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Kansas City halal markets offer Muslims a space to gather and feast during Ramadan

Interior photo of a grocery store checkout counter. One woman stands at left while two other people, a man and a woman bag her groceries.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Rashid Khalaf (rear center) checking out one of his Ramadan customers at the Shahrazad International Market in Overland Park near the intersection of 126th and Metcalf Avenue. She said she likes the halal market because "it's one of the only stores in the region that carries Persian items."

Muslims worldwide celebrate Ramadan every year by fasting from sunup to sundown, and then breaking bread with friends and family at the end of each day. Halal markets help feed believers by providing hard-to-get supplies from around the globe and offering discount prices to those who need them during the monthlong celebration.

The significant increase in business during the holy month of Ramadan, when an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, reminds Rashid Khalaf of other holidays ingrained in American culture.

“Ramadan for us is like Christmas. The weekend before Ramadan is like Black Friday,” he said. “People start shopping for Ramadan for basically two weeks or maybe a little bit more.”

Khalaf, a Palestinian born in the holy city of Jerusalem, has owned and operated Shahrazad International Market in Overland Park, Kansas, since 2011. He knows preparation is key before one of the most significant holidays on the Islamic calendar.

“The main things (customers buy), we have it in stock earlier, like probably two months earlier,” Khalaf said. “So we get more stuff for Ramadan than other days of the year.”

Khalaf, 61, has worked in halal markets and Middle Eastern restaurants like Westport’s Jerusalem Cafe, since coming to the United States in the early 1980s.

Halal is a dietary law derived from Islamic teachings of the Quran. When translated into English, it means “lawful or permitted” and in Islam is opposite to the word "haram," which means “forbidden.”

Interior photo of a grocery store glass case filled with halal meat. In front of it are rows of bagged pita bread sitting in red crates.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Inside the Olive Cafe Halal Market where fresh halal meats are on display for the thousands of customers who frequent the store during the month of Ramadan. Khalid Mansir said customers come from across the Midwest "mainly for the pita bread" made fresh daily.

In order for meat to be deemed halal, the animal must be blessed with the word of God before its slaughtered — with an emphasis on a quick and painless death to minimize suffering and to maintain the dignity of the animal. Khalaf said it's just one of the many cultural traditions emphasized during this month of prayer.

“We sell a lot of chicken. We sell dessert stuff like semolina. We really have to have Jello's for Ramadan, creams and cheeses. We (sell) kataifi. They use (it) a lot to make a famous sweet for Ramadan called kunafa,” he said.

Islam is the religious majority in around 49 countries globally, making it one of the most diverse faiths worldwide. In the Greater Kansas City area, an estimated 35,000 Muslims will observe Ramadan until the end of next week, according to the Kansas chapter of CAIR, a nonprofit and America’s largest Muslim advocacy and civil rights organization.

So, he has a keen understanding of the essential role markets like his play in supporting the Islamic community during the holiday. The many shelves and freezers in Khalaf’s small market reflect that.

“We get a lot of stuff from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine. Believe it or not we get stuff from Bahrain or Kuwait, and even Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria,” he said. “We start actually a little bit earlier because a lot of products (will) go out of stock.”

Khalaf’s customers aren't only from the greater Kansas City area. He says Muslim families may travel hundreds of miles to get what they need for the holy month.

“We have people coming here from two hours away. Like Manhattan, Kansas, (and) Lawrence, Kansas. Some people come from Pittsburgh, Kansas, and Warrensburg, (Missouri). We (even) had people come from Hays, Kansas, all the way to the borders of Colorado,” he said.

A 'third place' for Muslims

The Olive Cafe has been a staple in south Kansas City, supporting Missouri’s growing Islamic community for more than two decades.

Khalid Mansir is the son of one of the owners and he said the family got into the business in the aftermath of 9/11. He said as shipping costs skyrocketed, it became unprofitable to run the chain of Dollar Stores they used to own.

Mansir, a Palestinian-American born in Independence, said his father then decided to "take the few bucks he had" and move his family close to their community and open a restaurant and grocery store.

“(He wanted his) kids to grow up in the community and build a bond with the people and (we can) serve the community and give them somewhere to go eat clean, halal food and (get) groceries,” he said.

The 37-year-old baker, cook, and self-proclaimed “jack of all trades” has helped his father and uncles run the halal meat market, grocer, bakery, and restaurant on and off for about 15 years. It's in a small strip mall near the intersection of James A. Reed and Bannister roads.

He admits restaurant sales dip significantly during Ramadan due to the day-long fast. But he said people flock to his store from as far as Nebraska and Arkansas to stock up on hard-to-find specialty items from overseas.

“They come mainly for the pita bread,” Mansir said, covered in flour from helping run the bakery that makes fresh pastries and bread daily. “I would say rice and bread are probably two (of the) biggest things we sell (during Ramadan). Maybe yogurt. Dates are a big one … and coffee is another big one.”

A man in a blue skullcap and cream colored quarter zip fleece reaches for a date on a plate of dates. Several other men and boys are in the room.
Lawrence Brooks IV
Muslims arrive at the community iftar at the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City on Saturday, March 16, during the month of Ramadan. Dates are referred to as "the fruit of paradise" and are a staple during the holy month.

