On Camden Street in Dublin is a pretty French-style cafe, decked with a sumptuous array of cakes, buns and biscotti, where Abdul, an artful assistant, is apt to inscribe a perfect "Hello!" in your coffee foam with a plastic stick.
La Boulangerie is a friendly place, the brainchild of Jamel Arif,
an Algerian Muslim who left home in the mid-1990's "to find
a better life, harmony and happiness". After eighteen months
he wound up at an Angus Steakhouse in London, a kitchen porter with
perfect Italian and no English, proving himself as "the guy
who didn't care about smoking or drinking coffee and would work
twelve-hour days when needed".
Then, one day, he met an Irishwoman called Carla and her sister - in London for the weekend, who knew friends of friends. As a devout Muslim, having a girlfriend is not an option.
"It is wife or nothing. There is no in-between. I asked her to meet me for dinner the following day. I had only three hours. I couldn't take her to a pub or a disco, so I showed her my work, my real life. She could see me with my friends and the people I worked with. I showed her me."
A month later he came to Ireland for a week. "I booked a hotel. I wanted to prove to her that I had my own money and accommodation. She took me to see her family and they made me feel at home. I still appreciate that," he says. They were married at Dublin's Registrar office in March 1997.
Seven years later, they have a daughter and son, seven-year-old
Hanifa and eleven-month-old Reiad, and own a nice home in Inchicore.
The former kitchen porter also owns two other cafes, in Inchicore
and Rialto, employs fifteen people and last year bought a new Mercedes.
And, because he believes that married life should be 50-50, and
Carla works hard in the business, she got a new Toyota.
Soon he will be adding a "Mediterranean-type organic grocery, small and smart", next door to the Camden Street cafe. He's also planning to open a factory, employing up to 40 people. And he did it all, he says, without borrowing a cent from the banks.
"One reason is that interest is not allowed to Muslims. Another is that I don't like to work for anyone else. Why pay interest?"
He started the business with a couple of thousand euro he saved while he was a waiter in Dublin restaurants, having found a premises to rent from a supportive Irish landlord and a willing staff in Carla and her sisters. McGrath Refrigeration agreed to monthly payments for the fridges and cold rooms.
"People told me I was crazy to open the place in Bulfin Road, because there was nothing there. We gave them free cake, let them test the product. We spent 700 to get 150 back on the first day." But then it was an instant hit.
"My father always said: 'Make things happen. Ask advice, ask for help, but at the end of the day, do it your way.' Money is very important in our religion. You make money and you keep making it because it's your duty to help your neighbour."
His staff is a mix of nationalities: Irish; Italian; Spanish; Polish,
one fellow Algerian. He has mixed views about immigrants. "I
see people all the time who are allowed to work but don't want to.
Maybe the people come to get work but they get (social welfare)
help and then they're not interested any more. Why would they work?"
"Asylum-seekers are a different story. But how do you know if they are asylum-seekers? If the only way they can get in is to say they are asylum-seekers, then that is what they will say. They will tell lies. Most come here looking for work."
Has he experienced racism? Not around Inchicore. He has only good things to say about his neighbours and customers.
"I am the only foreigner and Muslim living on Bulfin Road.
We have very wonderful neighbours: top-quality, fantastic people.
They say good morning, talk to my child like she is theirs, give
her sweets. We are all one family. I am so thankful for their support
and for the customers who came to us. I was never expecting that."
"I never had a problem with racism. You hear that a foreign
guy is smashed with a bottle at 1 am near the Central Bank, but
what was he doing there at one o'clock in the morning? This is not
our country. We have to show people we are not the way they think."
And what about his marriage to a Catholic? "The perfect couple never existed. The communication between the couple exists. That's what is right."
He considers it his duty to teach the children who their father is, where he comes from and that he is Muslim. Hanifa speaks Arabic and goes to a Muslim school. "They call it a Muslim school," he says, "but it's a State school. There is one lesson in Arabic, and you learn things like what you do when you go to the mosque, but everything else is the same. She is very good in Gaelic." And Carla? "She is a little bit Catholic, a little bit Muslim." He pauses. "They didn't build Rome in a day."
Does Carla think he is a traditional Muslim? "She says I'm
a little traditional," he answers, a tad hesitantly. Carla
only wears a headscarf to the mosque, and he doesn't regard it as
a prerequisite for his daughter. "My sisters or cousins don't
have a scarf. It's more important that she be educated. For us -
education is everything."
"I want that she will fly. If she wants to be a doctor or a pilot, or anything that makes a success in her life, in her work, in her marriage, that's what is important. I will spend all my time for her. Anything she picks - I am behind her."
But he has strong views about covering the body. "I like my wife to be in respectable clothes. She is mine: why would she wear clothes for other men to look? I buy clothes from France, Italy and Algeria because here the clothes are only for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. But I buy very, very fashionable clothes. I'm not talking about money, I'm talking about quality."
Nor is he happy to find his children watching cartoons, for example, that show couples kissing on the lips. But he likes the educational aspect of television and watches children's programmes in the afternoon to help his English. "Can you believe that? At 34? I'm still learning," he grins.
Will he expect his daughter to conduct a courtship similar to his own? "We are against picking a man for our daughter. She has a right to refuse or accept. But, yes, I would feel bad if she had a boyfriend." Even at 19? "Even at 30," he says wryly. "I don't want a strange person in my house."
But how would she get to know someone? "She will. Like me. I explained to Carla who I am. After the day in London and a week in Ireland I wanted to marry. You have to work hard at it. How could I do that if my brain is mixed up with other women from before?"
He is a happy man. He shows a picture of his pretty wife and notes
that his mother-in-law will be accompanying them this summer on
the annual trip to Algeria. He can be found in the gym at 7.30 am
most days. Their social life takes in the movies and dining out,
mostly with Irish people. He doesn't want to see his children in
pubs, but he will meet his in-laws in one for lunch.
On Friday, the Muslim Holy Day, he takes time off between noon
and 2 pm - "my religion doesn't say to stop working" -
to go to the mosque, have lunch and catch up on news.
He is unquenchably optimistic about the way Irish society is going.
"I think Ireland is the best-organised country in Europe. The
people complain about the expense, but the children's education
is very well organised. They say Ireland is getting worse, but five
or ten years ago you went to the pub: now it's the fitness club.
Look at the buildings. Five years ago I'd have been scared to walk
down George's Street. Everything is cleaner, better."
"When I used to work with Irish people then, they didn't talk about holidays. Now they talk about Spain for two weeks; Italy for one week; Amsterdam for a weekend. Everything is getting better."
Does he feel Irish by now? "I love this place: a peaceful life, a good life. I love success. Ireland has given me opportunities. I think maybe the answer is 50-50. I will still have my own name. I am still proud to be Algerian, to be Muslim."