You may not have heard of Majdi Wadi, but he's pretty well known in Minneapolis, Minn. He's Palestinian American, a devout Muslim and the CEO of the HolyLand brand — a family owned grocery store, restaurant and hummus factory.
But recently, Wadi's business received the kind of attention that's now threatening his business's existence. Just a few days after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd and protests erupted, his daughter Lianne Wadi's anti-Black, anti-Semitic and anti-gay social media posts from 2012 and 2016 surfaced.
The backlash was swift: Wadi fired his daughter from her position as the company's catering director, and HolyLand lost lucrative contracts that resulted in layoffs and a factory shutdown. They've also been evicted from one location and are the target of a boycott campaign.
Now, Majdi Wadi is fighting to save his family's reputation and business — and he says he also wants to make amends. To do that, he called up a Black Muslim leader in Minneapolis: Imam Makram El-Amin from Masjid An-Nur, who's led racial justice initiatives in his community for decades. Wadi told us that he wants to learn what to do and how to move forward. But is there a path to redemption for his family's business once this kind of damage has been done? And is it the job of a Black man to guide Wadi down that path?
We spoke about the controversy with both Wadi and El-Amin. And in order to get even more context for the dynamics between Arab Muslims and Black Muslims, we called up a Palestinian American, Muslim community organizer named Rami Nashashibi. Nashashibi runs the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago. He's been working for years to get corner store owners — specifically Arab Muslim immigrants — to be more integrated into the Black neighborhoods they're running their businesses in, and to treat their Black clientele with respect. Now, he's helping Wadi and El-Amin forge a path forward.
Below is an excerpt of that conversation with Nashashibi, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you get involved in these conversations in Minneapolis?
I've known for many years that my work and El-Amin's work in our communities are aligned in many ways. We have a lot of the same influences, experiences and approaches where our spiritual identities are part of our community activism. And so we've known of one another.
I called El-Amin initially because I saw in the first video that came out of George Floyd's death that there was a 30-second clip that clearly had a young Arab dude coming out of the Cup Foods store. By the time two days had gone by, the narrative of Arab stores in the neighborhood was beginning to emerge as a national point of conversation. Then Makram [El-Amin] told me there was another, evolving situation in Minneapolis that was even more complicated and messy. And that's when he started to talk to me about the situation with Majdi.
What have the conversations you've been having in Minneapolis been like?
Incoming communities from across the globe very quickly start learning one critical lesson in America: proximity to whiteness is what you need for success and survival. I suggested to Majdi that those sentiments led to his daughter's tweets. I said: What did your daughter grow up learning about the history of African Americans in this country? What kind of mandate did she feel she had to learn about this history? And the reality was, it was virtually nonexistent.
And I said, think about that in the context of a Palestinian narrative. We are a people that begrudge — for some very, very valid reasons — the presence of Jewish community members from across the globe in lands that we've lived in for hundreds of years. They come sometimes with not only a lack of history of who you are, but a total disregard and a narrative that we are part of the people who are trying to kill them. That's part of our suffering that we've gone through.
Yet now, we come to this land, set up shop and economically subsist off a community that we never took real time to learn about. And I suggested to him that, above and beyond any set of derogatory terms, that's part of the problem.
Tell us more about your corner store initiative. What is it supposed to accomplish — and why focus on corner stores?
What happened post-1968 in urban neighborhoods, with the flight of industry and middle class folks, in many ways created the inner city ghettos of the '70s and '80s. And that led to the abandonment of grocery stores, resulting in food deserts. You then begin to see the proliferation of corner stores; many of them were liquor stores. At this point in the '80s and '90s, they were run almost exclusively in Chicago by Arab immigrants.
It was a point of tension first within the Black American Muslim experience: Not only are you coming in the neighborhood and taking resources out of these communities, you're not necessarily investing in them. You're not living here. You're not building schools here. And what made matters worse for the African American Muslim community was these stores were selling alcohol, which is prohibited. They're selling pork products. They're selling lottery tickets. They're making profit on things that are completely antithetical to the tradition.
There was a hip-hop artist here in Chicago — still around — by the name of Mikkey Halsted, who had a really controversial track called "Liquor Store." It blatantly confronted some of the practices of the Arab-owned liquor store, explicitly. There was a line in there: I heard the owner tell the cashier, "As-salam alaykum" / If he follow the Qur'an, why the f he sell bacon?
How have you been asking these business owners to change their practices?
Some of those steps are fairly simple. How do you talk to residents in a way that lifts them up and celebrates them as they come into your store? Are you contributing to the feeling that they're being watched and surveilled? Are Black residents walking into a business where they feel dignified, or are they walking into something that looks like an extension of the prison industrial complex, where they have to negotiate for a bottle of milk behind three inches of bulletproof glass? Can you mitigate those things by changing the layout of the store? What you offer in the store? Your hiring practices?
So we've done that over a number of years. And many of the store owners who were coming from Palestinian backgrounds were able to have very honest conversations about their own experience of oppression, and think about their sets of practices through the filter of their experience as Palestinians. We were able to generate significant identification, not only with the larger African American community, but a real honest set of conversations about racist practices and what they look like.
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