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Shafaiat Ali

Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali

August 27, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.28

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Z. ALI: My name is Zaheer Ali. I'm the Oral Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society and I'm here at Ali's Roti Shop on Fulton Street in Bed Stuy, doing an oral history interview with Shafaiat Ali. This interview is for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. So, first, I'd like you to introduce yourself by stating your full name, and your birthdate, and where you were born.

S. ALI: My name is Shafaiat Ali. I was born [date redacted for privacy], 1948 in Trinidad and Tobago, migrated to the United States in 1968.

Z. ALI: Did you -- when you came to the United States, where was the place that you first moved to?

S. ALI: I landed in Brooklyn and I'm still in Brooklyn. Thank God! [laughter]

Z. ALI: Why Brooklyn? What caused you to come to Brooklyn of all the places?

S. ALI: Because the influx of Caribbean citizens was Brooklyn. And, you know, you always want to be comfortable within your own realm, you know? So supported 1:00here, with the citizens here, so you know people, where you can intermingle with, and carry on your cultures, and all these different things.

Z. ALI: What were some of the things you had heard about Brooklyn before coming here?

S. ALI: We heard about where the West Indians mostly settle, and they had all their functions, and parties, stuff like that, the churches, mosques, whatever, you know? Everybody had a little clique and gathering to go to. Plus, it was very family oriented for me. I don't know about the rest of the people, but, for me, that's how it was.

Z. ALI: So how -- you -- how old were you when you came to Brooklyn?

S. ALI: I think it was 19 years old.

Z. ALI: And did you come by yourself, or --?

S. ALI: I would have to say by myself, but I met people here when I came. I had an aunt here. Her husband was in the Army. And we used to look over her because she was alone, you know?


Z. ALI: Where in Brooklyn did you first live?

S. ALI: I lived on Cambridge -- 98 Cambridge Place in Brooklyn. Then I moved to Grand Avenue, which was one block away. And then I moved to Bed-Stuy. And then we moved out to East New York.

Z. ALI: So describe this area, where you lived, the area where you first moved to, describe what it was like in those --

S. ALI: In that time?

Z. ALI: -- days. Yeah.

S. ALI: In that time, this area was -- well, it sort of became run down and burned down. It was just after [John F.] Kennedy's getting shot and Martin Luther King [Jr.]. So the whole place was terrorized and it was a mess. A lot of crime, muggings, and all these different things. And we still managed to live through all of that in peace, and love, and all these things.

Z. ALI: So how did you adapt -- adjust? Because here, you heard stories of this 3:00being the place --

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: -- to be. And then you come and you see this. Tell me how y-- how did -- what kinds of things did you do to adjust to what the reality was like?

S. ALI: Well, the thing was, we used to come out into the areas and intermingle with people of all kind. And when they have -- what we call it, meetings and, you know, like, gatherings, all fours competition, or sometimes even the carnival, we come out and meet people that know how the area is, you know? And if it's -- if you could see through all of that, though, you could function as a businessman, you know, if you want to take a chance or whatever, because, you know, the way things work, it was really rough. So we found out that, you know, we can make it among ourselves. And we decided to stay in the community.


Z. ALI: So, when you talk about making it, you mean in terms of economic opportunities?

S. ALI: Yes. You know, like, working conditions. We used to work for one another, different companies, you know, part time, whatever time we get. And we had to make a living, too. We had to pay rent and all these different things. So we learned all of these things here, but it was a little bit safer. We felt that way, you know? Until later on, when things in the community changed, and that was a diff-- vast difference then.

Z. ALI: What was your family's religious background?

S. ALI: We are Muslims. We came from India's Muslims. We lived in Trinidad with Muslims. We migrated here as Muslims. And talking about today of this interview, we are still Muslims.

Z. ALI: So when you first came to Brooklyn in the late '60s, --

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: -- early '70s, --

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: -- what did you -- what kind of community did you find for your 5:00religious commitments?

