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Mahmoud Widdi

Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto

September 27, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.43

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KITTO: It's September 27, 2018, and this is Svetlana Kitto with Mahmoud Widdi at 632 Vanderbilt Avenue at the Food Town, and this is our first interview for the Brooklyn Historical Society's Muslims in Brooklyn Oral History Project. And so we're just going to start by you telling me where and when you were born and a little bit about your early life, memories of your early life.

WIDDI: All right, I was born in 1957 in Beit Hanina, the old section of the Beit Hanina. Now they have two, two, an old Beit Hanina, and the new Beit Hanina but they're separated, separated by a wall unfortunately. I was born there to a poor family. My father, my father was still poor. He was still developing himself, but his father was really poor, yeah, so you know, I was born into a poor 1:00family. As a matter of fact, when I went back this past summer I went to the old Beit Hanina. I looked at where I was born. It's a small room the size of like 10 feet by 10 feet, something like that. Me, my father, my mother were all living in there, okay.

And then soon after that I had a good childhood. I remember I was poor. I remember myself not having everything I wanted, you know, craving stuff that I couldn't get, you know, as a child. And then my dad, my dad was, was fortunate enough to be smart and active, and he was able to get into the workforce. He was 2:00able. He was like one of them guys that would carve on stone and make it the shape of a buildable stone where they build, you know, houses with stones, and they design it. And before you know it, he elevated himself. I mean, in a few years he became a contractor. He actually became a contractor, and my grandfather stopped working. My father became a contractor, and he built some houses. He built some houses. Some are even landmark houses. They still exist until now.

But my dad was ambitious, was ambitious, you know. So even though he was making money way better than, better than my grandfather, my grandfather was really poor, okay, and he still was ambitious. And he wanted to emigrate for a better 3:00life, okay. And he was able to emigrate. He -- at that time, for you to do -- to do an emigration, I think, you had to be not married. You had to be not married. So my father in 1960 had to divorce my mom, okay, and she had -- she had three boys, okay, and he had to divorce her in order for him to get a visa.

I don't know what kind of visa he got, whether -- whether it was a -- whether it was a visitor's visa or emigration visa, and he went to Venezuela, South America. He moved to Venezuela; Columbia, Venezuela, and then over there he was introduced to a lady that her father was half Palestinian. They got married, and 4:00then they did papers, and she brought him to America. But she never liked America. She went back. She went right back. You know, I guess she knew that that's what -- that's what she was doing, just bringing the man here to America and going back.

She had papers. But the funny thing is that -- the funny thing is that when my dad had to divorce my mom. So he had to convince her to, you know, he wanted to divorce her. It was just only papers, this and that. So he took a witness, and he took my mom, and they went before the judge, okay, an Islamic judge. And when they went before the judge the judge told my mom, "I know this guy. He's a player. He was in my class. He's never going to come back to you. I am not -- I'm not going to approve that divorce." [laughter]


Sure enough he convinced my mom, and she said, "No, I'm not --I'm not going to get a divorce." And she went back. She went back with no divorce. So I guess my dad played with my mom's head again. A few weeks later he took her back. He saw another judge, and they got the divorce. They got the divorce, you know, and my mom, God bless her soul, she was -- she was older than my dad.

KITTO: Yeah, tell me about your mom.

WIDDI: Yeah, my mom, God bless her soul, she was like seven years older, six, seven years older than my dad. So my dad always thought that he was too good for my mom. [laughter] I wonder, even though he paid her dowry. Her dowry was two olive trees. Her dowry, two olive trees, the olive trees belong to this family, 6:00and they paid it for a dowry, and now it belongs to -- belong to her family, so they would cultivate the olives when it's -- when it's cultivate -- when it's the season for that.

And he came to America, and he became -- he was a vendor. He was street -- he couldn't -- he didn't have education. He didn't have enough education to get any other job, desk job or whatever, okay. So he was a street vendor. He had friends. He came to a friend. His friend Joe Ty [phonetic] at that time was selling -- used to have a little store on Atlantic Avenue. He used to sell watches. So he used to give him watches and go sell on the street, and he made money. My dad was very smart. He made money, okay, and he was very ambitious. He was very ambitious. And like I said, when he was back home he became almost like 7:00an architect. That's how he -- he sort of like, he gained that expertise from the field, you know.

With all of that he was still more ambitious, and he traveled to America. And he established himself here, and he opened up a club. He opened up a club for the Palestinians and the people, the Middle Eastern, on State Street, State Street and what do you call that area over there on State Street? State Street, Atlantic Avenue by the water?

KITTO: Yeah, Cobble Hill, Columbia Street --

WIDDI: No, not Cobble Hill.

KITTO: -- Red Hook.

WIDDI: Yeah, no, no, no, it's over there. It's different. I forgot about it. All right, anyway, there was -- you know Atlantic Avenue by the water, right by the highway where the --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, okay, and all the people at that time, the immigrants were always 8:00single guys. They were like, they left their families. They were here to make money, and that's it. So they really didn't have like, each one didn't have a house and this and that and a living room and a TV. They were living like twos and threes together, you know. And when they used to come from overseas a lot of them used to come straight to the club because they had nowhere to go. They would bring their --

KITTO: What was the club called?

WIDDI: I don't -- it was like a coffee shop. I don't know if it had a name. That's before my time, before I come.

KITTO: I see, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, keep telling me --

WIDDI: Okay, yeah, so they used to -- they used to come to the club because they had no relatives to go to, and they knew this was the club for that -- that Subhi Widdi was the owner, and people go to it. It's like a coffee shop for the 9:00-- for the people from that part of -- of the world. And so they used to help them out. Sometimes they used to sleep a day or two in the club until they hook them up with a place to stay. And then they would go to this guy named Joe where he sells the watches, and the first time he says, "Take these watches. Sell them. After you sell them, bring me back the -- the price of the watches, and you keep the profit." And he got them started, this guy Joe Ty. He was a good man, okay.

And then that's how it was. And then my dad, after that, he was -- he was -- my dad was a pioneer, a pioneer. He got an apartment, and everybody was amazed. Subhi Widdi got an apartment and a TV. What the hell? What is this guy going astray? Oh my god. This guy is lost now. [laughter] And he was able to make it, and he was good, and he -- him --


KITTO: What was he doing? Was he still being a street vendor or was he --

WIDDI: No, after that he opened up a supermarket.

KITTO: Oh okay.

WIDDI: He was a pioneer. He was the first Palestinian, maybe Arab, Muslim, to open up a full supermarket with a meat department and a produce department at that time and groceries and everything. At that time there -- there wasn't much like the way you see right now, high class and décor and all that, you know. Okay, but he was very successful. He was very successful. He was always into --

KITTO: Which supermarket was it, this one?

WIDDI: It was at that time called Met Food.

KITTO: And where was it?

WIDDI: It was on Fulton Street.

KITTO: And --

WIDDI: Yeah, it still exists, by the way --

KITTO: It's still there, yeah.

WIDDI: -- still exists. That was -- we called it the mother of the family. That started the whole family, still exists. My brother has it, him and his -- and his kids.

