Wine Challenge Brazil Muslim Restaurants
By Afif Sarhan, IOL Correspondent
The manager of a Habib branch in Sao Paulo says 90 percent of customers are Brazilians and at least 65 percent of them order alcohol with food.
[This is part of a series of special features prepared by our correspondent during a visit to Brazil]
SAO PAULO — Hundreds of Arab food restaurants can be found across Brazil, especially in cities where the Arab community has grown over the years.
They do not only serve Brazilians of Arab and Muslim backgrounds but in most cases, the regular clients are non-Arabs, non-Muslims.
Although Islam forbids Muslims from drinking or even selling alcohol, at least 95 percent of all Arab restaurants and fast food shops serve a variety of drinks, mainly beer and spirits.
"We don’t have a choice. Our business would close in Brazil if we stop selling them," says Ali Mounir, 42, the owner of Callif Restaurant in Sao Paulo, the capital of the southeastern Brazilian state of Sao Paulo.
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"I know it is against my religion but I have to survive in this country and just ask daily forgiveness from God," he adds.
"When I first opened my restaurant I didn’t sell any kind of alcoholic beverage but it was hard to continue with my business because clients wanted to have their favorite drinks," recalls Mounir.
"So, after a long and hard thinking, I agreed to sell it."
Habib's Restaurant and Fast Food is the second largest fast food chain in Brazil.
Paulo Guilherme, the manager of a Habib branch in Sao Paulo, says 90 percent of customers are Brazilians and at least 65 percent of them order alcohol beverages with their food.
According to the last census of 2001, there are 27,239 Muslims in Brazil. However, the Islamic Brazilian Federation puts the number at around one million and a half.
The majority of Muslims are descendants of Syrian, Palestinians and Lebanese immigrants who settled in Brazil in the nineteenth century during the World War I and in the 1970s.
Many Iraqis have arrived in Brazil since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Most Muslims live in the states of Parana, Goias, Riod de Janiero and Sao Paulo, but there are also significant communities in Mato Grosso do Sul and Rio Grande do Sul.
Abdallah Tayfour, 45, who owns another restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, thinks he has found a way to keep his business while not taking the alcohol income for himself.
"I have a partner at my restaurant and mini-supermarket who is Brazilian. The drinks that are sold are acquired by him and all income goes to his pocket while I just share the food and market items income," he told IOL.
"I had been in the restaurant business since I was in Syria and don’t know anything else in my life," he notes.
"In Brazil, it is quite impossible not to sell alcohol beverages and to avoid angering God, I chose this way to keep my hands safe from forbidden drinks."
However, for Sheik Samir Omar, the imam of Rahman Mosque in Sao Paulo, there is no alternative concerning alcohol and selling it inside one's restaurant, even if the income goes to someone else.
"God is clear in his position towards alcohol," he told IOL.
"A true Muslim should find alternatives in western countries but not make a cover and sell it because Brazilians will buy his food because of the alcohol and he will be indirectly selling the product," he maintains.
"Sao Paulo is a cosmopolitan city and there are thousands of people who would have interest for their food without the need of alcohol. They have to obey God’s law and don’t claim excuses in the religion that doesn’t exist."
There are ten mosques in Sao Paulo, including the Mosque Brazil in the city center, the first mosque built in Latin America whose construction began in 1929.
There are mosques in all the major capitals of the states and some cities in the interior.
The owner of Beduin’s Restaurant in the capital Brasilia refused expansion offers provided that he agrees to serve alcohol.
Mounir's wife, Layla Jomaa, opposes his decision to serve alcoholics and has since stopped helping him at the restaurant.
"I feel that whatever I touch at the restaurant now is haram," she complains.
"I feel like I’m surviving from money that comes from a forbidden alcohol and I prefer at least to stay away from this place," adds the wife.
"This has been the cause of many disagreements with Mounir."
Anis Rassi, a Lebanese Muslim owner of Beduin’s Restaurant in the capital Brasilia, received many proposals to expand and open new branches countrywide.
"I had many opportunities to improve my business but preferred to stay with my small shop," he told IOL.
"The main condition was that I had to start selling alcohol and it was enough reason for me to keep running my two-door shop serving only cold alcohol-free beverages and juices," he stressed.
"I have been living in this friendly country since I was 20. I was always respected by the local community. I raised my children according to my religion and never accepted alcohol in my home even for millions of dollars. I will never accept to feed them from haram money," insists Rassi.
"I prefer to serve grape juice instead of wine, milk-shakes rather than beer and sleep at night with a clear conscious that even while living thousands of miles from my home country, I'm still able to follow my God’s commands."