Ramadan is just one challenge for New York halal food vendor

Fasting while selling food from a street cart in New York's Times Square during summer is not easy, but Omar Mohammed manages to stay cheerful through the the long hot days.

NEW YORK // Omar Mohammed stands behind the counter of his food cart turning skewers of sizzling kebabs, the pungent smoke enveloping him as it pours off the small grill into the pulsating rush of Times Square.

On the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, a babel of tourists stared up at the digital canyon of giant screens and flashing advertisements whose surreal lights wash out any trace of sunset, holding maps and snapping pictures.

“I like working here – all the people, the lights – it’s never dull,” says Mr Mohammed, 41, an Egyptian who has served food on this small strip of pavement real estate for three years. “It really reminds me of Port Said, where I’m from.”

He wraps the lamb kebabs in bread, adds a squirt of yogurt sauce and the requisite salad, and hands them to a waiting construction worker. He has been standing in the tropical July heat, cooking and serving food all day while observing a 16-hour Ramadan fast.

But his natural exuberance has not wilted. “Mickey, Minnie! Hi, how are you!” he calls to a pair of costumed characters working a crowd next to his cart.

There are nearly a million Muslims in New York City, many of them working-class immigrants such as Mr Mohammed, from the Middle East, South Asia and West Africa. A large proportion of the roughly 20,000 street food vendors in the city are from Egypt and Bangladesh, and work the halal food carts that have become a ubiquitous part of the Manhattan landscape.

During this summer Ramadan, the observant among them also have one of the more trying fasts, physically, and as they scratch out a living in an industry with little city oversight and a predatory “mafia”, as many of the workers describe it.

“The smoke is always coming, the weather is hot, but what can I do?” Mr Mohammed says. “At least I get skinny.” The food is not much of a temptation. He ate his fill of kebabs and hot dogs long ago.

Instead, for his iftar, one of his three teenage daughters or his wife travels an hour and a half by ferry and metro from their home on Staten Island to bring him a home-cooked Egyptian meal.

On this Friday evening, his eldest daughter, Donna, stands next to the cart, its row of bare bulbs and flashing colored lights illuminating pictures of his offerings – kebabs, knishes, hot dogs and falafel. “I think it’s the hardest job in Times Square,” says the 17-year-old aspiring doctor.

Because of his long hours, she does not get to spend much time with her father – “we barely see him” – so the trek to share an iftar meal takes on added importance.

The call to prayer sounds on his cart’s stereo speakers, and Mr Mohammed turns down the love songs by his favourite Port Said singers that he likes to play.

Donna opens the packed iftar of stuffed zucchini and eggplant, and chicken. Mr Mohammed reaches into his cooler for bottles of homemade apricot juice, and father and daughter break their fasts together.

New York’s halal food cart explosion began in the late 1990s, and can be traced back to three Egyptians who ran a hot dog stand that eventually added halal lamb and chicken over rice to cater to the many taxi drivers who stopped at nearby hotels.

The novel Middle Eastern-style lunch food quickly caught on and the idea spread citywide.

When Mr Mohammed emigrated to the United States four years ago and was looking for work, like many Egyptians before him, he ended up running a halal food cart through word of mouth.

He found someone who owned a permit and rented the cart and a space on a busy midtown pavement. Mr Mohammed soon discovered that the business was governed by unwritten rules and an exploitative cartel of permit holders, mostly Egyptians who had come in the early days, staking out turf and controlling the limited number of permits that are effectively no longer available.

The city put a cap on the number of permits in the 1980s, under pressure from real estate developers and business owners who viewed the carts as a nuisance and an eyesore. Up to 4,000 of the renewable permits were issued by then, and virtually none have been given since.

The city limited the industry, but has done little to ensure that its workers are being treated fairly, allowing an informal and often abusive system to flourish.

“There is a black market for permits because the scarcity allows people to command a very hefty price to illegally rent them out to people who want to work as vendors,” said Matthew Shapiro, an attorney at the Street Vendor Project, a political and legal advocacy group.

Two-year permits that are officially issued for US$200 (Dh734), now command up to $25,000, according to Mr Shapiro and other vendors.

The city only allows vending in certain areas, so there is a premium on space as well. Vendors at an SVP meeting claimed that a block in midtown – public property officially worth nothing and not for sale – was recently “sold” for $140,000.

Mr Mohammed quickly learned the rules of the game. Even though there is no law that gives a permit holder rights to any pavement, he and other vendors say they pay a weekly fee to the person who “owns” the area. For lucrative turf, like Times Square, he pays $300 per week along with a flat fee for renting the cart, to a young man who comes by to collect every Monday.

“If you want to work alone, you cannot, they force you to come to them and ask and they say ‘OK, go work in this place,’” he says. “If you don’t they will make problems.”

He knows because he says he once fell foul of the local cart godfather after refusing to pay $2,000 to remain in a spot he had worked for months.

“They beat someone up and sent him to the police to say ‘Omar did this’.” Mr Mohammed says he eventually settled with the man and the charges were dropped.

In between grilling kebabs and hot dogs, Mr Mohammed runs to a nearby McDonald’s to buy Donna an ice-cream cone, and lights his first cigarette. “Man! 16 hours!” a tour bus operator he knows well yells from down the street.

“Ramadan is very different here. Here you work alone, and on Eid, I don’t go to the masjid, I stay here and work,” Mr Mohammed says.

“Why? If I’m off, my spot will be sold.”

Soon, after the tourists thin out, he will turn off the grill and push his cart across 42nd Street, then down 8th Avenue to 37th, to a garage. He will clean up, get on the subway and head home for a few hours of sleep before fajr prayers and starting his day anew.

“This is life in America,” he says. “It’s a good life, but not easy.”