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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Itaewon Islamic Street in Seoul

A consumer shops for fabrics at Step-In, a clothing and fabric shop on Itaewon Islamic Street.
Salam Bakery, a small store on the left side of the road leading toward the Seoul Central Masjid in the Yongsan District, was crowded with customers last Thursday afternoon.

Among those waiting were two Muslim men from Sudan in line to purchase bread and a Korean couple with curious eyes who were gazing at the baklava, bite-sized cakes made with nuts and honey.

“Non-Muslims interested in ethnic food also come to my shop,” said Jinee Jung, who runs the bakery specializing in Syrian-style cakes. “Still, the Muslims living on this street or those who pass through this street to pray at the mosque are my major customers. My bakery sells them halal confectionaries, which Muslims can buy without fear of violating Islamic law.”

“Halal” is an Arabic term that means “permissible” under Islamic law and includes objects or actions. The rules about food are probably the most familiar to non-Muslims.

Among these, the most rigorous rules for food are applied to meat. Halal meat excludes pork and many other sorts of meat and, in addition, requires that rigorous procedures for slaughter be followed, such as a quick killing to minimize the animal’s suffering.

To make the bakery’s halal cakes, animal oil and other animal ingredients are avoided or used sparsely in the bakery’s recipes.

“This is the busiest season for us,” Jung said. “During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk. They tend to eat more pastries and sweets at night than on ordinary days so I will keep the shop open for 24 hours a day during Ramadan, although I will let my chef, who is from Damascus in Syria, rest during the day because he cannot eat or drink during that time.”

Ramadan began on Saturday and continues for about a month.

Across the road from the Salam Bakery stands Salam.com, an electronics store that deals in various electronics goods, including a cell phone with an alarm set to ring for daily prayers.

There are also several travel agencies here, with signs in Korean and Arabic, and sometimes in English.

Further along the street there is a clothing and fabric shop called Step-In, whose Afghan owner welcomes anyone who steps into the store. In front of the store, mannequin heads wearing hijab, or head coverings, and pretty shoes are displayed.

A customer browses through the books at the Islamic Book Center. Lower right: Workers at Salam Bakery put out Syrian and Turkish cakes.By Jeon Min-kyu
One of several grocery stores on the street has a sign that says “We now have halal duck.”

This Islamic world in central Seoul is commonly called Itaewon Islamic street. The street started with a few grocery stores and restaurants selling halal food near the Seoul Central Masjid, the mosque established there in 1976.

Because of the halal food regulations, eating is not an easy job for Muslims in Korea, where the percentage of the Muslim population is not very large.

“I’m nearly becoming a vegetarian, living here,” sighed Shiraz Subeh, an Ewha Womans University student from Palestine. She had come to the Seoul Central Masjid for her daily prayers, which is one of her obligations as a Muslim. The mosque has a separate area where women can pray.

The shops on Itaewon Islamic Street have met the nutritional needs of many Muslims in Korea. There is a butcher selling halal meat next to the entrance of the masjid, as well as several grocery stores and restaurants in the neighborhood.

“We can do our five daily prayers either at the masjid or at home, but I come here from time to time to pray, to meet friends and to shop in the neighboring stores,” Subeh said.

But there is much more here than food.

Subeh and her friend from Kyrgyzstan, Nazik Sultanbekova, who is also studying at Ewha, dropped by the Islamic Book Center to purchase a copy of the Koran in Spanish for a Spanish-speaking friend.

Muneer Ahmad, the bookstore’s chief executive officer, said he opened the store three years ago to increase awareness about Islam among Koreans and the larger foreign population.

“Many people may misunderstand, but Islam emphasizes open-mindedness, tolerance and peace, and many Muslims are open-minded,” he said. “I am from a Muslim family in Kashmir, India, but I have not become a Muslim just because my parents are Muslim. I read the scriptures of various religions and then I decided to be a Muslim.

“I recommend that people do the same to become familiar with the similarities and differences between different religions and to gain a true understanding of them.”

The bookstore has Korean and English translations of the Koran and other Islamic books. For English-speakers interested in studying Arabic there are books written in both English and Arabic.

There are many things to learn on this street. Most of the Muslims here are kind and eager to tell people who ask about Islam. Ahmed, the bookstore owner, and Jang Sun-kyung, who were at the mosque to pray, were two such hospitable folks. Jang, the former head of the female devotees’ group at the masjid, converted to Islam after spending 20 years exploring other religions. Her story is rather unique because, unlike many other Korean converts to Islam, Jang came to Islam without having traveled to the Middle East.

The number of Muslims in Korea is gradually increasing, because more Koreans have become interested in the religion and the culture. The number of workers arriving here from Islamic countries is also increasing. The Korea Muslim Federation, which has its headquarters in the masjid, estimates there are about 35,000 Korean nationals who are Muslim, in addition to the many other Muslims among the foreign population.

Credits: This article was published in JoongAng Daily.

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