Where a community comes to celebrate, in joy and sometimes sadness
The first guests were scheduled to arrive by 6 p.m. But because this was an Arab ceremony, people have the right to take all the time they need, especially the future bride.
Nothing is ready yet. Waiters and florists are running around, attending to the last few details. Everyone is helping, even the children. There is, after all, a reputation to maintain.
For decades, the Widdi Catering Hall has been an institution in Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and beyond. Since its founding in 1985, it has evolved into the gathering place for the Arab community of Bay Ridge.
“What my dad liked the most about this job was seeing the Arab community so united, no matter religion, dialect, nationality or ethnicity, when gathering here, even if just for a night,” says Fadee Widdi, the son of Subhi Widdi, the founder.
Fadee Widdi’s office is covered with dozens of pictures of his family as well as the certificates of honor and brass plates given to his father, who died in 2012 at the age of 80. A phone rings: “Widdi’s, eywa”. Fadee starts talking in the lively Levantine dialect he learned from his Palestinian-Lebanese parents.
The Arabic script of Widdi’s sign – “Widdi’s – for weddings and all occasions” – stands out among the Spanish signs and Chinese ideograms at the corner between 6th Avenue and Widdi Way – the street name being testimony to the role the hall, and its founder have played in the community. The entrance to Widdi’s is surrounded by plants. Crimson curtains hang in the small windows The whole building seems like a sea of red and white. Inside, colors and lights illuminate the banquet hall. Blue candles glint against linen drapes, and their perfume of rose petals pervades the air.
Before it was a catering hall, Widdi’s was a fading movie theater. Subhi Widdi, however, saw the potential of giving the place a new life. He had left his Palestian village in 1960, and arrived in the United States with only $30 in his pocket.
“He started selling watches at the corners of the streets to make a living,” says his son. “And a little more than 20 years after he had built a small empire. Isn’t it the American dream?”
Little by little he started saving, and finally decided to invest that money by creating his own family business. He opened Widdi’s in 1985 and set about cultivating friendships in the community, the sorts of relationships that established his reputation as a man of good will.
“More than once he gave money to friends, forgetting about debt, paid for their tickets to visit their homeland or celebrated funerals and weddings for free at Widdi’s for those who could not afford it,” says Fadee.
He chose to come to New York because, says his widow, Emily, “his roots were already there, even before he moved”. Emily came from Bcharre, a village in the northern region of Lebanon – famous for being Khalil Gibran’s birthplace. She explains that the Arab community was already beginning to flourish in Bay Ridge, and he could survive his first months as an immigrant with no money and no place to stay because of the kindness of people from his Palestinian village who had come before him. She and her late husband met in Bay Ridge. Emily remains in the neighborhood even though her brothers and sisters have moved back to Lebanon. Bay Ridge is now her home, and will not leave it for her old one.
Fadee Widdi’s bookings agenda is open on his desk. Scribbles and words fill up every page; under every date of the month something is written or highlighted. Words are written in different languages –Spanish, Arabic, Greek, and Italian; Widdi’s is not only a gathering place for Bay Ridge’s Middle Eastern population. It is a rare occasion when Widdi is not hosting an event. Every weekend is booked; traditional Arab weddings, galas, henna engagement parties. Funerals and memorial services. Arab traditional shows and dance events. But also birthdays and Latino music nights and quinceñaras for the Hispanic community of Sunset Park.
Fadee takes a moment to breathe between issuing an order to the waiters and making a phone call. Friends and locals stop by — old and recent immigrants from Morocco to Yemen, come to shake hands and, he says, to “keep in touch, from time to time, to see how they are doing.”
It is 6:30 p.m. The ceremony guests have not yet arrived. Silence echoes in the hall, where a couple of people are cleaning the floor and fixing the lights. Then a woman in a white dress and hijab starts issuing orders in Arabic. She gestures with her hands to show how she wants the stage to be arranged, to match her envision of the main room.
The hall is decorated with flowers, and waiters cover the tables with white linen tablecloths, which reflect the light shining down from the mezzanine, where Fadee stands, supervising the scene.
His attention is on the kouche, the small stage and focal point of the main hall for tonight, from which the couple will soon wave at guests and celebrate the beginning of their new life together. The kouche is bathed in blue light. On the kouche is a white sofa with blue pillows, ringed by white curtains crowned with flowers.
The main door opens and the first relatives arrive to inspect the hall and ensure that everything is as they want it to be.
There are no strict guidelines to follow when two Muslims get engaged, so the celebration details are left to the tradition of each local community. Tonight’s couple, Juleana and Mohamed, are from Egypt. Tradition calls for the ceremony to be colorful, and that guests dance until dawn. The families have chosen DeeJay Fatin, who specializes in Arabic music, who is well known in the community and is a regular at Widdi’s.
A light shines on the kouche, so that all attention will focus on the couple. A child silently helps arrange the final table. He whips open the tablecloth, making it twirl above his head before spreading it out on the oval table, looking like a magician.
The kitchen is empty; the guests are bringing their own food, leaving only the organization of the event in the hands of Widdi’s staff. With few exceptions the employees at Widdi’s are Fadee’s family members – his mother, sister, and sometimes his brothers – who help cook for the guests. There i salso a part-time kitchen helper from Uzbekistan, who is called in the busiest times at Widdi’s, and Islam, Widdi’s handyman who is now unpacking boxes behind the main hall. He is a young, recently arrived Palestian immigrant. He works quietly, saying very little.
More relatives arrive. They stay at the door with their arms crossed, waiting for the food delivery truck to come.
A big black car approaches the sidewalk. Once again a party celebration is about to begin at Widdi’s.
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