Profiting off of misery: Muslim Immigrants Selling Haram in the ‘Hood

The first contact I ever had with Arabs was on the Southside of Chicago. Every summer and school vacation I went there to visit my father, siblings and paternal grandparents. When I wanted to buy potato chips, soda or other candy, my sisters and I would make our way to the corner store. (I realize now we actually called it ‘the A-rab’ store). If anyone in the neighborhood wanted to play the lotto, buy a forty or bootleg videos, the corner store was there. By the same token, if we wanted to sink our teeth into a pizza puff or have a gyro, we’d go to the local fast food joint. Both places were owned by Muslim immigrants. I remember seeing Suras from the Quran hanging in the back, behind the bulletproof glass. (At the time I didn’t know it was Quran, I just saw some funny-looking gold writing scrawled on a shiny black background).

I quickly learned that none of the people who owned the store actually lived in the neighborhood. They’d come early in the morning to open their business and they’d leave late at night. (Some of the businesses stayed open all night). On occasion, the store or fast food owners would hire a person from the neighborhood to work in the place. Maybe they’d sweep the floor, take out the trash or wipe down the windows. (They were never allowed to work the cash register). More often than not, the person acted as a kind of broker between us (the patrons) and the store or restaurant owners. If there was a dispute between one of the patrons and the owner, the person would try to resolve the dispute by relating to both sides. They’d assure the patron that the store/restaurant owners were “good people” and vice versa. “Just a little misunderstanding.” Tension diffused! When I look back on it now, I realize people in the neighborhood felt better about the presence of Arab store/restaurant owners when they saw “one of our own” working in store.

Nonetheless, it was clear that the store/restaurant owners had a love-hate relationship with their patrons. They loved for people to spend their money in the stores or fast food joints but they didn’t seem to have much respect for the people they served. They looked down on us. We were Black, poor, and some of us were uneducated. There were frequent shootings in the neighborhood, drugs, teenage pregnancy and so many other vices. We continued to patronize businesses who sold us inferior products, whose owners treated us with disrespect and suspicion. More often than not, they wouldn’t even extend us the courtesy of saying hello. (A big no-no in African-American culture. You always speak to people!)

It was no secret that some of the store/restaurant owners slept with women and girls in the neighborhood. After all, they’d hit on us constantly. They’d make rude, sexual comments to us. I’d seen young girls pushing a stroller with a half “A-rab” baby in it. There was no talk of marriage or courtship. And I’m sure the “relationship” existed only in the ‘hood. Outside of that, there were no trips to the mall, fine dining at restaurants or late nights at the movies. And certainly no introductions to family members. However, when their women would work in the store it was clear that the men were not to interact with them whatsoever. The veiled woman would quietly work behind the counter uttering a “thank you” or “come again” on occasion. When she did speak it was in their language to her family members who owned the store.

If the Arab business owners had a love-hate relationship with their patrons, it was the same with us. I’d heard my grandparents, aunts, uncles and other people in the neighborhood complain about “them A-rabs.” They didn’t like the way they were being treated when they went into the store. Someone from the neighborhood (one of the few who had a car and could venture out) had seen one of the store owners on the other side of town buying products which they would later mark up and sell at an exorbitant rate in their store. Words like exploitation, oppression, boycotting and Black ownership floated around my head. On the other hand, some people said if we didn’t like the way we were treated we should open our own business. The store/restaurant owners had come from other countries. Some of them barely spoke English yet they had managed to open up a small business. They were only trying to make a living like the rest of us. Could you blame them?

Fast forward

I had accepted Islam and was attending college. By then, I had interacted with Arab and other Muslim immigrants in the masjid and in the Muslim Student Association (MSA). I felt like I had a different perspective and a better understanding of their cultures and religion. By then I knew that selling pork, lottery tickets, alcohol, pornographic magazines, and bootleg videos was against the very religion that the Arab store/restaurant owners claimed was so dear to them. (They actually had the nerve to display portions of the Quran amongst all of the haram!) I also knew that some of them rationalized their actions by saying that their patrons were “kaafirs” who were killing themselves anyway. The women were loose and immoral. The men were lazy and criminal. The store/restaurant owners were “helping them” by setting up businesses in the neighborhood. Otherwise people would have to catch the bus or the train out of the neighborhood in order to get provisions like milk or a pack of cigarettes. If they wanted a quick meal, they’d have to do the same.

