As a travel writer, I’m often asked about my favorite destinations, and I always respond with: “Anywhere I feel foreign.” I thrive when learning about different cultures, chatting with people from various backgrounds and upbringings, and trying recipes I’d never experienced in my own childhood home. Broadening my worldview is what I love most about traveling to distant lands, which is why I was surprised to have all those same travel feelings when I stepped into a strip mall coffee shop on the outskirts of Indianapolis.
An Algerian woman wearing a hijab arranged delicate hand-made French pastries in the front glass display as I made my way into MOTW Coffee and Pastries (MOTW), where the scent of brewing coffee greeted me before I even took my first step inside. The décor of the coffee shop was stunning—where an eye-catching wall of grass offset intricate Turkish woodworking and original artwork featuring Muslim men and women—but it was the clientele that painted the most beautiful picture for me.
A table of women from Somalia wearing al-amira laughed over three steaming cups, a woman from China swayed to the new-age jazz music while typing away on her laptop in one of the café’s private workspaces, an Ethiopian woman sat alone enthralled in a book and a pastry nearby the interfaith prayer room, and a group of Pakistani men in white prayer robes stood to clear their table of the empty cups and treats.
MOTW Coffee and Pastries opened in mid-June as the brainchild of owners Sajjad and Fatimah Shah, who sought to create a space that brings people [read: all people] together. Sajjad is the creator of the Muslims of the World Instagram page, where more than 625,000 people follow along to share the beautiful (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories of real Muslim men and women from around the world.
After the success of his page and the philanthropic offshoots that followed, the couple wanted to have a physical component that highlighted the work they were doing to unite cultures. Fatimah’s secret family recipe for Yemeni chai had already become famous in their circle of friends, so a coffee shop was a natural choice for their venture.
“The overall mission of the MOTW Coffee shop is to bring people together,” explains Sajjad Shah, who is also the author of Muslims of the World: Portraits and Stories of Hope, Survival, Loss, and Love. “To serve as a place where people can learn about one another. Yes, it’s called ‘Muslims of the World,’ but most of our customers are not Muslim. Recently we had a bible study here in our coffee shop. So, this is not about Islam or being Muslim; it’s about a much stronger message, which is to bring humanity together.”
Unlike third-wave coffee shops or corporate cafes that foster coffee snobbery and sipping seclusion, MOTW is all about creating community. That’s not to say that their coffee isn’t on par with the best in the city. In fact, they exclusively serve Indianapolis-based Tinker Coffee (a local craft coffee roaster) in an effort to support and partner with their local community.
Teas are from high-end Rishi Tea & Botanicals, and all the pastries are made from the Shah’s family friend, French pastry chef Amal Bessiah. Bessiah learned the art of French pastry while growing up in Algeria (a North African country colonized by France, which has become known in recent years for some of the best pastries outside of Paris), and now people drive upwards of four hours to sample her mille-feuille, macaron, mashkook, and baklava.
The shop is run by an entirely all-woman team, with staff from Algeria, Jordan, the Dominican Republic, Yemen, and Nigeria who can take orders in Spanish, English, Arabic, French, Japanese, or Urdu. The conversations held within the MOTW walls are inspiring, where the owners seek to encourage meaningful dialogue by hosting Ted Talk-like gatherings that focus on inclusivity and understanding world cultures.
“Our goal is to highlight events that mean a lot to people,” Shah adds. “Recently, Palestine was a hot topic, so we had three Palestinian speakers come to our coffee shop and discuss the situation. The world is often misinformed about the reality of many events, and our goal is to be an authentic source to discuss topics that are relevant and important.”
Education and inclusivity are driving forces to the culture at MOTW, where even the architectural details were selected with intention. Shah chose Turkish woodwork to overlay on the white walls because the design comes from the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottoman Empire was a Muslim-run empire that was known for being just and fair,” he explains. “Back then, Christians were being persecuted, and they came to the Ottoman Empire for protection. Muslims were protecting Christians, and I found that to be so beautiful, which is why we chose that as the woodwork.”
Many people talk about coffee itself as an experience, and I’m sure it is for some, but when I left MOTW Coffee & Pastries that afternoon, it wasn’t the coffee that lingered on my palate; instead, it was the cultural experience that came from interacting with people who didn’t look, talk, or maybe even believe the same way I did. I left smiling, filled with feelings of belonging, and thrilled to see actual culture added to America’s coffee scene.