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Articles A Halal Slaughterhouse Provides Nourishment for a Far-Flung Culture
A Halal Slaughterhouse Provides Nourishment for a Far-Flung Culture
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
The slaughterhouse is a fortress in the rusty industrial landscape of east Newark. Its windowless brick exterior reveals nothing of the scene inside.
Only the words Mecca Halal Meat, printed on a truck outside, hint at the world behind the steel doors.
Another clue comes with the call to prayer. It slips out through a vent, blending with the drone of the New Jersey Turnpike. Inside, the voice moves from room to room, where chickens, bulls and goats arrive daily to meet their death. Blasted from loudspeakers, the sound hovers over the head butcher, Jaci DaSilva, a Brazilian immigrant who converted to Islam a decade ago.
The call reaches into another room where Saleh, a 52-year-old Nigerian, deftly slits the throat of a spotted guinea hen while mouthing the words that make the bird halal, or lawful in Islam: "Bismillah, Allahu akbar."
In the name of God, God is great. Standing sentry near the entrance is Omar Mady, one of two Egyptian bosses. And driving away with a van full of skinned goats is a sandy-haired Albanian, Muhamed Beqiri, who feeds the thriving Muslim market of Paterson, N.J.
American Halal Meat, on Raymond Boulevard, is a small but telling monument to the growing presence of Muslims in the United States, now estimated to number more than seven million. The animals killed here each day - thousands a week in one of the region's biggest operations - are shipped to butchers and restaurants as far away as Philadelphia and Albany, feeding people who have long lived on America's cultural margins.
Yet the slaughterhouse is as deeply American as it is Muslim. It is a place where spirituality mixes with commerce, and where business relationships are conducted with an American efficiency but rise and fall on a sense of brotherhood.
The culture sustained by the slaughterhouse crosses continents and barriers of class, politics, skin color and language. Faith is the unifier, but even that is expressed in myriad and often clashing ways. Some workers pray five times a day. Others have dropped away from the Islam in which they were reared, pulled by youthful urges to experience America. And still others came to this country with different beliefs, only to find themselves forcefully drawn to the teachings of the Koran. Together, they form a more truthful, if complex, portrait of Muslim life than is typically appreciated by the world outside.
The slaughterhouse is a drafty, damp, cavernous place warmed only by the camaraderie of the people who gather there. On any given day, imams in flowing robes and African-American converts in kufis pass through.
Over the years, their traditions and languages have left imprints, large and small, on the workers, who are mostly Brazilian and Central American. Some of the men have converted. Most use the word brother - a custom among Muslims - to refer to one another, the clients and even the on-site inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The pungent smell of blood and bleach hangs over the largest room - known as the kill floor, where the slaughtering begins at 7 a.m. One by one, the largest animals are led into an enclosed metal pen where a chain is looped around one leg and the animal winds up hanging upside down.
According to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, the person doing the killing must be Muslim, and should kill the animal by slashing its throat with a sharp knife.
It happens quickly, and a torrent of blood hits the concrete floor, often covering the walls, hands, aprons, hats and bright yellow raincoats of the workers.
When a butcher is confronted with a 1,500-pound bull, the task can be intimidating. Among the two dozen workers at the slaughterhouse, there are several broad-shouldered men who seem like obvious choices for the job of butcher.
Omar Mady does not come to mind.
With Shaking Hands
To appreciate what must have been an enormous professional leap, one need spend only five minutes with Mr. Mady. He wears his hair in a soft bouffant and speaks with a faint, movie-star smile. He never raises his voice.
He has a weakness for Audis.
The son of a Cairo bank executive, Mr. Mady had come to the United States with loftier plans. He arrived in New York with a degree in accounting and $3,000 in cash, which in 1979 made for a comfortable start. He found a job as an accountant at Trump Plaza and spent lavishly on nights on the town.
Mr. Mady's carefree life ended after an Egyptian acquaintance asked him to buy the man's share of a small butcher store in Jersey City. Mr. Mady agreed, seeing it as a good investment.
