Credit: @bengalibelle01 on Instagram
I moved to the United States from Bangladesh (home of the Royal Bengal Tigers) when I was about 11 years old. I have lived in Chicago, Denver, and finally settled in New York. I am now 28 years old and living my best life as a proud Muslim American in Queens, NY. When the lovely Suzanna of HHWT asked me if I would be open to contributing an article about living as a Muslim in the US, I couldn't be more ecstatic. But I was surprised to hear that while some of the HHWT audience are very much interested in visiting the US, they are worried about facing discrimination. Since I identify myself as a New Yorker, I'd like to talk about some of my experiences living here, to hopefully shed light on what it's like being a Muslim (and a hijabi!) in New York and why you shouldn't be afraid to visit this one-of-a-kind city.
It's hard to talk about life in New York without mentioning the food ? Out of all the states I have ever lived in and visited, New York is by far the most diverse place which also means it has a vast choice of cuisines. From Afghani, Bengali, Chinese, Ethiopian, Guyanese, Indian, Korean, Malaysian, Mexican, Moroccan, Yemeni, West African and so many more – we've got it all in New York and the best part is it’s halal! As a Muslim living here, I absolutely have to share on the plethora of food you can look forward to eating in New York. Here's a list of some of my favourite places to eat at:
1.Ravagh Persian Grill
Credit: @son_go_one on Instagram
I go to Ravagh Persian Grill for the best Persian food. My favourite is their lamb chops and Chicken Joojeh! So juicy and yummy! They have multiple locations, but the one near 34th street Herald Square would be the ideal spot for tourists. You can get some shopping done at Herald Square and then walk over to Ravagh for some delicious halal Persian food and then end the night with some beautiful desserts from Lady M Cake Boutique (it’s literally a five-minute walk from Ravagh ?). There is also a mosque called Ar-Rahman Mosque (15 W 29th St, New York, NY 10001) minutes away.
2. Sagar Chinese
Credit: @noporkcity on Instagram
I go to Sagar Chinese for the amazing fusion dishes of Bengali Chinese food. Personally, I like to use all the appetizers to make a full meal. My favourites: Thai Soup, Lollipop Chicken, Fried Chicken Wonton, and the Fried Fish. If you don’t have room for all the stuff I just mentioned, at least make sure to have the Thai soup. One does not leave NYC without trying the infamous Sagar Thai Soup! There are three locations in NYC and all are in Queens. Avoid going there on weekends as they tend to be way too busy!
3. Top Thai Greenwich
Top Thai Greenwich is my favourite halal Thai spot in NYC. It’s located near Washington Square Park, which makes it a pretty nice place for tourists to visit - NYU is next door and the area is surrounded by the coolest dessert spots with treats such as rolled ice creams, crepes, even cookie dough! There is a literally a place called DŌ, Cookie Dough Confections just a few blocks from Top Thai that just sells different flavours of cookie dough! Just avoid anything with marshmallows (which may contain gelatin derived from animal products). This area is the ideal place for halal date nights ?
The Grilled Skirt Steak with Jeaw Sauce from Top Thai Greenwich is so yummy!
4. Texas Chicken and Burgers
I go to Texas Chicken and Burgers for the Spicy Chicken Sandwich (though they have beef burgers too!). It’s cheap, quick, and delicious. Perfect for a quick lunch and their chicken tenders are perfect for kids. They have multiple locations all over NYC.
5. Truva Cafe and Grill
Truva Cafe & Grill is one of my favourite spots for Turkish food and it’s located in Astoria. In the summer they have outdoor sitting and it’s just stunning! The Turkish style décor makes me feel like I am in Turkey. It’s also very close to a Mosque and there is a subway station literally right in front of the restaurant. I love their chicken dishes, beef dishes, and dessert. The almond pudding with some Turkish tea is what I would call the ultimate Turkish delight ?!
6. Kabul Kabab House
My parents love going to Kabul Kabab House for Afghani food. They have two locations, one in Flushing and one in Westbury. The flushing location is easier to get to with public transportation but for Westbury, you will need to drive or take an Uber. My favourite is their Jujeh Kabab – the meat is so juicy and yummy!
7. Adel's Famous Halal Food
Credit: @edenalow on Instagram
This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Halal food carts! Adel's Famous Halal Food(1221 6th Ave, near the corner of 49th Street and 6th Avenue) is my absolute favourite (and so much better than The Halal Guys which I personally find to be overrated), but the one downside is that Adel’s is only open at night so it’s ideal to visit after 6pm. That said, they are open pretty much all night!. It’s located at the heart of Rockefeller Centre, perfect for someone visiting NYC for the first time. You can visit Top of the Rock and then end the night with some delicious NYC style Halal Cart Food followed by some Banana Pudding from Magnolia’s Bakery right across from the halal cart.
8. Chick In
Since we don’t have a halal Nandos in New York, Chick In (located in Queen's Village) is the next best thing. Their Peri Peri chicken combined with the spicy fries is perfection!
Tagine (located at221 W 38th St, New York, NY 10018) is one of my favourite Moroccan restaurants and it’s located right in the centre of Times Square. The food is delicious, their Lamb Tagine is the perfect way to relax after walking all over Times Square. We usually go there after watching a movie or a Broadway Show, the restaurant is walking distance from the Theatre District.
