Reem’s is a place meant to build bridges, not burn them.
Credit: Eva Kolenko

When Restaurant Editor Jordana Rothman returned to the office after a months-long scouting trip for Restaurants of the Year, one of the dishes she raved about the most was the savory mu’ajinaat pastries at Reem’s in Oakland, California. She described the sunny vibe of the bakery by the Fruitvale BART Station and owner Reem Assil’s heightened focus on community. Rothman also discussed with our editorial team the controversial mural of Rasmea Odeh painted on one of the bakery’s walls.

Odeh was convicted in 1970 in an Israeli military court for her role in a supermarket bombing that killed two civilians and the attempted bombing of the British Consulate. She was released from prison in 1979 as part of a prisoner exchange. Her supporters argue that her conviction was the result of coercion. Last year, after a three-year legal battle, Odeh was deported from the United States for making false statements about her imprisonment on her naturalization application.

Much has already been written about Odeh and about the mural at Reem’s. Assil, who grew up in a Syrian-Palestinian family in Sudbury, Massachusetts, publicly defended the work last year in a talk with Real Food Real Stories.

In the course of her reporting with Assil, Rothman says she encountered a proud and thoughtful business owner, looking to express and share her identity as an Arab-American woman. “I wanted to cultivate understanding in the most humane way possible—through food,” Assil told Rothman in Food & Wine last month. “I look around my restaurant on a Saturday afternoon. I see Jews and Arabs eating together. I see people who are not politicized just enjoying a meal. And I think, this is what peace looks like.”

Ultimately, the mural is a polarizing distraction from the larger point, especially now in our charged political climate. To dismiss Assil and Reem’s based on the portrait of a divisive figure rendered in paint is to deny the full impact of the restaurant, its role in the Oakland community, and its place in a global social and political conversation. We recognize Reem’s because we see intrinsic value in widening our readers’ understanding of the foodways of the Middle East and expanding the chorus of voices we empower to tell that story.

In other words, Reem’s is a place meant to build bridges, not burn them. That’s why Reem’s is a Restaurant of the Year.