Bobby Musker and Grace Zelle
“And Allah said, ‘Do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer…”
Mohammed Bozai is a devoted Sunni Muslim who does not need these familiar words from the The Holy Quran (book 4, verse 13) deciphered. What perplexes him is that his countrymen are spilling blood in the name of this divine doctrine. But not on Devon Avenue.
“Pakistan is a very sad topic,” he said as he shook his head. “In our lifetime I guarantee you it won’t get resolved.”
Some 7,000 miles from Pakistan is what’s referred to as Chicago’s “Little India.” Here one will encounter strong concentrations of Indian Americans, Pakistani Americans, Iraqi Americans and others. Portions of Devon in this area have been renamed in honor of Golda Meir, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, respectively.
Bozai not only lives peacefully amongst these groups, most notably Shia Muslims: the group blamed for attacks on the minority Shias, he serves them as well.
“I can tell what region [the customers] are from by what they order,” he said. “If they order something with a lot of spices I know they’re from the south of India.”
Ghareeb Nawaz has been his family-owned and -operated restaurant since 1994. It lies at the beginning of Little India’s corridor on Devon Avenue. It had humble beginnings in the back of a grocery store where his mother sold biryani for two dollars. It has now expanded to serve over 70 items.
In 1990, he moved from Karachi, Pakistan, to the Chicago-land area where he adapted well to the Northwest suburban community of Niles.
“I never felt discrimination here,” he recalled. “I never felt any backlash from anybody.”
And while Bozai has never felt the pangs of religious intolerance here in the States, he laments over the conflict in Pakistan as well as his inability to have a dialogue about it.
“The last thing I discuss with customers is religion and politics. It’s a very touchy subject for people,” he said.
Bozai’s impression over the conflict in his homeland is that it’s about fundamental convictions other than religion.
“Muslims are killing Muslims for a political seat,” he explained. “And the issues are getting bigger.”
While there is peace and cooperation between Sunnis and Shias on Devon, overseas in the Middle East and South Asia the situation is building. At the time this article was being written, the Sunni militant group ISIS was warring with Shias and secular governments in Iraq. Pakistan was also experiencing conflicts between militant groups of different sects.
Dr. Gunes M. Tezcur, associate professor of Islamic Studies at Loyola University Chicago, believes that the disparity between the cooperation on Devon, and the conflict overseas is due to the power at stake within the religious disputes.
“People are more likely to fight when they feel their identity is under threat, or their access to economic resources and social mobility is hindered by other groups,” Tezcur said. “The American system provides avenues of social mobility for many immigrants and Sunnis do not need to overcome Shiites to achieve prosperity, education and good life, or vice versa.”
The first Indian business to open on Devon Ave was the World Fresh Market, which opened its doors in 1984.
An employee of the World Fresh Market and resident in the neighborhood commented on the futility of the situation in his homeland. But due to the sensitive nature of the feuding religious factions, he didn’t reveal his name, but admitted that he was a practicing Sunni.
“People are getting killed for nothing,” he said. “There are rules [in America], back home there is no government, just gangs.”
Bozai shares a similar perspective with the professor when he suggests that these are dark days for his native land.
“It was a beautiful place, now it’s corrupted by its people, gangs, money and power,” he replied.
Bozai cannot help but be mentally engrossed in these issues of injustice and suffering as it’s the beginning of Ramadan; the ninth month of the Muslim year during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset. He’s an active participant in these all-day fasts, including the increased offering of salat (prayers) and recitation of the Quran. And the purpose of these practices, he explains, is to observe a fraction of what the destitute experience daily.
“Only the poor suffer,” Bozai said, further explaining that these are the folks who are effected the most by the Middle East conflict. “Anywhere you go, they don’t ever have a say.”