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A Taste for Halal Meat

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

For three hours, Imad Rababe helped slit the throats of more than 100 goats and lambs at his white cinderblock slaughterhouse near Hagerstown, murmuring a quick blessing to Allah with each flick of his sharpened knife then immediately hoisting the animals by their feet on hooks to drain the blood.

It's a tough business, Rababe said. Turnover is high among his eight employees, most of them Muslim immigrants who could not find other jobs. In addition to teaching them the Islamic style of slaughter, Rababe must also shop for livestock, drum up business, track orders and collect payments -- often using his limited English to communicate with customers who do not speak Arabic.

But as the Washington area's Muslim population grows, so do Rababe's moneymaking opportunities. Because the Koran instructs mankind to eat meat that is "halal," the Arabic word for lawful, devout Muslims are willing to pay a premium for the type of product Rababe sells at his Hamzah Slaughter House LLC in Williamsport.

These days, more than 140 of the region's restaurants and grocery stores advertise themselves as halal, according to Zabihah.com, a Web site that posts reviews of halal food establishments across the country. When Rababe, a native of Lebanon, arrived in the United States in 1978, only a few did. Now at least three major halal meat suppliers serve the region, including Rababe, who says he slaughters 500 to 700 animals a week for his wholesale and retail customers.

"Look, I'm not from Harvard. I have no high school education, no nothing," said Rababe, a practicing Muslim who learned the trade from his father in Lebanon. "But this is the business I know best. It serves the Muslim community, and it makes me financially comfortable."

The fledgling halal business remains far less established than the kosher trade, its Jewish cousin, and there are no reliable estimates of how much halal meat is sold in the Washington area. But it is no longer relegated to traditional kabob houses or ethnic grocery stores either, as new immigrants and others seek out products consistent with their religious practice.

Pizza Roma in College Park serves pizzas with halal meat toppings, and Double A Burgers & Shakes in Springfield Mall offers "homemade, halal burgers hot off the grill." Some Giant Food and Shoppers Food Warehouse stores stock frozen halal chicken nuggets and other products from Al Safa Halal Inc. in Canada. Even the White House does its part, ordering halal for visiting Muslim dignitaries.

"For decades we conformed because we really didn't have much choice" when it came to meeting Islamic dietary needs, said Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a nonprofit group in Chicago that certifies halal meat. "That's changing."

Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida, owner of Halalco Supermarket in Falls Church, recalled how he slaughtered his own chickens when he arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, for lack of better options. A decade later, when he started selling meat at Halalco, he scoured the region for a place that would allow him to slaughter animals for his retail customers.

He ended up slaughtering cattle in Baltimore, goats and lambs in Manassas, and chickens near Frederick. But it wasn't an easy sell, he said. Most plants scoffed at disrupting their production lines for a low-volume slaughter that would generate little money for them, Chida said.

"Now there are so many places I trust to do these things for me," Chida said.

In Islam, the Koran bans followers from eating swine, carnivores and birds of prey no matter how they are slaughtered. Muslims are allowed to eat other animals that meet two requirements, said Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady of Dar al-Taqwa mosque in Columbia: They must be slaughtered from their necks, and the name of Allah, the Arabic word for God, must be mentioned as the animals are killed.


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