Halal Markets and a Mosque Draw Oakland’s Immigrant Muslim Community

on July 16, 2009

At the River Nile Market in Oakland, which is slightly bigger than a city bus, the shelves are crammed with little bits of Yemen, Sudan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Cans of fruit, meat and juice carry Arabic script as well as English lettering.  Glass buckets hold spices – cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon and za’atar, a mixture of herbs and spices popular in the Middle East.  Burlap bags of basmati rice spill into the aisles.  Three water pipes, or hookahs, perch on the counter on top of rows of folded male head scarves, or keffiyas.

riceandcannedgoodsRamsey Mohammed, the owner’s son, stands behind the glass counter at 3105 Telegraph Ave, chatting with customers in Arabic and English.  His father, Abdullah Mohammed, originally from Yemen, opened the market in the early 1990’s.

Berkeley may have a larger and better known immigrant Muslim community, but this short, two-block stretch of Telegraph Avenue has quickly but quietly become a new gathering-place for Muslims and those of Middle Eastern heritage.

Marked by Arabic signs, markets that carry food that is halal, or permissible under Islamic law and other storefronts, it is the epicenter of a small, bustling community of immigrants.  They are drawn to both the food stores, like River Nile Market and Marwa Halal Market as well as the mosque, the Oakland Islamic Center, around the corner at 515 31st Street, near Telegraph.

On a hot July afternoon, customers with roots in the Middle East, Asia and Africa pop in to exchange a few words with shopkeepers or pick up an item for dinner after mid-day prayers.

hookahsThey come from as far away as Tracy, Concord and San Francisco and as close as East and West Oakland, said Hamoud al-Bashayyer, the mosque’s director, who moved to the United States from Jordan in the late 1970s.

Many are drawn by the mosque, a stately green and beige building located on a quiet, residential side-street near the 24 Freeway overpass.  At mid-day, three taxi cabs and an airport shuttle sit parked nearby, presumably so their drivers can worship.

It is a convenient drive for immigrants working in downtown Oakland.  Worshippers find the diversity of the congregation attractive, said al-Bashayyer.  While many immigrants are from Yemen, the mosque’s board of directors has members of Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan and African-American heritage.  “We’re a mixed pot,” al-Bashayyer said.

Some members of the community live along Telegraph and moved to this part of Oakland when the rent was cheap, said Hatim Bagal, as he stood in the driveway, blinking in the sunlight after noon prayers.

Bagal, originally from Yemen, is the translator for the mosque. Services are conducted in Arabic with English translation, he said.  In 1998 the mosque was operating out of a building not much bigger than a garage but it was renovated in 2005, thanks to contributions from the community.

After prayers, many immigrants spill across the street to the Marwa Halal Market, owned by Temud Khwaja, a gregarious man, originally from Afghanistan.

mosqueImaud Ghaith, a Palestinian who lives in Fremont but owns a store in Oakland, checks out the beef on display behind the glass while Khwaja appraises the selection.  “You want a lean cut, no?” Khwaja  asks.

Khwaja opened his shop eight years ago and his wife and daughter work there with him.  Like the River Nile Market, the small space is packed: Baklava, spices, dates and guavas are on display; a sign for red henna sits behind the counter.

Many of his customers come from San Francisco and Hayward, he said.  The recession has hurt his store, but only recently.  “A month ago, I noticed it big time.  We’re feeling it, but we’re keeping afloat,” Khwaja said, as he nodded to two men in traditional gallabayas, or robes, walking in the door.

Khwaja chatted with Ghaith, the Oakland store owner, and, like Mohammed across the street, seemed to know everyone.  “Those two are from Yemen,” he said, pointing.  “And you just missed a guy from Pakistan.”

4 Comments

  1. Diane Carlson on July 16, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    I recently walked this neighborhood and was pleasantly surprised to find a thriving middle-eastern community here. I liked the look of the markets and made a note to go back and explore some time. Thanks for the article. Hopefully these small businesses can remain afloat in these hard times.



  2. Uzma Shah on July 16, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Very good approch, we are also working like these store for our Muslim community center at Hamden USA.



  3. nadine on July 20, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    July 20 2009
    GOD is My Illah!

    I actually lived in the blue house next to the Mosque for twenty plus years.It was good neighborhood to raise my children.
    I only wish the Mosque had been there when I lived there! the mosque is actually on the lot that originally had a cottage that Jack London lived in in the early part of the 2oth century.
    GOD Blesses Us All.

    sincerely,
    Nadine



  4. Alexia Underwood on July 29, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing a little bit of history about the neighborhood and the house next to the mosque, Nadine. Diane, you should definitely check out the shops when you get a chance. I plan to head back to Marwa and buy some afghan bread one of these days. It looked delicious!



Photo by Basil D Soufi
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