When Chef Taylor Cheney opened Yalla in 2019, she chose saj as the theme—or perhaps it chose itself. A longtime Seattle chef who’s lived and traveled throughout the Middle East and North Africa, she knew she wanted to serve food from this part of the world, and that she’d have limitations in the tiny space. But saj wrote itself. Saj is a flatbread that’s usually eaten in gyro/taco format and Yalla serves it with a variety of fillings: falafel, fried eggplant, lamb, labneh, or just a dusting of za’atar. It’s also the perfect street food to be served out of a walk-up window—especially on a street with a ton of bars, as Yalla is.
Cheney has been loudly pro-Palestine for more than a decade, and Yalla’s held several fundraisers over the years for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, which sends humanitarian aid to Palestinian kids. So when the current Israel–Gaza conflict erupted earlier this month, hosting another fundraiser was a no-brainer. Using her Palestinian friend Laila El-Haddad’s cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen, as a guide, Cheney’s Gazan popup at Yalla on October 19 included specials like rumaniyya, a rich lentil-eggplant stew dotted with pomegranate pips and fresh dill, and fatayer saliq w lahma, flaky pies filled with minced meat and chard. The fundraiser was way more successful than Cheney had expected—they raised the full goal of $3,000 in just two hours, donating 100% of the proceeds to the PCRF.
What Cheney also didn’t expect was to be doxxed for helping kids. After appearing in a news spot on KING 5 before the event, Cheney received a barrage of online abuse and nutty voicemails, and she even had some missives mailed to her. As Cheney commented on an Instagram post: “This is what the smallest act of resistance looks like. The smallest…. Sad to see that showing a small amount of empathy for innocent people means you will pay.”
Regardless of your take on the conflict, this shit should piss you off. Getting targeted by internet mouthbreathers for speaking critically about an ongoing war isn’t that surprising, but it’s Pizzagate-level lunacy to go find someone’s personal info about it. Cheney seems more alarmed than pissed, though, and had this to say about the popup, the harassment, the conflict, and the march and vigil for Palestine in Westlake Center last weekend.
The Stranger: Tell me about the concept behind Yalla’s menu.
Taylor Cheney: Saj is what Yalla is about. When I first saw how tiny the space was, I was like “Okay, what can we do in here?” We can’t do kebabs, we can’t do a bunch of other stuff, but we can do saj! And it’s not something you see around Seattle. So saj became the theme. As for the part of the world it’s from, I call it “Levantine,” meaning it’s from the Levant. They eat saj in Syria, down in Jordan, in Palestine. Even Turkey, which is north of the Levant—saj is really popular there too.
Everybody likes saj. Speaking of cooking food, tell me how the fundraiser popup for Gaza went last week.
Oh my god. Amazing. We opened at 4 pm and were totally sold out by 6, and we raised $3,000. That’s a LOT for a small shop that sells items for $12 to $14. The tickets just never stopped. I made so much food, I swear to you.
I saw you in the window, hustlin’! I loved both of the Gazan items I got to try, the rumaniyya [pictured above] and the rqaq w adas [lentil soup with dumplings]. Everything sold out so fast!
We made as much food as our fridges could possibly squeeze in, and it was all gone. We meant to stay open until 10, but I called the last order at 6. Even all the desserts were gone. All that was left were a couple pickles.
Have you gotten any more blowback from harassers since?
Yeah, I have. I want to point out, first of all, that we’ve done fundraisers for the PCRF since we opened, and we’ve had “Free Palestine” in our Instagram bio since Day 1. We did a popup a week earlier and raised $2,400. This is not new for us. But yeah, it got more coverage this time, I guess. When KING 5's news spot on Yalla came out around 9 pm on Wednesday, that same night, somebody found my phone number and was calling me, harassing me. I put them on speakerphone so my boyfriend could hear, and we looked at each other, and I was like “Ccchhhhrhrrrrr, you’re breaking up, I’m losing you,” and hung up. I was like… I don’t think I need to hear this anymore.
What was the gist of what they were saying?
TC: “My son was in the military, and you’re a racist, you hate America, and you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” The next day, I got a voicemail—another person found my number. I’ve also gotten two things in the mail, which was very scary to me. One was a “Become a Christian” thing, which I threw away. Here’s the little card the other person sent me.
