The gold plated “Allah” sign hangs in Saeed Azimzadeh’s store right next to his license to sell liquor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born and raised in Yemen, Azimzadeh earned a degree in Civil Engineering.
When he had the opportunity to come to America, he dreamed of putting his skills to use in a non-oppressive country where his wife and two children could thrive. After five years of getting turned down and rejected by each place he applied, Azimzadeh gave up, and turned to liquor.
Liquor stores have been corners of convenience throughout neighborhoods of all kinds. Whether it is lower, middle, or upper class, these stores are destinations for nearly every community. But one community is known for opposing alcohol: the Muslim community. Contradictory, many Muslim men own liquor stores.
The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has put a grant in place for African-American and Arab Muslims in order to encourage Muslims to stop selling liquor. The Inner City Muslim Action Network has set up a loan program to help fund and provide these guilt-ridden owners with fresh produce and other healthy goods by supporting the bill of Illinois Fresh Food Fund. This bill would serve neighborhoods where grocery outlets are scarce. In turn, the store owners would be surrounded by better company. Executive director of the Inner City Muslim Action Network, Rami Nashashibi said in a World Wide Religious News Report, “These stores became associated with a lot of the most negative and oppressive characteristics you would want to be associated with.”
According to a news report, Chicago has roughly 3,000 Muslim-owned liquor stores. Although alcohol has been deemed haraam or forbidden, many liquor storeowners defend themselves by saying they only promote the products, but do not consume them. Islamic scholar and UC Berkeley professor, Hatem Bazian explained, “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.” There are many ways to justify the situation, but either way, the community grows angry.
Chicago is not the only city challenging liquor stores. In Oakland, Calif. liquor stores are scattered on a variety of corners in the poorest neighborhoods where African Americans represent 64 percent of the population. Imam Zaid Shakir believes that the location of liquor stores are racially charged, and says, "Why don't you find these stores in the white or affluent neighborhoods...What has happened here, when you have a liquor store on every corner, that is an institutionalized presence.” Shakir has taken his concerns to Oakland City Hall, and to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich through zoning regulations and follow the state’s law.
California law states that liquor stores can only exist for every 1,250 people in the area. According to Muslims for Healthy Communities, there is a liquor store for every 580 people in West Oakland. That is roughly 3 times more than the state allows. Oakland city attorney, John Russo said, "Oakland just has too many liquor stores.” Zachary Twist, a coordinator of MHC said, “When you look at the statistics, over 90 percent of Oakland’s 350 liquor stores are owned or operated by Muslims.”
Although advertising alcoholic merchandise is undeniably against Islamic law, Azimzadeh insists that providing for his family is the main goal. “There are very few Muslims in this community [so] selling halal things do not make a profit. The money to start the store will help, but that is not money that will keep coming in.” He continued, “Profit comes from customers. I have to pay for my family and my sick wife. Selling liquor is the only way I can do that.” Azimzadeh opened up his store in 1996. He saw a “for lease” sign when he was on his way home and decided to take on a business adventure. “It was a halal meat store at first, but I made nothing. I couldn’t live comfortably. Each expense brought more stress. A friend of mine encouraged me to turn it into a late night market store, [and when] we stocked the shelves with alcohol, the money started coming in.” Azimzadeh twisted his wedding ring from side to side “I don’t think Allah wants anyone to suffer, and I was suffering, my family was suffering. I couldn’t live that way”
Many Muslim liquor storeowners perceive liquor stores as their only opportunity for income. Mohamed Saleh Mohamed, the President of the Yemeni-American Grocers Association explained, “We're caught in a Catch-22. I'm not saying what we do is right, but it's within the system. The government is not going to take it away, because they need the money and taxes ... America is full of opportunity, but most of the store owners come from Yemen and they are not educated, so this is the best they can do.” Azimzadeh, a 63-year-old male of Yemeni descent says he is uncomfortable with the store, but he lacks options. “Am I proud of this store? No. But paying bills doesn’t cover religious restrictions. It is money they want and that is what I have to give them,” Azimzadeh said.
Unfortunately, today’s economy does not offer many opportunities for people to take chances and venture off to new ideas. Alcohol is a stable market because these beverages guarantee high profit margins. But at what cost will Muslims sell these goods? Providing the seed money will help cities like Chicago to weed out the Muslims who feel guilty and the Muslims who are only concerned about monetary earnings. Although Azimzadeh appreciates the effort of his community, he is not willing to change his store, “Yes this sounds like a good idea, but at what cost will it be to me? Only liquor sells in this neighborhood. I can’t sell groceries and compete with the other stores. I can sell discount liquor. And I will be judged when that day (Day of Judgment, Qayamat) comes. No one else can impose their opinions on me. My kids are in college, my wife needs medical help, and sadly, selling liquor keeps everything together.” Chicago’s goal is to provide communities in dire need of proper nutrition, especially in the low-income neighborhoods. “I do not like that I sell liquor, but it in this area it is the only thing people want. Competing with these grocery stores is impossible” Azimzadeh insisted.
Guilt is an unpleasant feeling, but not being able to provide for a family is equally horrible. Azimzadeh wipes the sweat from his glistening forehead, “I am not a rich man. I don’t have a luxury car or a big home. I just make enough to get by. And if I don’t have this business, I don’t have anything.”
Unsa is entering her third year of college studying convergence journalism.