KITTO: Is it a franchise?

WIDDI: It's not a Met Food anymore --



WIDDI: -- because Met Foods, they went out. They went out. They sort of like -- they were not good no more. White Rose, the company they were -- that was supplying all Met Foods--

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- went chapter 11.


WIDDI: And we found -- we saw the need to switch the name. So they switched to Key Food. You know, a sinking ship, you got --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- to get out of there, you know. There are still Met Foods existing, but they're not doing -- I don't think they're doing that well, you know.

KITTO: Yeah, but did your father start the first Met Food?

WIDDI: No, no, he was number eight I was told.

KITTO: Okay.

WIDDI: I was told he was number eight --

KITTO: Okay.

WIDDI: -- from the, you know, the franchise had just started.

KITTO: Yeah, okay.

WIDDI: Yeah, you know, and he continued. He went back in 19- -- after '60- -- in 19- when was it? Maybe 1967, '68, okay, in 19- maybe 60-, I would say, in 1965 12:00maybe, he went back home, and he built a house.

KITTO: In Beit Hanina?

WIDDI: In Beit Hanina --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- in the new -- in the new part of Beit Hanina he built a house. And then after that we moved, his family moved from the old Beit Hanina to the new Beit Hanina with his dad. So actually my grandfather raised me.

KITTO: Okay.

WIDDI: With my mom, you know, okay. So in 1968, 1968 he came back, and I think he took my brother with him, so my brother Joachim. He came to America. He was only 11 years old, and I stayed there. That's how my brother was raised more by my father than me. When I came here I was 18. I came here in 1975.


KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: I had just finished -- I had just done 11th grade back home, and I came here for -- for -- I came here actually for the summer. I wanted to stay here just the summer and go back, you know. So what happened is that I used to work with them in the supermarket, and it was hard work. It was the summer time, hard work and long hours, so --

KITTO: On Fulton?

WIDDI: On Fulton, yeah, so during the week, during the week while we were working I would say, you know, "After the summer I'm going back," because I want to finish high school. I wanted to finish high school back there. And then during the weekends when my brother and his wife would take me out to Coney Island and there and the steakhouses, then I would change my mind. I say, "No, I'm not going back. I'm staying here," you know. So one day there was 14:00demonstrations back home. It was on the news where young people died. They got shot and everything, so my dad made my -- made that decision for me. He said, "You are not going back."

KITTO: What demonstrations were those?

WIDDI: They were demonstrations, I think, in 1975. It wasn't intifada or anything. It was just regular demonstrations, 1975, and my dad said, "No, it's not good over there for you." He was probably worried for my life. And he said, "You're staying." And I stayed. I finished high school over here --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- Sarah J. Hale, right here on Dean Street, I think.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, and --

KITTO: Before we move into the states can you tell me a little bit more about like being raised by your grandfather? What was your grandfather like? Did he tell you stories about --

WIDDI: Well, let me tell you, my grandfather was a wise man, a really wise man. He loved me so much because he raised me more than the rest of the family. He 15:00loved me a lot. And I really also loved him very much because for his wisdom and the way he raised me. Now, he was -- he was not a complainer. He wasn't somebody that would -- would waste money like that. He was careful with money, okay, because he thought my dad was struggling over here, and he didn't want to -- so he was careful with money, okay. But he was good. He was poor. He appreciated what he had.

KITTO: Did -- was he from Beit Hanina as well?

WIDDI: He's from Beit Hanina.

KITTO: Wow, so that many -- was his parents from there too?

WIDDI: Yeah, we're all from there. We come -- we come -- I come from Beit Hanina from like my ancestry going back generations, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, so maybe I should tell you this also, when I was like in the '70s, 16:00around the '70s, after the 1967 war --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- maybe a few years after the 1967 war, my dad got a -- my grandfather got a letter from the Israeli government saying that such and such land in this location was going to be taken by the government, okay, and if he wanted compensation that he would -- that he's -- he's welcome to get some compensation. My grandfather was a very, very wise man, like I told you. He said -- [background noise] sorry about that.

KITTO: It's okay.

WIDDI: They're working upstairs. My grandfather, he said if we would sign that we took compensation it's like we sold the land. So what he did is that he 17:00ripped it up, threw it in the garbage, okay. It was in an area called Kliliya [phonetic]. It's near Nebi Samuel, Nebi Samuel, okay. It's close -- it's east -- the west of Beit Hanina. It's an uphill. There's an area that that was one of their first settlements. One of their first ones, not the first one, maybe, but one of the first ones to ever do it. They did it in that area. Some of that land was ours. What my --

KITTO: Was that in the '70s, you're saying, the settlement?

WIDDI: Yeah, I would say -- yeah, the --

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

WIDDI: -- first settlements, yeah, started even way before that. I mean, they started immediately after the occupation came in, okay. So he was wise for not taking compensation, and no -- you know -- the land is gone. So, you know, the 18:00settlement is there.

KITTO: So it didn't matter that he didn't --


KITTO: The land was confiscated anyway?

WIDDI: Of course, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: They gave him no choice. It's like if you want to be compensated come, you will be compensated. But how do they compensate you? We don't know. I mean, may -- they may cover the prices. It could be anything. Back then it was -- back then you could have owned a lot of land and still be poor.

KITTO: That's what I'm wondering.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, so --

WIDDI: Yeah, yeah, you could have owned a lot of land.

KITTO: -- the family was poor, but you still owned a lot of land?

WIDDI: We owned that land at least, that land that was taken. Yeah, we owned it. We owned some other land.

KITTO: What was on it?

WIDDI: It was nothing on it. It was mountains and stuff like that. It was nothing on it, you know. Yeah, yeah.

KITTO: Did you say, when we talked on the phone, that you remember the time, like remember what it was like during the Six-Day War?


WIDDI: Oh, there was hardly any war.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: I remember going. My grandfather wouldn't leave the house. He says, "I'm not going." He stayed in the house. My mom said, "I'm taking my kids away." And we went, and we hid in an elementary school. There was like a little tunnel to allow for the water to pass in case of -- for aggregation stuff. It was like -- it was like a sewer, sewer -- big like a sewer thing for -- usually they use it for the water. We hid over there. As a matter of fact, one person, as he was leaving, he was -- he was injured. From where I don't know where it came from. I have no idea, okay. He was injured, and his wife went and took him, and they walked to the borders, I think, of Jordan, and eventually wind up coming back. Stuff like that.

KITTO: What were you hiding from exactly? Were the --


WIDDI: It was a war.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: They said it was a war.

KITTO: Yeah, so --

WIDDI: We heard -- we heard -- we heard some --

KITTO: Gunshots?

WIDDI: -- stuff and everything, but I never seen any soldiers. I never seen Arab soldiers.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: There was -- there was not. I don't think there was any Arab soldiers.


