Exile in the Tenderloin: The quest for a future at San Francisco’s only Sudanese cafe [SF Chronicle]
 
 Aref Elgaali behind the counter at his Z Zoul Cafe in the Tenderloin. Photo by Liz Halifa, The Chronicle

Aref Elgaali behind the counter at his Z Zoul Cafe in the Tenderloin. Photo by Liz Halifa, The Chronicle

 

The mural is the first thing you notice at Z Zoul in the Tenderloin. On the back wall, a pensive woman enfolded in a flowing blue dress sews together a swatch of green fabric that has been ripped in two. An Arabic phrase, repeated in both faint and bold lettering, hovers around her like a swarm of moths.

Once owner Aref Elgaali explains its meaning, the mural leaves the restaurant with you, too. The woman, who resembles Elgaali’s mother but is not her, is mending a map of his birth country, Sudan, from which South Sudan seceded seven years ago. The phrase translates as “All are one.” The mural is a prayer for unity, one the refugee spends his days contemplating from behind the counter.

Z Zoul, which opened in February, may be the Bay Area’s only Sudanese restaurant. While its owner is making repairs and meeting with agencies, it is still finding its way — a place to stop for spiced coffee or a dish called foul masalah. Yet it’s also a sign that the Tenderloin remains one of the few spots in San Francisco where a new immigrant, idealistic and impatient to work, can go into business for himself.

“It would take five or six days to tell my story,” Elgaali says.

Read the full story by SF Chronicle writer Johnathan Kauffman here.