Fallout Shelter | Feature | Chicago Reader

Fallout Shelter 

Muslim Cabbies Take Refufe in a Near North Side Restaurant.

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On Friday afternoon, as the clock rounds one, a man named Abdul begins pushing aside tables in the dining room of Zaiqa, a cabdrivers' restaurant on Chestnut and Orleans. He unspools dingy gray mats and red rugs with Oriental designs. Today is the Muslim sabbath, and the little prayer rooms in the basement won't be able to hold all the worshipers.

At a quarter past, the metal-barred front door bangs open every few seconds. Cabbies enter in twos and threes, chatting in Urdu. They rush to the basement sink to rinse their hands and faces. Sneakers, boots, and loafers pile up in a corner. The men bow and stretch, like athletes warming up.

At half past, a voice from the ceiling loudspeaker calls out the opening words of the afternoon prayer. "Allahu Akbar!" cries the imam for the day, in ululating, singsong Arabic. He's in the basement, but his words sound as remote as a bus-station announcement. "Ala-aa-hu A-aa-kbar!"

God is great, he chants. God is the greatest.

After the ten-minute prayer, Mohammed, a 36-year-old driver from Morocco, sits down with a Styrofoam cup of sweet tea. On another afternoon, he might have stopped his cab at the east end of Wacker and unrolled a mat on the pavement. That was before September 11.

"I used to pray wherever I am," Mohammed says. "But now, because people are not friendly, I try not to pray in public. Someone might have something against you."

Zaiqa (the word means "taste" in Urdu) is the busiest of the cabdriver hangouts hidden among the better-known destinations of downtown Chicago. It's a mosque, an Islamic library, a rest stop, a social center, a job referral agency, and a restaurant serving spicy curries and biryanis, Pakistani comfort food that meets the standard of halal, Muslim dietary law for meat. When you're a Muslim driving downtown, and you don't have much time to eat, it's either a place like Zaiqa or a McDonald's Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

"By virtue of our food, religious beliefs, cleaning, we have almost beaten everyone," boasts the owner, Altaf Memon, who wears a black Nehru jacket and a gray beard. Open 24 hours a day, except during Ramadan, his restaurant is "a mini-Pakistan," he says, but it also draws Somalians, Nigerians, Jordanians, Bangladeshis, Palestinians, Saudis, Afghans, Indians--a pan-Islamic clientele. He sells them phone cards, cigarettes, betel nuts, and "pan," the betel leaf mixture that cabbies chew like gum. He posts a five-faced clock, showing the times of every prayer from dawn to bedtime, and provides a bulletin board, which is flyered with messages: "CAB IS NEEDED FOR WEEKENDS," "MEDALLION FOR SALE, CALL NAIMAT," "NEED DAY TIME DRIVER."

"People get together where they feel like they are having their own people," Memon explains. "Like Mexicans, they eat in their Mexicans restaurant. The gay goes to the bar which is a gay bar."

Memon, who was a lawyer in Pakistan, drove a cab here for 13 years, raising a family of five in a one-bedroom apartment on the north side. Then he hit the cabbie's jackpot, winning a medallion in the city lottery. A few years ago, he sold it for $42,000, which he used to buy Zaiqa with two partners. Now he presides here during the night shift--for cabbies, that's five in the evening to five in the morning.

Though Memon comes from a distinguished legal family--his father was an assistant prosecutor in the Sind province--he's not bitter about his years of grunt work in America. He would have loved to study law here, but "if I would have been a full-time student, then God bless five children." All his sons and daughters were honor students at Mather or Senn high schools, and all went on to earn college scholarships "because they are brilliant geniuses."

"America has not disappointed me," Memon says. "I have worked 13 years in cab, day and night, 18 hours, 17 hours, 16 hours a day. Otherwise, my children would have been back home doing a job for $150 a month, if they were lucky enough to get through the computer training."

Those still doing their time behind the wheel speak of cab driving with less gratitude. Almost every cabbie--even those who have been on the job for 30 years--would rather be doing something else. Many want to save enough money to study computer programming. Some want to open jewelry stores or grocery stores. Driving is a grind that reduces life to three elements: work, food, and sleep. There's no time or money for hobbies or movies. You spend exactly half your life driving, so you can make enough money to feed your family and pay the taxi lease.