Dates are the fruit from the date palm tree. They’re significant to Islamic tradition because it's what the Prophet Mohammed ate to break his fast before and after prayer during Ramadan.

Community and charity are also central to the Ramadan holiday, mandated by the Five Pillars of Islam, and the both traditions are meant to extend beyond the people who practice Islam.

“You don't have to be Muslim, we give back to all communities, all faiths, all creeds,” Mansir said. “If you're homeless or if you're in a battered women's shelter, (which we) go to a lot of and send food and aid. We work with the churches in the community, too,” he said.

Mansir said that some of Kansas City’s new Muslim immigrants may come from war-torn countries, and have no family or support network in the region. For them, he said the cafe provides much more than a good clean halal meal or products.

“A lot of them need help. So, we'll try and find them a place to stay. If they don't know good English, we'll try and get them to go to Longview to take English classes or just give them good advice to help them get on their feet,” he said.

Mansir also said that since the Olive Cafe first opened its doors for business, it has helped support one of the largest Muslim institutions in the metro, the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City. Especially since some of their busiest weeks are during the holy month of Ramadan.

“On Eid, we throw a big breakfast after the morning prayers on the holiday. They all come and we make a huge feast at the mosque usually every year,” he said.

Eid al-Fitr, is the final day of Ramadan and marks the end of fasting.

Backbone of the community

Fadi Banyalmarjeh manages the Islamic Society’s daily operations. He said it is a massive undertaking during Ramadan to feed so many people in the community and the support of the local halal markets is essential, particularly to iftars, or the daily breaking of fasts.

The iftar occurs each night at sundown with prayers and big family dinners.

A row of men, left, line up with plates to be served in a buffet style line by other men who are dishing out the food.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Members of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City off of 99th and James A. Reed Road line up for the feast during one of the nine community iftars held in the center's gym during the month off Ramadan. More than 400 Muslim brothers, sisters and families from across the Kansas City metro and beyond attended.

“This year we have so many people sponsoring community iftars, every Friday and Saturday of this month, we fed about 400 people,” he said.

Banyalmarjeh, 55, said it’s also part of Islamic tradition for a single Muslim family or individual to pay for the community iftars — anonymously.

“A very famous saying in Islam is whatever you spend in your right hand, your left hand should not know that,” Banyalmarjeh said. “(But) most Muslims become super spiritual in Ramadan. And with that, they can become super generous, also. And they increase their giving.”

The Islamic Society’s sprawling campus is not only a mosque, but a full-time Islamic school, day care and pre-school. Also, it provides funeral services and youth programs for the hundreds of Muslims from across the globe who have joined their congregation in Kansas City.

“Some countries like Pakistan or India or in the Middle East, (like) Syria or Egypt, we have by the hundreds. But in some smaller countries, we still will have representation in our congregation,” he said.

After the daily and community iftars, the final prayers of Isha and Taraweeh are given by two traveling imams from Canada. Banyalmarjeh said the two brothers, who are under the age of 25, are an inspiration to the youth of the Islamic Society.

Two men are shown inside an ornate room. Both are wearing traditional Islamic clothing.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Nabeel Salahudeen (left) and Fadi Banyalmarjeh (right) walking from the minbar in the mosque after Salahudeen gave the fourth or The Maghrib prayer at sunset during the community iftar on Sat. March 16 at the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City. Salahudeen is a traveling Imam who is originally from Canada, but goes to school in England for professional Islamic studies.

“They are devoted to Islam, and they mobilized the Quran at a young age,” he said. “They come completely free of charge. They just do it for the love of Islam (and) come and lead the prayers with us in the month of Ramadan.”

The mosque also hosts fundraisers for people affected by the war in Gaza. Banyalmarjeh, who is originally from Syria, said that this Ramadan feels different for Muslims, regardless of nationality.

“When I have a nice meal at the end of the day, I know that (the) people of Gaza, they're having animal feed for iftar, if even that,” he said. “Some areas in Gaza don't even have that anymore.”

Two men stand in an ornate room amongst other men who are sitting on the floor. both men are wearing Islamic garb. One man, left, has a microphone attached to his shirt.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Mohammed Odah (left) and Fadi Banyalmarjeh (right) stand in the front of the mosque at the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City on Sat. March 16 to hold the nightly fundraiser after the community iftar to support their Palestinian family and friends trapped in Gaza.

Back at Shahrazad Market, Rashid Khalaf also feels this year’s pain deeply. He said his twin sister is still trapped in Gaza.

“We don't really enjoy dinner,” he said, his voice breaking up with emotion and tears falling down his cheeks. “We don't really feel good eating while we know that they are suffering and they just don't have even like water sometimes.”

Despite the despair, Khalaf, who is a member of the Islamic Center of Johnson County, said he is proud to be able to provide some stability during Ramadan for his fellow Muslims in Kansas City and America.

“If they ever host dinners or anything, I just give them discounts when they ask for dates. Sometimes we give them (a) little extra stuff (or) like the base or nonprofit price,” Khalaf said. “Whenever they ask us, we help them. We don't ever decline to help the community because we feel like we serve them just like they help us pay our bills.”

Corrected: April 4, 2024 at 10:43 AM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported the time of year during which Ramadan occurs. It has since been corrected.
As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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