WIDDI: No, I mean, if the Israelis took all Palestine, a part of the Sinai, a part of Syria, and a part of Jordan in six days, that's the time to drive through. That's really almost the time to drive through, so there, there was really, you know, driving through, passing -- passing -- driving -- driving a distance like that, it would take days. You can't drive all that in one day. I mean, it would take days usually. I don't know. I'm assuming.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, that's -- that's how it is.

KITTO: Was -- how did life change after the Six-Day War and the occupation?


WIDDI: You know, to tell you the truth, and the beginning?

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- it was good. Yeah, it was good. It was really good. We went to schools. They were good. They were -- they used to give, what was it? They -- we used to go on trips. It was -- it was -- it was sponsored, it think, by the government. I think they were like, took care of it where --

KITTO: By the Israeli government?

WIDDI: By yeah, by the Israeli government, you know. I think they were trying to assimilate some stuff. It took years and years and years to realize that assimilation is just not happening, you know. Yeah, okay, but that's how it goes, you know. People see -- people see things. I tell you, when it comes to 22:00politics, let's say -- let's say they come to an agreement and have a peace treaty right now, okay. If that peace is not fair, it's just eventually going to fall apart because the next generation is going to come and realize, "Why is he doing this, and I can't get to do that? Why is he doing that, and I --"

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: They're going to realize that it's not fair. So it's going to be an uprising again. It's going -- they're -- they're -- they're going to reject it.

KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: So any peace has to be fair. And I always pray for peace, always pray for peace, you know. I want people to live together like here -- here our doctors are Jewish, our CPA is Jewish, everybody. We get along really fine.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, but over there I think it's all politics. I don't -- I don't know 23:00what it is.

KITTO: What was it like when you were growing up? Like, was it -- was -- because by the time -- so when you were growing up you were born in '57. Was the neighborhood still -- have the -- it was still a Palestinian --

WIDDI: Oh it's still -- still the same people, Palestinian, strictly Palestinian.

KITTO: -- it was still Palestinian, and that was the way it was until like the '70s when the settlers came?

WIDDI: Well my neighborhood -- my neighborhood up until now --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- still strictly Palestinian.

KITTO: Oh, okay.

WIDDI: Yeah, my neighborhood, yeah. It's strictly Palestinian, you know. But there are settlements nearby. There are settlements like the one I told you, Kliliya, Kliliya, [phonetic] yeah, okay. There are settlements in towns going to Hizma. There are settlements going to other surrounding towns, you know. And the Israelis -- the Israelis -- [background noise] I think this choice, the choice 24:00of the room, I think, wasn't -- wasn't that good. Okay, actually we should have went to the office. Okay, what was I saying?

KITTO: You were saying the settlements --

WIDDI: Oh yeah, the settlements usually they chose top of mountains to make settlements. If we were to go over to Israel you see all the settlements on top of the hills.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Oh, they love all hilltops, hilltops, yeah. Maybe strategically good, I don't know what it is.

KITTO: Yeah, so you were saying that at first after -- at the beginning after the Six-Day War it was good, but then --

WIDDI: It was good as a child.

KITTO: -- but then what? Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: And then what happened --

WIDDI: And then what happened? Then --

KITTO: -- leading up to the years that you left?

WIDDI: Yeah, leading up to the years that I left really nothing much happened. 25:00It was people were -- construction was a boom, and a lot of Palestinians were working there. A lot of the stuff was built by Palestinians, by Palestinian hands, believe it or not.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: All these settlements were built by -- with Palestinian hands, you know? They need to live. They need to make a living, you know? The only thing, I think in 19- 1987, that's First Intifada. Yeah, you know, that First Intifada, after that, things started getting a little more difficult. The Israelis became more stringent. There was more settlements. I mean, settlements was always -- it's a routine thing.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, okay, at times it slows down, other times it speeds up, but it's a going --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: It's an ongoing thing.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: So --

KITTO: What -- yeah.

WIDDI: That's how it is. So in 19- -- I think the First Intifada was in '87, I 26:00think. Yeah, and then after that it was downhill from there.

KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: You know, yeah, I remember the 1973 war. Yeah, I remember the 1973 war, okay, I was -- I was still there two years before I come here.

KITTO: Right, how was that?

WIDDI: For us, for the people living in Israel at that time, it was none. We were not affected. We were not affected, you know, at all. But apparently -- apparently after the 1973 war I think that a decision was made by all these countries that went to war not to ever go to war again, I think. I think, you know, because nothing happened after that. I mean, they just didn't want to go 27:00to war again. They were in Egypt, I think, that in Egypt in some other countries that no longer had the intention of going to war for the Palestinians because they think they're going to war for the Palestinians or -- you know.

Especially when they wanted to -- the Peace Treaty when they -- after the war and the Peace Treaty for Sadat and everything a lot of Arabs and Palestinians were against it and everything like that. So those countries said -- they were actually, I think, I don't have no proof of that, but I think that they teach their kids in schools that the Palestinians sold their land. "Why should we go to war for them? Why should -- these guys sold their land." [laughter] I've heard it from some Egyptian people, you know. "Oh, didn't you sell your land? Why should we send our kids to fight for you? You sold your land?" You know.


KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: It's unfortunate.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: So in terms of like -- was your family religious?

WIDDI: No, my grandfather was religious.

KITTO: Okay.

WIDDI: My grandfather, he always prayed. He was moderately religious. He was -- he wasn't -- he wasn't -- he wasn't a fanatic or anything. No, he was -- he was good, you know. And I was. When I was growing up I wasn't religious. I didn't pray. I prayed on occasions, sometimes Friday, sometimes on the -- in the Eid or stuff like that.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Even when I came here in 1975, '75, I still wasn't religious. I didn't pray, okay, but fasting I did. I did some fasting sometimes. I broke -- I broke my fast a few times. Every year I would break my fast a few times, I mean, 29:00because -- you know, because I wasn't that religious, okay. But then when my mother died 19-,1998 when my mother died I guess her death took its like emotional toll on me, so I became more religious. I see that, you know, how much we tried for my mom, how much we tried. We tried to save her. She had -- she died of colon cancer, how much we tried to save her and everything. I guess that after that I started becoming -- I prayed all the time. I'm not overly religious. I am not -- still I'm not overly religious. It's just that I observe. I observe my religious duties, that's it --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- which is prayer and fasting, stuff like that, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And as far as being straight. I was always straight. I never hurt a soul 30:00in my life, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah. I was all -- [laughter] never hurt a soul in my life. So that's how it goes, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, so did your mom stay in Beit Hanina?

WIDDI: Yeah, my mom stayed in Beit Hanina. We brought her here for visits a couple of times.

KITTO: Did she want to come here?

WIDDI: When she wanted we brought her in for visits, yeah.

KITTO: But she didn't want to live here?

WIDDI: Yeah, she didn't want to live here because her and my dad were not together.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: My dad remarried.

KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: I think in 1973, remarried. He married a Lebanese Christian woman that he fell in love with, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And he made a new family.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: What was your mom's life like?

WIDDI: My mom, she had -- well, her life was dedicated to us, you know. She was dedicated to us. She just wanted to raise us, her three boys and one daughter. 31:00She had later on one daughter, after even -- after that initial divorce [laughter] she had my sister when my father came back for a visit, okay. So --

KITTO: Did she work?

