Shawarma sizzles behind the counter at Ali Baba's Cave.

Husein Dawah is home.

For the last 27 years, on 19th and Valencia and streets, the smell of coriander and garlic has tempted residents and visitors alike, and deep-bellied fryers have roiled with ochre falafel.

Ali Baba’s Cave is a Mission institution built on generous portions of Mediterranean fare and the perseverance of one man, its owner, Dawah.

Born in the Palestinian refugee camps of Syria, Dawah is one part philosopher, one part businessman, and one part dreamer. Now 58, his peppery eyebrows rise and fall with enthusiasm as he describes his start on Valencia Street almost three decades ago.

Husein Dawah inside his Mission shop, Ali Baba's Cave
Husein Dawah inside his Mission shop, Ali Baba’s Cave.

Dawah has little time to pay attention to the city’s decision to celebrate October as Arab Heritage Month.  No matter the month, he is a loyal Mission businessman with rice-stuffed dolmas and crackling shawarma to sell.

“The Mission was a mess back then — lots of crime and violence. After eight or nine at night the streets were deserted,” he said.

The storefront cost $25,000 — a large sum for the new immigrant. “Somehow we came up with the money,” said Dawah, who opened the shop, then called Granada Market, with an old friend Tamim Najjar.

Violence wasn’t Dawah’s only problem. There was also a lot of confusion about the name.

“Everyone was asking me if I was from Granada,” he laughed, “I had to do a lot of teaching back then.”

His storefront, named for the Muslim-built town of Granada, Spain, was fitting, said Dawah, who once taught history in Lebanon. He was on Valencia Street, a Spanish town also built by the Moors. His store was therefore at the “intersection of Spanish and Muslim history,” he would explain kindly, but as if such history would be obvious.

Quickly, Dawah built the reputation of a man committed to his new neighborhood. During the recession of the early ’90s, when money flowed out of the once-booming business district, Dawah struggled to make ends meet, and he and his partner went their separate ways.

“The business just couldn’t support two families,” he said, but “I felt I couldn’t give up on the street.”

Husein next to his store's name-sake cave.
Husein next to his store’s namesake cave.

It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that Dawah recovered. As money flowed back into the Mission thanks to the dot-com boom, he was able to open a new shop on Haight Street, and remodel his Mission location complete with it’s landmark cave draped in ancient-looking silk and strewn with pillows fit for an Egyptian queen.

From the beginning Dawah’s recipes have been his own, inspired by years spent growing up in Yarmouk camp — the most prominent Palestinian refugee encampment in Syria — and later  in Lebanon. The only family recipe on his menu is his mother’s specialty: ohzi al-sham, a mixture of lamb, almonds and basmati rice baked into a nest of crackling filo dough. “My uncle would always beg my mother to make it,” he said wistfully.

“The food I make here isn’t really food that’s made in the home. Where I come from it’s more like street food, something like a sandwich might be here.”

While 99 percent of his customers are young people of different ethnicities, Dawah said he doesn’t see many Arabs come into the shop. All the same, the Mission reminds him of the streets of Damascus.

“All the Latinos, they look like me,” he said. “If I want to see the streets of Lebanon or Syria, all I have to do is walk down Mission Street.”

His father, Kassen, who lived through the 1948 Palestinian exodus from Israel, felt much the same. After fleeing the Arab-Israeli war, Kassen Dawah lived in a world without a homeland, traveling from one refugee camp to another, unable to return to his family’s traditional home, now the Northern Israeli city of Safed — a name that translates to “Lookout.”

Kassen Dawah spent most of his time in the Mission doing just that. “He used to sit at that that front window,” and tell me,  “‘Husein, I look out this window, and I see the whole world passing in front of me,’” reminisced the store owner.

Husein and his father are not alone. To many in the Arab community, the Mission has offered a welcome hodgepodge of cultures and traditions.

Mohammed Allababidi, came to America in 1992, also following his studies. He arrived first in Tampa, Florida, then Miami, and finally San Francisco.

Mohammed Allabadibi
Mohammed Allababidi

A 36-year-old 3D-animation designer and teacher, Allababidi is an animated character himself. He’s lively and sharply-dressed with locks of curly black hair, and leather dress shoes.

Although he grew up in Dubai, he makes his home near Dolores Park, a neighborhood whose climate, he said, is a nice reminder of home — “somewhere between Dubai and Palestine.”

The Mission, he said, is a great place to be Arab, complete with a halal pizzeria and a halal buffalo wings restaurant on Valencia Street. “I don’t only eat halal [the Muslim equivalent of kosher],” he said, “but a halal place is always better.”

Back at Ali Baba’s Cave, Dawah counts himself lucky to have landed in the Mission. “I feel I’ve been able to contribute a lot, and that I benefit a lot.”

“I always like to give,” he said, explaining his philanthropic work. “I’m even a member of the Women’s Building.”

Most importantly, he said, is that he’s contributed “three beautiful children to the Mission,” and that the Mission has always treated him with kindness.

Dawah said he wouldn’t want to return to his father’s homeland. “It would be too painful to go back and have it be a different country — one where we don’t have any ownership.” Instead, Dawah, a man who knows all to well that changing borders can be a struggle of life and death, has found peace in the ever-evolving Mission District.

“I’ve never felt like an outsider here,” he said. “The Mission is my home.”

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  1. Great in-depth introduction to Dawah and Ali Baba’s Cave and the Arab view of the Mission Dist. The descriptions of the food are mouth-watering. Now I’m hungry for schwarma and wish I weren’t 800 miles away!

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  2. Thank you for this great article!
    I’ve known Dawah and his family since before he had a “real” restaurant. He began cooking with care and love – as if we were his family. We enjoyed his food – as well as his conversations on history and philosophy.

    We moved away from SF and miss him and wish him well!
    Maria Gilardin

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