Bodega Cats Grab Back

Inside the Yemeni Bodega Strike

Thursday, February 2. Out of the subway at around 5:15 p.m. Which way to the protest? This kid from Queens doesn’t go to Brooklyn unless he has to. On Thursday, I had to. As the son of Yemeni immigrant bodega owners who raised a family of nine in New York City, I know that what’s happening today is a big deal. Yemenis closing their businesses to gather in a show of political protest? That just doesn’t happen. First of all, Yemenis don’t stop working — not even during the so-called “super storms” that have shut down the city that never sleeps. Second, we were not raised to be politically active. You get what you want by working hard and saving your coins. Blood, sweat, and pastrami on rye — no time for tears. Besides, even if we did speak out, who would listen to us?

Turns out, a lot more people than I thought. I had no time to be disoriented — the sound of Qur’anic verses bellowing through the streets of Downtown Brooklyn illuminated the path. Turn the first corner — wow, lots of white people came to the Yemeni Bodega Strike! And not just for the exotic instagram hashtags — they made signs and everything. For now, they stand quietly on the periphery, gazes fixed on something. Keep following the sound. Slowly slip past the timid observers, and then, there they are — over 2,000 people, mostly Yemeni, men and women of all ages, heads bowed, united in body and spirit during salaat al-maghreb, the sunset prayer. The square in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall is packed to the brim. I stand just past the perimeter, and notice that rows of worshippers have taken shape around every would-be obstruction –lamp posts, trees, TV news vans, and groups of non-Muslim supporters, mystified but transfixed in humble regard.

Me, I don’t pray much, pretty rarely in fact. I take the crowd’s general preoccupation as an opportunity to find a better position. I weave through carefully so as not to directly cross someone praying, as tradition mandates. A minute in, the prayer ends, and so I begin to advance more rapidly. But suddenly the rows begin to re-form, sealing me in. The next prayer is starting. I turn around, and the man behind me, holding my gaze, points to the empty spot that has opened up right in front of me, and with a nod of his head, tells me that it is mine to fill.

It came back so quickly. I stood there, arms crossed, shoulder to shoulder, mouthing the words, kneeling and prostrating in unison, foreheads flush against the frozen ground as if we were holding it down with the gravity of our very presence; this rare communion, weighted by the anxiety, anger, and stubborn determination that we’ve come to bear. To be there, having taken over a major thoroughfare during the evening rush to engage in ritual prayer, and be able to hear the sound of a bird settling on a branch as the usually harried throng stands sentry around you… it was a reminder of how much stronger we are when we act together.

I understood right then that the man was right. This exact spot, on this day, was mine to fill.

The program starts even though the din and discord never really ends. I suspected as much — get that many Yemenis together and you’re only a few hookahs short of a party. Still, an inspiring array of diverse municipal, religious, and civilian community leaders took the mic to pledge their allegiance to the cause of all New Yorkers in the face of the discriminatory travel ban imposed by Donald Trump. It’s not just refugees who are affected; this wasn’t just a plea for charity. Countless American citizens have been working for years in the hopes of uniting with parents, spouses, and children here, in their adopted homeland, the place they’ve thought of as the land of the free. These days, their faith in that axiom is being tested. We’ve always faced discrimination, but what was once radical has since become normalized, even promoted, by a government with a grim definition of what it means to be a patriot.

But the protest that’s been dubbed “the Bodega Strike” left one thing certain — we aren’t going down without a fight. We’ve been here too long, worked too hard, given too much. We are loud, proud Americans, and the relentless chants of “U.S.A!” that cut through the night air were amplified by a conviction so pure that anyone who didn’t know it before would be sure to know it now.

The struggle to defend our rights and regain trust will be a long and arduous one. But we are up for the challenge. This is our home. It always has been. And yet we stand to lose it, as our loyalty is constantly questioned. However, one immediate impact of the strike is that New Yorkers have finally realized just how many Yemeni neighbors they have. So the next time I introduce myself as a Yemeni-American, don’t say you’ve never met one before. Because you have. A thousand times. For every New Yorker there is a Yemeni-American who knows just how you take your morning coffee, what cigarettes you smoke, and what scratch-offs you play. They know about your kids, because you always talk about them. They know you work the late shift, because when you arrive at the bodega at 2 a.m., they are open, faithfully serving you during that brief pause from the grind of chasing your dreams in the land of opportunity.

They’ve learned all this about you. And somehow, remarkably, they always seem to remember.

On Thursday, when they shut down their businesses and protested in demand of their civil rights, they asked their neighbors to learn something about them: that while working behind the counter, all day, every day, they are chasing their dreams too.

Will you remember?

In case anyone forgets, we will be sure to remind you. Because, as one sign put it best: bodega cats grab back.