WIDDI: No, she never worked. Yeah, she never worked. She was -- she was illiterate.

KITTO: So your dad continued to support her?

WIDDI: My dad continued to support her, support us, support his dad, always taking care of us. Even his dad got married in 1977. His -- his -- his -- when did he get married? His dad got married too in 19- -- 1968, I think, my grandfather got married, yeah. You know.

KITTO: Who did he marry?

WIDDI: He married a younger woman that he knew he could -- she couldn't have kids. He didn't want kids. He said he was looking for a lady that was -- already 32:00tried, that she can't have kids. And he got what he wanted.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: That woman was married before, and she couldn't have kids, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, is it not something?

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah. So -- so let's go back to where -- where you had gotten up to here. So you had planned on going back, but the demonstrations happened, and your dad said, "No, you're staying here."

WIDDI: He said, "No, that's it." So I stayed here, and I -- I --

KITTO: Went to school.

WIDDI: I finished -- I went to school. I got some college education.

KITTO: How was school? What was it like then?

WIDDI: It was good. I went to Kingsborough. I got my BS.

KITTO: But your high school first, right?

WIDDI: I got my high school from --

KITTO: You finished high school?

WIDDI: -- from -- from Sarah J. Hale.

KITTO: In '75?

WIDDI: In '75, in '70 -- because it was -- '75, '76 --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- academic year, '75, '76, yeah.

KITTO: And where were you living in Brooklyn at that time?


WIDDI: I was in Carroll Garden, yeah. By the way, Atlantic Avenue all the way down is called Brooklyn Heights.

KITTO: Oh, Brooklyn Heights, yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Okay, but I was living in Carroll Garden, okay, and I was going to school, and I was -- I would work after school.

KITTO: Okay.

WIDDI: Yeah, after school I would go to the store with my dad, help out, get on the cash register. I was good.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: I was good.

KITTO: What was the neighborhood like in the '70s?

WIDDI: The neighborhood was rough. The neighborhood was rough at that time.

KITTO: Can you give me some examples?

WIDDI: In the '70s was -- was -- it was a lot of drug infestation, yeah. It was down there. It was a poor neighborhood, Fulton Street. I think it was called Bed Stuy? Yeah, I think it's still Bed Stuy at that time. Now they call it --

KITTO: Clinton Hill.


WIDDI: Clinton Hill, I don't know, for maybe real estate purposes, okay. It was called Bed Stuy back then. It was the crack epidemic and all that. It wasn't pleasant, you know, but we sort of like stuck it up with the people, the good people over there. There was a lot of good people, a lot of good people, okay. And now in the neighborhood now has changed.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And we helped it change, as a matter of fact. We -- by -- by continue -- continuing to stay in the neighborhood and provide them with the good food, you know, you go to a poor, poor neighborhood, what do you -- what do you find in really poor neighborhoods? I mean, liquor store, bond shop, candy store with junk food. You don't find --

KITTO: A supermarket.

WIDDI: -- a good supermarket with the -- with the foods and good foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and all that. We always provided that, stuck it out with that neighborhood, and the neighborhood appreciates that, yeah. They really do. 35:00They support us all the way through, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, so -- so that's how it goes. It wasn't a rose garden, you know. We had our ups and downs and stuff like that, and thank god, you know. So in 1983 -- in 1983 I went back home, and I got married. I got married, yeah. I got married in '83, and then I got married -- somebody referred me to this woman. She said she was here for a visit. Her aunt, my wife's aunt, she said, "Hey, you want to get married?" She says -- I told her I was looking for a wife -- she said if you're still looking for a wife when you come back home call me. I have somebody nice for you." It was her niece. Sure enough it did happen, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Okay and I have now these beautiful kids. I have seven children --


WIDDI: -- four boys and three girls.


KITTO: Yeah, and you're still married?

WIDDI: And I'm still married, yeah, yeah. You see the new generation, they don't believe in marrying more than one woman, yeah. The older generation they believed in that --

KITTO: Of who?

WIDDI: -- marrying more than one wife.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, before they used to have like two wives sometimes. Nobody, nobody does that any more, hardly, hardly, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And the ladies don't go for it anymore neither. Say, "You marry somebody else? You go with her."

KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: Yeah, I'm not staying with you.

KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: Yeah, so that's how it goes.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: You know, so the culture has changed a little bit.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Even back there in the culture. I don't know anybody, almost anybody that's married to two. As a matter of fact, I may -- I know two people here married to two, and I don't think they're happy, yeah. [laughter]

KITTO: Yeah.


WIDDI: Yeah, so that's how it goes.

KITTO: Was -- was that around the time that your dad opened up the catering hall?

WIDDI: My dad opened up the catering hall, I think, in 1980, 1980.

KITTO: That's what I saw.

WIDDI: I could be one year off.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, yeah, I could be a year off or something. He opened it up. My -- my -- my dad's always been a pioneer. Like I told you, he opened up that coffee shop. That was for the people to come in and there's a -- now they started having engagements, parties and stuff, social activities, and they had no place to go. So he opened that for them, okay, and he was giving it to them like near free, almost free in the beginning, you know. He wanted to introduce them to it, you know. And sure enough it's still there, and he was always, always good to 38:00his neighbors. He loved everybody.

If -- if somebody didn't have enough money to pay for the wedding he would just forgive them. Say -- say you don't have -- this one guy comes in, and he says, "You know what, I'm short $1,000. I'll bring it." Sometimes he would say, "Forget about it. Give me what you got. Then that's it. You know, forget about the debt," you know. And he stayed there from -- running that business, god bless his soul, and being active with the community from maybe '80 until -- until he became -- he died in [2012]. He stayed active, I would say, until maybe '96, because in the last two years he was bedridden. Yeah, '96, say from '95. So from 1980 to '95, that's 15 years, right?

KITTO: Yeah, was that his only business at that time?


WIDDI: No, no, we had -- at that time we had the store. We had Fulton Street. He had a Key Food also on Franklin Avenue, yeah, that, you know, he gave to the second -- his new family, to the family that his -- the kids that he had from the Lebanese woman, yeah, which he loved and my half-brothers, and I loved them all.

KITTO: Where was that one, Franklin and what?

WIDDI: What? Franklin and Fulton.


WIDDI: Yeah, yeah, there's -- there's a big development going on over there, yeah. My siblings sold it after he passed, and there's something big going on over there right now, you know. And that's it, and my dad was really, really, really good to the people, and people appreciated him, and they loved him in the 40:00neighborhood, that when he passed, when he passed, you know, the people in the neighborhood or at least a few of them got together, and they said, "This man was good to us all these years. We got to do something for this guy," you know. "We got to do something for him."

