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A Halal Slaughterhouse Provides Nourishment for a Far-Flung Culture
[Ed. Note: Please read to the end of the article]

Published: March 9, 2005

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.

Another Generation

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.

The   New York Times takes letters at: [email protected]  

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