So there I was, in Chicago visiting my family again. This time I was in hijab. My sister and I journeyed to corner store so she could get a few things. When we entered the store, the owner’s gaze immediately landed on me. He looked stunned. Eventually his surprise turned into a warm smile. “As salaam alaikum sister!” he yelled to me from behind the bulletproof glass. I returned his salaam. An older man had come from the back of the store and he also looked stunned. They proceeded to ask me where I was from, which masjid I attended etc. They explained that they were from Palestine. They told me they were my brothers in Islam. (From the corner of my eye I could see my sister, hand on hip, eyebrow raised, looking back and forth from me to the store owners). I must’ve looked doubtful or conflicted because before I knew it, the older man had come from behind the bullet proof glass to show me his copy of the Quran. In broken English he said, “We both Muslims. You our sister.” When I tried to pay for my items they refused to accept my money. “We cannot charge you,” they said. Once we got outside my sister was so upset she was shaking.

“Their sister!” she spat. “How are you their sister? I’m your sister. They don’t even like us. They come into our neighborhoods, treat us all like criminals and now you’re their sister? She paused before speaking again. “You’re not the same kind of Muslim they are. I know that! And they didn’t even speak to me. They didn’t even acknowledge me until you said something. Was I there? ”

I agreed with her. I expressed my surprise at the new way I was being treated. I told her if I didn’t have the hijab on I’d go back to being “one of them” and no one would be rushing from behind the bulletproof glass to call me sister. We laughed about it. Yet, during the course of my stay in Chicago, similar incidents would happen every time we went into a convenience store, gas station or fast food restaurant. My shock eventually became disgust.

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14 responses to “Profiting off of misery: Muslim Immigrants Selling Haram in the ‘Hood

  1. theangrymuslimah

    Salaam,
    My sister what a post…….and a good one at that. It kills me how muslims come and sell things they wouldn’t dare of selling back home where they are from. We all fall short sometimes and don’t live like true muslims but some things are just totally extreme. You are to much ..and I can’t believe you put it out there like that…lol And the sad thing is my cousin has one of those(half-arab) baby’s…lol…. I am forwarding this to her…she still hasn’t learned…she has a (half korean) one now…. her skittle baby’s –taste the rainbow……..

    • This is not at all a good post, it just shows that this sister didn’t understand Islam at all and she has no understanding of the Holy Quran at all. It’s true that some immigrant Muslims don’t practice the din as they should but then they didn’t practice it in there country either. I don’t defend committing haram in any manor, however trust me those who commit haram will be held accountable on the day of judgement when they go before the Lord of the worlds. That which is haram is haram and cannot be made hilal and that which is hilal cannot be made haram.

  2. Jamerican Muslimah

    Angry Muslimah,

    Leave to me to put it out there like that. That’s how I am, lol. But seriously, part of the reason these restaurant and store owners get away with what they’re doing is because no one says anything about it or people don’t know.

  3. Asslaamu Alaikum,

    We actually have an a-typical arab owned store in our neighborhood. It’s arab muslim owned, and alhamdulilah, they don’t sell alcohol. They do sell pork (pepperoni on frozen pizza) and cigarrettes, but they also have some fresh produce and canned vegetables for just about the same as the local Rainbow.

    And, a few of the clerks live just up the street 🙂

  4. theangrymuslimah

    Jamerican,

    My sister I just think people don’t care. For one thing theses stores are usually in the hood. Who cares about the hood right? Secondly, other muslims don’t say anything because they think it is acceptable because these people are the “kaffur” and are living evil and going to kill themselves anyway….sad…just sad We should rally together….and stop this you can’t have the Quaran in a store that sells pickled pig feet….and bolonga…ughhhhhhhh

  5. Salaam sis,

    It took a while for me to notice this type of behavior. I’m from Philly and the stores that sell the “40s” and the corner stores (groceries stores don’t sell alcohols in Philly) were owned by Korean. However, they’re slowly selling those businesses to Dominicans. Often, but not always, Korean store owners would display the same type of attitude to blacks that the Arab store owners displayed to blacks in your area. As you noted, both look down on their clientèle because they’ve been fed the same message about black people that white people have been fed-we’re poor, lazy, immoral and thus undeserving of any type of respect.

