In its winding arterial path through Lima, University Avenue frequently changes faces. From prolonged and monotonous wall-lined sidewalks enclosing the academic sanctuaries of the San Marcos and PUCP universities, it abruptly transforms into some of the busiest blocks of the city where transportation and commercial hubs concentrate. The river of cars, trucks, buses and shuttles flows constant. It was in the middle of the pedestrian chaos that links La Mar and La Marina avenues that I met Mohammed, but I had to line-up. Located a few steps outside of Plaza San Miguel shopping centre, Tayepp (which means delicious in Arabic) is an ambulatory gastronomic operation that offers its customers chicken and beef sandwiches of a Middle-Eastern recipe called shawarmas. The stainless steel cart stands out in this city with its vertical gas grills on both sides spewing a constant stream of flames that roast small towers of compacted meat, piled high on metal spits. Some stop by to ask what all this is about, other stay to smell and let themselves be convinced. If they are lucky, they'll slice off a piece for them to try. Those who know directly join the queue. Tayepp has become a destination.
Three to four guys always work the stations: making the bread, cutting meat, maintaining the grills, assembling sandwiches, taking orders and handling money. Up to fifteen people can often be seen awaiting their sandwich, each one made to order from the dough up. Mohammed is their leader, motivating, cheering them on and making sure that each customer has been well served. Having his business in the street also requires him to maintain a constant dialogue with other street vendors, the local security squad and police whilst keeping an eye open for troublemakers. He started Tayepp mid 2011 after holding a market stall in Magdalena del Mar for several years. A sudden change in rent and other complications pushed him to take his business to the street, but it wasn't his first time starting over. Mohammed came from Egypt six years ago as a tourist and decided to stay. Previously he had owned a restaurant in a busy area of Cairo and coordinated exports around the Mediterranean, on top of managing several family businesses. In Lima, he first built up a medium-sized poultry supply company that enjoyed good success until problems with partners forced him to go his own way again.
With Tayepp, he has returned to a formula which he knows well and enjoys. It allows him to share something good from his culture and deal directly with his customers. "My country is full of beauty, but things are very complicated there at the moment" he tells me. With his assistant and compatriot Hamid, he is closely following the political changes currently occurring in Egypt. "Insha'Allah the situation improves, I love my country!" In spite of the city's reputation for keeping an unrelentingly fast pace, its hard and sometimes impersonal nature and unpredictable weather, Mohammed and the young men who work for him, who are also all immigrants, have found their place in the Peruvian capital. They tell me stories of past jobs, of lovers and future goals. From their distant neighbourhoods, they come together early every day to two rooms Mohammed rents on the roof of a house in Magdalena where they prepare all the ingredients for the night. Every chicken breast and beef cut is washed and cured by hand. The sauces and marinades are prepared with secret recipes which only Mohammed knows.
I find them there on the roof one afternoon shaving cabbage, crushing garlic, pressing lemons, sometimes talking, wrapped in incense and listening to holy chant from the Quran. "It's to attract the angels, so that they come to this room and bless the food we are preparing" one tells me. Both work and faith unite them. Friday they go to the mosque. Each goes on their own and prays in his fashion. Some come early to hear the sermon whilst others just pass by, more to give their regards and shake hands. The day that I go, I have the privilege of sharing a lunch of stewed lamb and vegetables offered by the Egyptian embassy. There I meet other muslims from Tunisia, Bangladesh and Iraq who have also come to make their lives in Peru. They tell me that sometimes the differences in cultural values can be shocking and that the absence of family is hard, but in general they are all slowly succeeding to establish lives that they are happy with.
Mohammed welcomes the success of his small gastronomic enterprise with humbleness. He attributes it to the quality of the food, his team's efforts and the help of God. He has also instilled his guys with the sense of pride which comes from doing a good job. Each one has come for different reasons and pursues his own dreams, but Tayepp is their current landing point. One day, Mohammed confesses to me that after years spent living far from home, he is curious about returning to live in his country again, but it takes time to plan for a return of such importance. Meanwhile, he lives happy with the accomplishments of each day, surrounded by the friendship of his helpers and friends, and limeños will keep enjoying the best shawarmas in Peru.
I presented this article as part of my final assignment in a journalistic photography course I was lucky to take this semester but it started with a short post written in October. This project made me appreciate the importance of choosing a topic that can be conveniently and continuously covered in order to achieve a complete story. Sometimes the best ideas are not always the easiest to carry through logistically. Thanks again Mohammed, Hamid, Salum and Raúl!