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It's 10:30 on a Wednesday night in February, and 46-year-old Mandoah "Manny" Ebaid is checking the foot traffic outside his Middle Eastern eatery, Exotic Bites, near Young Circle Park in downtown Hollywood.
At one of the outdoor tables, a group of eight is smoking flavored tobacco from a large, multihose arghileh, a Middle Eastern water pipe commonly called a hookah. The evening air, meanwhile, has turned the nearby cranes and barricades into murky shadows.
A slender man with short salt-and-pepper hair and a warm face, Ebaid smiles and then darts inside and turns on a CD player.
Drum-heavy Egyptian music begins, blaring from speakers inside and outside the restaurant. Sound wafts down Harrison Street and over toward Hollywood Boulevard, audible at least two blocks away before it fades into the din of traffic.
Rimarah Hare, a striking, green-eyed Brazilian woman, emerges from the kitchen, finger cymbals clanging to the beat of the music. She's wearing a long purple skirt and an ornately decorated top, a traditional outfit for raqs sharqi, or belly dancing, an Egyptian art form that predates Islam. She slithers through the restaurant, her arms outstretched and fingers tapping together, as the patrons in the restaurant look up from their plates to slip one-dollar bills into the waistline of Hare's dress.
She dances toward the door as the people smoking the arghileh cheer, clapping their hands and encouraging her to come outside. She exits and Ebaid follows; he clears the table, moving the water pipe to the side, and then takes Hare's hand and helps her climb up. He signals to a waitress inside to increase the volume. Hare continues her dance on top of the table as the music fills Harrison Street the same way it would consume an alley in central Cairo. Two cars stop along the curb and their hazard lights click on. The people inside the cars sit transfixed as they watch Hare put on a show.
Ebaid smiles as he takes in the scene. His smile is his trademark, the thing people associate most with his name. Sometimes, even on nights when he has hours left to cook and clean, Ebaid looks like the happiest man in Florida.
"I always smile," he says. "I always laugh."
Ebaid's disposition is a testament to his optimism. Nearly a year ago, federal officials detained him after his name mysteriously appeared on a list of suspected terrorists. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security incarcerated Ebaid for eight months as they interrogated him and petitioned a U.S. Immigration Court judge to deport him to his native Egypt. Government officials suggested to the news media that Ebaid was a terrorist guilty until proven innocent.
"You don't expect someone like that to be living in the community," Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti told the Miami Herald following Ebaid's arrest.
The accusation ruined his life, Ebaid says, and nearly bankrupted his business. It was simply wrong. Ebaid wasn't involved with terrorist organizations. He was a hard-working family man, the father of two young children who go to public schools, and the owner of a growing three-year-old business in Hollywood.
His case illustrates significant problems with the federal government's terrorism watch list, which has quadrupled in size since 2003 and now includes 325,000 names.
Why the government listed Ebaid remains a mystery. At the time of his arrest, he didn't come close to fitting the profile of a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist. He'd been to a mosque only once since he arrived in the United States in 1984. He served alcohol at his restaurant. He hired belly dancers. His wife was not only a Westerner but also a Catholic. Ebaid didn't fit the terrorist profile, but he unashamedly celebrated his Arabic culture through his business in a city the 9/11 hijackers once called home.
Ebaid says he suffers permanent scars. He fears he will be tortured by the Egyptian government if he ever returns to his homeland, where he once dreamed of retiring. He won't walk in public with his children because he fears what people will say or do to him. He can't go a day without having to explain that, no, he isn't a terrorist. In fact, he says, people still think he's a fanatic bent on killing innocent Americans. They think he knew 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Strangers approach him and ask questions.
Aren't you the terrorist who was on TV?
Why did they let you go?
Are you part of al Qaeda?
"You don't know how much pain I have," Ebaid says. "I lost everything. All my dreams, everything I worked so hard for, gone. Gone, just like that."
He could easily start over somewhere else, in a place where people don't think he's a terrorist. But he won't. Ebaid wants desperately to rebuild the life that the government carelessly destroyed.
"Hollywood is my home," Ebaid says. "My children go to school here. My business is here. I've worked hard for what I have. I'm not going to leave, no matter what people say or think about me."
Tragedy brought Ebaid to the United States. In the early Eighties, he was engaged to marry his cousin in Alexandria, Egypt. The youngest son in a family of five children, he was a semiprofessional soccer player who worked for his brother's air-conditioning and heating business. He expected to marry, have children, and live the rest of his life in Egypt.