The Terrorist Who Wasn't

Hollywood's Manny Ebaid struggles to rebound after the War on Terror made him collateral damage

"I thought the marijuana charge was dropped," he says. "I didn't even go to court for it."

Ebaid told Immigration Judge Kenneth S. Hurewitz he used marijuana through 2000 but has quit. "He testified that he now understands he was arrested and convicted and should have stated such in his application for adjustment," Hurewitz wrote in his opinion on the case. "Importantly, he made no attempt to deceive the court as to his drug conviction and has accepted full responsibility for his actions."

But the drug charge was the least of Ebaid's worries. Authorities in Egypt became aware of Ebaid's detention, and soon after, they searched the homes of his family in Alexandria. For months his family members were kept under surveillance, according to letters they sent him.

Ebaid dances at his welcome-home party
Ebaid dances at his welcome-home party

Ebaid believed he would be tortured and possibly killed if deported. He told Judge Hurewitz that because of the publicity generated by his case, Egyptian authorities were "bound to inflict harm" upon him. Even if the U.S. government assured the nation that the inclusion of his name on a terror list was a mistake, he would still be tortured, Ebaid says.

"I can't win," he says. "Egypt tortures terrorists. If I go back to Egypt and they think I'm a terrorist, they will torture me for information about terrorism. They will not believe that the United States government, the best government in the world for human rights, would put my name on a terror watch list without reason. Egypt will not believe that. If I go to Egypt with the story that the U.S. government dropped the charges, they will think that I have become a spy for the U.S. government. Either way, I will be tortured."

In September 2005, Hurewitz granted Ebaid his request not to be deported. The Egyptian became a free man, but his reputation now prevents him from ever returning to Egypt, where he had hoped to retire and be closer to his family.

Just after Thanksgiving, Ebaid returned to Florida. His friends gathered at Exotic Bites for a welcome-home party.

They ate. They danced. They laughed.

And Ebaid quickly discovered that life isn't easy for an exonerated terrorist.

Ebaid used to love walking along Hollywood Boulevard with his two children. They'd stroll through the sidewalk cafés on sunny afternoons. He'd occasionally buy the youngsters ice cream, and they'd walk as the dessert melted and ran down their little fingers. Ebaid enjoyed those days, and he wishes he could have them back.

Since his detention one year ago, Ebaid has sheltered his two kids from the truth of his ordeal. In an effort to discourage unwanted attention, he asked that details about his wife and two children not be reported.

But the outside world keeps intruding. Recently two older women approached him while he was walking with his children.

"We saw you on the news," one woman said after grabbing Ebaid's elbow. "We're sorry about what happened to you."

After the encounter, his daughter asked, "Why did she say that?"

Ebaid slumps forward as he remembers telling his daughter a lie. "I told her I was doing promotion for the business," Ebaid says. He wipes away a tear.

"Sometimes I think I should just stop everything and go somewhere else," Ebaid explains. "Here everybody knows me. Even the people who knew me before, who knew me as the happy person, they feel bad for me now. But it still doesn't help me with my children, and that's what matters. They are my life, and here I am. I can't walk down the street with them!"

The loss to Ebaid's business has been similarly difficult. At the time of his arrest, Ebaid operated Exotic Bites on Young Circle and a small fish-and-chips shop on Harrison Street. He also had plans to open a to-go falafel joint for downtown Hollywood's lunch crowd and a fancier, sit-down Middle Eastern restaurant.

While he was in detention, Ebaid's restaurants languished and legal bills mounted. By the time he was freed, he was broke, with only the fish-and-chips shop still in operation. He turned it into the new location for Exotic Bites, a narrow restaurant of about eight tables and walls decorated with satellite images of Florida.

Despite the troubles, he's optimistic. "I believe in my restaurant," he says. "I believe my restaurant helps to build a bridge between two civilizations, Eastern and Western, through my food, my music, my art, culture, and tradition — free of politics and religion. I want to bring people together in unity in one place. It's not just about food and a restaurant. I choose this because it's in my heart."

But as hard as he may try, Ebaid can't put terrorism behind him. As he sits at one of his dining tables, a man walks in the restaurant and immediately recognizes Ebaid.

"Celebrity! Look at you!" the man says.

"Oh. Hello. How are you?" Ebaid says shyly as he looks toward the ground.

"Look, I know what you've been through — the works. I've been there." The man's friends walk in behind him. "Manny is a terrorist," the man adds.

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