So they got together, and they signed petitions. They went around the neighborhood and got some signatures. We as his children couldn't -- couldn't -- didn't know that we could do something like go name a street or something like that for him. They got this petition done for him, and they came to us, and they said, "This is what we did. Now we just got to finish up." Sure enough me and my brothers and my sister, we were active and we went to every community meeting, and I think it was community board number 10. I'm not sure. I think 9 or 10, okay. We went to the meetings, and we got an autobiography for him. We got some 41:00of his old pictures with important people, his plaques that he acquired -- some of the plaques that he acquired during his life, and sure enough, it was signed into law, yeah.

KITTO: Where is it?

WIDDI: It's on 56th Street, 56th Street and 6th Avenue.

KITTO: Okay, so it's like Bay Ridge?

WIDDI: No, it's Sunset Park.

KITTO: Sunset Park, yeah.

WIDDI: Sunset Park, yeah

KITTO: And that -- is that where the catering hall is?

WIDDI: That's where the catering hall is, yeah. I mean, on your way back if you're going that way you can look at it. The corner of 56 and 6th Avenue it says Subhi Widdi Way, and --

KITTO: Who were the people that made that happen? Like, was it --

WIDDI: People from the neighborhood.

KITTO: From the neighborhood, yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, people from the neighborhood, okay. There was one woman in particular. I forgot her name. She was really active. She was very impressed with my dad. Now my dad died four days after Sandy, four days after Sandy, okay, 42:00so we had to -- remember people who had Sandy. People had no gas, and there was gas stations shut down and everything, so for his burial we rented a bus. Yeah, some people took their cars, whoever had gas in their car they took -- we went to the burial, and we took a bus. We rented a bus for the people that didn't want to take their cars.

Well, we had like four days of memorial for him like to -- at the catering hall, to you know, for people to gather and give -- give condolences and stuff like that. There was one day, it was a Sunday. He died on a Friday. We did that Friday night. We did Saturday, and then on a Sunday, okay, somebody from Saint 43:00-- Saint Nicholas Home for the Aged, I think it's on -- on Ovington. I'm not sure. I think it's on Ovington. It's a senior citizen's house. My dad at one time was on -- on the board of trustees. I think he helped with that home or whatever it is.

His son, okay, the -- the son of one of the co-founders, when he heard about my father's passing he said, "I had to come and share something with the mourners." So he asked that night -- that Sunday night was -- was like the celebration of a life. It wasn't like people -- So he said -- he raised his hand. He said, "I would like to share something with everybody here." And he came to the podium. 44:00And then he said -- he said, "When I heard about the passing of Mr. Widdi I canceled all my appointments, and I had to come and share this with you and give you condolences and share this."

He says, "Saint Nicholas Home was about to be shut down because it owed taxes and the government wanted to take the building for the taxes." It would have -- 30 -- 30 beds, whatever beds had in there would have been gone. His dad, he wasn't around then. He was -- had died, okay. His dad, he said, "My dad said there's only one person we can go to that can help us." He says his dad and him came to my dad and told him about their dilemma. He said it like he -- said it like telling a story. It was like a dramatic thing, and everybody's so quiet. The hall was filled with mourners.


He said, "When we told him the story," he said, "Mr. Widdi reached into his pocket, took his checkbook, ripped out -- signed one check, ripped it out, and gave it to my dad and told him to fill the amount that he wanted, that he was behind on his mortgage." So he actually gave him a blank check. A blank check, who would do that? And everybody was like, really impressed, was like -- the hall was so quiet. Everybody's attention was -- so you know, that's just one of his -- the stories of his -- of his -- of his being generous. He was a very generous man, and he taught us to be that.

KITTO: Do you have other stories about the catering hall?

WIDDI: About the catering hall?

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: What I'll tell you is one woman -- one woman when we were in a meeting -- 46:00in a board -- board -- community board meeting and she was a supporter of co-naming that street. And she said, "When I got married Mr. Widdi charged me so little that he couldn't hire people -- he couldn't hire people to help," you know. "Him and his wife were serving us." She was so much for co-naming that street.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, that's one of the supporters.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, that's one thing, so there was a lot of stories about that. The hall -- the hall actually was very, very beneficial to the community, very, very beneficial. Where they had nowhere to go for their -- for their funerals -- not 47:00funeral as funeral where the bodies go, no, for accepting condolences for the families, holding funeral, holding -- holding dinners after -- after somebody dies. The family go there. They accept everybody from the community to come and give them condolences. They had no place for that.

KITTO: Right.

WIDDI: They had no places for engagements, for weddings, for meetings, and then he used to give the -- he used to give the hall to the church or free, church in the neighborhood. And then he brought -- once a week, whatever it is, they got it for free. Some schools, they wanted to hold graduations. They got it for free, you know. So that -- that's the kind of stuff that the hall was --

KITTO: So when you say the community or the people, who are -- are those -- are those Muslim communities? Are they --

WIDDI: Well actually, he just -- he didn't do just for the Muslim community. He did for everybody. He did. When somebody came to him for a donation he gave a donation.


KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: He didn't care whether you're Jewish --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- you're Christian --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- you're Muslim, yeah, he was generous with that. That's why the community of Sunset Park --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- are the ones that took it upon themselves --

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: -- to initiate the action of --

KITTO: Naming.

WIDDI: -- co-naming the street.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And they're Hispanic, and all sorts of people, you know.

KITTO: Yeah, I'm interested to know, yeah, what -- what the --

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: -- neighborhood looked like at that -- you know, what the -- when he opened it up there, what the neighborhood was like, what the demographic was.

WIDDI: It was -- it was -- the demographic was all mostly -- mostly -- mostly Hispanic. Now you got Hispanic and Asians and Chinese and it's mixing demographics and Arabs and Muslims and all kinds of people living in Sunset Park now, you know. Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, I guess I'm also wondering if there was like within Brooklyn when 49:00you came and also in your father's life, was there a specifically like Palestinian community that you -- that existed here? Were there organizations? Were there -- like, how was the immigration process in coming here?

WIDDI: Let me tell you, it was so much easier.

KTITO: Yeah.

WIDDI: In '75 when I came in I got my green card in the airport.

KITTO: Really?

WIDDI: In the airport.

KITTO: What?

WIDDI: Yeah, in the airport. They cut it out right there, green card, okay. Then years after that they started -- no more in the airport, and then after that they started giving you a temporary green card after that. And now it's way more difficult, yeah, but in '75, I mean, anybody could look up the record, in 1975 people who immigrated legally here got their green card at the airport.



WIDDI: There was an office where they take the picture and cut it, and the whole thing right there.

KITTO: So how were you able to immigrate? Was it your father? Like what --

WIDDI: My dad was legal, yeah, and he did an immigration papers for me. Yeah, immigration, regular immigration.

KITTO: Yeah,

WIDDI: And it took its time. I mean years it took for it to come out, and it came out, and everything was good. Yeah, I came here legally with a -- with a regular immigrant visa, yeah, immigrant, yeah. Got my Green Card at the airport, so it was all good.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, but then after that, as the years went by, things became more difficult, you know. I wonder why. I guess it's politics or all that political alliances and whatever it is.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: It's an entire mumbo jumbo.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Things, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: So can you tell me more about a community of people? Like was there, when 51:00you first lived here, was there a Palestinian community of people too?