10. Eateries in Jackson Heights
Credit: Tong_Nyc on Facebook
And finally, Jackson Heights! You can’t leave NYC before visiting Jackson Heights at least once. It’s just an easy subway ride away and as soon as you get out of the station at Roosevelt Ave you will feel like you are in a Muslim country ? First stop: Tong _NYCfor the best Bangladeshi street food - make sure you try the fuchka (a popular snack of crispy shells that having fillings) and don't forget to ask for extra Tamarind Water (the accompanying sauce that you dip the fuchka in)! Then walk over to Haat Bazaar for the best Haleem (beef lentil soup) in the world! The place might look a little shady but let’s be honest, we all know those places have the best food. For dessert, go to one of the many Indian/Bengali/Pakistani grocery stores there and grab a pistachio-flavoured Shahi Kulfi. It will be the best dessert you ever have for only $2! End your mini trip to South Asia (via Jackson Heights) with some Masala Chai from Kabab King before getting back on the subway to continue your NYC adventure.
New York people and culture
New Yorkers are often stereotyped as being rude, and while that's true to an extent (sometimes we can come across as unfriendly or brusque), it's just our nature and usually has nothing to do with discrimination (we're rude to everyone equally ?). In my experience, there is absolutely no room for racism with REAL New Yorkers. For example, if you were ever to encounter someone spewing racial slurs in the subway, I can guarantee you there will be at least be one New Yorker in the train that will put an end to that quickly. I remember one time while taking the bus, a passenger was rude to me because I had accidentally bumped into him. Before he could finish whatever rude remark he was saying, a woman started telling him to back off in a very New York way. Another time, I fell asleep on the subway and a lady woke me up to tell me that a guy on the train was taking pictures of me. She made him delete the pictures in front of me and get off the train at the next stop. If you are thinking about visiting NYC, I can assure you that you shouldn’t be afraid of discrimination. There is no room for that nonsense in New York, and New Yorkers will make sure of that.
The Muslim community
Credit: Masjid 'Eesa ibn Maryam - Jesus, Son of Mary Mosque on Facebook
In Queens alone, there are more than 90 mosques - that's more mosques in just one borough of NYC than there are in all of Singapore! It was always important in my family that no matter where we move, there must be a mosque within walking distance from our home. My father is 75 years old and still walks to our favourite mosque in all of NYC, Masjid ‘Eesa ibn Maryam, for all five prayers daily.
Standing out as a hijabi
My colleagues and I at a work event
While I feel completely at home in Queens (which I consider my mini Bangladesh ?), I spend a good amount of time outside of it. I work in finance, which means I spend half of my time in Manhattan (where the commercial and financial districts are concentrated). Believe me when I tell you that I stand out not just as someone who wears the hijab, but also as a woman of colour with a strict 'no handshake' policy at work. I have been in a number of projects and meetings where I was literally the only female in the team. Although challenging at times, I have come to appreciate this as a form of da'wah. I have met many people who have never had experience working with a Muslim woman before and I've taught many top executives the proper etiquette of greeting a Muslim female. Which brings me to one of the most beautiful experiences of not just my career, but also my life.
When I got my very first real job out of college at a consulting firm, I was really scared of having to refuse to shake hands with male colleagues. The first day, I had to probably shake hands with about 30 men. The training was two weeks long and was meant to prepare us for working with real clients. The training was intense - we had to prepare presentations, roleplay with Partners of the firm and from time to time even the CEO would pop by to check-in on us. As an introvert, I was initially not enjoying this at all!
Thankfully, I was able to use the “Privacy Room” (an empty room staff could use to meditate or nurse) in the building to take my daily prayer breaks. This was very crucial for me as I could use those moments to just pour my heart out to Allah and ask him for strength. Towards the end of the brutal two-week long training, it was time for my team to do a final presentation in front of the Partners and I was dreading it! On top of that, part of the roleplay involved going up to introduce ourselves and of course, that meant shaking hands. I still remember taking my prayer break right before the presentation and making dua during my sujud for strength. I don’t know if it was angels or just me thinking out loud...but I remember hearing something like this:
“Whoever you are scared to offend...the Partner...the Company...or just the whole financial industry...Allah is above all of that. You shouldn’t fear them more than Allah and if you have Allah on your side, there is absolutely no one that can defeat you.”
So I went back into the training feeling courageous, confident, and strong. When it came to our turn for the group presentation, I went up in front of everyone and when the Partner tried to shake my hand I said: “I am so sorry, I don’t shake hands due to religious reasons." He was obviously confused and didn’t know what to do. I put I hand over my heart and gestured for him to do the same, which he did.
The next day at training, while I was working with my group on the next training assignment, the HR manager came in with one of the training instructors and asked me to step out for a private conversation. As I was walking with them to the meeting room, I was internally freaking out! But as it turns out, they wanted to apologise. I still remember her words and it went something like this: “Amina, we wouldn’t have hired you if we didn’t think you were good for our firm. You have so much to offer and your diverse background is something we are proud to present to our clients. We want to make sure you are 100% comfortable and that no one makes you do anything you are not comfortable with”. Later that day, I saw that same Partner in the coffee room, and he put his hand on his heart and thanked me for teaching him how to greet the next Muslim woman he meets.
My desk at one of our client sites
As a consultant, I have had to move from one client to another. This is challenging because I would get used to the manager, the systems and the people, but then be placed at the next client site which would be completely different. I often would have to do everything all over again (like finding a prayer room, a private bathroom to do wudu'in, and even explaining the 'no handshake' policy). But I realised that it was an opportunity for me to give dawahto a new group of people every time I was placed on a new project. I am not saying I never had to face some sort of discrimination for my religious background, but the amount of support and positivity I received from people of all faiths always drowned out the negatives. To me, this is what real America is all about - there is no denying that there's hate out there, but the abundance of love will always outweigh it.
Goofing around with colleagues at our holiday party
So if you are reading this, be sure to add New York to your halal travel bucket list! There is truly no place like New York. I hope that by sharing about my life here, it has helped give insight into some of the best things New York has to offer and remove any fears you may have about visiting this wonderful city.
Amina can be found on Instagram at @bengalibelle01