Chicken, religion and politics

by Gus Lubin

My father lives for small adventures, like a scenic road, a used bookstore or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. That’s why I brought him along to one such place, Shabazz, a tiny restaurant on the east side of downtown Winston. Several features mark Shabazz as an unusual place. First, the name Shabazz comes from an Arabic term meaning “mighty people.” Second, the red star and crescent above the door is an emblem of the Nation of Islam. Third, the restaurant looks, nonetheless, like a laid-back neighborhood joint. The uncanny contrast continues inside. The front room is urban and quaint, with a cash register, tip jar, pies on the counter and the kitchen right behind. But the walls are covered in posters of Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Honorable Elijah Mohammed and the Million Man March. There is also a framed picture of Barack Obama set against an excerpt from the Koran, with each use of the word Barack (which means “blessed”) highlighted. Basir Razzack, or Lorenzo X, sat behind the counter. He greeted us with mild surprise. “Are you eating here?” the owner and cook asked. We were. Basir pointed to a chalkboard menu and directed us to choose one meat and two sides. We both ordered jerk chicken and sides of green beans and brown rice, and black beans and fried okra — at $7.99 a plate — with some sweet tea. Meanwhile my father, thrilled by the eccentric, began questioning Basir. “Is that Farrakhan?” he said, pointing to a poster from 2007. “Yes it is.” “I’ve never seen the minister without a bowtie.” “Yeah?” Basir scowled. “Ha!” Basir asked if he had ever heard Farrakhan preach. “Only short clips,” my father said. Did the minister ever come to Winston-Salem, David Lubin asked. “Oh yeah, he went to school in Winston-Salem!” Basir said. A few minutes later, Basir decided to show us the real deal. “If you two don’t mind, I’m going to put on a video of Minister Farrakhan preaching,” he said. Basir led us to the dining room, a 30-foot chamber of blue booths and decorated white walls. We sat so we could see the TV. It was a rabbit-eared Panasonic on top of a wheeled TV-stand, which was loaded with old technologies, like a VCR, a tape deck and a first-generation Nintendo (with Mortal Kombat 3 and NBA Jam); along with boxes of tapes — labeled “Farrakhan Tapes” — and stacks of The Final Call, the Nation of Islam newspaper. He put in a tape and Minister Farrakhan began to preach, loudly. When Basir left us, my father grumbled to me, “I don’t really want to listen to this while we eat.” I laughed. Situations like this were the hazard of his curiosity, and exactly why I brought him along. Basir returned 15 minutes later with a tray full of food: succulent chicken, spicy black beans, juicy green beans, warm bread and all the rest. Obviously, the cuisine at Shabazz is Southern, not Middle Eastern. The only trace of Islam in the food is the omission of pork from the menu. That means no barbecue, nor bacon-fried greens. In fact, the restaurant caters very well to vegetarians, with a plate of four delicious vegetarian sides for $6.99. During and after our meal, Basir talked to us about his beliefs. The middle-aged black man described himself as part of an historical movement, beginning with American slavery. He said Islam came to black Americans as a God-given instrument for power and freedom. The need for change is evident in the current economic crisis, he said, and validated by the election of Obama. Shabazz has been a center of Muslim and black communities in Winston- Salem since its founding in 1992. During our conversation, Basir’s nephew stopped by to eat some rice and beans. Another friend of Basir’s stopped by to chat and take home some slices of butternut squash pie. Traffic at Shabazz is like that, according to Basir, a steady trickle of friends and family. Basir’s history lesson continued for 20 minutes, until my father spoke up and said we had to go. Basir thanked us and we promised to come by again. When hungry for good down home food, or thirsty for adventure, I surely will come back.

Basir Razzack, AKA Lorenzo X, leans against the counter at Shabazz,which specializes in American muslim food like jerk chicken. beans andrice. (photo by Gus Lubin)