Direction and production: A1 Productions
It is a late night, and Anand Kuchibotla, a.k.a. A.K., has left his friends after clubbing, a regular weekend ritual. The music wasn’t so great. He’s had one too many, and he should probably go directly home and into bed. But there is no one going home with him, nor is anyone there waiting there for him once he gets there. The night is kind of a bust.
He is hungry, and he decides to stop at a popular Middle Eastern shawarma cart in his East Village neighborhood. As he nears the cart run by a father-son team, his apprehension kicks in. They are wearing garments appropriate for praying in the nearby mosque and speaking Arabic. What will they think when a tipsy dark-skin guy stumbles up to them asking for food? They come from a culture that discourages drinking and encourages piety and clean living. Should he approach them? But his need for food overrides his concern, and he places his order.
Not knowing what to expect, he conjurers a case of guilt, wondering if they will find him disappointing, like though he may have let them down. Instead he is greeted with a question: What would you like, habibi?
Habibi is a powerful word in the Arabic language, and like most Arabic words it is derived from a three-letter root, roughly h-b-b, meaning to love. Pick any Arabic love song out of a hat, and I will wager the word, habibi, appears in every refrain several times. Yet the word is extended in fraternal conversation between friends of any gender as a way of expressing connection, love, and concern — as it did in this case for A.K., signifying care and understanding — messages that are most useful when we are vulnerable from too much drink and loneliness. Thus, he was inspired to create the hip-hop song, Aye Habibi.
Born in Hyderabad in south-central India, A.K.’s family immigrated to the United States in the late ’90s to Fremont, a town adjacent to San Francisco, and squarely centered in Silicon Valley. Like many immigrants, he learned that his cultural normals were not the norm, setting him on a path of assimilation that included making choices of what components of his cultural makeup were compatible with American culture, and which needed to undergo a transformation to fit with the West Coast environment where his family found themselves.
It was an ongoing process of inclusion versus exclusion. Which students could he play with? Which holidays does he celebrate? What kind of food should he eat, and in front of whom does he eat it if it is different from everyone else’s? Then later in his life, which fraternities can he party with, and which can he not? And while the process of Westernization over time may normalize foreign accents, clothing styles, spoken idioms, and political perspectives, A.K. discovered that unchangeable features of his identity continued to differentiate him from others.
Each time he is pulled by airport security when traveling to see his family, or when attempting to join a new social circle, there ensues a kind of inspection to determine if he correlates to the dangerous aspects of other bearded young men of Eastern heritage. And considering the violent acts perpetrated by other young men, like the attack on the Pulse nightclub in 2016 or the truck driver, who this year mowed down innocent people in Hudson River Park in Tribeca, there appears to be reason for concern. Yet for A.K., it is an issue of never really being on the not-dangerous list and always being on one that demands additional scrutiny.
It was A.K.’s warm reception by the men running the shawarma cart in the East Village on that fateful night, coupled with memories of his immigrant experiences that inspired ideas shaping Aye Habibi. Using hip-hop, he unleashes aspects of being from a supposed suspicious background and overlays them with the complexities faced when you are culturally different but ultimately human — like drinking, falling in love with people our families or our culture does not approve of, day-to-day failures and achievements — using lyrics served up on pita with ample helpings hummus, and baba ganoush.
Using food as a theme to synthesize and undermine conflict is not new. In fact, it is a tried and true tactic that works both figuratively and literally. We all have nights that go bad. And yet, while a warm sandwich with white sauce may not solve all of our problems, the sandwich served with a side of empathy might offset some. You will note that the issues represented in the vignettes of Aye Habibi stretch beyond the boundaries of the immigrant experience to everyone. My guess is, that was precisely A.K.’s point, and it is nice that the he delivers it in delicious bites we can all digest.
Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.