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?
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.