WIDDI: There was.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: There was a Palestinian community.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And like I told you, people didn't have their families.


WIDDI: Most of the community was just single people living in either furnished homes and stuff like that, you know. And most of them were vendors, you know, peddlers, vendors and stuff like that, you know, okay. And then -- and then something funny too, they -- they used to -- used to take up a name, a nickname, yeah. If your name is Youssef, that's Joseph, they would call you Joe, you know, Joseph, Youssef, Joe. If your name is Mohammad they want to call you Mike. That's why you see a lot of Mikes there. If your name is Mohammad, Mahmoud, 52:00Ahmed, Moufid, they want to give you -- they give you a nickname of Mike. So almost everybody, almost everybody in the community was either a Joe or a Mike. [laughter]

KITTO: You mean they -- like as in what -- at the stores that they worked at or at -- yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, at -- at the -- yeah, at the -- at -- at the -- even between each other. They start to call each other Joe and Mike and yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, you know. There's a guy name Ahmed, my uncle Ahmed, nicknamed Mike. Still goes by Mike, you know. I guess now it's changed. It's changed. They don't take nicknames now. For my kids I chose easy names, you know. I figure they were going to go to public schools. I wanted Muslim names, Arab names, but easy ones because I didn't have it easy when I was going to high school.


KITTO: You didn't?

WIDDI: No, no, people made fun of my name, Mahmook and all that. They have fights in the locker room. You know, you can't say my name? [laughter]

KITTO: Yeah, my name is Svetlana.

WIDDI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KITTO: So I got it a lot when I was a kid too.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, so I -- when -- when I -- I chose my kids' names Nadir, Shadi, you know, Omar. I have Omar, you know, Sammy. I have a Sammy. So I chose easy names for my kids because I didn't want them to have a hard time going to public schools, but then Al-Noor Islamic School opened up, yeah, okay. And I put all my kids there. They all got -- they all got Islamic education from Al-Noor Islamic Center.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, I think Al-Noor cultural center, whatever it is in there. You know, it's on 21st and 4th Avenue, yeah. And things are good, yeah, thank god. We 54:00straight a hundred percent, hardworking, hardworking. As a matter of fact, statistics will tell you that people -- immigrants from Palestinian immigrations are well off, better than the average people here in America. They're hard working. They're hard working. They work hard, and -- and they make it in life, you know because we're working hard, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah. And -- and that's how it goes.

KITTO: So when you came you were saying that in your high school people like other kids who didn't know how to pronounce your name would make fun of you, and did you have -- did you have -- did you know other Palestinian teenagers?

WIDDI: There weren't -- there weren't too many.


KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: There was about maybe two or three, two or three, but in college -- college I met a few.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: I met a few in college so.

KITTO: Tell me about your college experience.

WIDDI: You know, just like I was a college student. I went to school for six years.


WIDDI: Yeah, and I had good experiences there, and you know I -- when -- when you have what -- two doors that can open for you, okay, you knock on one, if it doesn't open you knock on the next one. You know, so I had my doors open because my dad had the businesses, and I always had -- you understand? So that's why I -- I didn't -- I didn't get my doctorate or anything because I -- you know I had -- I had opportunities. So in 1983, 1983 I got married, and then this 56:00opportunity opened up right after I got married, and with my dad's help I went into partnership with my cousin, cousin Abdul who is married to my sister, okay. And we opened this in '83, and we're here since '83, '83 till now. That's 36 years, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: You know, what you call taking care of business and working hard, and now I don't have to work as hard because my kids, as you can see, are doing the job. As a matter of fact, my kids are -- I call them the new school of thought. Shadi's the one that renovated the supermarket.


WIDDI: Okay, yeah, he's -- he's the one that renovated the supermarket. He's -- he's got the vision for that. He's got the vision for that, you know. So we're helping out. Our community loves us over here. They love us, and they say -- 57:00some of them say, "You have helped the community evolve," because we did. We stuck it out with the -- the -- this neighborhood wasn't easy either.

KITTO: Tell me about it when you first opened.

WIDDI: Yeah, because in '83 still was drugs and breaking in -- breaking -- I mean, some -- some summers every store in the neighborhood was broken into. Ours was broken in once. They got in from the roof. They got in from the roof, you know. So okay, so -- but we stuck it up over here too, the community. And they appreciate it. They know. They know we are the -- they -- they say we are a pillar. A lot of -- a lot of customers tell us, "You are the pillar of the community here." When I'm talking about the community I'm -- I -- I'm talking about the people--

KITTO: This neighborhood?

WIDDI: Yeah, the people that live in this neighborhood.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.


WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: But that -- the neighborhood has really changed.

WIDDI: The neighborhood has changed, okay. The real estate rocketed, went right through the roof. It's not something that I really like. That thing they call gentrifying is not something that I really like because that's just another way of saying that getting the poor out of here and bringing in the -- you know, more well-to-do people, you know. So you know, but this is what happened. This is what happened. And the real estate is stuff that you would have bought for four hundred thousand 15 years ago. Now it's three million dollars.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Two and a half, three million dollars, it's -- it's ridiculous.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And the people that -- who are buying real estate are the people that already have two or three properties, and they're buying the fourth and the fifth. But the first timers it's hard. It's hard. I mean, real estate has become 59:00-- it's like what do you say? What do you say when you see something in the desert, and you tell me get -- to get closer to it?

KITTO: A mirage?

WIDDI: It's like a mirage.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, to the new generation. It's -- it's a dream that they can't -- as they get closer to it, it moves away. Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, what about the rents in this place?

WIDDI: The rentals -- the rents in this place, I mean, the lady, the landlord in this place wouldn't give us a lease unless we revised the entire lease, meaning, whatever -- whatever we were paying, cancel out all this, get a new lease for a new -- for new rent. We used to pay $8,000 dollars a month. Now we're paying -- well, now we're paying $35-$36,000, from 8 to 35-36.


KITTO: A month?

WIDDI: Yeah a month, yeah, yeah. These landlords are becoming really greedy, you know. So that's what it is. So that's the reason why we had to renovate. That's the reason why we had to renovate. We figure, you have to increase the business a little bit in order to get more business so that we can cover the rent, and that's how it is.

KITTO: How did that -- has that worked?

WIDDI: It did work out for us, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: At least we're still here, yeah, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: But thank God, I would say.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah. So also you mentioned that as you were here for longer you became, again, more interested in your religion. Do you have a community around that? Do you go to mosque? Do you --

WIDDI: I go to the mosque.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: I don't go to the mosque where the rest of my community goes to, the one on 6th Avenue and 64th Street, for the reason that it's far away. It's far away, 61:00and it's hard to park and everything.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: I go to the mosque, Masjid Al-Ihsaan. It's on Fulton Street.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Fulton and between Clinton and call that -- okay, it's right there, a block away from our other store, yeah. It's on Fulton and Clinton Avenue, close to there, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Okay, and it's easier. It's easier to park over there because the parking starts -- it's 1:00, so I got there right -- right around 1:00, a little bit after 1:00. I can find parking, and I do my prayer for Friday, and we come back. Only on Fridays I go to the mosque.

