Ryan Abdul thought it was a done deal.

Abdul’s uncle, Ahmed Abbas, was looking to step back from his Portland business, Ameera Bread, and wondered if Abdul, who had worked for him at the Middle Eastern bakery and restaurant on and off, wanted to take it over.

The two settled on a price and signed a purchase and sale agreement. Abdul secured a cashier’s check for $30,000 to buy the business, contacted the landlord who owned the Forest Avenue building to update the lease and started buying supplies.

Less than a month later, though, things unraveled.

Abdul said Abbas tried to renege on the deal after learning Abdul was transgender and in the process of transitioning from male to female. Abdul obtained a protection from harassment order against Abbas, and their agreement wound up in court.

Court documents, interviews and written statements shed light on an unusual dispute that has divided a family and forced the closure of Ameera Bread, one of the city’s most popular food businesses and a fixture in the Portland area’s diverse community of Middle Eastern immigrants.

In early September, a Cumberland County judge agreed that Abdul had been harassed and also declared Abdul the rightful owner of Ameera Bread.

Abbas, however, insists there was no deal with Abdul and is upset that he’s prohibited from entering the business he started seven years ago.

“This dispute has been wrongly turned into a harassment case,” he said in a statement to the Press Herald. “I have spent the better part of the last seven years building Ameera Bread into the well-loved restaurant and bakery it is today. I have put my heart and soul into it.”

Ahmed Abbas, the founder of Ameera Bread, tosses naan flatbread last year. He denies harassing the Portland restaurant’s new owner, Ryan Abdul. (Ryan Abdul declined to be photographed for this story.). Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

His attorney, Nicole Dwyer, said “complex issues of business ownership and control” should never have been litigated in a hearing on a protection from harassment order. She’s asking the high court to remand the case to the Maine Business and Consumer Court instead.

“There was no discovery process in that forum,” Dwyer said of the hearing. “And the burden of proof is preponderance of evidence, which is a far lower threshold.”

Abdul, who uses they/them pronouns, is confident the facts are on their side and said coming forward publicly was important.

“My fight now is between my family and the community here that all agree that I am an abomination,” Abdul said in an interview last week. “I’ve been told I’m the first Arab in Maine transitioning male to female, and that has put a lot of negative eyes on me. But I’ve also noticed that people are reaching out to me that are closeted or not able to express themselves, which is comforting.”

Ameera Bread opened in 2014 and soon expanded to a second location in Monument Square. It has developed a following within the Portland food scene for its hummus, Middle Eastern breads and other offerings.

When the business abruptly closed last month, shortly after the ruling, Abbas told a Press Herald reporter that a protracted legal battle with a family member was to blame.

“My life is like a disaster, suddenly,” he said.

Abdul, meanwhile, said the business is being renovated, and they hope to reopen in November.

TENSION IN THE FAMILY

Abdul was born and raised in Iraq and immigrated to the United States seven years ago at age 16. Abbas, who is the brother of Abdul’s mother, had arrived in Maine a year earlier, along with other family members, and had purchased the former Tandoori Bread in 2014 and rebranded it Ameera Bread.

Abdul said they started working for Abbas in 2017, making falafel sandwiches and then managing the Monument Square location.

Abdul said the working relationship with Abbas became challenging, and they eventually left.

A short time later, Abdul met a woman, also an Iraqi immigrant, and fell in love.

They wanted to get married, but both families wanted to follow Muslim customs. One of those customs was making sure a male in Abdul’s family approved. Abdul never had a real relationship with their own father and asked Abbas instead.

With their relationship temporarily mended, Abdul returned to work for Abbas, doing marketing and social media for the business.

Abdul said during that time they made a lot of effort to appear masculine, even though they planned to begin transitioning. Abdul’s wife was supportive.

“I think she just fell in love with me. It was a bonus that she was (bisexual),” Abdul said.

Abdul said they have known since a young age they wanted to transition from male to female.

