AT THE CORNER DELI, A YEMENI IMMIGRANT SAGA
By Kiran Sury
On the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Glenwood Road in Brooklyn, Mohamed Mohamed runs Gold Star Deli Grocery with his father, Mohamed, and another employee, also named Mohamed, all of them from Yemen. This unique situation arises from Arabic nomenclature. “The customers get confused, but not us,” jokes the younger Mohamed. His father, whose full name is Mohamed Abdullah Alrohani, has come up with a more pragmatic solution: just call him Alex.
Across Glenwood Road, Sadek Almontaser mans the counter of the recently opened Glenwood Deli, a corner store. Cigarettes are sold behind the counter, drinks and chips line the walls, and a small deli section offers fresh sandwiches – staples for any bodega.
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.
Across the street yet again, on the other side of Flatbush Avenue, the eponymous Yafai Deli and Grocery is run by Saad Yafai. He shares it with his brother Nabil, who is currently back home in Yemen. His entire family is in Yemen, and he and his brother take turns staying in America and running the family store.
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.” According to data from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the number of firms in the borough classified as supermarkets or convenience stores almost doubled during the first decade of this century.
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.
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Clifton Clarke, professor of finance and business management at Brooklyn College, says that shifting populations open a void for new businesses to fill, and that companies often change according to their target market. When Arab immigrants started to populate new neighborhoods, it made sense for them to manage the corner stores, as they could better cater to Arabic needs. “Ethnicity, population, drive the type of businesses that are developed,” he says. “And these bodegas, which are now mostly run by Arabs, just fit in nicely.”
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, 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, there was probably an original store that started the whole thing off.”
Yafai from Yafai Deli offers a similar explanation. He suggested that somewhere back in time an original Yemeni proprietor immigrated, and his success attracted others. “Everybody was following,” he says.
According to an analysis of decennial censuses and the 2008-2010 American Community Survey performed by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, the number of Brooklynites claiming Yemeni ancestry has increased by more than 400 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the number of foreign-born Yemenis has more than doubled. The data, which go back to 1980, show a massive increase in the number of people with Yemeni ancestry across Brooklyn, from a few hundred three decades ago to over 7,000 now.
The analysis also reflects the Yemeni trend to self-employment. About a quarter of employed Yemenis, either foreign-born or of Yemeni ancestry, are self-employed and nonincorporated (meaning anything from freelance work to running a small business). Tellingly, almost a tenth of employed foreign-born Yemenis are self-employed and incorporated, meaning they are definitely business owners, most likely with employees.
Saad Almontaser from Glenwood Deli, older brother to Ali and the first in his family to come to America, is an example of the pattern of migration that Bayoumi describes. In a telephone interview, he explained how he came to America to study in 1992, and then dropped out of Long Island University to open his own deli and make money. When Sadek and Ali came over, he advised them on opening their own store. His choice of a deli was based, he says, on the fact that while he worked long hours, it didn't require too much education or capital, and was the easiest way to make a living.
Sadek Almontaser expresses similar feelings when asked why he opened a deli instead of a different store. “Because that's easy money man. That's the easy business,” he says. “You don't have to go to school for it, you don't have to do anything. Just open it like that and work.”
His uncle Ali agrees that the deli business was a good one. “Easy work you know, not too much headache,” he says.
Clarke said the low cost of entry is vital for the success of these shops, which often receive easy credit from their suppliers. Most of the overhead is rent, and when families run the shop together, as with the Glenwood or Gold Star Delis, labor costs remain low. Over time, he said, immigrants work their way up to more lucrative small businesses. As they progress, friends and family members take their place. “You see different individuals, but the same ethnicity owning those bodegas,” he says. “So you see people transition out, up the social ladder, and others come in and take over.”
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. Co-operation 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.
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As Muslims, these storeowners have to deal with the religious challenge of running a halal business. Halal, which means “permitted” in Arabic, is similar to kosher. 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.
Jean Edner, manager of a Key Food supermarket on Nostrand Avenue, explains that the decision to open a halal section was made by the new Palestinian owner, a move that he says was “so far so good.” Christians, Jews and Muslims are all buying from the halal section, he says.
Non-Muslims seemed not to care. Tracy Tauner, a shopper in the halal meat section, said she had no specific preference, and was surprised to find that she was looking at halal food. “If you hadn't pointed it out I wouldn't have even noticed it,” she said.
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.
According to Bayoumi, the Quran mentions alcohol three times, with different instructions each time – don't come to prayers drunk; it's better to avoid it; and don't partake of it at all. Bayoumi explains that the mainstream Islamic interpretation is that the population was slowly being weaned off alcohol, and the final prohibition should be followed. Not consuming it yourself is not enough, however. “If you're selling it you're participating in the haram [forbidden],” he says. “The idea is you shouldn't participate in the commerce of it.”
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.”
Mohamed says his father's choice was a necessary one, but that it was detrimental to Islam's image with the public. “Seeing a Muslim selling something that's forbidden to them, that's not a good view of a Muslim. Right? So we want to do halal and let everybody know,” he says. “Maybe they would want to learn about the religion. Let Islam out there.”
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Yafai leans on his counter and describes his conflicting desires to stay in America and go back to Yemen. “It's a better life, honestly, much better than back home,” he says, nodding his head to his words. “Here it's good to make money, to work, to have good future. But for a quiet life and kids and families, I'd rather stay over there. Over there you've got time for your kids, you've got time for your wife, you've got time for everybody.” Motioning his fingers like a hamster wheel, he adds, “But here is too much busy, you know?”
Bayoumi describes Yafai's situation as “not uncommon … They also want to keep very much a foundation within Yemen because it's a very remittance-based economy, too, partly because of the poverty in Yemen,” he says. “And so people tend to go back and forth a lot.”
Saad Almontaser makes it clear that he is here to stay, and though he was forced into the deli business because he needed a job, his children's future will be brighter. His says that his kids, sent to private school in Park Slope, will have office jobs, which he called the second level of making a living. “My new thing is to invest in my kids. I don't let them even come to the store,” he says, because he doesn't want them thinking they can make money without an education.
Alex is also focusing on his children, so that they can avoid what he calls the “dumb future” of his generation. Mohamed studies chemistry and math at Brooklyn College part-time. His younger brother, Ahmed, helps him out in the store on weekends, but has plans for a career in health or science.
Alex says giving his children options was his main reason for working. “No education, no nothing,” he says, drawing a contrast between him and his kids. “So we try to make the kids better.”