Bodegas and Arab Identity: ناس للغة العربية

Bodegas are somewhat unique to New York City. Historically, they began in Spanish speaking neighborhoods but have now spread across the entire city. The bodega carries the essentials needed for everyday urban life. They carry everything from toiletries and sandwiches to cigarettes and beer. Due to the fast paced nature of New York City, the bodega has become a central institution of convenience through their low prices and accessibility. The synonym “corner store” is an apt description, as a bodega can be found on almost every block of the city (barring some of the more wealthy residential neighborhoods).

The bodega is a space of fleeting dimension. Unlike its predecessor, the café, the bodega is a public space designed for convenience and immediate gratification. A bodega frequenter is expected to get in, purchase what they need, and get out. Although the bodega was designed for commercial interests, the space has transformed to meet a variety of social needs. The bodega is the space of the neighborhood, a microcosm of the city itself, where the news of the block is shared.

Customers of the bodega may go in several times a day, every day, but the bodega is not meant for extended consumption. The forces interact within the bodega like an eddy between rocks, each wave rhythmically pushing people in and drawing them out just as fast. The bodega worker, however, seems to occupy a very different role. Rather than an endlessly dynamic rhythm, the worker is static. In many bodegas the employees are there almost twenty-four hours a day with most living above or behind the bodega.

Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, also known as Little Italy, has historically been occupied by immigrants. Although most of the Italian community has since moved out, the neighborhood is still home to a variety of different communities. When the Italians gained access to different neighborhoods, the space was filled by Dominican and Albanian immigrants. In fact, this area of the Bronx has the highest concentration of Albanians in the United States. The presence of the Dominican community is easily identified through multiple establishments including their bodegas, bars, and churches. Likewise, the Albanian community has transformed the area significantly. As a visitor walks down Arthur Avenue (once the flagship of the Italian community during the mid-twentieth century) they are confronted by numerous Albanian bars and mosques. The biggest mosque in the area, Musa Mosque, has grown tremendously in the last few decades due to the flourishing Albanian community. Surprisingly, since they are the third largest immigrant demographic, Yemeni Muslims, choose not to frequent this mosque. More research would be needed to understand this aversion but one might suspect that the Yemenis’ intentional seclusion is the cause.

Since the start of the United States’ “War on Terror” there have been an influx of Arab immigrants across Europe and the East coast of the United States. While there has been much research dedicated to the assimilation of other ethnicities in the past, the unique process through which the Arab community handles integration in New York City has received little attention. In fact, the term “Arab” is so broad that it encompasses a variety of different communities which handle life within New York City very differently. To highlight these differences, we’ll take two examples: Mina George, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, and the Yemeni Muslims he works for.

Mina George lives in one of the many Yemeni bodegas in the Little Italy neighborhood of the Bronx. Mina exists somewhere between what anthropologist Benedict Anderson would call multiple “imagined communities”. For example, as a recent immigrant from Egypt, he is given access to the resources of the Yemeni network simply for being “Arab”. When I asked Mina what the term “Arab” meant to him he paused for a moment, looked to the side, then said, “Egypt has the movies everyone watches. When they [the Yemeni owners] speak sometimes I have no idea what they’re trying to say. Everyone knows Egyptian, though, so we can talk.” As background, “Arab” is a loose term seldom used by those it designates. It includes many different ethnic groups, religions, and geographic regions. Broadly, it is the speakers’ ability to understand each other through the intrinsic meaning of the letters and the rhythmical pattern they’re placed in. This is a feature common to all Semitic languages.

Although Mina is part of the Arab community and has received assistance through it, there is another community deeper within the bodegas that cannot be breached. The Yemeni community is more tribal compared to other Arab nationalities. Their deep network of tribes and families within those tribes creates a barrier between the Yemeni community and the community that exists in the space surrounding them. What’s more, the historically tribal social organization of Yemen has molded the Arabic language into a dialect unique to that area, making it unrecognizable to those that don’t exist within their network (including other Arabs). This exclusive dialect acts as a further barrier to outsiders.

Mina is a Coptic Christian. Coptic Christianity has existed in Egypt since the year 400 and constituted the religious majority well into the 10th century. In the bodega, Mina fulfills an essential role for the Yemeni’s as a Christian. As the buying and selling of alcohol is considered objectionable to Muslims, and 99% of Yemenis are Muslim, a common practice for Yemeni owned bodegas is to hire non-Muslims to make alcohol sales. The money made from the sale of alcohol is kept separate from the general pool and the owners don’t benefit directly from the profit. Rather, it’s only used for certain purposes such as restocking alcohol or paying the wages of the non-Muslims. Although this might seem like an arbitrary distinction, alcohol accounts for a large share of the bodega’s income. Without it, the Yemenis would not be able to compete with the Dominican bodegas in the area and their businesses would not survive. This distinction is merely an attempt by the Muslim community to reconcile their own cultural values with that of the neighborhood’s. They are assimilating for survival but refusing to give up their own identity and beliefs in the process, thereby conforming to economic (impersonal) norms but refusing to alter their social norms.

