Yemenis and the Arabification of the Bodega

Mohamed Mohamed runs Gold Star Deli Grocery with his father Mohamed and another employee, also named Mohamed. (Photo by Kiran Sury via The Brooklyn Bureau)

They serve BLTs made with beef bacon and feel guilty every time they sell beer or a lottery ticket. The Brooklyn Bureau delves into the cultural challenges of increasingly Yemeni-owned bodegas in Brooklyn. In a large investigative report, Kiran Sury, also portrays the evolution of the “store around the corner.”

Most New Yorkers would agree that the deli/convenience store, once the exclusive purview of Jews, Italians and Germans, has come to be associated with Latinos. The word bodega, which is used interchangeably with deli, is Spanish for “warehouse” or “cellar”. (…) But the three stores on the corner of Glenwood Road and Flatbush Avenue show that Latinos are no longer dominant, as shifting demographics have opened up a new ethnic segment of the market. An influx of Arabs has brought a corresponding increase in Arab storeowners, each eager to pursue his own version of the American Dream.

In one of the stores mentioned, all three of its workers are called Mohamed. Another one looks like any other bodega: “Cigarettes are sold behind the counter, drinks and chips line the walls, and a small deli section offers fresh sandwiches.”

Alex and Ahmed inside Brooklyn’s Gold Star Deli. (Photo by Kiran Sury via The Brooklyn Bureau)

But to the discerning eye of a corner-store connoisseur, there are several features that are not so standard.

As Almontaser deals with a steady stream of lottery ticket buyers, he happily discusses how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn’t a bad man, just misunderstood. His uncle Ali, who runs the deli station, is 11 years his junior, a genealogical feat made possible by his grandfather’s four wives back in Yemen. Ali will be happy to make you a BLT, though he may forget to mention that the bacon is made of beef, not pork. And every so often a man will enter the store, nod to Almontaser, and make his way downstairs. Not every bodega has a prayer room in the basement.

According to several experts consulted in the article, the trend follows a traditional pattern in immigrant communities.

Moustafa Bayoumi, author of “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America” and professor of English at Brooklyn College, says that chain migration is the likely cause of the current proliferation of Arab-run corner stores. “It’s an old immigrant truth that when somebody comes to the country and they don’t have a lot of resources to them, they search for their ethnic group and they participate in the same kinds of resources that are already pre-established,” he says. “So somewhere down the line, somebody, there was probably an original store that started the whole thing off.”

The article goes on to say that the number of Brooklynites claiming Yemeni ancestry has increased by more than 400 percent from 2000 to 2010, and that they favor self-employment. The bodega, which doesn’t require too much education or capital, has become the business of choice for many newcomers, who employ their relatives to keep the labor costs low.

Yemenis are uniquely suited for these collaborative businesses, according to Bayoumi. “Yemeni society as a whole is structured far more along society- and clan-based lines than any of the other Arab countries,” he says.

The close-knit Yemeni culture is what enables all three delis to survive on the same street corner. Cooperation is more important than competition. “Yemenis, if they’re like next to each other, you don’t want to do competition,” says Mohamed.

Yafai, who comes from the same village in Yemen as Alex and Mohamed at the Gold Star Deli across the street, agrees that there were enough customers that everybody could make a living when they kept prices in line. “You make your money, I make my money, we cool, we friends,” he says.

The article explores the religious challenges of these Muslim store owners who are expected to run a Halal – which means “permitted” in Arabic – business.

Chief among its prohibitions are pork and alcohol. Halal meats have their own certification, and have become popular enough in Brooklyn that larger supermarkets have started halal sections along with their established kosher sections. (…)

Sadek Almontaser from Glenwood Deli maintains that halal had a broad appeal. “A lot of Christians in here, not everybody is Muslim, but everybody likes halal stuff,” he says. None of the three delis sell pork products. But none of them have halal-certified meat either.

Halal certification is handled by organizations such as Islamic Services of America, which sends inspectors to the food processing plants for a fee. The inspectors confirm that each stage of food preparation adheres to Islam’s strict requirements, including a blessing at the time of death and specific methods of slaughter. Certification is not limited to meat; all foods intended for human consumption, as well as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, can be certified to ensure that they contain no animal byproducts. Companies that obtain such certification can then market their products to observant Muslims.

Yafai from Yafai Deli said that was unnecessary. “I mean it’s not ‘halal’ halal, but it’s not pork,” he says, referring to his selection of deli meats. He said that not having pork was more important than strict certification, which would raise the price of the meat.

As for alcohol, the article points out that Islam disapproves not only of consuming it but also of selling it, which is considered like “participating in the haram [forbidden].”

While Glenwood Deli does not sell alcohol, Gold Star and Yafai both do. Yafai says that he sells alcohol against his preference. “Honestly I know I’m feeling guilty but I’m doing it for now ’til I find something better. It’s kind of hard right now, it’s kind of rough. Bills, rents, and all that. It’s hard for me to take it out, but in my inside I’m feeling guilty,” he says.

Alex from Gold Star says it was a matter of economics. “I have no choice because the neighborhood likes alcohol,” he says. “And the rent is too high. We can’t cover the rent without alcohol. I try to take the alcohol out, yes, I can’t make it.” He defends his decision, noting that while Sadek does not sell alcohol, he sells lottery tickets, which he says were banned as well. “Alcohol, lotto, is pork,” he says, counting out the items proscribed by Islam on his fingers. “Same amount of punish.”

3 Comments

  1. All the delis have the smell of perfume or wreak of tobacco, makes me walk out, especially when smokers come in for a lose cigarette and light it in front of the counter, and they all sell nothing but junk food for tourists, smokers and drinkers. Lastly, they do not support other businesses.

  2. Gloria Mcmillian says:

    I hate muzz so I live where their are none. They are uncivilized and cheaters. The west will reap what they sow with these barbarians.

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