That’s a very… weird use of underline. Also, lol, “cucks.”
Yeah, it doesn’t even make sense! And so I just got a voicemail that said, “Hamas has a manifesto that said they wanna kill every Jew in Israel, they’re raping women, they’re killing babies, and YOU are pro-Hamas!” Because I want to raise money for Palestinian kids.
Yeah, because people think Hamas and Palestine are the same thing. Wait, are they calling YOU a terrorist, or saying you’re supporting terrorists?
Both! I just got an email saying I’m working with terrorists, and some of the reviews on Yelp and Google called me a terrorist. Our rating fell three or four points in a day. Those reviews have been taken down, but you can go on Yalla’s Instagram posts and see all the comments there.
Do you mind if I ask if you’re Arabian?
Not at all! I’m not. People usually assume that I’m the wife of an Arab person, but my boyfriend’s actually not an Arab either.
I have to admit that I didn't know you were a blonde white lady all these years. On the surface, that shouldn't matter, but it does kinda flip the script in light of all the activism and education on what’s happening in Palestine that you participate in. To realize that you’re using your privilege to boost the signal.
Well, that’s why I wanted to speak up more, actually! Because people don’t expect it from someone who looks like me. Also, to be clear, I’ve lived in Egypt and traveled a lot in Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. I actually just got back from Palestine last month. So, it’s been very intense, seeing how my friends in Palestine are suffering, after having just been there.
It sounds super emotional! That’s some rarely found context, here in Seattle, to hear reports from people you love who’re on the ground in Palestine right now. It’s gotta add a lot of texture.
Yeah, and I want to add that I don’t think you need to go to Palestine to be emotional about what’s happening there. But! If you can, you should, because once you get there, you see the things they go through and realize that it’s even worse than you actually thought. The Israeli citizens do not go through what the Palestinian citizens go through, in terms of quality of life, and I think that’s a huge misconception here in the US. A lot of Americans don’t even realize that Gaza and the West Bank are even separate, they don’t know where the borders are, they don’t know that the Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank but Hamas controls Gaza, or that A LOT of Palestinian people don’t want Hamas there.
Yeah, there's so many Americans who barely know anything about the history between Palestine and Israel—and there's a huge propaganda machine in place, designed to lead them astray. It's hard to vet news on the conflict too, since the situation is changing by the hour.
See, the thing I hear over and over from my Palestinian friends is that they’re not frustrated because people don’t understand what’s going on. They’re okay with that. They’re more frustrated when the same people make these broad statements about Hamas and Palestine. If you admit you don’t know much about the situation, maybe you should just not make a statement at all.
Right, and if you know you don’t know, then go learn. How was the march last weekend?
Incredible. I’ve been going to pro-Palestine marches and protests for over ten years, and I have never seen as many non-Arab allies as I did on Saturday. Usually, it’s the same faces with a small sprinkle of non-Arabs. But this time, it was all kinds of new people. We’re gonna meet every Saturday at Westlake Park at 3 pm from now on.
Fantastic. Any upcoming fundraisers for Palestine at Yalla, if folks missed the last one?
Yes, this weekend, we’re continuing to send our love to Palestine via desserts, with dishes like mahalabeya (orange blossom pudding with pistachio and pomegranate), and all proceeds will go to the PCRF. And if you missed the Gaza popup, you can still buy Laila's cookbook, where I got all the recipes. People may know her from the Jerusalem episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Then you can just make the dishes at home! It’s such a beautiful book too.
Food is a powerful device for change.
Yeah, you know, I see people dehumanizing Palestinians lately—you see them being called animals and beasts and savages—and I feel like eating their beautiful food is the quickest way to change people’s minds!
Through pleasure! Very effective. And if they can’t make the dessert popup or buy the book, folks can always help by donating directly to the PCRF, right?
Yeah! At pcrf.net.
Stop by Yalla for dessert this weekend, October 27-29, at 1510 E Olive Way, and donate to the cause. You can buy The Gaza Kitchen here, and everyone is invited to march in Westlake this Saturday, October 28, at 3 pm. And if you like the food, you can assist with the damage con-TROLL and leave a nice review for Yalla on Google or Yelp.