By Fatema Al Darii
Sahara Cafe and Grill caught my attention because the owner, Mariam Al Saiyd, is a native of Sudan, and I overheard her speaking with an Arabic accent. Frankly, I was surprised to find an Arab-run business in Jackson Ward. But, this also meant that the food is genuinely authentic.
Mariam is a strong, hardworking woman. She’s been living in the Richmond area since 1998, when she ran a gift shop during a particularly dark period in the city’s history. “In the early 2000s, downtown Richmond was, well, downtown Richmond. It wasn’t even safe to walk at night.”
Mariam didn’t plan to go into the restaurant and culinary business until recently, when she decided to turn a personal passion into a vocation. “We like cooking and we like people–we host a lot of gatherings,” she said.
“Downtown Richmond is changing,” she said, citing the number of young adults and professionals who are moving into the area. She also notes that VCU is changing as well. “There are a lot of international students from the Middle East, so why not take the opportunity?”
Her first restaurant, Al Kawthar, was located at Lombard and Broad street. When the building was sold, she moved her restaurant to Jackson Ward and changed its name from Al Kawther (“heavenly river”) to Sahara Cafe to attract more customers. “It’s a bit hard for non-Arabs to pronounce Kawthar, so I changed it to something more familiar.”
Even though “Richmond is about tight-knit communities,” it does pose a challenge for multicultural integration and exchange. Old habits die hard, and “it’s difficult to get new customers from Jackson Ward. I want to show people that Middle Eastern food is both healthy and delicious.”
Food brings people together, it’s a great medium for people to get to know each other. That’s why she encourages curious customers to explore the wonders of Middle Eastern cuisine, even if it’s out of their comfort zone.
Towards the end of our conversation, I ordered a falafel sandwich. “Are you vegetarian or vegan?” she asked.
“Vegan,” I replied.
“Wallah! [by God’s name], she exclaimed. “I knew it from your haircut!”