KITTO: Okay.

WIDDI: Yeah, I don't go any other days. I pray here.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, this is like a prayer room, right, pray room.

KITTO: When did you make this room?

WIDDI: It's been -- it's been here for at least 15 years I would say.


KITTO: Oh, okay.

WIDDI: Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, so.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: So that's how it is.

KITTO: Okay, let me just -- to see here. We talked about these things, yeah. I guess I wondered like, have your -- what your children's lives have been like growing up in America. Like for --

WIDDI: Can we take a break now?

KITTO: Yeah, sure.

WIDDI: Yeah, we'll take a break.

KITTO: Go ahead. You were saying.

WIDDI: Yeah, my kids are not religious.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: They're not religious, you know. I have four boys, and they're all different.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And their temperament is different. They're like -- they -- some are mild. Some are tempered. Some are -- they have -- you know what they say, a womb is a garden? That's exactly what I got. I mean, different kind of flowers. Each 63:00one is different. Okay, so I deal with them differently. Shadi is more tempered than his other brothers. Sammy is more like -- more like being nice to people and remembering their birthdays, and he's so -- more sentimental. Nadir has both, a little bit of both Shadi and Sammy together. But none of them -- Omar, I had Omar after we stopped having kids for 12 -- 12 years, and then Omar came along, you know, okay.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: So you know, he's my youngest. Twelve -- twelve to fourteen years -- I think fourteen years between Omar and -- no, twelve years between Omar and Nadir, the youngest, you know, okay. And but when I -- when I -- one time when my son Shadi was still a teenager and we wanted to go back home for instance, my 64:00wife took the kids, and she went, and I followed later on. I said, "Leave Shadi with me. I'm going to take him with me," because he's got the American mentality, you know. He doesn't realize when you go to Israel you're going to be treated differently.

I mean, he's not going to go for it. He's not going to search him, not search everybody else, put him on one line by himself with the other guys. He's going to say, "Why? Why not them." He's that kind of mentality. So I was worried for him to get hurt over there. He can easily get hurt because he's just not going to go for that. He always says, "Why me? Why you want to do me? Why not them?" You know, so I said to his wife -- to my wife, I said, "Leave Shadi with me. I'll take him when I come." So when I followed my family I had Shadi with me. This way I can control him, you know. Yeah, I don't want him to get hurt.

KITTO: Yeah.


WIDDI: You know, only because he's got the American mentality. He just doesn't give in.

KITTO: So what -- so what has happened when you -- when you guys have gone? How does he react to that? Sorry. Okay

WIDDI: My kids are not crazy about going back home. I don't know why, but they just -- they're not crazy about going back over there. I have no idea, especially the youngest one. The youngest one, he's the only there that doesn't speak -- doesn't speak Arabic. Yeah, my Omar, okay, because he had -- he was -- he had special needs with hearing and stuff like that. So we concentrated on one language, which is English, and this past summer when we took him, we almost forced him to go with us. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to go. There was 66:00nothing there for him. My other kids, they all say there's nothing there for us. I have no idea, you know. But I have one son that loves to go, and that's Sammy.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: That's the one that I tell you he's all about birthdays and stuff and this and you know. He's into people's emotions, making people feel happy. That guy loves to go there, and he enjoys, you know, visiting with people and sightseeing and going places, yeah. That's -- that's Sammy.

KITTO: What do you do when you go back?

WIDDI: We -- we -- we -- we go to places. We go let's say from there a few years ago we went to Turkey. Sights we enjoyed. We went a week in Turkey. We -- me and my brother and our families we enjoyed it. We loved it. Last -- last year we went to Greece, to a resort in Greece. We didn't like it that much because we had to watch out for the food, you know. They loved -- there are bacon bits in a 67:00salad in a salad, and you have to -- we have to watch out. So this year we got a little smarter. We went to a resort in the -- by the Dead Sea. Yeah, we went to a resort called Daniela. We didn't have to worry about the food. The food was all kosher, always good, the same resort, the Dead Sea, and we were like an hour away from our house, so we enjoyed it.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: We loved it. We will go sightseeing. We will tour the villages and towns and visit and enjoy each other.

KITTO: So how often do you go back?

WIDDI: You know we go -- we try to go every year for the summer.

KITTO: For the whole summer?

WIDDI: Yeah, my brother likes to go, my older brother Joachim. He goes in for two months every summer. I go for a month, sometimes five weeks and stuff like that. Yeah but we nejoy it.

KITTO: Where do you -- where do you go -- or --

WIDDI: We stay -- we stay in Beit Hanina. We have a little -- a little -- a nice house.


KITTO: Oh you do?

WIDDI: We have a nice house in Beit Hanina in the new section, and everybody from my father and their kids they go there when we go. So the family and the siblings actually when we go we see each other more over there because we're in one house. Over here almost hardly see each other except, you know, occasions. So that's -- that's how it goes.

KITTO: Yeah, so that's vacation.

WIDDI: Vacation, I love it.

KITTO: You love it.

WIDDI: Yeah, I like it.

KITTO: What do you love about it?

WIDDI: First of all, I don't have to work.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, and now my kids are doing the job, okay, and I go to -- it reminds me of my olden days even though the demographics have changed. Everything has changed.

KITTO: How so?

WIDDI: The streets changed. Everything changed. They keep doing stuff. They keep doing stuff. Okay, they opened up highways and stuff like that, you know. There's only one thing when I go there that I'm sad about. It's the separation wall that they have between the two towns, old Beit Hanina and new Beit Hanina. 69:00From new Beit Hanina to old Beit Hanina it used to take me -- it used to take my by car three minutes. It's one street. It's one town, one section called old, one section called new. Now the wall split them right in the middle. So if I want to go to old Beit Hanina, okay, to visit my mother's grave, for instance, I'm going to have to drive over an hour.

It's a loop going to -- by Ramallah, going through mountains and stuff like that, when I could have done it for two minutes. Yeah, that's -- that's what they call -- that's the wall that they erected between, you know, between the green -- the green section and the other, the West Bank and -- and Israel. Yeah.

KITTO: But they're both occupied, right?


WIDDI: They're both occupied, but it's actually a separation between people.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: I -- I -- I think it's racist, very racist. What's more racist than that?

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: Yeah, you know. So you know, it makes -- so now old Beit Hanina -- old Beit Hanina is like -- is like a ghost town. Yeah, not many people are in there.

KITTO: That's where -- that's where --

WIDDI: The old Beit Hanina. I'm from the new one.

KITTO: Oh okay.

WIDDI: I'm -- I used to be in the old, and then when my father got -- got better off financially, and he built a house in the new, yeah, but you know. So that's -- that's the sad thing.