Soon enough, the other shareholder wanted out and Mr. Mady was suddenly left to run the business alone: buying, killing and selling - all by himself.
"To me, it was like a nightmare," said Mr. Mady, 48, as he sat in his office recently.
"Only to you?" asked his wife, Susie Mady, as she reached for a slice of halal pizza and ignored the "Phantom of the Opera" ring of her cellphone.
"All my family, they are doctors, engineers, accountants," continued Mr. Mady. "I don't have any butchers. To my family, butcher is low class. Not educated."
When Mr. Mady fell into the halal meat business 21 years ago, there were no halal slaughterhouses in the New York region. (There are now three in New Jersey and a small one in Queens.)
More and more Muslims were moving to New York and New Jersey from countries like Egypt and Pakistan, but, like Mr. Mady, many of these immigrants came from the professional classes.
Inevitably, doctors found work as taxi drivers and lawyers became busboys. But butchers were scarce.
Eventually, Mr. Mady decided to learn the trade himself. Back then, halal butchers bought their cattle at auctions and took them to nonreligious or kosher slaughterhouses. There, Muslim butchers would wait for their cattle to appear on the kill floor and then do the killing themselves.
The first time Mr. Mady tried this, his hands were shaking, he said.
"I was very chicken," he said. "I had never cut a finger before."
Against the continued objections of his wife and parents, Mr. Mady sought guidance from a Muslim butcher and, within weeks, was trained.
By the mid-1990's, his customers had increased tenfold. But he was tired of always taking his cattle to be killed at other slaughterhouses and dreamed of having his own place. Last December, four years after Mr. Mady persuaded an Egyptian friend, Hamed Nabawy Hamed, to be his partner, they bought the Raymond Boulevard operation.
"It's my dream," said Mr. Mady as he stood outside the building one recent afternoon. But the dream is not complete: he and Mr. Hamed envision a one-stop shop, with a supermarket, a travel agency and a plush waiting room where Al Jazeera is beamed onto flat screen TV's.
The Head Butcher
In the slaughterhouse, assimilation is a two-way street.
The building echoes with Spanish and Portuguese, Arabic and English.
At the quiet center of the babble is Mr. DaSilva. No one commands more respect, not even the new Egyptian bosses.
The head butcher was born in Brazil and has been at the slaughterhouse the longest. He refers to his collection of scars as trophies, and points them out with an index finger thicker than most men's thumbs.
In the lunchroom, when he speaks, the men fall silent. They step aside when he moves through the hallway, his frame blocking the light.
"I built this place," he likes to say in his bellowing voice.
Mr. DaSilva was raised as an evangelical Christian. He was not seeking a new religion when he left Minas Gerais in 1988 and crossed the Rio Grande into the United States, he said; he was looking for work. From the time he was 19, he had earned his living killing cattle with a machete in a Brazilian slaughterhouse. He took a bus from Texas to Newark, and searched for the nearest slaughterhouse.
"I could smell it," he said.
One month after he arrived in Newark, Mr. DaSilva came upon the newly opened
Halal Custom Meats, the slaughterhouse that now belongs to Mr. Mady and Mr. Hamed under its new name.
"God put me in that slaughterhouse," Mr. DaSilva said one evening as he sat on a twin mattress in the apartment he shares with his brother and son.
Mr. DaSilva's conversion to Islam was as much cultural as it was religious.
When he came to the United States, he sometimes heard people say that Muslims were bad or not to be trusted, he said. But he felt an instant closeness with his boss and clients. He loved Christianity but had become disillusioned with Brazilian-run evangelical churches in the United States.
"You go to church here, the pastor is sending money home to Brazil to buy a house," he said, speaking in Portuguese. "The real Muslim is a very good person. They are honest, honest, honest."
Eleven years ago, an African-American imam who frequented the slaughterhouse began talking to Mr. DaSilva about Islam, and led him to a mosque in Newark.
