In their own words: The many faces Mohamed Gumati

Sunday, September 23, 2007 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:17 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Mohamed Gumati cleans his hands behind the counter at his restaurant, The International Cafe.

In Their Own Words: Stories, opinions and truths as told by a Boone County resident.

My name is Mohamed Gumati.

I grew up in Libya. I stopped school so I could go with my father’s business. That was my dream, that we would make it more or bigger. But they stopped all the businesses. They closed everything. There’s no dream, no choice, nothing. What kind of a dream can you have? There’s nothing you can do.

(The hearty laugh of Mohamed Gumati fills the empty afternoon patio of his Columbia restaurant, The International Cafe. The red awning, a Hitt street landmark, and the window stickers are a far cry from his Libyan childhood, when he was uprooted by a communist coup in 1969. From northern Africa to America, from childhood to successful restaurateur, Gumati’s story speaks about perseverance.)

People like me got chances to get out. My uncle was going to school at St. Louis University. I went to school for English program in Lindenwood College, and then I attended Webster University. Things started changing in Libya, started changing to communism. I was supposed to come back to help my father for business. I had to call my father. He said, “You have no choice. Either you can finish school, or you come back and you have to go to the army.” At the time, I just wanted to come here for English program, learn the language, come back home and help my father for business.

(A short stint in America for an English program evolved into a new life in America. Gumati was a soccer phenom, a Ledoux paper boy and a restaurant hand while at Webster. Away from the turmoil in Libya, he fell into the American routine, eventually graduating with a computer science degree, and a wife, Elizabeth, a native of Venezuela.)

Coming, the hardest part was the food. When you come here there’s no mom, no sister, no aunt, no nothing. You have to make your own; cook your own. I learn a lot. I can take care of myself. Because back home, we do nothing. Mom takes care of everything. You find your food ready, you find your clothes ironed. Coming here, you have to do things by yourself.

When I was going to school, I could work from one job to another, like working the restaurant. But I was thinking, “If I was going from gas station to another job to a different job, I wouldn’t be able to open my own business. So I have to stick to what I’m doing and open my own.”

(Like his father, Gumati was moved by an entrepreneurial spirit. After a fleeting apprenticeship in a St. Louis kitchen, he drove west to Columbia to stake his own claim.)

I used to work in St. Louis with a small, Greek restaurant. I had ideas about cooking but not about cooking in the restaurants. When I went into restaurants for the first time, it seemed like, “Oh, so big.” It turned out to be nothing.

I’ve been in Columbia since ’89. About 18 years. A friend of mine told me this one restaurant was supposed to be opened here. At that time, the area was really down. It looked like a deserted town. The owner of the restaurant was looking for any person to run it, but nobody would take it. I came here and looked at restaurants here, and somehow I knew I could make it. Take a risk. So I talked to the owner. He said, “Go ahead; take it.” One year later, everything was booming. Things were good for me.

(Gumati’s insatiable desire to grow beyond the old restaurant’s walls brought him to his Hitt street location. The recipes are his and Elizabeth’s; the customers are loyal; the atmosphere, alive with Gumati’s zeal.)

The food’s the same here. I’m keeping it consistent. You eat almost the same hummus, the same tzatziki, same Greek salad dressing. It’s the same thing. Nothing’s changed.

Loyalty. That’s why our business so far has succeeded. I don’t do too much advertising, not as much as the other restaurants. That’s why we have to have those customers. Loyalty and word of mouth.

Service — when you come, it’s not really just to serve you and give you a smile. If we get a chance to talk to you, we’ll talk to you. More like a friendly, family restaurant.

There’s no boss. You’re your own boss. She’s not working with someone else; I don’t work with somebody else. We’re together. If you control the restaurant, then you’re okay. If the restaurant controls you, you have a problem.

I haven’t made it to the top yet. But I thank God what I’m having now. Beautiful wife, beautiful kids. They’re good; they’re in school. It’s not only me. Columbia is one of the best cities to raise family.

(Never without a smile, his wife, Elizabeth works at his side behind the counter. His son, Salim, 11, and daughter, Camilla, 18, know about their father’s childhood, their heritage. Thousands of miles from his cultural roots, Gumati takes refuge in a prayer room just down the stairs of the cafe. But those traditions combined with the current political situation affect his life.)

Before the things about Iran, everything was smooth, was nice. After the hostages in Iran, things changed. When something happens anywhere — it doesn’t matter if it happens in South America or anywhere — they put you as Iranian or whatever it is. That’s it. They don’t look at you because you’re Indian or Arabic. That’s what it’s like. Especially when you’re Muslim now. Something happened, everybody goes with it. As long as you have dark skin, they target you as Muslim or Iranian. I can tell the difference when I go to stores; people look at you different. Nothing you can say, nothing you can do. Sometimes you want to explain to them. It’s different; there’s something behind it. There’s a reason for things happening.

You hear a problem, you better see both sides. American people have to travel to the Middle East to understand the mentality of the people there. Sometimes you try to explain your best, but they don’t understand. Traveling itself is experience. I dream that my friends here go overseas to see things by themselves. They have no idea what they’re going through. They’re going through financially, and politically everything. Because here, they have everything. If you go there, you will see the reality.

(Yet, Gumati’s joy remains unspoiled. His life is full. And his cafe is just one part of his unfinished American Dream.)

I thank God. Everything I have, I should be thankful to God. Because everything is written. Whatever God gives you is written. You dream about something; if it happens, it happens. The older you get, the dreams change. When you’re younger you dream about the car. Now, you dream about more family, steady family.

I’m an old-fashioned guy. Mostly. More with tradition. With my family, I try to protect. I know what I’ve been through. We’re working hard.


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