Race Out Loud: Arab store owner on working in Englewood

Merchant says he's worked hard to have a respectful relationship with his customers and neighbors.

August 27, 2012

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(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Mohammad Bani Yassin works seven days a week in his Englewood store.

Race: Out Loud this week is all about attitude.  That includes the perceptions people of different backgrounds sometimes have of one another--especially when they share a neighborhood. 

In many African American neighborhoods in Chicago, tension simmers between black customers and Arab corner store owners. The tension is often around this stereotype: outsiders doing business in low-income neighborhoods. But who are the Middle Eastern immigrants who set up shop in black communities, where their corner stores thrive, in part because the areas lack grocery stores.  One Arab businessman talks about his relationships with his customers, and Chicago. 

Mohammad Bani Yassin co-owns Mali Foods on West 69th Street. He sells Kool-Aid and candy, cereal and cigarettes, T-shirts and toilet paper. No liquor because it’s against his Muslim faith.

Yassin is stocky with a thick mustache. He wears a light blue workman’s jacket. Seven days a week he works behind the glass-encased counter.

 

All summer, WBEZ and vocalo will be talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. We’re asking what it would sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity. What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes?  What would we hear?

In the background, Yassin, a native of Jordan,  listens to the news in Arabic.

Yassin says it’s not a hard life in America.

YASSIN: About me, about my life I did not try to do anything wrong. I’m not smoke cigarettes, I’m not smoke weed, I’m not drinking alcohol, I’m not go to the boat. I don’t do girls, you know. That’s me. My life is straight.

In many communities, customers complain about poor service and poor food selections at corner stores.

But Yassin says his relationship with black customers in this Englewood neighborhood is good. He says he’s polite and sells items to customers even if they’re a quarter short.  I’ve noticed a vibe of mutual respect and friendliness.

YASSIN: When I’m coming here, talk with me this location is tough location. But I make friendship with all the people here. All of them now my friends.

Yassin was born in a village in north Jordan in 1944. He says he served in the military and worked for a biscuit maker.

Divorced with 15 children, Yassin came to the States in 2005 upon the advice of a cousin who lives here.

Yassin began working in Chicago’s  South Shore area at fast-food places and grocery stores.

YASSIN: I can’t go to work construction. I can do it but about my age it’s easy to work in grocery stores like this.

A friend from Palestine had this store on West 69th Street and needed someone he could trust to help run it.  

The store name was supposed to be Malik, an Arabic word. In the paperwork, the name got misspelled to Mali.  

Yassin moved up from worker to co-owner several months ago.

Yassin has no plans to move back to Jordan, even though he loves his homeland. And there’s another reason he wants to stay -- his wife of three years.

They met at a J&J Fish restaurant where Yassin worked the cash register.    

YASSIN:  She order same order. She like wings, she likes gizzards. I don’t like gizzards. One day she’s coming in, she was mad, mad. I ask her why you mad?

Yassin says the Haitian woman told him that her husband had died. He gave her a discount. She continued coming in for her chicken. A relationship blossomed and they married.

The couple lives on the North Side near Devon Avenue.

Although he’s in an interracial relationship, race isn’t something Yassin thought about in his homeland.

Now he’s confronted with race living in America.

YASSIN: I’m not white or black. Pakistani, Indian, what we call him? Something coming from Egyptian, from Syria, from Iranian. Many countries. I don’t know what you call them.

Yassin acknowledges his Arab heritage. But when people ask him what his roots are--he simply tells them he was born in Jordan.

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