The continued influx of immigrants to the Washington area has meant a proliferation of shops, restaurants and other businesses catering to specific ethnic clienteles. Meet Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida, the proprietor of Halalco - a supermarket serving the Islamic community.
Muslim faithful in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. who wish to observe their religion's dietary laws can now choose from over 40 stores that sell halal meat. Halalco is one of them. Halal means lawful in Arabic, which in turn means that the animals have been slaughtered according to Islamic practice.
“ When the animals are slaughtered, there is a prayer said, 'Bismillaahi allahu akbar', 'We are slaughtering in the name of God'. The main reason is that God has allowed us to eat certain animals, and those are the ones that we are slaughtering, basically. And by taking the name of God we are kind of reminding us that since life is sacred, and we are taking an animal's life, but we are doing it because God has allowed us to do that.”
Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida says he used to slaughter all the animals himself, but now he gets the meat he sells from one of several large distributors. Thirty years ago, his store was the only place where the Muslim immigrants that were beginning to come to the Washington area could get halal meat.
“Then we added groceries, because people wanted, you know, spices and other things. Because average Americans, they only consume maybe an ounce of red pepper in two-three years. But a lot of people that I know, they use maybe a pound of that in about a month's time. So we carry spices in larger quantities.”
From its rather humble beginnings, Halalco developed into a full-service supermarket -- and more.
“We added books, because there has been a shortage of literature in this country. Mostly in English, but we do carry in Arabic, Persian and Urdu also. And we also have clothing, because a lot of people want… they cannot find, you know, clothing… Women cover themselves a little bit more, and some of the people they want to have clothes that they used to wear back home, so we do carry some of those.”
The products sold by Halalco are determined by its varied clientele. In addition to the books on Islamic themes, the shalwar kameezes, the halal meat and the usual staples like olive oil and rice, you can find pistachios, figs, dates, baklava, halva, mangos, rice snacks, roasted spicy chickpeas, Arabic letter puzzles, videos, dolls in hijabs, colorful bangles, and even bumper stickers with the legend Allah Akhbar -- "God is Great".
“We get a lot of people who have migrated here from different countries, so we carry goods that are from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, and some of the African countries. So we do carry a lot of ethnic products which are probably different than they are in the [regular] supermarkets. But you know, we do have a lot of American customers also.”
Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida, a big, balding man with a luxurious square white beard, is himself from India. He came to the United States in 1963 for graduate studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota. He recalls that there were not many Muslims there then.
“At that time, there were hardly any stores, we had to struggle a lot to even slaughter a chicken, or something. We had difficulty. For a long time I didn't eat meat, because there was none available, I mean according to the way we wanted it, blessed meat.”
In the early 1970s, Mr. Chida moved to Washington, where he operated a small print shop for Muslims. A few years later he joined a friend who had just opened a small halal meat market.
“He was having a lot of difficulty, because it was just starting - you know, any starting business has difficulties. So I joined him because there was a need to supply halal meat for the Muslim community, which was steadily growing in this area. So that's how I came into the meat market business.”
The business grew very slowly, Mr. Chida says. Any profit they made they plowed back into the store, in true Islamic fashion never borrowing any money from banks to expand their venture.
“You may ask me why we don't borrow money from the bank. Basically, (because of) the interest rate. We don't want to get involved in the interest-bearing transactions. That's why we have been very small and steadily growing as the need arises.”
Now Halalco is the largest self-service Muslim supermarket in Northern Virginia, taking up half a strip mall in a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood.
“It's a great satisfaction that you are kind of helping people find what they want. Kind of serving the community, in some manner, you know.”
As to the future, Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida hopes to open a restaurant alongside his Halalco supermarket -- serving only halal meat, of course -- to provide yet another service to his Muslim community in the Washington area.