The Terrorist Who Wasn't
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."
"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.
But one evening, his life changed. His young fiancée was in the kitchen cooking dinner. A fire erupted.
"Her whole body burned," Ebaid says solemnly. "She died."
Everything in Egypt began to remind him of his loss. So he ran away. And in 1984, at age 24, he was awarded a scholarship to study at Wagner College, in Staten Island, New York.
"I didn't come here like everybody else to make money," Ebaid explains. "I was sad back home, completely sad."
But the United States didn't turn things around completely. Ebaid did poorly in school, unable to concentrate on his studies and obsessing about the fire.
"Because of what had happened in Egypt, I felt completely dismantled," he says. "I would sit in front of the book and read the same line for hours, and I could not absorb it."
After three months, Ebaid dropped out and went to work in restaurants in Long Island for several years. In 1992 he opened his own eatery, the Shish Kabob, in Long Beach. During the warm months, he also operated a concession stand serving falafel and kebabs.
Around the same time, Ebaid met his wife, Maria Flores. A Mexican-American Catholic, Flores helped him transition from Middle Eastern to Mexican cuisine. In late 1993, they opened Aztec Café in Miller Place, New York, and a year later, they inaugurated a second restaurant, a Tex-Mex place called Cactus Jack, in Mineola, about 40 miles away.
Ebaid and Flores had their first child, a little girl, in February 1997. About two years later, they sold their restaurants and moved to North Miami Beach. Ebaid aimed to open a restaurant and wanted to find an area with a lot of well-educated people and international tourists a demographic he believes is best suited for a Middle Eastern restaurant.
In February 2002, Ebaid finally settled on downtown Hollywood. He found his kitchen manager in Quintin Cortes Rodriguez, a jovial 63-year-old Puerto Rican who worked at a butcher shop that Ebaid frequented.
"Before I even had time to think about it, I agreed to work for Manny," Rodriguez remembers. Exotic Bites' other employees include a cook and two waitresses from Israel.
In just a few years, they built the restaurant, at the time located on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Young Circle, into one of the city's most visible places. Ebaid and Rodriguez "became family," as Rodriguez says. In fact Ebaid's two children refer to Rodriguez as "grandpa."
Ebaid can be difficult and demanding, Rodriguez admits, but he's also very kind. After Hurricane Frances clipped South Florida in September 2004, he distributed food and drinks to the homeless in downtown Hollywood. "He was like a saint, a real saint," Rodriguez says.
Ebaid can also be generous. On November 28, 2004, while Ebaid was busy taking care of patrons, someone dashed inside the restaurant and grabbed two multihose arghilehs, worth about $150 each. Ebaid gave chase, and the man quickly jumped into a truck and drove away. Police were unable to identify a suspect. Less than two weeks later, on December 12, 2004, it happened again. A young man ran inside the restaurant, grabbed an arghileh, and scampered down Hollywood Boulevard. One of Ebaid's customers noticed the theft and chased down the man, dragging him back to the restaurant, water pipe in hand.
"I got the guy inside, and we called the police," Ebaid recalls. "They arrested the guy. He was a high school kid from a very rich Jewish family. When it came time to go to court, I dropped the charges. I didn't want it to go on his record, something like that, a stolen arghileh. It would be on his record and ruin his life.... He learned his lesson."
Ebaid isn't always so even-tempered. Rodriguez remembers one particular incident when two Palestinian men were sitting at an outside table, smoking from an arghileh.
"They were talking Bush that, America this, Israel that," Rodriguez says. "Manny went over and looked at me. He pointed to his ear. I knew what he meant. He didn't like what they were saying. He went up to the table and slammed down the arghileh. He broke the thing. That's when he yelled, 'This is my country now, and you're not talking bad politics here. Get the fuck out, and don't come back.'"
Ebaid is hesitant to talk about the incident. He wonders if another Arab might have been responsible for his inclusion on the terrorist list. "Sometimes I think it was someone from my own people who said those things about me a traitor, an Arab," Ebaid says.
As he watches a belly dancer outside Exotic Bites on a recent evening, Rodriguez laughs about the absurdity of Ebaid's ordeal.
"Terrorism?" he says. "If I thought Manny was a terrorist, I'd be the first to put my foot up his ass."
Hollywood Police Dets. Pete Salvo and John Kidd were dressed in street clothes when they sat down at a table at Exotic Bites. According to the police report, it was 2:01 a.m. February 26, 2005.