KITTO: So what does this -- on one side it's -- you said it's a separation of people. On one side it's --

WIDDI: One side is the people that would say -- one side is called the green -- the green section, which means you have -- you have Palestinians and Israelis 71:00and everybody living in that there. But inside the wall, inside the wall is like the West Bank. It's like the West Bank and yeah, and the wall zigzags through the land. Yeah, and by zigzagging through the land it took away a lot of land, a lot of land that belongs to people.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: You know because they take it, and they take the surrounding also, security zone, whatever that is, you know.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: So it's acres and acres and acres, maybe thousands of acres of land that's taken.

KITTO: And your house is on the new?

WIDDI: Yeah, on the new section, yeah, in the new section of Beit Hanina, you know, where you can go to Jerusalem without going through a checkpoint, yeah, yeah. It's -- it's the checkpoints over there that is -- that is very bad. People got to go through checkpoints, okay. It's not easy. Sometimes people 72:00wait, wait hours waiting for them to go through a checkpoint. It's like -- it's like you're going from one country to the next, going from the West Bank to -- to -- to the -- to -- to the Jerusalem area. It's like going from one country to the next almost, you know. And that's how it is. And the West Bank is supposed to be supposedly owned by -- by -- by Palestinian authorities, yeah, and they're not doing such a great job in services and cleaning the streets and all that, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

WIDDI: And that's how it goes, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah. So your life in Brooklyn is really different from that?

WIDDI: My -- my life in Brooklyn, I mean, when you go down there -- when you go 73:00down there you take a few dollars with you, and you see it getting lesser and lesser. Over here is where your business is. This is where you earn a living, so you know, it's -- it's easier. Over there is more relaxing, but over here is easier, you know. Yeah, and then when I -- when I go over there I find myself gaining weight too, as a matter of fact, because we go from one restaurant to the next, and I'm not watching my diet, yeah. Over here I'm watching my diet. I am very careful. Like this morning I had oatmeal. I haven't had anything to eat after that, okay. So that's how it goes, yeah.

KITTO: Well, is there anything else you want to say?

WIDDI: All I want to say is that I wish one day we had peace in the Middle East where people can live together in harmony, in peace and harmony, and -- and 74:00where I can send my kids back home and not have worries about them getting shot or stuff like that. I would love -- I would love to go with the family and not have that thought in my head, you know, because when you go with young guys with your children over there there's always that thought that, you know, something can happen, you know, where any -- any -- any soldier with a gun, you know, it can happen. It's sad, but it's a reality. So I pray for peace, peace everywhere.

And these days it looks like so much -- so many wars breaking out everywhere that -- that the meaning of humanity, the human soul has less value these days, 75:00you know. It's a sad reality, but it's nevertheless. It's a reality, you know. What happens in Syria and Yemen and Iraq and it's horrible. The politicians want to preserve their seats. They have certain ideologies. They have certain things they want to do, and who pays the price? The innocent people. The innocent people that just want to live and raise their kids and send them to school and have a good job, you understand, and put some food on the table. They're the ones that pay the price, not these politicians that spend most of their time a lot of times in Europe and America and all these nice places.

Yeah, and that's how it goes, yeah. And I just want you to know that Palestinians are educated people. We're very, very educated, yeah. When -- when 76:00Saudi Arabia and -- and the Gulf States, all the Gulf States when they first were being developed, who taught them? Their teachers, all their teachers in their schools were Palestinian. Palestinians were always -- they went to education. I don't know about now because when you have demonstrations and you have strikes and -- and school closures, that -- that's not good for the education system, you know. And that's what's happening right now. And okay but that's even better than what's happening in Syria, civil war where innocent people are dying left and right. So that's how it goes.

KITTO: Well thank you very much.

WIDDI: Okay.

KITTO: Appreciate it.

WIDDI: I'm happy I could help. And I spoke to you from the heart, okay. And remember I love everybody. I really do. I really do. I want humanity to live in 77:00peace forever. And I tell -- and I tell the Israelis, let's make peace, because you either make peace now or you're going to make peace after thousands and thousands and thousands of lives are lost. Why not spare those lives? Why -- let's make peace now. Let's live together now. The Muslims and the Jews do better when they live -- coexist. Remember the days of Spain, the golden age? Spain, they were the Muslims and the Jews together, and that was called the golden age. We want that to come back. Unless it --

KITTO: What is your -- what is your -- how do you see that happening? Like, what is -- what do you think the solution is?

WIDDI: The solution is people have to realize that they have to share, you know. We have more -- we need education. We need education in schools that one side 78:00stop demonizing the other side, yeah, because -- because when a -- when a kid, a school kid is learning that -- that the other side, they're nothing but roaches. They're animals. So when he kills them he's going to think he's killing an animal. It's not going to be a human being in front of him, so it's -- it's no good. We have -- it's got to start from the home, and it's got to start from schools. And the way schools are doing it these days, I don't like it. They teach kids that the other side are not human.

KITTO: In Israel?

WIDDI: I think -- I think probably on-- I would think so. I would think so, yeah. I would think so, yeah. They're not teaching them that the other side are human, yeah. So when you take the human side out of the equation, what's there left? Nothing. No humanity. No humanity. You know, it's sad that Europe -- 79:00Europe, they killed so many people before they came together and they made the European Union, but thousands, hundreds, maybe millions of people died in Europe before that happened, okay. Is the same thing happening -- going to happen in the rest of the world now? Millions of people are going to die before they realize that we have to coexist? The sooner the better they realize that. The sooner the better, I say. All right?

KITTO: Thank you so much.

WIDDI: Thank you so much. It was pleasant. It was very pleasant.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Mahmoud Widdi

Mahmoud Widdi was born in 1957 in Beit Hanina during a period of changing political boundaries. He was raised primarily by his mother and paternal grandfather, and joined his father, Subhi Widdi, in the United States in 1975. He and his cousin opened a Met Foodmarket grocery store in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1983, which they converted into a Foodtown in 2016. He and his wife maintain strong connections to their Palestinian heritage, regularly visiting Beit Hanina and the surrounding area with their children.

In this interview, Mahmoud Widdi discusses being raised in Beit Hanina, Palestine by his mother and grandfather; his personal experiences with violence and political upheaval in the region; and his thoughts about the conflict moving forward. He expands on his parents' relationship; his father's emigration from Palestine; and his own immigration to the United States as a young adult. He speaks at length about his father's involvement in the assisted living facility St. Nicholas Home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn; his founding of Widdi Catering Hall; and the community effort to co-name the block the catering hall is located on "Subhi Widdi Way" after his death. Mahmoud also talks about working in his father's grocery stores; opening a Met Foodmarket in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn; and his marriage to his wife and their children. Interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto.

This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.


Widdi, Mahmoud, Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto, September 27, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.43; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • St. Nicholas Home (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Widdi, Mahmoud
  • Widdi, Subhi


  • Arab-Israeli conflict
  • Child rearing
  • Family-owned business enterprises
  • Gentrification
  • Grocery trade
  • Immigrant business enterprises
  • Immigrants
  • Israel-Arab War, 1967
  • Muslim families
  • Palestinian Arabs


  • Bay Ridge (New York, N.Y.)
  • Bayt Hanina
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Israel
  • Palestine
  • Prospect Heights (New York, N.Y.)


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Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories