09/04/2014 05:09 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Hot Tea and Kullaj

Lured by the glowing red store signs, I pulled into the dim parking lot. I sat for a minute after parking and scanned the scene. A couple of groups dined outside. Taxi drivers stood by their cabs, talking, laughing, and smoking. Although I was far from alone, I expected to see more people milling around. The shopping center next door had been teeming with customers busy with their back to school rounds. While casually walking about, I had nearly bumped into overwhelmed mothers on two or three separate occasions. Here, there seemed to be more cars than human beings. The businesses must all have backrooms and basements, I told myself, or these are mostly employees' cars. At 9 p.m. on a Friday, the small suburban shopping center should've been pulsing with excitement. Known for its Middle Eastern businesses, the shopping center sat right next to a mosque and several apartment buildings full of Muslim families. That night the shopping center pulsed with a different kind of energy, one I could not yet articulate.

I grabbed my purse and stepped out because my stomach had reached the end of its patience. The last days of summer were upon us. Clouded by lights, I couldn't see a single star in the sky, which made me think of how some of the patrons might've grown up in the desert, far from any city. The parking lot wasn't filled with sand, just grit from the road and people's shoes.

Since there were a couple of restaurants open, I wanted to consider my options. I went into the lobby of Jerusalem Cafe and picked up the paper menu. It was full of enticing photos of dishes I could practically smell. I barely had a chance to read when a waiter opened the inner door and said, "Don't think twice about it." He grinned. In any other situation, I might've thought he was flirting with me, but the restaurant was clearly desperate. I peered inside. Only two tables were occupied, each with three or four people. I was the only one in American clothing. That might not be unusual in other places, but I live in a very international region where it's common for people of different races and cultures to mix. Shaking my wave of self-consciousness, I placed a take-out order for beef shawarma with fries.

Jerusalem Cafe might've been cozy in another time. The square tables were densely packed and surrounded by arabesque art on the walls. There seemed to be deep marigold tile everywhere, with a peekaboo window giving a glimpse of the kitchen. But what really made it feel homey was the massive buffet of desserts, most of which resembled baklava.

While I waited for my food, the waiter brought me complimentary tea, warm bread, and dip. His generosity embarrassed me. Blushing, I thanked him and, a few moments later, happily began munching. It had been a long week, so I wanted nothing more than to enjoy my meal. But once I started on my second piece of bread, sadness crept over me. The reason this Muslim shopping center was so sluggish even on a Friday was fear. And that sort of fear must mean it is yet another especially lonely and isolating time to be Muslim in America.

Right now the world is terrified of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, more commonly known as ISIS. Unfortunately, many Americans have confused this Sunni militant group's blood thirst for something inherent to Muslims everywhere. They fail to see the difference between a sane person of faith and a fundamentalist. That's like confusing all Christians for members of Westboro Baptist Church.

Last summer, I was working as a tour guide at a historic property. While eating lunch in the employee break room, I indulged one of my co-workers by listening to his monologue. At some point in his tirade, he said, "Gosh, Muslims are mean." I looked at him, hoping I had misheard him. Then I asked, "Oh, was there a rude Muslim family on your tour?" Sometimes tours were cursed with guests who talked too much, touched delicate artifacts, or otherwise made the tour an unpleasant experience.

"No," he replied, "I mean all of them, though."

I muttered something about how I knew plenty of nice Muslims, but our supervisor came in to announce the next tour before the conversation could continue. I wonder now, with news of ISIS dominating the headlines, how much angrier my old co-worker has become. Hope springs eternal that the news might have made him a little curious and prompted him to do his research. Perhaps then he could learn about the various shades of Islam, including the multitude of sects, nationalities, and ethnic groups that all call themselves Muslims. Maybe he might read or hear about the discrimination Muslims face in the United States (and beyond) and have a sliver of empathy. My hunch, though, is that that hasn't happened.

The waiter brought me my food. He tucked a menu into my bag, encouraging me to return. He also told me he had packed a piece of kullaj on the house.

"It is one of the best desserts you'll ever have," he said. In only a couple of minutes, I would learn that it was the perfect marketing ploy.

I thanked him again and headed out to my car. Even though I lived just down the road, I couldn't wait to try the kullaj. The steaming pastry was stuffed with a sweet custard and drenched in honey. It was indeed delicious and something I planned to recommend to American friends. Sometimes the first way to love and understanding is through food.