Ebaid approached the two men and introduced himself as Manny. "What would you like to drink?" he asked, handing menus to both men.
The undercover detectives claim they ordered "an alcoholic beverage" and were served at 2:15 a.m. Exotic Bites wasn't licensed to serve alcohol past 2:00 a.m.
At the same time, according to the report, "Both detectives observed the defendant, who advised he was the owner, serve at least two subjects, which were identified ... to be under the age of 21 years old. Each minor was served a beer."
Three uniformed officers arrived, the report states, and "several minors fled the area." Two were stopped: a sixteen- and a seventeen-year-old whose names and gender are not provided in the police report.
Salvo arrested Ebaid for serving alcohol after hours, but eventually those charges were dropped. The officer could not provide evidence to substantiate the charges.
But that false arrest was only the beginning of Ebaid's troubles. Hollywood detectives claim they discovered, after detaining the restaurateur, that his name appeared on a federal list of suspected terrorists. Ebaid doubts that timeline.
"They knew in advance they wanted to get me, so they made up this charge of serving alcohol to minors," Ebaid claims today.
Even Hollywood Police spokesman Tony Rode couldn't explain why the names of the minors were not included in the original report or why Salvo was unable to provide the names later. "Maybe there really weren't any minors," Rode concedes.
There was, of course, an incentive to trump up charges to score a major collar: a suspected terrorist.
The story hit the newspapers and television stations the next day. From the first news reports, Ebaid maintained his innocence, claiming that Hollywood Police unfairly targeted him because his business and specifically his loud Middle Eastern music did not fit in with Mayor Giulianti's vision for rapidly changing downtown Hollywood.
"I am not a member of any terrorist group," Ebaid told CBS 4 (WFOR-TV) immediately after his arrest. "I never have been."
A sign was taped to the window of Exotic Bites: "He is not a terrorist and has never been involved in anything that would hurt this country. He loves this country and the people."
Border Patrol officers transferred Ebaid to the Krome Detention Center in west Miami-Dade, where he was interrogated by Homeland Security agents before being transferred to another detention facility in Arizona as a result of Hurricane Wilma.
"I told [federal officials], 'Take your time, but you are wasting your time, because I am not the one,'" Ebaid says. "There is no devout Muslim who has a belly dancer like I do, with alcohol around. No devout Muslim would allow that. It's just stupid. I don't understand: Why come to me? Why look at me? What did I do? I'm clearly not involved with terrorists.
"I laugh at the whole thing sometimes," he adds. "How can I not? They interrogated me, the Homeland Security agents, asking questions like 'What terrorist organizations are you working with?' I laughed at them!"
Even now, no one admits to knowing how or why Ebaid's name appeared on a terrorism watch list. At the time of his detention, the FBI claimed it had received a complaint that Ebaid had spoken sympathetically about Osama bin Laden. Even if it were nothing more than a thought crime, Ebaid denies it. What's more, federal officials have never identified the complainant or provided any evidence to establish his or her credibility.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created in 2004 to collect information about suspected terrorists and maintain so-called watch lists, but it lacks accountability. The agency does not disclose criteria for inclusion on watch lists or how a name can be removed from the list if improperly or mistakenly added. NCTC's list of suspected terrorists which federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies access includes roughly 325,000 names associated with people in the United States and abroad.
But NCTC's terrorism watch list has proven so unreliable that in December 2005, the Transportation Security Administration disclosed that 30,000 airline passengers had been mistakenly identified as suspected terrorists as a result of the list. Among them was Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
In Ebaid's case, even though federal officials quickly discovered they had scant evidence to justify his inclusion on the list, they continued to push for his deportation. A minor crime came back to haunt Ebaid.
In summer 1999, Miami-Dade Police pulled over Ebaid during a traffic stop after they witnessed him visit a drug dealer who was under surveillance. Officers found Ebaid with a small bag of marijuana that weighed roughly twenty grams, only enough for personal use. Ebaid admitted to buying the drugs and agreed to provide information about the dealer in exchange for leniency. He received a sentence of one day in jail which he served upon arrest and the charge was erased from his record because he was a first-time offender.
But the marijuana case was enough to put Ebaid's life in the United States in jeopardy. Although he had been married since 1993, Ebaid waited until 2003 to apply for permanent residency based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen. On his application, Ebaid said he had never been arrested or convicted of a drug-related crime. That was a fib, one that Ebaid attributes to a misunderstanding. Ebaid claims he wasn't aware that he essentially pleaded guilty to felony possession of marijuana.
