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The Scene was our Illinois arts & culture podcast through 2017. Rachel Otwell curated the podcast which provided full-length stories and follow-ups, links to other reports, and conversations with you.This podcast contained a range of stories from the world of arts & culture, from visual art to Springfield's DIY music scene, to profiles of interesting local characters. The podcast was about what makes artists tick, and the diverse culture that exists within our community.

What Will Become Of Springfield's Holy Land?

UPDATE: Afaf Rashmawy tells us while there is still yet to be a buyer, Holy Land will close after Saturday, April 25th. Lunch and dinner will both be served that day.

In the land of the horseshoe sandwich (a local "delicacy" consisting of bread, meat, fries & cheese sauce) finding fresh Middle Eastern food can be a definite challenge. For the past two decades, Holy Land Diner has been a staple for many residents who like to eat a variety of ethnic offerings. And the couple who run Holy Land have become fixtures in Springfield's culinary community. But now, they are looking to retire and pass along the legacy. Listen to the report: 

About once a month or so, my dad and I come to this place. It's in the Vinegar Hill Mall, in the shadow of the capitol building. With him being a trial judge and me producing a radio show that airs at noon, neither of us make it out for lunch often. Holy Land is a sure bet if you're in a time crunch, there's always a fully stocked buffet (although sometimes you do have to wait on the popular falafel.) Plus, the owners, Afaf and Jamal Rashmawy, greet us like we’re family.

In the kitchen, Jamal is chopping up fresh lettuce. His wife is the main chef here - she doesn't let him or the other two employees season a thing: "I am just a helper, she does everything." Jamal is retired from a 25 year career in public health as a lab tech. He says he's looking forward to a real retirement once the restaurant is sold, but says he will miss the people, "This is what we enjoy most, knowing customers. And many of them are giving me their telephone numbers, addresses, email addresses, so we'll stay in contact." Jamal says he also hopes to see more of his two children, who live in Tennessee and Nebraska.

Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS
my dad, so happy to be at Holy Land

Back at our table, my dad and I reminisce. "Why do we come here? Because we love the delicious food ... and we love the people, the owners... It's just kind of become almost like comfort food,” says my father. Plus, I point out – we always see other people we know here.

Not even five minutes later, one of my dad's friends and work-acquaintances walks in. Jamiela Kassem, who works for the state's inspector general, is here to meet her parents: "I've been coming here for about 15 years ... I like the vegetables, I like the quality - the way she cooks it. And it's unique for the area … I'm greeted with a hug from Jamal and a hug from Afaf every time." Jamiela's father Ahmed has made the trip all the way from Mahomet, over near Champaign. He's originally from Palestine and says Holy Land Diner reminds him of home. "The food is good and we heard that she is closing shop so we wanted to say goodbye and wish her a happy retirement,” he tells me.

Afaf and her husband have been married over 30 years. They had known each other for a mere 15 days when they wed. Afaf says after coming to Springfield from Bethlehem in 1983, she ran a home daycare, but family urged her to go into the restaurant business and share the recipes that had been handed down from her mother. She uses fresh, in-season food, from the local farmer's market when it's open. She shows her customers healthy food can be really tasty. In fact, when she was first starting out, Afaf says she'd let new customers eat for free. "It's healthy food - they have to eat vegetable(s) - as much as they can. And I don't use any can(ned food), because there is preservative in it. If I use tomato sauce - just - crushed tomato,” says Afaf.

This location in Vinegar Hill Mall is the third site for Holy Land. Afaf says she started on the west side, but 

Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS
Jamiela Kassem & her parents, also happy to be at Holy Land

later moved downtown, to the old state capitol plaza, where business increased. Now, after 20 years, she has to take her own health into consideration, her right knee has been causing pain. "The doctor said, you have to change, to change your knee,” says Afaf. Like her husband, Afaf says it's the customers that are the best part of her job: "I love the customers! When I sit to talk to them - like you... When I sit to talk to you, I take, and give and it's like … friends.” Afaf has seen me grow up over the years, and I can attest that many of the customers love her right back. Now, she says she's in a race to find a buyer before her knee pain makes work unbearable. And it's her sincere hope a new owner will keep her recipes available to us Holy Land faithful’s.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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