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T Q&A

Ari Baban, chef and restaurant owner

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In 1998, within a year of arriving in the United States from Iraq, Ari Baban opened a small restaurant on Country Club Road named Aladdin. The restaurant contained only five tables, so patrons often waited in their cars for the next available seat. In 2002, Aladdin moved to its current location on Campbell Avenue. Familiar with business success, Baban started his first company at the age of 16, running an Iraqi tile manufacturing company with 25 employees. Baban chose to open a restaurant in Tucson to help introduce people to the cuisine and culture of the Middle East.

How is your business going?

No complaints so far. ... I meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends. I still have a lot of friends from when I had the small Aladdin. They saw the name and came here. It's fun.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The people. But a restaurant is not an easy job. It's hard. Most don't realize you are dealing with people when they first walk in. It's not just that it tastes good; it's more than that. You smell it first. Then you come and see it. And then you sit down and taste it.

How would you describe the food here?

You have to try it. I cook in the morning. I prepare everything daily, fresh. The food is healthy. It's hard to describe food that you don't try. If you like it, you tell your friends. If you don't like it, talk to me!

What are your goals for the restaurant?

This is not just about making money. This is making friends, meeting people everyday, exchanging ideas. And the other side is you show people it's not just about violence in the Middle East. There are other parts. We show the culture and another part of life on the other side of the world. Most people don't know what's going on in the Middle East. They think the Middle East is like a big bomb that's going to explode any time in your face. There are normal people there, peaceful people, just like any other part of the world. They want to have their normal life; go out; have fun; enjoy life. ... So here in this restaurant, I was trying to introduce part of that to the people so they could see my ideas. I am trying to get that point--to visit the Middle East without leaving Tucson.

Why did you come to Tucson?

I came to visit my sister, and one month later, she died. (Baban's sister was ill from the aftereffects of chemical weapons released in Halabja by Saddam Hussein's forces in March 1988.) So I had to stay. She left three kids behind. My mother and I decided to stay and take care of the kids. That's why I picked Tucson. It wasn't really a choice.

I see. What was life like in Iraq during Hussein's reign?

It's hard to explain the fear. When you walked outside your door, you always thought something bad was going to happen to you. That was the biggest thing. It was a republic of fear. ... Two months after they (American forces) got into Iraq, I was talking to a friend of mine in Baghdad. I told him congratulations. He didn't want to talk to me. He said he was still afraid. He said, "I don't want to say anything. I am afraid they will come and get me."

Do you have many friends still there?

Not so many. Most of the people my age, especially in my area, left. I know in my hometown, more than 200,000 people left in the last 10 to 15 years.

What do you think of what is happening in Iraq now?

I think it's sad. I think there's no reason for people to get killed. People's lives should mean more than that. ... I think the problems right now are we don't understand each other, or we don't try to understand each other for some reason. I think before everything, people have to learn how to like each other. We have gotten to the point where we hate each other for no reason. If we try it the other way, maybe the problems would be solved everywhere. ... People just want to live for themselves. I think that creates most of the problems in the world. Everyone wants to get their own power and their own happiness.

What should we be doing?

If you want happiness for yourself, you have to have it for your friend. If you ask for peace, it can't just be for you. You have to ask it for other people. You can't just say, "I want this for myself." You have to ask for everyone. What does it mean if you are happy and your friend is not? It doesn't make sense to me.

What do you want for everyone?

To love each other. I don't think it's hard.

True. So if a magic jinni walked into the Aladdin to grant you a wish, what would you ask for?

Peace.

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