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May 17, 1999


Halal meat, chutney and chat

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Sonia Chopra in Albany

On a narrow, crowded, suburban street strip, where businesses and fast food restaurants compete for attention, it's impossible to miss the gaudy green neon sign that screams, "halal meats and groceries."

It is equally difficult to miss the garish posters of Sunjay Dutt's Daag or Akshay Khanna's Aa Ab Laut Chalen, as one drives up.

A bell chimes loudly as one enters the small, dingy but busy store packed wall to wall with spices, lentils, rice and other ethnic delicacies. People chatter in half a dozen languages as they pick up fresh eggplants, bhindis, coriander leaves, pickles, chutneys, samosas and movies.

Ghilman 'Jimmy' Hussain There are aisles with Indian and Pakistani brands of the same spices. "Customers prefer to use brands they know and trust," Jimmy said. And to the store owner it is important to please all his clients, he added.

"To have a store like this, well, it's a special blessing. I like my job," said Ghilman Hussain, 35, who has nicknamed himself "Jimmy" because "it's easy for everyone to say."

"It was my dream to have this store. I always believed I would prosper at it," said Jimmy who immigrated from Karachi two-and-half years ago and opened the store six months later.

"But it has become more popular than I what I dreamt," said Jimmy, shaking his head in disbelief at the 25 or so customers one recent afternoon.

The halal meats, he says are perhaps the biggest draw with mutton being the "hottest item". He guarantees good quality and even offers a free packet to each customer, which is politely declined.

"The Muslim requirements are very strict. The meat must be halal. Our people can't eat chicken wings, hot dogs and burgers from McDonald or Burger King," said Jimmy, who added that his clientele consists of Muslims from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan and India.

"Indians buy the meat because it is impossible to get it at the local supermarket," said Jimmy who estimates he sells about 4,000 pounds of meat to 300 families monthly.

He declines to say how much he makes annually but reveals that he spends about $ 5,000 three times a month when he commutes 350 miles to Edison, New Jersey to buy groceries and meats.

Some people come from far to buy the halal meats. "We buy the beef, the chicken, the spices, everything and put them in the freezer," said Aziza Mirza, 71, mother of Anees Mirza, 35, a Pakistani immigrant and a computer specialist who drives 100 miles from Rome to come to the store.

Jimmy also doubles as a food expert when he proffers advice to Americans interested in cooking spiced dishes with basmati rice and chicken tikka pastes.

"I have to explain step by step how they can cook the rice to make a pulao or to marinate chicken and meat using these pastes," said Jimmy. He estimates that at least 25 per cent of his business comes from Americans.

Ghilman 'Jimmy' Hussain For others the store is more than just food. "They come to buy the Urdu and Hindi newspapers. They come to hear what is going on back home. And they come for the phone cards," said Jimmy adding that the phone cards were a big selling item.

"With a $ 10 card, people can talk for 15 minutes and then they don't have to worry about adding to the phone bills," said Jimmy, who sometimes simply gives the calling card pin number to people on the phone, who pay for the card at a later date.

"Everyone can't drive and everyone can't be here to pick up the card exactly when they need it, so I let them pay me later," Jimmy said. The location of the store -- it is in close proximity to two mosques, a Hindu temple and a Pakistani restaurant -- also accounts for its popularity.

"It's just a link. It sort of keeps you in touch. Sometimes you make these connections and they become friendships," said Ramesh Bhatia, 27, a computer science major at Siena College, which is a few miles down the road.

New immigrants come searching for apartments and job opportunities. "Many people with stores ask me to look out for people wanting to work for them and when someone tells me they need a job, I connect the two parties," Jimmy said.

Apart from the American workers who step in to buy cigarettes, soda, coffee and candy, for many people the store is a place to keep in touch and advertise their wares and community events.

"Sometimes someone asks me about the other person they met at the store and ask me for their phone number," Jimmy said. "Housewives put up salwar kameezes and other items for sale, and if these things sell, they get the money," Jimmy revealed.

The store has fliers on its makeshift bulletin board, which publicize classes in cooking, music, dance and handicrafts. Some list community events at the mosques and the temple.

"Everyone is the same all over the world. They want their food, their music, a little friendship and a little kindness. I'm happy to talk to them. I feel as if they are all part of a family," Jimmy remarked putting everything in perspective.

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