Rich Abrahamson: A man’s warmth leaves a lasting impression and ultimately a lingering sadness

Dwayne Raymond places a memorial stone in front of the Iraqi Kabab Market at 174 College Ave. in Waterville earlier this month in honor of market owner Akram Mohammad. Mohammad died in a motorcycle accident near the market. “In 55 years, I have never met such a nice person. He would touch your shoulder with gentle pressure and offer advice, wise beyond his years,” said Raymond, a friend and business owner across the street. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel File

There would be no pictures the day I met Akram Mohammad, owner of the new Iraqi Kabab Market on College Avenue in Waterville.

I had to wait a few months to photograph Mohammad and his family as they cooked Middle Eastern dishes, helped customers and ran their business.

I had walked into the deli on August 31 with a handful of questions and the intention of taking some photos to publicize a new business. “That’s good news,” I explained. “It’s like getting a free ad for your business in a section of the newspaper.”

Mohammad, a 30-year-old Iraqi immigrant and father of two young children, ran the market with his wife. It was their third day in business and he resisted my offer. They would need more time to settle in before accepting photos and answering questions. He said he wanted to meet people in person at the market first. This is where he could shine.

The market had long hours, opening at 11 a.m. and closing at 11 p.m. Several cars were parked in front by a red illuminated sign that scrolled the letters OPEN.

The first customers waited for hot food orders while a woman browsed the merchandise aisles near the kitchen. Mohammad greeted everyone who entered the market. The business was clean and decorated with Middle Eastern paintings and artwork.

A tantalizing aroma wafted through the air as Mohammad’s wife prepared food for customers. Their son Mahdi, 6, smeared his hands with sanitizer while meandering past a crate full of fresh salads, desserts and sides.

Mohammad, known as AJ to his friends, tricked the dark-haired boy into shaking my hand. It was a humorous and warm moment. Like father, like son. I wondered how many times the boy had seen his father extend that greeting to customers. With a friendly handshake and a gentle smile, the man’s warmth and kindness extended to those who entered the store. It was part of the experience.

I’ll never get used to taking no for an answer, but I knew Mohammad wouldn’t be moved. I would come back when the time comes. Then he smiled and we shook him.

The next day I was back on College Avenue, less than half a mile from the market. A man had been killed in an accident between his motorcycle and a van.

The road was closed and traffic diverted while police investigated. Parking at the perimeter of the stage, I entered with a single camera and the longest lens I had. This way I could shoot from a distance while being discreet.

Akram Mohammad, right, is pictured with his two children. Mohammad, an Iraqi immigrant, died earlier this month when his motorcycle collided with a van on College Avenue in Waterville. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson

A photo showing the roadway, police at work, and some elements of the accident might help readers understand what happened. Photos take us to places where words can only describe them.

Adding to the stress of the situation, two people stopped me before I could raise the camera. One person wanted to chat while the other voiced concerns about what my photos might show. “I hope you’re not showing anything too graphic,” she said as she stood with others who gathered to watch the aftermath of the wreckage.

Another person shouted profanity at me from the parking lot of a building near where the motorcycle had broken into two pieces. I retreated to my car as the man grew more agitated. I had seen more than enough. It was horrible and it was time for me to go.

I developed thick skin over 35 years of newspaper photojournalism. I have met people in their worst days – after losing everything, when their house is in ashes or floating downstream in a flood, or when the body of their loved one is shattered by the side of the road. All that remains is to cry. At times like these, my work can either hurt or heal. It becomes part of the problem or part of the solution. My heart remains soft.

AJ Mohammad was only a short distance from his market when his motorcycle collided with the van. I had just met him the day before so my memories were fresh.

He wouldn’t let me pay for the hot chicken shawarma wrap his wife made me. It was cooked fresh and hot when he handed it to me. The cold can of Mountain Dew that I pulled from the cooler was also free. I took my Visa card but he didn’t take it. Next time I’ll pay, but until then I’ll put my card back in my pocket and be grateful.

Mohammad’s death leaves a hole in the hearts of his family and those who knew him far better than me. Following the accident, the community reflected on Mohammad and remembered him as a hard worker who did great things in Iraq’s Kabab market. The business was coming to life. People would stop, try the food and tell their friends about it.

Dwayne Raymond holds a memorial stone in honor of Akram Mohammad, known as AJ to his friends. Raymond placed the stone Sept. 2 outside the Iraqi Kabab Market on College Avenue in Waterville. Mohammad, who died on September 1 in a motorcycle accident, had just opened the market the previous week with his wife. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel File

I was looking forward to going back to the market for the photographs. The date was in my notes and forwarded to my editor. Mohammad would be ready for me. I would be inside during a busy time and would need about 20 minutes to get all the gear I needed.

There would be photos showing a bustling business full of customers. The kitchen would be the model of efficiency with incoming orders and outgoing hot dishes. I’m hoping for a photo of a shopper in the middle of middle eastern grocery items.

Mohammad greeted customers at the door. He shook their hands and offered a kind word with a smile. I would be ready with the camera to honor his joyful spirit while being grateful for the opportunity to have met him, if only for a moment.

Rich Abrahamson is a photojournalist at the Morning Sentinel.

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