In 2004, I moved into a newly constructed Townhouse apartment on 117th Street and Lenox Avenue. It was one of eight homes that had been recently built to shelter the new wave of middle class professionals and I was one of them. As a teacher and the author of several books, I could afford to pay the high rent but unlike the White gentrifiers that received the rolled eyes and sighs when they walked down the street, I could blend right in. At that time, there were not enough new Harlemites to affect the culture of the neighborhood so life continued on as usual despite the occasional nervous chit-chat about the approaching invasion. People looked forward to fresher produce and faster ambulance response times (a common sentiment expressed in “911 is a joke” by Public Enemy) but they were not looking forward to being priced out or forced to change the way they socialize. Like one man said to me at the laundromat “You know they get all shook and call the police when they see more than three of us having fun outside”. I didn’t bother telling him I grew up in midtown manhattan but I understood what he was talking about from my experience hanging out with friends that were not from Hell’s Kitchen.
So, here I was a covert member of a hostile takeover but as such I was able to eat locks and bagels at the gentrifiers enclaves AND mingle with the native population. Most of my interactions with locals happened at Arab bodegas (corner stores) which functioned also as defacto social clubs. I knew two of the Yemeni’s that ran them from my time as a Belly dancer and from frequenting Hookah lounges in Astoria so I was instantly welcomed into the fold.
It was only three years post 911 and due to rampant Islamophobia, Black neighborhoods (according to the Yemenis I spoke to) were the only places no one cared about their ethnicity or religion. They didn’t have to display an American flag somewhere near the store or answer ignorant and/or offensive questions so they felt safe. Historically, African Americans have a relationship with Islam (people forget Kunta Kinte arrived on these shores a Muslim) and most have Muslims in their families, some going back as far as the 1920’s as followers of Noble Drew Ali. Islamic teachings were also very prominent in rap lyrics during the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Thus, Harlem and Black Brooklyn were and still are referred to by many people of my generation as “Mecca” and “Medina” by those that still speak the lingo.
Though Harlem is predominantly Christian, few felt conflicted when the wave of Muslim West African immigrants settled near and around Mosque number 7 (founded by Malcolm X in the 1960s) or when the Islamic call to prayer boomed from the Masjid four times a day. My apartment was around the corner from Mosque #7 so I got the full impact of the Muezzin’s soulful petitions to Allah at 5am in the morning but it didn’t bother me one bit. In fact, I appreciated it because the man had a beautiful voice and I knew it was only a matter of time before he would be silenced by the new people moving into the area and he was.
After two years of living in Harlem, I still had not socialized at the bodega after dark but one humid summer evening I decided to take up a friendly woman’s offer (I’ll call her “Keisha”) to chill with her and a few friends. They were all sitting in front of their building laughing, talking and listening to music with a bunch of children playing tag nearby. That’s when I noticed that Keisha and her friend’s children looked different than the others. They were brown but not “our” brown, with thick dark eyebrows and curly brown hair. Their smile was the same as the Yemeni store owners. I raised an eyebrow at Keisha and Tanya while I blew a puff of smoke from my clove cigarette into the air and they laughed. Keisha waved her hand at me “Whatever bougie girl, everyone knows wassup with these bodega babies. Get your sand dating on!” and laughed while giving a high five to Tanya. My jaw hit the ground.
Keisha and Tanya let me know that these Arab-Black romances were an unspoken of city wide phenomenon that had been going on for awhile now. They knew that the Arab men had wives either in their country or in their own neighborhoods far away from them somewhere in the five boroughs but they didn’t care. Apparently, all Tanya wanted was “free shit” and economic stability for herself and her children since “Ahmad” tended to be quite generous. He got hot sex, a break from his boring wife and a place to go where he could drink alcohol or smoke weed, which is taboo in his religion. Keisha on the other hand was actually in love with “her man” Dawoud and even converted to Islam but she made it clear to him she would never wear a “moomoo” or cover her head. She said she had no desire to marry Dawoud because she was just happy to finally have a stable relationship and know where her man was at all times. When Dawoud wasn’t with his other family, he was working at the store with her children’s uncles. She proudly mentioned that she sees him WAY more than the wife does and “gets it” better than she does too. Dawoud pays the rent, showers her with gifts, the children are well cared for and she wants for nothing. Keisha and Tanya do not have to worry about being eventually priced out of the neighborhood or being left alone to raise their children and they felt great about that. Keisha even said that her daughter would probably be “bougie” like me one day and she hoped that would be the case. I hung out for a few hours and I saw the father of Tanya’s children and “brother in laws” playing with the kids or handing out snacks whenever business was slow or they were on a break. None of this happened during the daytime as suppliers that may know their other families may report what they had seen.
When I returned to work in Brownsville in the Fall, I asked my H.S. seniors if they were aware of the “Bodega baby” phenomenon and they admitted they were. Though they said the Arab men in their area were more likely just to take “Hood Girls” as lovers for a very short time before they moved on. It made perfect sense since many of the men’s legitimate families were in the borough and not too far away from where their mistresses lived.
I no longer live in Harlem but I still visit often to patronage my favorite stores and restaurants. As I boarded the #3 train yesterday from “Medina” to “Mecca”, my best friend told me the “Sand dating” phenomenon was still going strong. I wonder how many other amazing stories are not being told about the people that live, love and work in Gotham City.
Image: Tayannah McQuillar
Tayannah McQuillar is a writer and the Founder of Demimonde Public Relations (www.demimondepr.com) @demimondepr