"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 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.
"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.
"How long were you in, six months?" the man asks.
"Eight months," Ebaid answers in a low voice.
"Eight months, huh?" the man says, turning to his friends. "Then they let him out when they realized they made a mistake." He pauses. "You got any baklava?"
"Of course!" Ebaid replies, springing from his chair. "Of course!"
Nothing seems to hold Manny Ebaid down. On a recent late night, while his employees are cleaning the restaurant, he enters his office and pulls out a large folder filled with handwritten recipes. "I'm going to revolutionize the food industry in America," he says in all seriousness.
The Hollywood restaurateur wants to bring to the United States konafa, a Middle Eastern dessert of lightly shredded pastry dough that is layered and baked. Popular during special occasions and the holy month of Ramadan, konafa is generally mixed with coconut and vanilla to create a sweet dessert in the Arab world. But Ebaid has a twist for the Western palate: He wants to use konafa to create everything from lamb sandwiches to mango-flavor desserts.
"It could replace the hot dog at carnivals," he says, his fist waving in excitement. But he suddenly stops. His face changes. His eyes turn red. Tears stream down both cheeks as he tries to hold back his emotions. He buries his head in his hands. For Ebaid, talking about his goals and ambitions often comes with a painful reminder of how much he has lost.
"The whole thing is unjust. They took everything," he says, referring to the government. "They took my energy, mentally and physically. Instead of putting it in my work and my business, I had to use it to fight these charges. Even today I'm not getting nowhere.
"Recently I've had bad thoughts," he continues. "Sometimes I think I want to leave, and I don't want anybody to know where I'm going. Just leave. You can't explain everything. Stuff that comes from inside, the heart, you can't explain it. It's just what I think of sometimes, to go. It's not hiding, not scared, not fear. I feel like I am in a cage. There are no bars, but it's jail with no bars, prison with no bars. And I want to get out of this prison.
"I always smile and laugh. But the last two weeks, I don't know what has happened. I don't want to show this side to my customers. I want people to see me happy, the way I used to be. I'm always smiling, I'm always joking, I'm always dancing. These last two weeks, I have just been feeling the hurt, the pain. And I worry sometimes that people will see the hurt in my eyes. They will see me smile, they will see me laugh, but then they will look into my eyes and they will know. They will see the pain I have in here, inside.
"My life is an open book. There is nothing to hide. I work every day, crazy hours. When would I have time to associate with terrorists? But I want everyone to know that I do not hate them for what they did. Lately I've been feeling heat not hate, heat. It's in my heart and my mind. I don't know what would happen if I lost control of the heat. Thank God. It's like something that burns inside me. Sometimes I want to take that heat into my hands and do physical pain to myself, hurt me. I would not hurt anybody, though. I would never hurt another man. As you can see, I am not a big man. But I know if I allowed myself to release this heat, to turn outward, I would be more invincible than anything."
Ebaid stops. He's exhausted. Later that night, after all of his employees have gone home, Ebaid sits at one of the tables. The lights off, he stares out the window for several hours, thinking, until finally he falls asleep.
Dressed in a loose button-up shirt and khaki pants on a recent evening, Ebaid moves around his restaurant, distributing menus and greeting customers. The dinner rush is ending, but the restaurant remains busy. Ebaid smiles. Business is good tonight.
That means Ebaid is guaranteed to be asked at least once what it's like to be an accused terrorist.
"These days I have nothing to say when someone asks me 'What happened?' I don't know the answer," he says. "What I did and why the whole thing is a question mark. Sometimes the story of what happened seems very dramatic, very passionate. And other times, it's like a comedy. It really is. You might not believe this, but I don't wish anything bad to happen to anyone who caused this. I don't wish bad on anybody."
Next door to Ebaid's restaurant, at Kelly's Pub, a T-shirt hangs in the window. It shows a cartoon image of Osama bin Laden at a bar holding a pint of Guinness. "You won't find me any time at Kelly's," the T-shirt reads and Ebaid considers it a backhanded reference to the restaurateur himself.
Every day Ebaid wishes things were different. He wishes he could talk less about terrorism and more about falafel. But he's confident things will get better with time.
He raises his right arm and points toward the heavens.
"There is a big judge up there," he says. "One day everybody will be judged."
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