Stigma of Halal Cooks

Stigma of Halal Cooks

Ever walk down a New York City sidewalk and find yourself squeezing past others? And as you look both ways desperate for a way out, forced to make pained eye contact with the pedestrian walking the other way and start to dance an awkward dance around each other. You glare at the culprit: A trembling five by ten steel box with nauseating neon lights stares back at you.

You shake your fist, vowing revenge and continue walking.

Other than being obstacles to unimpeded walking, food carts, in particular, halal carts, are disliked by local residents and local businesses. This hostility between halal carts and the neighborhoods they inhabit is well documented. However, could this hostility hide racial undertones?

I spoke to a Ukrainian owner of a halal cart on 16th and Union Square East and he told me that it’s different owning a halal cart in 2017 than it was owning a Greek food cart in 1990. Although he declined to go into detail about his treatment as a halal cart owner (for fear of retribution), he was absolutely giddy and wanted to talk about his time as a Greek cart owner. He completely loved it. Despite not being Greek himself, he grew to love Greek food, the smell, the people, the level of acceptance the city showed his food and his cart. Owning a Greek food cart was easy, he told me, because the atmosphere was different.

How Does the City View Halal Cart Cooks?

To say it was not good to be a halal cook post-9/11 would be an understatement. New York City was rocked off its feet by Jihadists and what they saw as “Islamic Terrorists,” making the city very fearful and wary of Islamic culture and its people. Halal means permissible in Arabic and is one of the major tenets of traditional Sharia Law. Naturally, that antipathy migrated and evolved into a public distrust of halal food.

One of the most notable instances of this public rancor against halal carts could be seen in the treatment of halal carts by the FDNY. In an internal and confidential Powerpoint presentation circulated within the FDNY in 2012, the fire department was very worried that halal carts could be excellent places for surveillance “due to their access and long duration stays.”

The document goes on to claim that halal carts, pose explosion risks from the presence of propane cylinders, burn risks from hot oil fryers and grills, and most outrageously, biohazard risks from questionable sanitary conditions.

The idea that halal carts are great places for surveillance inherently implies that the workers are spies and have some malicious intent and secret agenda against the citizens of New York City. Every single cook and owner I interviewed were just hardworking folk who wanted to make a decent buck and return home, often very late at night, to their family and children. These are good people that the FDNY are implying that they are subversives. This is absurd and racist. And although the PowerPoint mentioned “food carts” in general, halal carts make up the vast majority of food carts in the city. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume they had halal carts in mind when they drafted up this memo to warn firefighters to keep an eye out on those dangerous Muslims. This idea that all Muslims, including halal cook workers, are agents of terrorism has time and time been fact-checked and rejected.

Still, this idea pervades our city government but more than that, it also penetrates our cities residents and neighborhoods.

How Do Residents View Halal Cart Cooks?

In a nutshell: residents do not like halal cart cooks and are disgusted by them. In 2013, one food vendor moved from Ave A and Houston (in front of the Union Market) to the corner of Ave A and East 2nd. Not a lengthy migration by any measure, but this move prompted significant backlash from the residents of the Co-op in front of the cart. Residents complained of the nauseating falafel smell, generator noise, and increased filth. They also claim that the halal cart hurt property values, blocked their walkway, and aggressively polluting their air. The residents were so up in arms about this change that they circulated the following flier:

Let’s analyze this flier. Bold and heavy font title, excessive use of exclamation marks but what stood out to me was the fact that the halal cart arrived only “earlier today.” This meant these empowered residents drafted up this petition in only a few hours. It’s doubtful how much “devaluing” or “crowds” the cart might have caused. It’s difficult to see these types of damages in only a few hours. Now it might just be me but I don’t think this petition is against the halal cart. I think it’s against the Muslim halal cart workers. The word that jumped out to me, partly because it was bolded, is illegal and devalue. Two terms often used towards Muslim-immigrants.

The residents do have valid concerns but it is hard to imagine that if the halal cart sold instead hot dogs or peanuts, would the residents still be as riled up and up in arms about the noise of the generator, for example. It is difficult to tease apart what percentage of their protest is due to just and honest concerns and what percentage is due to racism.

In the following case study of a neighborhood in Brooklyn and its relationship with a halal cart owner who decided to fight back, we see this deep-seated, perhaps unconscious racism towards Muslims.

Bay Ridge: A Case Study

In Bay Ridge, on 86th and 5th Ave, business owners have clashed with the halal carts located outside on their restaurants. Brooklyn Independent Television did a piece about this fight. They interviewed a bunch of people including the owner of the LoneStar restaurant and Sammy Casin, the manager of the Middle Eastern Halal food cart.

The business owner describes the halal carts as “pirates” stealing from the neighborhood restaurants. He talks also about how the halal cart workers are reportedly prohibited by the BID, which is the Business Improvement District, helping maintain the neighborhood and collect trash among other things. Sammy, the halal cart manager takes offense to that saying that these owners are trying to imply that he’s a criminal for wanting to make a living, same as anyone else.

The next issue that business owners have against halal cart workers is that the halal carts pay no rent, in a city where rent is skyrocketing and becoming increasingly unaffordable for small businesses.

Rent goes up to sometimes $6000-7000 a month. The owner of the LoneStar Resturant asks “what are they paying? We really don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with competition” he says. But “I like to call it fair competition. It has to be fair.” The halal cart manager is outraged. He begins to list his expenses. He pays taxes, pays for the permit, rent for parking, utility bills. He argues that there are a lot of costs that come with owning a halal cart that business owners often ignore.

Lastly, the Brooklyn Independent Television got the opinions of a few passersby who described why they thought the business owners were being so hostile to these cooks.

Some patrons of the halal carts think it’s a racial issue which the business owners vehemently deny.

Note the two food carts one on 5th ave on the far right and one in center left on 86th st


To give credit where it’s due, New York City, the epicenter and the city arguably most affected by terrorism, is paradoxically one of the most inclusive and safe cities for Muslims in America. Even so, I interviewed a few other Muslim cart workers in Brooklyn and they claimed that racial slurs do sometimes get thrown around as does calls for deportation. None wanted to speak on the record or provide their names for fear of retaliation. As a general rule, two cart owners noticed, there was a significant uptick in hate speech incidents towards Muslim cart owners following the 2016 presidential election. I must mention that three other carts in Tribeca that I interviewed, never had any customers behave inappropriately.

Unresolved and a very troubling issue, Halal cart cooks face an uphill perception problem especially in this current hyper islamophobic atmosphere


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