Muslim Liquor Store Owners Face Criticism Activists in Oakland, Calif., have long fought the concentration of liquor stores in their communities. Now they have new allies in Muslim groups who say Muslim owners of these liquor stores are hurting the neighborhood and violating religious principles.

Muslim Liquor Store Owners Face Criticism

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Luke Burbank.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. West Oakland, California has a lot of liquor stores -too many for some of the area's Muslims. Last year, two stores there were ripped apart by a crowd of men, angry that the store's Muslim owner was selling liquor - and that's forbidden under Islamic law. Now, another Muslim storeowner is reacting to that. He's converting his store into a liquor-free grocery.

From member station KALW, Pauline Bartolone reports.

Unidentified Man #1: Together we can make a difference. So brothers and sisters, let's strategize…

PAULINE BARTOLONE: Shortly after last year's assaults, Muslims from all over the Bay area gathered on the steps of Oakland City Hall. Liquor stores pervade the city's poor neighborhoods, they said, and they wanted some to be shut down. Imam Zaid Shakir helped spearhead the effort.

IMAM ZAID SHAKIR (Muslim Religious Leader, Oakland, California): But when you come and sell it in the community, it's no longer a private affair. You're in -now you're a violation of the law. The law of this land is affecting the lives of others. And that's what we're against.

BARTOLONE: Community groups have been outspoken about the large number of liquor stores in Oakland for years. But the liquor business can be attractive to poor immigrants, like those from Yemen who own two-thirds of the neighborhood markets.

Their religion prohibits the sale of liquor. But the business requires little financial investment or language ability. Hatem Bazian is professor of near Eastern studies at UC Berkeley.

Professor HATEM BAZIAN (Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley): The rationalization runs the gamut. Some say, well, I'm not drinking, and so it just says they try to play games with the text. Some would just say, well, I'm not living in an Islamic society. So you can't hold me to Islamic principles. Third, they say, I am here as an American citizen, and I'm just engaging in business in America.

(Soundbite of doorbell ringing)

Unidentified Woman: I got a go.

BARTOLONE: Here at Neighbor's Market in West Oakland, Soliah Agabri(ph) watches over his clerk, who talks to customers with tired, one-word answers.

Mr. SOLIAH AGABRI (Liquor Store Owner): Why? (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Child: Here.

BARTOLONE: Agabri is a Yemeni-American immigrant who's worked in the liquor store business since he first came here 20 years ago. Yemenis are the second largest Middle Eastern Group in the Bay Area. Agabri says they all face similar difficulties in the inner city.

Mr. AGABRI: You know, we didn't have no good education. We can work something else, you know, like to take us away from selling alcohol. It's like we probably know how to speak and how to run a business. That's all we know.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AGABRI: Hello?

BARTOLONE: Besides getting constant calls and working long hours on his feet, Agabri's doing well. He bought Neighbors Market in 2000. And last year, his family of five finally got the paperwork to move to the States. Now he's financially stable, and his family is in one place. So Agabri is ready to make some long-awaited changes to his business.

Mr. AGABRI: I'm trying to get out of the alcohol. That's what I'm trying to do. I don't really want to sell anymore.

BARTOLONE: Agabri makes $200 to $300 a day selling alcohol, an amount he's confident can be replaced by serving hot food. So that's just what he's doing. He redesigned his market to be alcohol free. The beer refrigerators will soon become part of the deli where locals can grab hotdogs or a bowl of soup. He unrolls his sketch of the new design and smiles widely.

Mr. AGABRI: That's how it's going to look. See, that's the (unintelligible), that's the (unintelligible). That's where they're going to - that's the (unintelligible), where we are.

BARTOLONE: The cost of the conversion is steep, nearly $35,000 for the design and construction. He wouldn't be making the change without the Environmental Justice Institute, an Oakland nonprofit working to convert liquor stores into food markets. They're coordinating in kind donations and grant money for the other half of the cost. That way, Agabri doesn't have to pay a cent.

Mr. AGABRI: So and then you continue right here. We have the beans and the vegetables…

BARTOLONE: Agabri is excited about his shop and the change. He says he's saving lives - his own and his neighbors.

Mr. AGABRI: Some neighbors, they say if you have to make your living, (unintelligible). But we don't know if God's going to figure out something. Well, nobody knows. So what I see is just we - my sons - I'm trying just to get out of it.

BARTOLONE: The new Neighbors Market begins construction this month. A handful of other storeowners are watching with interest to see if his gamble pays off.

From San Francisco, I'm Pauline Bartolone.

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