In regards to assimilation, Mina pointed out a key difference between his experience and that of the Yemeni store owners. Mina, while keeping his own cultural identity intact, is actively seeking assimilation within the United States due to the political instability of Egypt. In his own words, “My father went through a lot of struggles. There’s still discrimination here [the United States], like prison and the NYPD, and I wish I could go back, but it’s hard. That’s life, you know. For now, I’m staying here.” As a Coptic, one of a few religious minorities existing there, Mina faced discrimination during the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Egypt from 2012-2013. His flight and subsequent attempt at relocating makes sense in light of this, but his ethnic background does not explain his decision fully. The Coptic church identifies itself as the last organization of “true Egyptians” as an ethnic group that has resisted Egypt’s multiple occupations (including the Arabs) and claims ancestry back to the Ancient Egyptians. With this in mind, it seems as if his cultural identity relies on non-assimilation. However, Coptics are more likely to seek citizenship and integration than Yemenis. The difference lies in the complexity of the network the Yemeni’s have developed in New York City and elsewhere.

The Yemeni’s have a hierarchal socio-economic system in place that reaches from Yemen to London to New York. The profit from many of these bodegas does not go directly to the store owners. Instead, the placement of employees, stores, and resources is organized by the head of the family or tribe and the profit is returned there. Most of the money not associated with running the business goes back to Yemen. According to Professor Mohamed Alsiadi of Fordham University, “the Yemenis in the bodega act as arms of the tribe.” Many workers are not rooted in any one bodega for a prolonged period of time; instead, they’re moved around the city according to the needs of the tribe. For example, Samuel Hadisee, the former manager of Habibi’s deli on East 187th Street, spent several years in London until he was moved to New York City. He then spent several years in one bodega in the Bronx before being moved to a different bodega fairly recently. If a member of the tribe does not live up to expectations or does not adequately benefit the tribe abroad, they are kept as an arm indefinitely.

This poses several barriers to assimilation that are not present for Mina. As the physical space being occupied by the workers is constantly changing regardless of their own will, developing community within the neighborhood is more difficult and less desirable. The tribe is the penultimate community for the Yemenis because it represents religion, blood, custom, language, and survival. The worker is expected to go to school (depending on the family), learn the local language, and live in a foreign space while only assimilating to the point where it will benefit the network. In many ways, the Yemeni bodega owners purposely separate themselves from the culture of their host country, seeing certain methods of integration as a betrayal of their tribe.

This feeling of betrayal is not incidental. The leaders of the tribe benefit by encouraging and actively demanding an ethnocentric loyalty from the workers. The “arms of the tribe” are made to work long hours (sometimes over 15 a day), are given regular cash quotas to send up the hierarchy, and are subject to displacement anytime the tribe sees fit.  The workers are kept in a cycle of what might be called a type of wage slavery that at once benefits an upper class in the tribal structure while actively impeding the workers ability to interact with the culture of the city.

As of now the Yemeni bodega workers have been given a cruel choice between two essential facets of being human: the individual and the community that encompasses their identity. If they choose to marry outside of their ethnicity or reject their working conditions, the tribe will cast them off and force them to live without their Yemeni identity intact. But, it is neither the tribe nor the collective memory that comes with it that bodega workers want to leave; it is the oppressive economic system they serve which keeps them from growing personally while benefitting them little.

Currently, Yemen is going through political and economic turmoil. With frequent U.S. drone strikes and the internal conflict with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, some Yemeni’s may begin to weigh their options. Then again, this would hardly be a surprise, as the history of Arthur Avenue is one of ethnographic change. The Irish were replaced by the Italians, and the Italians by the Dominicans and Albanians. Half a century ago, the majority of Arab bodegas were run by Syrians who were later replaced by Yemenis. Although, the bodega owner may seem fixed in comparison with its patrons, he is just as subject to its laws. Just as he was brought in, he’ll be whisked out once again. In fifty years, I suspect that bodegas will still have a major presence in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood but that someone else will soon take the Yemenis’ place as their proprietors.

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2 comments

  1. Quinn

    I have always wondered how Muslim bodega owners navigate the sale of alcohol (especially in this college student driven community), given its objectionable place in Muslim culture and tradition. VERY interesting stuff!

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