When Aneesa Waheed decided to open the first Moroccan restaurant in the Capital Region while raising her then 8-month-old daughter Zoya, and having very recently learned she was pregnant with her second daughter, Suha, she never thought about things that might hold her back.
Waheed, a Muslim immigrant who first moved to Schenectady at the age of 16 from Mumbai, India in 1993, had just a few years earlier dropped her six-figure job in New York City to open an Indian import shop with her husband full time.
Waheed was at first unsure that the downtown area of Schenectady was the place to be, but her Pakistani husband, Muntasim Shoaib, assured her it would be just right. After getting involved with Schenectady Greenmarket making food, the couple in 2011 launched Tara Kitchen Moroccan restaurant on Liberty Street.
‘Here I am being supported so well by a community, being a female, being a Muslim, being an immigrant, and I have a voice that people care about.’
Tara Kitchen co-owner
“My parents had a heart attack,” she said Wednesday afternoon. She sat down for a break from her duties as chef during the three hours her restaurant closes between lunch and dinner.
“Who does that? Who leaves a six-figure salary job to come and open an import shop in any town,” she said with a laugh. But to be able to do something she loved and also provide for her family, it was a clear choice. She was determined to have her own business and be her own boss.
Now almost five years later, Waheed and husband Shoaib have more than proven their acumen for the food business. Tara Kitchen is a local favorite for many, having won numerous Capital Region dining awards. They’ve also created a line of homemade sauces and spices that sell at over 28 locations, mainly through Whole Foods and Price Chopper in New York state. Waheed even makes tutorial cooking videos for restaurant dishes on her blog.
Waheed shares many photos of the food she makes on social media, but also documents how her family is intertwined with the restaurant. Scroll through Tara Kitchen’s Facebook timeline and you’ll see photos of her 4- and 5-year-old daughters eating, doing crafts and getting ready to celebrate Muslim holidays like Eid, the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, at Tara Kitchen.
Striking a chord
Waheed said she largely likes to keep things apolitical online. But recent comments by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump about Ghazala Khan, the Muslim mother of a slain U.S. army captain, prompted her to put up a post in opposition to Trump’s words.
She was particularly struck when Trump implied Khan was not allowed to speak about her son at the Democratic National Convention as she stood alongside her husband because her Muslim faith prevented her from doing so.
“It really hit a chord with me, the fact that he thought she couldn’t speak because she was a Muslim,” Waheed said, pointing out that there have already been female presidents in several Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“Here I am being supported so well by a community, being a female, being a Muslim, being an immigrant, and I have a voice that people care about,” Waheed said as she sat in her restaurant Wednesday. “Not only my artistic expression, which comes from my food, but also just me as community member. People care about that.”
Waheed said she had just posted the day before about celebrating her daughter Suha’s fourth birthday, and received an outpouring of positivity from restaurant customers online. As an immigrant, woman, Muslim, and successful businesswoman, she felt that it was important to share with her over 1,500 Facebook followers that the strength of her voice is in no way hindered by her cultural background.
“My story would not be possible in any other country,” the Facebook post read. “Don’t need to ‘Make America Great Again’ we are the Greatest already.”
Ghazala Khan later wrote an op-ed article for The Washington Post, explaining that she did not speak because she was still too grief-stricken over her son’s death.
Waheed said that she only goes to mosque a handful of times each year. Her husband attends more frequently with her daughters, who are learning about Islam and speaking their parents’ native Urdu language alongside English.
“What I do do is try to follow Islam in my daily life, what Islam teaches me,” Waheed said. “Which is to be good to my neighbors, to be good to people less fortunate than us, to be honest. I use those principles on a daily basis.”
On Wednesday, Zoya skipped through the restaurant in a denim dress and rainbow-striped leggings while she played on a tablet. Her mother gave her a hug, then speaking in both English and Urdu, asked the girl to go play in the other room.
Now that Zoya and Suha are older and attending school, they’ve begun asking their parents about the things that make them different. Waheed said they often ask why they’re not white, and why they’re Muslim, because being Muslim means they don’t celebrate Christmas or eat pork like the majority of their peers.
“They ask me why all the Disney princesses are white, and they’re not,” Waheed said. “And then I show them Malia and Sasha Obama, and I’m like look, don’t be a Disney princess. Be a president.”
Waheed said she loves sharing her culture and home country with her family and neighbors, but still firmly believes her accomplishments were only possible because she moved to America.
“When you’re outside of America, it’s sort of America is held as the pinnacle. That’s what everybody wants to be. I don’t think most Americans realize that,” she said.
Recently, Waheed was invited by the U.S. State Department and International Center of the Capital Region to speak with a group of Nigerian women about how to start a small businesses and balance it with raising a healthy family.
And while she pointed her daughters toward the young Obamas as role models, Waheed herself already stands as a confident, strong example.
“There’s really no reason for any one of us to limit ourselves because of things we cannot control,” she said. “I think you should do what you want to do, you should pursue your dreams, your happiness.”