Marcelle Afram’s mission at soon-to-re-open Shababi Diner is to foster a safe space for D.C.’s queer Middle Eastern community while serving up traditional Palestinian fare. The spot’s name is slang for “my people” in Arabic, representing the kind of welcoming space Afram hopes to procure.
Afram’s initial idea for Shababi popped into their head in October 2020, only a few months after they publicly came out as transgender. But back then, it was still only a fledgling concept rooted in the Palestinian recipe for rotisserie chicken known as musakhan, a dish Afram’s paternal grandfather often told stories about.
Musakhan, often considered Palestine’s national dish, features roasted chicken traditionally baked with onions and seasoned with sumac, allspice and saffron. The chicken is served over taboon bread (similar to flatbread) and topped with fried pine nuts. Afram’s version is slightly different as it is served in the rotisserie chicken style with a side of American french fries — but still inspired by the Palestinian dish.
“As far as my heritage was concerned, I am closest to my Palestinian roots,” Afram says. “Throughout the pandemic, I had this idea of ‘How do I bring voice to that?’”
Finding Their Voice
Afram continues, “For a lot of my career, I feel I’ve been tokenized for my heritage, but nobody seemed focused on [my] Palestinian roots. I felt something was lacking, especially in [my] drive toward finding my voice in the most authentic and honest way possible.”
Afram left their position as chef at restaurants Maydan and Compass Rose in December 2020 to open their chicken and fries pop-up at their friend’s diner in West Alexandria, expecting the venture to last only for a month or two. It lasted nine.
Pretty soon they couldn’t keep up with demand and called in their wife and stepson for reinforcement. Naturally, brick-and-mortar was the next step.
“The response was so overwhelming — talking about it chokes me up,” Afram says. “[The attacks on Gaza] happened while we were doing this pop-up, so it allowed us to advocate, in a way. I think it really brought up this fight I was ready to take on in whatever way I could.”
Advocating for Change
During the pop-up, Afram raised more than $10,000 that went directly to charity organizations to support Palestinian communities, including United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), as well as alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. This advocacy work helped the chef realize their personal niche at the intersection of Middle Eastern visibility and queer rights.
Laila Mokhiber, director of communications for UNRWA USA, says Afram’s Shababi chicken operation uplifted many of the fundraisers supporting food assistance and mental health care for Palestine refugees.
“Marcelle and Shababi were one of our most innovative and dedicated community partners in 2021,” Mokhiber says. “These results could not have been achieved without their creative outreach, fundraising efforts and commitment to the cause. Marcelle embodies the best of our community; we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.”
Afram plans to continue fundraising efforts once Shababi reopens for business at a stand-alone location, hopefully later this year.
“Committing funds to those directly helping Palestinian and/or LGBTQ+ communities is so important to what we are doing and planning to do,” Afram says. “All of our merch profits will go to organizations directly involved in causes, probably the ones mentioned above in addition to any we come across working on micro-levels. We also hope to continue to raise funds via other means, whether through events or specials. Ideally, we will have the diner closed Mondays and Tuesdays and I imagine at least once a month we will use one of those days for community events to help raise funding, too.”
A Space to Connect
Afram acknowledges they aren’t the first to do this sort of advocacy work, but says their advantage is the following they garnered throughout their culinary career. Afram says they’re not afraid of having a controversial voice and shares insight into why their immigrant parents toned down the traditional Middle Eastern fare at their family diner back in the day.
“[My parents] accommodated the white public around them because that’s what they felt like they needed to do for protection,” Afram says. “For me, the biggest word in all of this is ‘reclamation.’ I’m providing my narrative for my food.”
To tell the Palestinian story and raise support for Middle Eastern LGBTQ+ people everywhere, Afram plans to host events and speakers once Shababi is fully operational, so the space not only serves delicious chicken but also a sense of community and togetherness.
“Shababi is rooted in advocacy, a voice and ‘my people,’ and that is complex,” Afram says. “This space is specifically for the queer Arab community to feel they can connect with others, because it can be a really isolated experience with the lack of representation.”
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