"If I work seven days, I don't take any day off, 12 hour every day, I am able to make $400," says Sagheer, 33, who's also from Pakistan. "When I'm done, it feels like 'go to sleep.' My wife says, 'You don't even walk.' I get home and watch TV. Everybody feels like we kind of machine. My wife always says, 'Just quit the cab.' I can't take any day off. My wife is pissed."

Sagheer tried quitting the cab last year to take a job at a grocery in Mundelein. But the commute was too long, and "the guy was using me too many hours," so he went back behind the wheel. He doesn't have health insurance: his wife recently suffered a miscarriage, and now he has to pay the $1,400 hospital bill out of his pocket. Business has been bad since the attack on the World Trade Center. For the two days that flights were grounded, cabbies couldn't go to the airport, so they desperately drove around the Loop, fishing for fares. It's recovered a little since then, but Sagheer finds himself driving longer hours just to take home his $400.

"We cannot save any money," he laments. "I tried to save $2,000 in three years; I have saved none. The money is to get food on the table--that's it."

One driver who seems content with the work is Imad, a 35-year-old Indian. Scrupulously religious, he wears a beard, skullcap, and loose-fitting clothes. Memon calls Imad "60 percent scholar" and respects his religious knowledge so much he allows him to serve as imam for some prayers. Most of the other cabbies wear jeans, slacks, and leather jackets, but Imad believes that's unacceptable in Islam, which he sees as a religion that instructs believers in every aspect of life. For Imad, cab driving is a virtuous occupation because it offers no conflicts with Islam. That's why Muslims dominate the field, he says.

"There are a lot of things we cannot do as a Muslim, so in cab driving we have that latitude," says Imad, who speaks with barely an accent, the result of attending Catholic schools in Malta. "If you worked in a gas station, you would have to sell beer, you would have to sell lottery tickets. Muslims can't work in a bank, because it's against our religion to loan money at interest. We can't work in an establishment that sells alcohol or pork, or a place where there is nudity or obscenity, like a nightclub. Also, when you drive a cab, you have the freedom to pray."

Imad moved to Chicago in 1997, after years of working in rural areas, because he wanted to live in a city where he could practice Islam to the fullest.

"I came here because I wanted to be more observant," he says. "There's more of an atmosphere here. One of the things that actually led me to become more serious about Islam was the death of Tupac Shakur. I despise rap music, but his death was so talked about that you couldn't help thinking about it. It made me reflect: here's a young man enjoying all the fruits of life, and now he's dead. It made me reflect on if I died tomorrow, how would I account for my life?"

Within the walls of Zaiqa, Imad is admired for his devotion. But he--and everyone else here--realizes that the world outside has become less tolerant of Islam since September 11. On the morning the World Trade Center was attacked, "there was an undercurrent of tension, people were all hush-hush," Imad says. "Everyone was praying it wasn't a Muslim."

But it was. Now some worry that Imad's traditional dress will make him a target for religious bigots. Imad, in turn, is advising his friends not to hang out on street corners, a popular pastime back home. Most of these cabbies still want to see proof that Osama bin Laden was behind the attack. But if he was, they agree, he should be hunted down and punished.

"When they bombed New York City, they were innocent people," says Amal, who was born in Afghanistan. "When I heard about it, I was in Pakistan. I said, 'They bombed my country.' Whoever did it is a sonofabitch."

These cabbies say they're taking a lot of abuse for being Muslims. Most of them don't want to reveal their full names. If they sound at all argumentative, they say, they may lose a tip, or even a fare.

"Every day since September 11, something has happened to me," says Shahid, a 24-year-old Pakistani. "On the weekends, when people are drunk, people will get into the cab and say, 'Are you Osama's brother?' How am I supposed to answer that question? It's one of the things that makes me want to get another job.

"People are not treating cabdrivers well. It's getting worse. I myself have experienced a city official at O'Hare calling me a terrorist. I couldn't afford to do anything."

But the cabbies of Zaiqa are used to uniting against a hostile world. Though they're competitors, they trade tips about the hottest spots for business. When a fellow cabbie is killed in a robbery, Zaiqa raises money for his family. The collection for Zaheer Qureshi, murdered this August, amounted to over $6,000. The older cabbies show the young men the ropes, and the holy encourage the secular to be better Muslims.

"The outside world is very alarming for the religious," says Memon. "If you get caught up in those lights and glamour, you are finished."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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