At the door, Mr. DaSilva saw how different it was. "There is no church where you take your shoes off," he said laughing. But he felt at home.
Mr. DaSilva's wife also converted, and their 20-year-old son, Junior, is doing the same.
"I like being Muslim," said Mr. DaSilva. Today, he is a cultural hybrid. He considers himself a Brazilian cowboy, and proved it when a bull ran loose amid the traffic on Raymond Boulevard in December. Mr. DaSilva chased the animal down, grabbing it by the tail as his brother lassoed it in.
But just as naturally, Mr. DaSilva greets his Muslim male customers with a kiss on both cheeks, as is customary in many Middle Eastern countries.
"Hello brother," said Mr. DaSilva one recent afternoon, wiping his hands down a blood-splattered apron as he kissed the cheeks of Yousef Siyam, the owner of a butcher shop in Old Bridge, N.J.
"Alhamdulillah," replied Mr. Siyam, using the common Arabic greeting, Praise be to Allah.
It is not yet afternoon but Ali, 23, is weary. He sits slumped before a computer in the slaughterhouse office upstairs, surrounded by the symbols of his Congolese childhood. An Arabic wall hanging quotes the first sura of the Koran. A worn carpet is rolled up in the corner, used by Mr. Hamed and others for daily prayer.
But Ali, who did not give his last name, has slowly drifted from his faith.
He has largely given up prayer, pushing through his 12-hour workdays without much pause. During the day, he works as the quality control manager at American Halal. At night, he studies for a business degree at Essex County College.
He is tugged by newfound curiosity. Since coming to America four years ago, he has developed a taste for beer and sex. He has a steady girlfriend. Both activities - drinking alcohol and having sex before marriage - are haram, or forbidden, the opposite of halal.
"My dream is to have a mall in Congo," he said. "We have a lot of shopping centers but not a mall."
Ali's father, who also left Congo for Newark, is his only anchor to Islam.
It was Ali's father who noticed that his son had stopped going to the mosque.
At his urging, Ali finally drove to the Islamic Cultural Center on Branford Place in Newark recently. He stood outside, staring at the entrance for about five minutes.
"I couldn't do it," he said. "You cannot go to the mosque when you're not clean.
"I'm not respecting Allah."
But to respect Allah, one must respect halal, he said. And halal has lost relevance to his life.
"I always say to my dad, 'I cannot respect all these rules,' " said Ali.
"It's too much for me."
Ali's departure from his faith may seem odd, given the rich Muslim setting of his workplace, but it is a common story among young men like him:
America, with its wealth and freedoms, poses a deep challenge to Muslim youth. The test is even greater for the American-born children of Muslim immigrants.
The same afternoon, as Ali sat typing, Mr. Hamed returned from Friday prayer with a face of worry. The task of keeping young Muslims in the faith weighs heavily on Mr. Hamed, a strictly observant Muslim.
At the mosque that day, a visiting imam warned that American television was ruining Islamic youth. "The only remedy is to raise our children in the fear of Allah," said the imam, Omar Saleem Abu-Namous.
Mr. Hamed is having trouble doing that with his own 13-year-old son, Hisham, who loves PlayStation and dreams of being a comedian.
"He has an American soul," Mr. Hamed said wistfully.
The Hameds live in a sprawling colonial-style house in Manalapan, N.J. Mr. Hamed works seven days a week. In January, he missed his son's birthday.
"I want them to grow up in a better society, in a better atmosphere than what I went through," said Mr. Hamed, referring to his immigrant start as a dishwasher in New York City. "But to do this, I have to pay a price."
Mr. Hamed knows he is not home enough to counteract the inevitable pull of high school and television. His daughter, Laila, 17, has spent more time in Egypt than Hisham and proudly wears her headscarf to school. But it is Hisham, more than anyone else in the family, who feels the stares directed to his mother and sister when they shop for groceries.
In December, Mr. Hamed made a special trip with Hisham to the slaughterhouse. He wanted to show his son the business.
When they returned home, the boy declared himself a vegetarian for life.
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