Shallal Brings ‘Poets’ Vision to EMU

The Iraqi-American founder of a popular Washington, D.C., eatery shared his fresh perspectives on both entrepreneurship and the immigrant experience at a luncheon during the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

Anas "Andy" Shallal, proprietor of the Busboys and Poets Cafe, took the title for his May 19 talk, "Let America Be America Again," from a Langston Hughes poem.

His cafe is also named for that famous African-American poet, who worked as a Washington busboy during the 1920s, Shallal explained to an audience of 160 – including faculty, local visitors, and 104 workers in humanitarian and conflict-resolution fields attending SPI from 40 nations.

Speaker Andy Shallal and Ronald L. Stoltzfus, professor of business and economics at EMU, compare notes.
Speaker Andy Shallal and Ronald L. Stoltzfus, professor of business and economics at EMU, compare notes. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

Shallal, an SPI alumnus, read these lines from Hughes’ poem:

The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free…
(It never was America to me.)

"I never thought of America as a country as much as a dream," explained Shallal, who arrived in the U.S. with his family in 1966, at age 11.

Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Shallal’s family, living in the Virginia suburbs, saw smoke from the fires of protest in Washington, D.C. The cafe sits in the now-thriving U Street corridor, epicenter of that unrest four decades ago.

"I miss the old country," Shallal admits. In 1983, the year he attained U.S. citizenship, his new government invaded Grenada. Yet he retains faith in the America of Hughes’ vision "as an ideal, not as a fact." Facts can be harsh.

2008 SPI participants at EMU
Nadia Bazzy, an American Muslim from Detroit, Mich., and a student in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding program, talks with Andy Shallal following his presentation. Also pictured is Adeola Ojeniyi, an SPI participant from Nigeria. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

‘Job of SPI’ Important

"As an Arab and a Muslim, I still get uncomfortable traveling through airports," he said, citing a friend being barred from a flight because of his t-shirt – not for its message (in English, "We will not be silent"), but for its accompanying Arabic translation.

Shallal feels the Iraq war "has made the job of SPI all the more important." He cited hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, another five million forced into exile, and the shame of U.S. government-authorized torture.

Nevertheless, he retains faith in America’s values of "freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law. This is the reason people want to come here, more than great plumbing. I want to hold this country to its ideals."

Cafe a Center for Dialogue

With a backdrop of Shallal’s murals celebrating the Civil Rights movement, between 1,000-1,500 daily visitors to Busboys and Poets ( find progressive gatherings, theater productions, dialogue groups including the Jewish/Arabic Peace Cafe, and events held by EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, of which SPI is a part. A smaller Busboys and Poets has opened in Arlington, Va.

A former immunologist, Shallal entered his family’s restaurant businesses but wanted to work for social change.

Finding bankers skeptical of the latter intention, he emphasized the business aspect in loan applications. Yet he explains with a smile that the goals complement each other: "You can’t bring people together without food. It’s like mice; you set out food and they will come."

Many attending SPI work for non-governmental organizations. Shallal named two NGO’s that partner with the cafe: Teaching for Change, which operates a bookstore, and a cooperative that markets fair-trade coffee. "I provide the space free; they provide an added value for my customers." He shares his business model at no cost, and is advising a group from the Ivory Coast on it.

Customers Can ‘Buy Social Justice’

The entrepreneur also hopes to initiate an opportunity for customers to "buy social justice" by adding a donation to a selected NGO when they pay their tabs.

When Shallal spoke in a large Washington synagogue, congregants confessed to never having met an Arab before. He finds a common paradox in urban communities where people "all live together, but they don’t all live together. They don’t interact."

He considers it worthwhile to bring social-justice groups together, even when that seems like "preaching to the choir."

Shallal explains, "The choir leads the singing, so it’s OK to preach to them sometimes."

Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer living in Harrisonburg.