“My mom recalls these conversations that I had with her,” Abdul said. “I kept telling her things like, why am I a guy, why can’t I be a girl? I used to bawl my eyes out when I was a little kid wishing I did not have to be that way.”

Those feelings created tension in Abdul’s family and strained relationships.

In late 2019, Abdul began hormone therapy.

“But for my family, I let my beard grow a little and I’d draw on it with eyebrow pencil to make it look thick and draw in my eyebrows to make them look thick,” Abdul said. “And I’d talk with a deeper voice and put on big clothes so they wouldn’t see I was losing weight. I tried my best to appear as masculine to them as possible, just because I knew, if they found out, what was going to happen.”

Abdul stressed that their experience may not be the same as every Muslim or member of the Iraqi immigrant community.

Shehnaz Haqqani, assistant professor of religion at Mercer University in Georgia and an expert on religion and gender with a focus on Islam, said she couldn’t speak to the circumstances involving Abdul and Abbas but cautioned against drawing any connections between transphobia and religion.

“Islam and Muslims have a complicated relationship with sexuality and gender, like all religions and religious communities do … especially as we understand these issues in the 21st century,” she said. “Muslims can be transphobic or trans or pro-trans, like everyone else, so it can’t be pinned on Islam either.”

MATTER GOES TO COURT

Abdul said when they learned Abbas was going to sell Ameera Bread, it came as surprise.

“I wasn’t on the radar to buy,” Abdul said. “He approached me after getting some other offers.”

According to Abdul, the business was in bad shape. A lot of machines were broken and there was water damage on some of the floors. But Abdul had a fondness for the place and worried it might end up with someone who couldn’t keep it going. The transaction took place in May, while the coronavirus pandemic had shut down much of Maine. Abdul said they planned to use that time to remake the business.

However, two weeks after the sale, Abdul said, Abbas found out that Abdul was transitioning from male to female. Abdul said Abbas tried to talk them out of it and tried to enlist other family members to do the same. Abdul also alleges that Abbas demanded they sell the business back.

Abdul then said Abbas kept showing up at the business. After one visit, during which Abdul claims Abbas and others slaughtered sheep inside and left blood everywhere, Abdul called the landlord to change the locks.

Sensing things were not likely to get better, Abdul called police and sought a protection from harassment order.

“The defendant continues to harass and stalk me by coming to my home and yelling at me on the phone, berating me and shaming me for my sexual orientation,” Abdul wrote in the request for the harassment order. “Through force and intimidation, he has taken over the business he sold to me and is operating my business and taking money for his own account.”

Abbas, in his response to the complaint, said the sale never happened. In his statement to the Press Herald, he denied harassing Abdul for being transgender.

“Contrary to the allegations asserted against me, I am not a homophobic person. I have always supported the LGBTQ+ community, Ameera Bread has always supported the community, and I stand by that support to this day,” he said. “I have never abused or harassed anyone in my life.”

A temporary protection from harassment order was issued Aug. 14, but both parties went to court to sort out the rest. The hearing lasted eight hours, far longer than a normal hearing, according to Dwyer, Abbas’ attorney. Abdul said Abbas testified that the $30,000 Abdul paid him was to settle an old contract between the two.

In the end, Judge E. Mary Kelly sided with Abdul and ruled that harassment occurred and that Abbas is prohibited from entering Ameera Bread. Furthermore, the judge concluded, “for the purposes of this order only, the business Ameera Bread … shall be deemed plaintiff’s property.” The harassment order is good for one year.

Dwyer said rather than contesting the harassment order, she and Abbas plan to fight the ownership aspect of the case. She has filed a notice of appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but no dates have been set to hear the case.

The business remains closed, but Abdul said it is being refurbished, and they hope to reopen in November regardless of the legal case.

“Part of me does think I made a mistake with the sale, but at the same time, I can’t really say that because this fight I’ve been having with my family and the community in general is something that I’ve always needed,” Abdul said. “And people are telling me I’ve empowered them to have their own voice and they want to finally come out. So, if I just give up at this point, I’m taking away all of that from all of them.”

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