    When I would encounter Egyptian pizza store owners in Philly, I never encountered the horrible attitude. My umm and I always got salaams, etc. Heaven forbid, I come in one of those stores with my husband who could easily pass for Arab or Indo-Pak and who speaks Arabic. We get a gazillon salaams, and then they proceed to speak to my husband more in depth while pretty much ignoring me.

    Now that I am in Cleveland, it is pretty much the same thing. Palestinians will give me the salaam and I am sometimes treated differently then then girls or the boys who come in the store after me. When I go with my husband, we’re given the salaam and then my husband and the store owners will have some friendly convo in Arabic while I’m left staring at the ceiling. I think that perhaps some of the owners think I’m Sudanese or from another African country, especially when I wear jilbab. My husband told that one of them did ask him if I was Sudanese. Thus, they don’t speak to me much, except for the salaam. They assume that I wouldn’t talk much anyway.

    I don’t even know how to address the problem. I do think that some feel some guilt about selling beer and wine and save up their money to buy a halal business. Ironic to me, but at least they feel some guilt. Some just don’t get involved and go into a halal business like fast food. There are some imams who denounce selling beer and wine. One imam, who is also a professor of mine, once denounced beer and wine selling in a khutbah. I don’t know how effective it was. That still doesn’t solve the negative attitude some have towards non-Muslim blacks. That will have to be solved not with fatwas but with changing people’s attitudes. That is so much harder.

  6. Salam aleikum, Jamerican. It’s Gulf Coast here again. If I record a voice address blasting those racist devils from the desert who sell haram to Black folks, would you put up a link to it if you like it? It’s up to you.

  7. Salam,
    I’m an Indonesian used to live in Athens, Ga for studying. I’ve noticed that this kind of attitude is actually everywhere, even in Indonesia where 90% of the population is muslim. I think that many people claims that they are muslim but I don’t think they really understand what Islam means or Islam has not been their way of life.

  8. Michael Dillahunt

    It is our own self hatred that they see. Until we admit it ,it will continual to kill us. We must face it to destory it.

  9. Well said JM!!! I did a similar post on this : http://halalhoney.blogspot.com/2009/01/get-out-of-our-neighborhoods.html for anyone else who would like to read it…

  10. that make a bad bad muslim,muslim must not segregate and discriminate again anybody and this including the non-muslim. Islam even treated prisoner of war better than the modern war treaty if you know the hstory

  11. Wow. I know this is a way old post to be commenting on but I just found your site (followed your racialicious link). It’s a really great piece and something that really upsets me. I become so angry when I see people who don’t live in a neighborhood operating sub-par businesses where they are rude to and distrustful of customers, sell sub-standard merchadise and food, etc. and I can not reiterate enough looking down on the customers. When a store in my home town (a very very small place in southern Alabama) was bought by Indians I remember beconing angry at my grandmother’s comments that she “can’t stand those Indians.” But at the same time I understand how that mentality can develop. Some businnesowners act like leaches and pariahs when it comes to low-income black neighborhoods. I am also especially outraged because this behavior is done by people who also face discrimination and I would hope for some since of solidarity in the face of race and class oppression, but no. I am glad that people in some communities are fighting back and demanding a better quality of products. Still, I expect (though expect doesn’t mean accept) this kind of behavior from big chains, but family-owned businesses? It really hurts me because whenever someone around me makes a derogatory comment about a group of people I feel compelled to voice my beliefs, but at the same time, I just really see where they’re coming from. I still say something about blanket statements etc, but not without the fire I would have a few years ago.

  12. Bottom line we a ain’t nothing but niggers who deserve this type of treatment.I’ve dealt with creeps in my neighborhood most of them are from Yemen.I’ve debated with Tabligh Jammat group that these guy’s are hard hearted and they only undestand toughness comingfrom us who live in these neighborhoods.I say closed them down.

  13. i just want to say that we as a people have to love and respect ourselves and learn from this otherwise we have ourselves to blame

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