An education in Kurdish culture

Published 8:36 pm Thursday, August 12, 2010

A combo plate of rice, lamb, chicken, shrimp and vegetables. Photo by Katie Johnson


Off the Water

“It our culture, you don’t leave anybody hungry,” says Ibrahim Parlak, whose Kurdish heritage is the heart and soul of his business, Cafe Gulistan, which means “land of roses” or “rose garden” — a code for the banned word “Kurdistan” in his native Turkey.

Tucked behind a tall, gated flower garden along the Red Arrow Highway in the tiny town of Harbert, Cafe Gulistan is a unique restaurant, even for a large city: it’s Kurdish.

“We are one of the oldest restaurants in the area,” claims Parlak, who began the business in 1994 and opened in 1995. He believes Gulistan is one of the first Kurdish restaurants in the United States.

Parlak, 48, immigrated from Turkey in 1991.

“I was living in Chicago at that time,” he said. “We came down on the weekends to spend time here. This building came along. There wasn’t much here, but it was what I could afford. It (Harbert) was all empty buildings.

“Now we’ve become a community of about 30 businesses,” he said.

At the time he opened Gulistan, Parlak knew it was risky — it was a small town, and “most of the people in the area weren’t familiar with Middle Eastern cooking,” he said.

“Being a Middle Eastern restaurant … our food is not (as) spicy as people think,” he said. “We can make it spicy.

“Now, I can proudly say we are not just a restaurant doing business, we are also a business building bridges in culture,” Parlak said.

Introducing Kurdish food to customers took time, but he eventually earned a good reputation, especially from second-homeowners who visit Lake Michigan on the weekends. He also has customers who come from as far as Kalamazoo, Valaparaiso and South Bend.

Parlak said his specialty is lamb, and he is also very proud of the stuffed rainbow trout, which took a lot time to perfect. He prides himself on utilizing in-season, local produce in his dishes.

“I go to the farms at least two, three times a week,” he said. “That makes a difference.”

The Cafe Gulistan menu offers appetizers; soups and salads; seafood, vegetarian, lamb and chicken specialties; lunch platters; desserts, like its baklava, a decadent confection of fillo dough, pistachios and honey; a children’s menu; and house specialty drinks, including iced Kurdish tea and Aladdin’s Mocha. Cafe Gulistan also has a full bar with Middle Eastern wines.

The restaurant’s trademark garden is the result of Parlak’s farm family upbringing, he said, fondly recalling his daughter, now 13, playing in it.

“I cannot separate the restaurant and the garden; it is all one,” he said. “It’s really a family friendly atmosphere. Raising my daughter in the business, from my own experience, I enjoyed it.”

Parlak, a Harbert resident, has been active in his community, but is probably most recognizable not for his philanthropy or his restaurant, but for his ongoing battle with the judicial system over his threatened deportation.

He was incarcerated in the Calhoun County Jail for 10 months as an alien detainee, and was tortured in a Turkish jail for a month and imprisoned for 18 months for the crime of separatism. He had been granted asylum by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1992; it was rescinded in 2004.

The judicial process is now over, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear his appeal. Parlak will not be sought for deportation for two years; however, he must report to the Department of Human Services and could be imprisoned for as much as a traffic violation. There is no guarantee he will not eventually be deported to Turkey.

“I’m here to live a life, and that’s a right of everybody … raise my daughter, run a business,” Parlak said. “I have been a contributor. Why do I have to worry if I’m going to be here tomorrow? It’s not fair and right, especially not in America.

“I have a really great family to hold on to,” he said “Every morning I just think of those positive things.”

Cafe Gulistan is located at 13581 Red Arrow Highway, Harbert. It is open from 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday; winter hours vary. Private parties, catering and carryout are available. It can be reached at (269) 469-6779 or visit

To learn more about Ibrahim Parlak’s immigration experience, visit