Chef I April 13, 2018
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The fourth child of two immigrants who came to the United States in the late 70s, renowned food blogger and chef Abeer Najjar is a landmark profile for Bright Side, as she is our inaugural first generation interviewee. Though born and raised in America, Najjar explains the unique position her background has put her in, and describes the effect her cultural roots have had on the person she is today.
Two Forks, Two Spoons, Two Knives: Everything We Need
“My mom was raised in a refugee camp in Palestine named al-Am'ari. My dad was from a town not too far away, and they were married in 1978. They decided to come to America when she was 7 months pregnant, because the tensions between Palestine and Israel were starting to escalate at the time.”
Though the young family already had a few friends and connections residing in the states, the move was a bold one considering that neither of the two spoke English, nor had any pre-established job prospects prior to the move. Still, with the hope that the risk would provide a better life for their family, the couple took the plunge.
“It was a very typical immigrant story. They came here with nothing except a suitcase. My dad had to search for a job, they couldn’t speak the language—which was really hard when my mother was giving birth to my sister in the hospital here.”
With the help of another family they met at the hospital, Najjar’s parents were able to find a modest apartment in Chicago’s South Side. Her father worked a series of odd jobs, everywhere from factories to gas stations, while the family gradually grew in size. Some seven years later, Najjar finally came along. Though the early years were ones of struggle, Najjar maintains that her parents were always able to have faith that things would improve.
“They had an apartment and they just made the best of it there. My mother used to tell me how at first they didn’t have a bed for my sister, so they’d lay a cover in a suitcase. I remember she’d always say, ‘We had two forks, two spoons, and two knives, but we had everything we needed.’”
Living in the First Generation
Growing up, Najjar still faced her fair share of challenges. Though she was a natural-born American citizen, she recalls the isolation she felt as a result of being the child of immigrants.
“No one can ever say your name. You’re one of the only people like you at your school. You’re always embarrassed because you’re different. Your difference isn’t celebrated or appreciated, you’re just made to feel weird about it.”
For Najjar, being Palestinian added its own unique layer to the immigrant experience. During some of her most formative years, a shift in the political landscape of the United States made it so that her best efforts to assimilate into American culture were suddenly not enough.
“There was no PBS special on the beauty of Palestinian culture, all that was on TV was images of Palestinians with their faces covered blowing things up. So that’s what we were always associated with. 9/11 happened when I was in high school, and that made it even harder because I was already trying so much to blend in.”
The challenges of perception she faced in high school spurred Najjar on a path of self-reflection. It was a pivotal moment in which she had to all at once contend with questions about her own identity, faith, and heritage. As societal pressures and scrutiny mounted, she had to make decisions about her life that would shape her future.
Photo Credit: iamshooter
“I had started seeing more blatant prejudice and racism towards Muslims, people yelling things at me and my family when they never would’ve before. I thought, ‘How am I supposed to navigate this world? How am I going to find a safe place here? Who am I going to be? Am I going to disassociate with my roots, or am I going to figure out who I am and just be proud of that?’”
In the end, Najjar chose to embrace the person she was, along with all that came with it.
A Family Recipe
For Najjar, recognizing and celebrating her own cultural identity was a multi-faceted process. It was not only a reconnection with her familial roots or her faith, but also a reinvigoration in certain passions she held from her childhood. One of the most significant ways in which Najjar tapped into her history was through food.
“When I was little, my mother would tell stories while she cooked. She’d tell me about how my grandfather used to make this dish in the exact same way. It was literally my only connection to my grandfather since I didn’t get to know him growing up. People have all these memories with their grandparents, but these plates were my memories with them. It was what kept them alive.”
But it wasn’t just the family connection to cooking that captured Najjar’s imagination; she also grew up admiring the culinary greats, watching the cooking shows of Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. By the time she had finished high school, her love of food had developed into a desire to attend culinary school. She began touring schools along with her mother, but for someone who grew up in a family that made use of every dollar they had, the exorbitant tuition fees were enough to give Najjar pause.
Photo Credit: iamshooter
“I remember we went to this one school and they said, ‘Did you know there’s 11 ways to cut a vegetable?’ I remember thinking, ‘Who cares? I’m supposed to pay $50,000 to learn that?’”
In the end, Najjar and her family decided it was more prudent to attend a traditional four-year college. For the time being, she hung up the chef’s hat for the therapist’s clipboard, electing to get her degree in psychology from DePaul.
Abeer’s Day Off
All while pursuing her degree, Najjar worked a steady job at Whole Foods that she had kept from her high school days. As time went on, she continued to move up the professional ladder to a point where she was having trouble juggling her career with her studies. When she finally finished at DePaul, her schedule with Whole Foods became a full-time commitment. Although she had nearly given up on her aspirations of pursuing the culinary arts, a fateful turn of events thrust her back into food world.
"Instagram came out, so I started Instagramming the things I would cook for myself. Everyone loved it and said I should start a blog, but I was pretty intimidated to do it. I knew food blogs and I just thought that wasn’t me. I wasn’t a chef. I wasn’t perfect. But then I realized. the people I looked up to didn’t have the fanciest website or the fanciest cameras, they just had the best content.”
But Najjar came to a realization. The content was what truly mattered, and in what Najjar lacked in the aspects of design and technical equipment, she more than made up for in terms of her recipes. She started her blog, and before long people took notice.
“All of a sudden I got an email from this Chicago based documentarian named Alex. He had found me on Instagram and said he wanted make a documentary about me. I was very suspicios about it from the beginning, but luckily a friend had worked with him before and said he was the best and that I had to do it.”
Najjar and Alex's team at Revive production created “Abeer’s Day Off,” a web series in which Najjar was the host of her very own cooking show. Though she had already been gaining traction from her Instagram and blog followers, the show gave Najjar a tremendous boom in traffic. It was a moment in which she transformed from the words and images on a screen into an actual person who people felt they could connect with. Najjar was following the footsteps of her childhood idols, Pepin and Child.
A Brand New Meaning
As the show progressed, Najjar and Alex realized that Abeer’s Day Off was becoming more than just a show about food. According to Najjar, the times following the 2016 election saw to a rise in Islamophobia, and suddenly it became that much more important for the show to stand as a testament to the beauty of her Palestinian culture.
“On a representational side, I got so many messages from people who were like, ‘Oh my god, my kids love this show and it’s so good that they get to see someone who looks like them. It’s great that they can see someone who also has brown skin, or who also wears a hijab.’”
For Najjar, the ability to show your true self without fear of persecution or judgment has long been a hallmark of what America seeks to represent.
“You can dress however you want, say whatever you want, and do whatever you want. The only thing you have to do is respect other people’s rights to do the same. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but it’s the first and foremost thing I appreciate about American culture.”
Photo Credit: iamshooter
With this in mind, Najjar plans to continue to on her journey of self-reflection. She has already developed an invigorating sense of confidence, an appreciation and love for the elements of her identity that she once viewed as a burden to her assimilation into American culture. She passes this on as advice to any other immigrants, or first generation Americans like herself, emphasizing the importance of recognizing yourself.
“Stay true to yourself. I think immigrants tend to be a little bolder than first generation. When you’re born into it, societal pressures stick with you a bit more, so definitely try to stay bold. Being yourself is your best asset, and its what sets you apart from other people.”