Halal in the Family: A Muslim community gathers at the Islamic law-abiding butcher shop in Oakland.

oakland-halalOriginally published in San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 2005 It’s easy to tell that Abdul Huruy, the Eritrean-born owner of Oakland Halal Market, likes to do the butchering himself. Just watch him as he lugs out one of the immense sides of lamb stored in the walk-in refrigerator and begins to casually slice the meat against a spinning electric saw blade, pausing only to indicate the best cuts. “Lamb rack,” he’ll say with pride, laying an open palm on the choice section of ribs. Huruy’s family-run market – filled with long braids of garlic hanging from the ceiling and posters of Mecca photographed during the hajj, an annual time of pilgrimage – opened five years ago to serve the local Muslim community. Just a half block from a Sunni mosque, the Oakland Islamic Center, the market occupies a strip of Telegraph Avenue that’s home to a North African immigrant community as well as immigrants from elsewhere around the globe, many of whom are Muslim. “We have customers from Fiji, Guyana, Senegal, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen,” Huruy says, highlighting Islam’s ability to bring together people of different nationalities (“Different kinds because Islam is one,” as he puts it).

Unlike your typical butcher shop, Huruy’s is alive with community spirit. Five times a day, the store closes for prayers and small megaphones attached to its maroon awning broadcast recitations from the Koran. On busy Fridays – the holiest day in the Islamic week – the store teems with customers who have come to buy good lamb, goat, veal, beef, and chicken. Out in front, old friends greet each other with a strong embrace, and men gather – some standing, others sitting on milk crates – to discuss current events, family life, religion, and what’s going on in the neighborhood.

But the store is also a great place for secular shoppers to get provisions. As one of the few places between West Oakland and downtown that offers fresh meats and produce, the market draws in a fair number of non-Muslim customers from surrounding blocks picking up supplies for a home-cooked dinner.

Because their religion requires they eat only halal meat, farther-flung Bay Area Muslims drive into the neighborhood from Fremont or other towns for the specially prepared items, which their local supermarket doesn’t carry. All of Huruy’s meat is marked with a circular blue USDA stamp verifying that it has been prepared according to the Koran’s rules of halal, which translates from Arabic as “lawful.” The instructions stipulate that the animal be treated respectfully on its way to slaughter and that it be killed by a “person of the book,” meaning a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim – a reminder that the three faiths share their origins in the Old Testament. As in Jewish kosher tradition, the animal’s throat must be slit with a knife and the animal must never come in contact with pork, but the most essential component of halal is that Allah’s name be spoken in prayer at the time of slaughter. Afterward the body is hung upside down in order to allow the blood to drain, which Muslims believe removes the impurities.

And because Islam forbids eating carnivorous animals, Huruy purchases his meat from Mayar Halal Slaughterhouse, which sells free-range lamb and goat raised on a corn-and-grass diet, rather than the animal by-products common to factory farming. The health and environmental reasons alone are an appealing reason for a person of any faith to get in line.

By filling a need that’s ignored in the larger commercial sphere, Oakland Halal Market has created an active gathering place where store and community are one in the same. And to further demonstrate his mission, Huruy donates $5 to the Islamic charity of choice for customers who spend $50 or more.

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