In the heart of Little Italy, inside an untraditional tea house, a Palestinian immigrant is serving up more than a traditional assortment of tea.
Stepping inside Algebra Tea House is taking a look into Ayman Alkayali's culture and worldly experiences. The aroma from Middle Eastern spices and loose tea smother the air. Cardamon seeds roast on top of a wood burning stove. Rugs, blankets, and mismatched tables are scattered throughout the casual, inviting atmosphere.
Listed on the menu are traditional Middle Eastern dishes such as man'oucshe (a Lebanese flatbread), hummus, and falafel. But what isn't listed on the menu are the intangible experiences he is giving to every customer who walks inside. Ayman is serving the community and his customers a deep understanding of language, Islam, and culture. His journey from his birthplace of Libya to the Cleveland was one of the ups and downs and cultural shock along the way.
Ayman's parents, both born in Jerusalem, fled to Syria because of the nakba, also known as the 1948 Palestinian exodus. Later, Ayman's family settled in Tripoli, Libya in 1952.
"We were one of the first Palestinian families to live in Tripoli. We had a very prosperous upper-middle-class life there," Ayman said.
During the 80s, Ayman describes how Muammar Ghaddafi started to tighten his grip on the country and the people, particularly middle-class Palestinians. His extended family dispersed to neighboring Kuwait and Jordan, with some going to Germany. Ayman's father insisted that he study abroad because the country was becoming unsafe.
At 16, Ayman went to Vienna, Austria where he spent two and half years studying before realizing the country and the culture wasn't for him.
"I was still a boy so I couldn’t see the culture and digest it. Because it was my first move and had that attachment to my family, I couldn’t see the beauty of my environment," Ayman said. "I was looking at it from the perspective of the culture that I came from. But to really appreciate the culture, I realized you have to look at it from the perspective of the people from that country."
In 1988, looking for an escape out of Europe, Ayman told his father he was going to live in Cleveland and study biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve.
"I found the states much more comfortable. Because of the acceptance of immigrants and that it was okay to have an accent and okay to make mistakes. It’s funny, not degrading, but if I say a wrong word, they laugh it off."
His studies were short lived because Ayman "couldn’t comprehend what were in the books." One day he randomly took a ceramics class and fell in love with the creative process.
"It was a feeling I couldn't get from reading books."
It was during the 90's in Cleveland and Ayman describes the art scene as being "dark and angry."
"The art reflected how people were feeling in Cleveland. Only in the late 2000s, the public became more comfortable with colors and shapes. People liked my work, but never bought it."
Being an only child who was raised by Arab parents, Ayman didn't want to finish school but knew tradition and religion wouldn't allow him to disobey his parent's wishes to get a degree.
"I was angry at the time. As Palestinians, we don't have money or land as an asset, just our education. But I'm glad that I listened to my dad because I was right," Ayman recalls.
Ayman obeyed his father's demands and got a business administration degree. The urged to pursue ceramics tugged away at Ayman. He picked up side jobs in Tremont when the neighborhood was notorious for crime and after dark activities. It was here where he connected with the Irish-Americans living and working in the area.
"They were blue-collar union boys, real hardcore drinkers, and fighters. I started working in kitchens so I could survive as an artist. I saw the grease, the grime, the dirt, and fighting. I was shocked. It was always something shameful in my culture to work in service jobs," Ayman said.
"I couldn't find the flavor in the heart of all the nightlife and art scenes that I was experiencing, so I started to go back to the mosque on a regular basis," Ayman said.
Local converts at the Uqbah Mosque Foundation started asking him for Arabic classes because most didn't speak Arabic. Since the 90s, Ayman explains how the convert population is consistently growing in Northeast, Ohio.
"This includes Muslims who were like me who come back to Islam after some time and then converts from other religions- Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism," Ayman said.
While he was growing up, even his parents were not practicing, strict Muslims. During the 70s and 80s, Ayman remembers more Muslims started following the West in the belief that religion should be secular.
"I saw the beauty of Islam in the United States, not in the Arab world."
He asked why local converts became Muslim. Ayman recalls "they showed me how beautiful Islam is. How we pray. How we live our daily lives."
Serving tea, cultural conversations, ethnic food
Before drinking tea was a trend across the city, Ayman was the first major tea house in the city and the first non-Italian business in the neighborhood.
Formerly a bike shop, Ayman worked tirelessly for nearly two years to refurbish the property. Born out of the need for a place to sell his work without living the gypsy artist life, Ayman opened up Algebra Tea House in 2001 two weeks before 9/11.
"I have a love for food because it is part of my culture. At the same time, I couldn't afford a restaurant."
Selling tea wasn't his original plan. "I couldn't afford a cappuccino maker. It was a disaster," laughs Ayman.
Some of his friends suggested he go to the West Side Market and visit a woman at Becky's tea who sold tea from all over the world."Tea is Lipton I thought. What am I going to do with tea? "I went there and saw this spread of about 18 gorgeous, colorful herbs. She told me if you have 15 teas and change them every three months, for the next five years, you will never serve the same tea."
"I asked her what it takes to make tea. She said water."
Ayman recalls the feeling of when a light bulb went off in his head. His grandfather taught Algebra so he drew from his background for inspiration on a name.
"I knew it was going to be a tea house then. I wanted a place where I could bring my Islamic background. Algebra and astronomy are all rooted in Arab cultural," Ayman said "I wanted to show people in the city where I come from here and what my culture is like.
Looking to the future
The portrayal of Muslims in the US and the recent executive orders to the citizens of this country and the Arab world concerns Ayman. He believes immigrants bring flavor and a different dynamic to the communities across the country.
He explains how he believes there is confusion about three things that occurred in the past week regarding religion, immigration, and Islam.
"All of those were entangled together like a razor sharp ball that is bouncing around hurting everyone," Ayman said. "I think these are three different massive issues that should be studied individually. Now people with extreme hate and extreme emotions."
Ayman remains optimistic about the goodness in the community. Putting it in perspective, Ayman looks back at all the immigrants this country has received. He is hopeful because the community in Cleveland has shown nothing but acceptance. It's the diversity that he loves in the city and the country he calls home. For now, he will continue to serve tea and cultural conversation one cup at a time.
"For me is now to stay firm upon my religion and make sure my children are firm about that and keep doing what I've been doing which is contributing to the economy, employing people, and offering a place that brings harmony and meaning," Ayman said.