
My name is Ali Al Haijaa.
When and where were you born?
I am from Palestine, but I (was) born in Iraq — 1982. So I lived in Iraq until Saddam Hussein fell down.
So, being Palestinian, was your family originally from Palestine?
Yea. My family was originally from Palestine — from Haifa.
Your father was also a small business owner. What did he teach you about running a business?
The first thing he (taught) me … I have to sell food or anything … I have to accept it in myself. So, if I sell this kind of tea, I have to test it.
Do I like it? This is the first question I ask. Do I like it? So if I like it, some people will like it. If I don’t like it, if something’s wrong with it, I’m not going to sell it. I have to see what’s going on and I have to fix it and make it taste better.
What’s your fondest memory of living in Iraq?
Before 2003, it was awesome. Like when Saddam Hussein was (in power), it was really awesome. I was in university. I had my business with my brother. I sold pizza and hummus, like Middle East food like now, here. At the same time, I played sports. I was on the Palestinian international team, fencing team. I had medals. We had a good life before 2003.
What did you study at university?
Medical support for two years at the University of Baghdad.
I understand that you also lived in an Iraqi refugee camp. What the hardest part of living in a refugee camp?
Every second day (there was) a sandstorm. Sandstorms are (worse than) snowstorms. There you can’t take a breath. You can’t eat. You can’t do (anything). Just you have to have towel or something or mask to cover your nose and mouth just (to breathe).
It’s really hard. Years. Four years. That is this life. … Four years and we didn’t eat meat. We had to go to a hospital outside the camp that has a restaurant (where) you can buy it. But there, nobody can work so we (didn’t) have any money to buy food or a fresh meal, you know? ... We just had to eat potatoes and tomatoes — just vegetarian food, so I was really skinny.
While you were living in such poor conditions, what got you through those four years?
Life. I was looking for a better life.
What was your first impression of St. John’s when you arrived here?
When I came to the St. John’s airport, I liked it. Quiet city. I came in December. The snow was over top of my head. But I like it. I like it. Especially for a new Canadian, too. They help us. They support and they understand the situation very well. So I decided to stay here, and I feel like Newfoundland people are nicer than anybody else.
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How did you meet your wife?
I knew my wife when I was a kid. She was my neighbour. She’s Palestinian, too, and when I came here, I decided to get married as soon as possible because I had to build my life.
What was the wedding like?
Really awesome. (My wife) will tell you.
We had a ceremony and party and everyone was there. We fed everyone. We had a beautiful wedding.
What do you hope to teach your son?
I hope to teach him to be smart. I would like him to cook. I would like him to be a doctor or engineer, you know? Famous man, you know? Business man. Not like a cook or to run a restaurant. The restaurant is like part of the dream, you know? Or the beginning of the dream. So, hopefully he’s going to be a doctor or an engineer — better than, you know, working in the kitchen (during) hard times.
As the beginning of your dream, what is your whole dream?
My whole dream is to have all my family with me and to have more branches for Mohamad Ali with big restaurants and all kinds of Middle Eastern food and dessert and coffee and everything.
Who taught you how to cook?
Life. When I was in Iraq, in wintertime we were in school, and summertime was free. So my father, he had a friend, they had a restaurant. He asked me and my brother to work with them — just a few hours. … Twenty years in Baghdad, I used to work at restaurants, plus my father’s coffee shop, and in the camp, too, I cooked for myself a lot of types of food.
When you go out to eat, which restaurants do you go to?
In St. John’s, I don’t go a lot. But I tried Pizza Hut, ’cause (my wife) likes pizza, and I tried an open-buffet Chinese restaurant next to Avalon Mall. I like to try all kind of food. I like hot food. I like The Sprout restaurant’s food. My favourite meal there is the pad Thai with extra hot sauce. That’s my favourite food in St. John’s.
What do you think your restaurant brings to St. John’s?
I think my restaurant brings to St. John’s more culture, and I bring to St. John’s halal meat.
How many hours do you work at the restaurant every week?
Now, I work, in a week, over 70. Almost, every day, at least 12 hours.
How important is your restaurant to you?
It’s really important. I told you, I have like, this (is the) beginning of my dream. So it’s important to (succeed)…. But it’s really important for me and, you know, support my family. And hopefully my brother and my sisters will come here and work with me.
This kind of business … will make my family all together again. ’Cause now my family (is all around the world). My family’s in Sweden and U.S.A.
What do you do for fun?
Right now, when I started my business last week, I didn’t do anything since I started work. Before that, I was fencing every week, a couple of times. I was fencing every Monday and Wednesday at MUN. But now I stopped for a while. Every day I was going to Aquarena six o’clock in the morning until nine.
How was the first week of business?
It was really super busy. It was really good. We have some problems with the power. So we tried to fix it as soon as possible. Hopefully Monday. This is my problem for now.
Plus I have a short staff now to run the restaurant really well. We’re late a little bit (in serving) people and people (were) waiting probably more than half an hour. So this is kind of a problem. I’m going to find a solution for it. I already have a plan for now. I need to hire more people.