a week, Mr. Ali Lotfi-fard, an Iranian-born Muslim, drives to Bristol,
Ohio, just a jog south of Middlefield. His destination: a
slaughterhouse where Amish workers will help him corral the beef on the
hoof needed for the week. Mr. Lotfi-fard is a halal butcher, whose
store at West 95th and Detroit packs the world between its walls.
mackerel from Izola, Slovenia. Rice from Pakistan; rice from Thailand.
Moroccan sardines. Feta cheese: French, Bulgarian, Romanian. The most
fragrant green tea with jasmine from Karachi, Pakistan. Goya-brand
beans and recaito. Dettol, the antiseptic cleaner mentioned in
seemingly every contemporary novel from India. A phalanx of silver and
gold hookah pipes. Henna hair dye. Tea samovars and china; liters of
Pepsi, boxes of corn flakes. And during Ramadan, the cases of medjool
dates are stacked as high as a man.
to know how a city grows? Watch what it eats. Cleveland, long a bastion
of pierogis (or piroshke or pyrohy, depending on which side of what
Eastern European border your great-grandmother traveled from), is now
enriched by a conflation of Arabic, African and Asian tastes – all of
whom have among them the commonality of a fast-growing religion, Islam.
Lotfi-fard (whom everyone calls Ali) and his wife, Paradise, immigrated
to the United States in 1977. They came to escape the revolution
brewing in Iran that ended with the overthrow of the reigning monarchy
and the establishment of an Islamic republic under the Ayatollah
Khomeini. Ali studied economics at Case Western Reserve University and
Cleveland State, worked several jobs and raised a family of four sons
did a student of economics become a butcher? Market demand. There was a
dearth of halal butchers in Cleveland in the late ’70s, and so Ali
started Halal Meats to provide acceptable meat for his family. Then for
friends. Finally, he and Paradise opened the store at 9418 Detroit in
means lawful, or permitted,” explains Ali. “One takes the life of an
animal with intention and respect in a humane way, and one invokes the
name of God. A halal butcher must be intentional; must be humane; and
must invoke the name of God.” Like the kosher designation for Jews,
halal signifies the divine present in the everyday, where God is in the
details. Unlike kosher standards, a halal certification does not
require its butchers to be overseen by a mosque official; it is enough
that they are Muslim.
addition to the beef from Bristol, Halal Meats has goat, lamb and
chicken, whole or cut to order. His assistant, Noor Najmiah, who sports
a pompadour that would make a rockabilly front man proud, travels to
Detroit once a week for halal chicken, bakery and most of the store’s
grocery stock. “It used to be that the distributors delivered to us,”
says Paradise. “But since the price of gas is so high, we must go to
them. Most of what is in the store we get from Detroit, which has a
large Arabic community.”
to the American Religious Identity Survey, conducted in 2001 by the
City University of New York with a sample size of 50,000 Americans,
Islam ranks third on the list of the top 20 religions in the United
States. Since 1980, the proportion of mosques founded in this country
had increased by 62 percent, according to a 2001 study from the
Hartford Institute for Religious Research.
course, Muslims have come to the United States for much longer than the
past 30 years. Paradise tells this story: “About 15 years ago, there
was an old Iranian man who came to the store, maybe twice. He had come
to this country long ago, probably in the early 1900s. The second time
he was in the store, he brought some things his mother gave him to take
with him to America. He said his family wasn’t interested in them and
he wanted to give them to me. There was a magnificent prayer rug, a
string of prayer beads, and two books. The one book was the Koran. He
didn’t know what the other book was, he couldn’t read it.” It was a
cookbook. Humanity needs nourishment, physical and spiritual.
prohibition on eating pork is part of the Muslim faith, as are drinking
alcohol and gambling, which is one reason Ali won’t sell beer or
lottery tickets. The other? “If it’s not good for my family,” says Ali,
“it’s not good for yours. People tell me I’d make a lot of money in
this neighborhood if I sold alcohol and lottery tickets. But it’s not
just about making money.”
fact, for most of Halal Meat’s history, Ali has worked at other jobs
and owned other businesses in order to support his family. “I don’t do
this for the money. I started this because there was no halal meat here
for my family. Then friends wanted some. So, there was a demand; a
market.” He shrugs. “It was important to me to make it available.”
availability now includes supplying several Indian and Turkish
restaurants in Northeast Ohio. And within the next month, Ali will
break ground for a new store at East 83rd, between Euclid and Carnegie,
next to the Cleveland Playhouse and down the block from the Cleveland
Clinic. Named after the mystic Sufi poet, Rumi International Foods will
feature prepared foods, a food court and halal catering services, in
addition to halal meats and groceries.
the original store, Ali takes phone orders: one whole goat, two lambs.
He makes change for a sweet, lumbering man who gives out Catholic holy
cards; totals up two liters of pop, dish soap and 25 pounds of flour,
entering it into his book of store credit. He sells a $15 phone card
for Africa and confers with Paradise.
customers are waiting, I tell them, look around you! Half the world is
here! There’s Somalia. Romania. Turkey, Egypt, Morocco. Pakistan. Iran.”
All shopping for blessed meat, spices, dish soap and pop. The world goes to Ali’s store and smiles.