CHICAGO – Prescribed by his Islamic faith to pray five times a day, Mazen Materieh often prostrates himself on one of the prayer rugs in the basement of his corner store. When he is done, he returns to his perch behind the counter, where he sells liquor, lottery tickets and pork skins – all forbidden by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.
“I’m not justifying what I’m doing. I know it’s wrong,” said Materieh, 52, of Orland Park, Ill. “I’m an honest person. I don’t like to be a man of two faces.”
Materieh’s conflict is common in corner stores across Chicago’s South Side. On one hand, store owners cannot make ends meet without selling what customers demand. On the other, consuming or profiting from products forbidden by their faith is considered sinful. What’s more, neighbors blame the stores for perpetuating violence, addiction and obesity in low-income neighborhoods.
Now, a coalition of Arab and African-American Muslims is offering Muslim merchants an opportunity to improve their reputations and renew their religious principles by selling fresh produce and healthy foods, especially in neighborhoods without major groceries. Along the way, they hope, store owners will think twice about selling forbidden products. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has provided a grant that will serve as seed money for pioneers in the campaign.
“These stores became associated with a lot of the most negative and oppressive characteristics you would want to be associated with,” said Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner City Muslim Action Network, which is working with stores to turn neighborhoods around. “It’s not necessarily a model they developed. It’s something they inherited and found themselves operating, of course, with great contradiction and tension because it’s antithetical to their religious convictions.”
Nashashibi and other activists are backing a bill to create an Illinois Fresh Food Fund, a proposed grant or loan program that would support grocers in neighborhoods that lack easy access to healthy foods. According to the bill, more than half a million Chicagoans – mostly African-American – live in underserved neighborhoods when it comes to proper nutrition.
The campaign offers a solution for a problem that has unfolded in urban neighborhoods across the country for years. Arab Muslims in Chicago are only the latest wave of immigrants to break into business by acquiring affordable real estate and liquor licenses, sometimes leading to tensions in the neighborhoods. For the same reason, Korean merchants in Los Angeles became the target of their black neighbors during the Los Angeles riot in 1992.
Materieh and a partner opened Sharif Food & Liquor at 5659 S. Racine Ave. after arthritis prevented him from working in construction and a halal restaurant venture didn’t work out. “Sharif” is an Arabic word for “honorable.”
He doesn’t allow his children to help in the store, and he regularly argues with his wife, who doesn’t understand how he can rationalize selling alcohol. He admits a sense of shame came over him after taking religious education classes at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Ill., where his family worshipped.
“In our religion, God loves believers and repenters,” Materieh said. “If I have good trust in God, I should go and do the right thing and not feed my kids with this money. But we are human beings, and we are weak. I pray to God to get me out of it.”
Sheikh Kifah Moustapha, imam and associate director of the Bridgeview mosque, preaches against haram (forbidden) business practices regularly. He bases his sermons on a verse in the Quran that implores the faithful to avoid intoxicating temptations.
“Believers, wine and gambling, idols and divining arrows are abominations from the work of Satan,” the Quran instructs.
Though many Muslims defend their business practices by arguing that scripture forbids only consumption, not the sale, they are wrong, Moustapha said.
But he is not quick to condemn, as he knows the dilemma firsthand. When he first came to Chicago, Moustapha opened a halal store at 79th and Racine. Customers stopped coming as soon as they figured out liquor and lottery tickets weren’t available.
“I’m not saying this to excuse or legitimize an act considered prohibited in my faith,” Moustapha said. “We need to have some suggestions available on the table for those people so our advice and our sermons would make more sense.”
Falah Farhoudeh, owner of Pay Less Grocery, near 69th Street and Ashland Avenue, is one of those trailblazers. Farhoudeh has never sold liquor or lottery tickets. The sandwich shop he runs out of the back of his store doesn’t serve pork. But he prominently displays pork skins and soda pop at the front of his store instead of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Next month, with the grant money, he expects to install a bin for fresh produce and meats, excluding pork.
Others are eager to follow suit, including Ida Rihan, 48, owner of Delta Foods, 1158 W. 51st St., who has not yet received a grant. Rihan declines to sell alcohol or pork. Her husband was shot 10 years ago by an intoxicated gunman who stole $65. Sitting on a stool behind bulletproof glass, with a mosque prayer schedule taped next to the cash register, she cheerily greets her customers, many of whom call her Mom.
Two doors down on 51st Street, Nasheet Salah, 29, owner of K&K Foods, advertises discounts on vodka, cognac and beer. “That’s a living. You’ve got to do it to prepare the table,” he said.
Rihan doesn’t judge her neighbor. She said people must decide how to balance belief with business.
She would prefer to offer fresh meat and produce regularly, but it’s a choice she can’t afford. She said she would welcome a grant that would enable her to upgrade her merchandise.
“It’s a hard neighborhood here,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for everybody, and everyone has respect for me. You have to do what you believe is right.”
(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.