Posted on: November 29, 2018 Posted by: Eilidh Northridge Comments: 8

On April 21, founder Momen Al Azhar and his 18-Syrian staff members were removed from Sham restaurant in Warmoesstraat, which is located in the city center. It has been seven months, Al Azhar is still fighting for the legal rights to the name and concept associated with the restaurant.

Sham restaurants, the first one located in Amsterdam Centre and the new-opened one located in Amsterdam West, are both based on the founder’s Momen Al Azhar concept of serving Syrian food and having as staff solely Syrian refugees. The name of the restaurants comes from the diminutive for the city Damascus. The Sham restaurant in West has kept the same interior design and concepts as the first restaurant. Eilidh Northridge/ The Amsterdammer

The investor-owned restaurant first opened in February 2017 with the idea of running the first Syrian restaurant in Amsterdam, staffed solely by Syrian refugees. It had become an overnight success, attracting much media attention and transforming the establishment from making a substantial loss to an impressive gain. It was in full swing at 5.30 pm on April 21 when police came in and asked them all to leave.

The case went to court on June 7 with witnesses from the police, the Gementee, and the notary who organizes the restaurant shares. A quick court ruling decided that the removal from the restaurant would be overruled. On June 14, Al Azhar and his staff were allowed back into the restaurant but the main shareholders of the restaurant who instigated the removal were not allowed on the premises. The police issued a document admitting the removal was a mistake.

However, this decision was short-lived. Subsequent court proceedings were held throughout June. A new judge was brought in by the shareholders’ request and saw Al Azhar removed once again.

Al Azhar has opened his own version of Sham restaurant in West this August with the same name, design, and concept, which he is allowed to keep open for the time being, but at the same time, it is also under threat from current court proceedings.

An “Unclear” Dispute

Allegedly Al Azhar had stolen 500 euro from the cash register and when confronted had become angry, according to the online statement given by de Rechtspraak for the Amsterdam’s court. That the situation could “possibly escalate” was the reason given for the police being called in. Al Azhar denied the claims against him, and the allegation was found to be unjust grounds for the removal.

The case is complicated however by a 20% share which Al Azhar claims to have procured from the major shareholder on February 9. Despite claims that this shareholder and Al Azhar both signed the deed contract on this date, the notary couldn’t provide signed copies in court, only providing unsigned ones. These missing contracts have created a great tension in the case: now that the main shareholder is trying to remove Al Azhar from the business, they determine the grounds on which he can object to this, whether as a founder of the concept or with the additional status of a shareholder. “I was not working there to be fired,” told Al Azhar to the Amsterdammer. “I was [a] partner.”

The case pivots on the question of how this deed contract should have been conducted. The court statement describes the allegation that the deal was finalized in February, having been verbally agreed upon when the restaurant opened and following monetary investment by Al Azhar in the interim. However, there was another shareholder, a joint shareholding by Amsterdam DJs Sunnery James and Ryan Marciano. Controversy continues over whether this third party needed to approve the contract before it became binding, given a proxy arrangement in a clause of the contract. The DJs claimed to have no knowledge of the new contract arrangement made in February, a claim which was corroborated in court through evidence from their WhatsApp correspondence with Al Azhar. This prompts the question of why their agreement was not sought and why all clients involved were not informed of the contract status before Al Azhar and his staff were removed from the restaurant in April.

The word “unclear” pervades the court manuscript. It remains unclear why communication between the parties broke down to the point that shares were ambiguous when Al Azhar was asked to leave.

Today, while the case is yet to be settled, both the restaurant in Warmeosstraat and Witte de Withstraat continue to be run by the opposing owners under the same name and concept. According to Al Azhar’s lawyer, W.J.J Lamers, the notary’s behavior was “strange” and based on “doubtable reasons.” During the first court, he remarks that the judge, “was not content with the statement of the notary and put in the verdict that she didn’t like the way the notary had worked” and recommended they report it to the Royal Notary Association (De Koninklijke Notariële Beroepsorganisatie).

New Beginnings

In August 2018, after the initial disputes had determined he could not remain in Warmeosstraat, Al Azhar opened his own version of Sham restaurant in West which he is now fighting to keep open. From the start, it has been Al Azhar’s incentive to hire disadvantaged refugees. “Refugees without a language, diploma, experience, anything,” he said. For him, “More important than Mommen and Sham, is that because of this dispute, 18 people lost their job.” Currently, Al Azhar can only afford to employ 12 of the original 18. The remaining 6 are still looking for employment in Amsterdam according to Al Azhar, who claims he is still in touch with them. He explains how difficult it was for these refugees to lose their income when they were removed from Sham, as many of them send funds to support family still living in Syria.

Despite its rocky history, Al Alzhar is confident the restaurant can be successful when the legal problems are resolved. One of the shareholders admitted on record that the concept and design for the restaurant were Al Azhar’s. However, he has since held a different position. The court cases continue. It is expected to be a long case.

Case Continues

The original Sham in Warmeostraat remains open under the management of Saul Knanal. The Nepali manager got this position at Sham following Al Azhar’s removal. Previously, Knanal had been, in Al Azhar’s words, his “right-hand man,” working as a manager of the restaurant and assisting him. Knanal, however, claimed that he did not know Al Azhar. Although the current staff at his restaurant is comprised of several nationalities, Knanal explained the restaurant has continued to hire Syrian refugees through a government system under which they receive subsidies for hiring Syrian refugees.

Knanal declined to comment on the history of Sham and the removal of Al Azhar on the trial. For him, the Sham restaurant in West is completely different. “Same name, the same logo which is not good, but we are already in the process of solving that,” he said.

Knanal’s main concern for his business is the reservation process online. Sometimes people make a reservation in the wrong Sham and accidentally arrive at his establishment. However, he understands that “there are also other restaurants in Amsterdam with the same name and it’s not a problem.” “I do manage, we do manage,” he said. “Actually for me, it’s good […]. I’m getting quite well more [business]…”

Al Azhar did not receive these subsidies which the current branch in Warmesstraat does. As a Syrian in Amsterdam, he remembers that when the refugee crisis happened, many arriving refugees came to meet him as a fellow Syrian. As a result, he could easily find refugees looking for work and communicate with them without the subsidy system to help him. Al Azhar explained that he hoped this attitude meant he would be treated fairly by the government officials, but this has not been the case from the day of his removal, this remains unconfirmed. He believes that he and his employees were subject to some unfair treatment partially on account of them being Syrians. “Bodyguards – do you believe police came with bodyguards – because they think they’re coming to a Syrian refugees’ restaurant […] a very ugly way to think”.  

Al Azhar also remains suspicious of the main shareholder and the current manager. For him, there had been “non-stop” mistakes in how his case has been handled. He poses the question of how the successive judges in the case reached two different conclusions about his removal, asking “How is this possible, without any new evidence?” “It cannot be coincidence,” he said. These suspicions remain unproven.

W.J.J Lamers stressed that “[at] this time the town council and the police are still behind [Al Alzhar],” and that they support his re-establishment into the original restaurant. The lawyer for the opposition in court was unavailable for comment.

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