I expected it to be a simple, drama free article to write: I would travel around Portland, Oregon, where I was living at the time, and highlight many of the restaurants and cafes where Muslims break their fast together to celebrate the month of Ramadan.
It was June 2017, and as an Indian-American Muslim craving community and struggling to cope with the dizzying rise of Islamophobia in America, I figured other Muslims might also appreciate a guide to help them feel less lonely in a city as lacking in diversity as Portland.
The first rejection came from a popular shawarma spot in downtown Portland that Muslims often visit after late night prayers for lamb sandwiches, Arab pop music, and gossip about whether Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is losing it (consensus: he lost it long ago).
While I never cared for their food or their décor – Christmas lights blinking above a menu is not a good look – I loved their vibe and the sense that, if only someone added the sound of a car honking non-stop, I could be standing on a street corner in Cairo. But the owner politely refused my request to highlight them, offering me a smile and complimentary side of extra pickles to accompany his apology.
“Right now, we want to keep it very quiet,” he said. “Better that no one knows where Muslims meet these days.”
He added he was still frustrated by an online customer review of his food cart. “They said, ‘Look at how conservative this Muslim man is. He does not let women work at his stand.’ But why don’t they say that about other places that only have one male employee? It’s only me working here. I don’t have any money to hire anyone else,” he told me. (The comment has since been taken down.)
Other Muslim business owners echoed his sentiments. One pointed out that she removed the sign indicating that her food is halal. Since Trump’s win, she has been trying to expunge everything and anything that might reveal her faith. My article, she argued, would only undo that.
Another restaurant in Portland went a step further: the owner decided to close for the month of Ramadan at 7p.m, before the sun set, so that Muslims would not congregate there in the evenings. “No way am I going to live with myself if something happened,” she said.
My timing, I realized, was off. It was a few weeks after a self-proclaimed white supremacist attacked two black women on a Portland commuter train on May 26, one of whom was wearing a hijab, leading to the deaths of two good Samaritans who stepped forward to protect them. Weeks later, white supremacists gathered in downtown Portland—a few blocks from the Egyptian food cart I love—to warn Oregonians about, among other things, “white genocide,” and immigrants stealing jobs.
Read more in our online magazine Immigrants, Food and America’s Culture Wars
It’s a curious paradox. Portland, like many other liberal cities, was blanketed after Trump’s win with signs such as, “All Refugees Welcome.” But in the months after the election many immigrants, refugees, and Muslims I met in the food industry said the best way I could help them was by concealing their identity. This was especially true for those from countries covered by Trump’s travel ban.
Surprisingly, the data suggest that demand for food that is identified with Muslim culture actually may be growing. In a terrific article on NPR’s Code Switch, Radiyah Chowdhury writes about “The Rise of Halal Cuisine in An Age of Islamophobia.” She points out that the halal industry in America now tops $1.9 billion, a fifteen percent increase from 2012. She has a point: It is now common to find halal meat at major grocery stores or on the menu of popular sandwich shops.
I saw this myself on a recent trip to Detroit when I went to a Pulp Fiction themed halal burger place called “Royale with Cheese.” It blew my mind—they weren’t even hiding the word “halal” on their menu. Growing up in California in the 1980s, the halal burger shops where I used to hang out were run down places where a small grill sat next to a stack of mosque shaped alarm clocks for sale. Back then I would have loved a halal restaurant that was cool and did not embarrass me.
However, in cities that are less diverse, the picture is often quite different. Shahed Amanullah, the founder of Zabihah.com, a website which helps users find halal restaurants, told NPR that while some are eager to show solidarity these days by supporting Muslim restaurants, other Muslim-owned restaurants want nothing to do with his website or the word “halal.”
“The franchises that don’t want to be labelled on my site, they tend to be headquartered in parts of the country where Islamophobia is more of a problem,” he said.
I agree with this, but I would argue that Islamophobia and xenophobia have become ubiquitous throughout the US. On most days, I feel gutted and drained, both by the news of awful terrorist attacks and by the Islamophobic responses to that violence. The shame I feel leads me to become more reclusive.
I see this in my parents, too. Both Indian immigrants from Tanzania, they have begun a slow retreat from public spaces.
In July, my partner and I took them out in Portland for Thai food and a Shakespeare play. They loved the latter but the former irked them. It was not who was in the kitchen or even what was on the plate. It was that at the restaurant, nearly everyone else was “white,” as my mother said.
As a kid, when I said the word “white,” she would correct me and say, “call them American, not white.” But in this new age of Trump, when their friends have been targets of hate crimes, when white supremacists have held rallies near their home in Sacramento, when she too has read the stories about Muslim women being attacked while hanging out at dinner, she has found it necessary at times to use that word and to avoid spaces where she will stick out.
I found myself doing something similar in the weeks after Trump’s win. My partner and I even developed a code word for spaces where the lack of diversity makes us uncomfortable.
Still, what surprised me about my parents’ behavior was I thought we had put this practice behind us. In the 1990s, when the U.S. was bombing Iraq and we were asked “what side we were on” more times than I care to recall, we ate almost only at Indian or Pakistani restaurants in Sacramento. In part, these were the spaces where we felt most welcome. As the situation cooled, we dispensed with that practice and branched out, trying Thai, Greek, and New American restaurants.
Not anymore. When I go out to dinner these days, my mother often tells me to “be careful,” by which I know she means try not to be seen. I never get angry at her for saying this, but I do mourn that things have reached a point where she feels, with justification, the need to caution me once again about the simple act of eating out.
In the end, I did manage to publish a piece about places to observe Ramadan in Oregon. One of my favorite quotes came from an Iraqi refugee who runs an Egyptian food stand that features pictures of mummies and pyramids.
His chicken sandwiches include carrots, something he would never do back in Baghdad. But he is done dealing with Arab customers who tell him his food is not “authentic.” His rent is increasing, his margins are low, and besides, he told me, he is in the business of survival, not food.
That also explains why he almost always tells customers he is Egyptian or Mediterranean, not Iraqi, because it sounds, in his words, “more OK these days.”
As for his kitschy decor?
“I know it is not who we are,” he said, “but that is what some people want from us.”
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.