S. ALI: Well, there were communities. There were the Black Muslims together. But they were having a lot of problems in between them. So we used to go home, home and carried on our religion at home in the basement. We'd invite the neighbors, all the Muslims to come, and have our masjid on Fridays. And Ramadan month, we'd rent a little hall, and all these things. And this was back then, until we started, you know, getting better, and started to build structures, and rent bigger buildings, and hire imams, and all these different things. So now, that's where the condition is now, that we have all these luxuries, you know? So -- but in that time, it was kind of a little rough. But it brought us into this time, so it's what -- it wasn't a religious problem. The problem was just what was 6:00ongoing with a new country, and we have to adapt to the ways of the American people and their society, and then fit in ours. So we will always be a minority among them, you know?

Z. ALI: What were some of the most important things you had to adapt to?

S. ALI: Well, the most important thing is, we had to -- as soon as we got wives, and stuff like that, we became different people. Now we have families, so we became family oriented. And whatever things that we did, we did within families. And our family became larger and larger because started, you know, getting kids now. And in that time, that's how it was. We had to raise kids now, in the same society, and we had to teach them all to adapt to this society. So, today, we're still hanging on. Some of them may or may not switch their religions, but that's 7:00just opinion, and personal behavior, and whatever.

Z. ALI: So, for you, when did you start a family?

S. ALI: Well, my family, I began -- in 1971, I was married. In '72, I had my first daughter. And from this daughter, I got my residence into the United States official. And later on, like, about 10 years or eight years later, I had a son. And then about 15 years later, I had a daughter. So, I'm here. I've seen it all. Especially in my area here, where we work now, it was really rough, because they would stick you up with guns. And when you're going home, you close your business, two or three of them would be waiting for you, and stuff like 8:00that. But, you know, it was all part of the system, you know? So, you -- just like I said, we had to adjust.

Z. ALI: What kind of resources did you have to deal with that, to respond to that? What -- did you get any support from the police, or, you know, how did you respond to the -- those kinds of challenges?

S. ALI: Generally, in that time, it was rough for the police, too. So, you know, it was really a kind of thing that everybody was protecting themselves. And, I mean, they were doing their work, but they couldn't do all the work, you know? Because everybody have different hours and time, and these guys have nothing to do, so they know how to watch, and look at you, and case you, or whatever. But it wasn't part of something to worry about, you know? Because it was way in. So we have to just abide by what was going on. And the Muslim community in this 9:00area, they grew so prolific that they started to police the area for the police. They used to protect everybody. They never choose color, or race, religion, or whatever. They just protected the area. And it was, like, a police -- it became the police. Because they knew we were there, and they knew sometime to get involved. So, you know, yesterday, we are -- help them bring this community to what it is today.

Z. ALI: So when you say the Muslims helped police the area, or helped clean up there, who -- which Muslims? Who are you speaking of?

S. ALI: Well, the general Muslim, because it was mixed Muslims from American background. We are Caribbean, Guyanese, Jamaicans, Barbadians, full thing. We have some Pakistanis, and Bengalis were not here then, but now they're part of 10:00this -- the built society. But in that time, we all participated, and helped them with the drugs and everything, with the police. So, resources you didn't have in that time. It was like -- rent was, like, about $15 a month, or whatever, a week. And the basic pay was, like, $1.30 an hour. You understand? So -- but it all fit in sync. Whatever little you had, you could still be -- like today. You may have three hundred today. But look at your rent: $1,200. So we really didn't leave that era. We are still in that era, but I'm just on a higher scale.

But people -- that's probably what cause all the crime, because everybody have needs. And when their welfare money run out, they have to get money from 11:00somewhere. You know, and the children, young, arrogant, you know, be looking for something to buy a shoe, or -- so this is what cause these things in it. But this community, the Muslims, like I said, even up to today, we still play a big part in it because we watch over all the businesses to make sure nobody's in drugs, you know, and nobody just harassing them. We work with the police. We are always with them, you know? They come to the mosque. They give lectures. They tell us what's going on in the community. We go to the meetings. Every Monday are meetings. We send our representatives. So we know what's going on, you know?

Z. ALI: So one of the masjids that's nearby here is Masjid at-Taqwa.

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: Can you talk a little bit about the role of Masjid at-Taqwa in this community?

S. ALI: The Masjid at-Taqwa is the masjid that did all this w-- background work 12:00with the police. Everything was on their backs. They wanted to hold a mosque there. They had to fight for the mosque. People tried to steal the building from them, and they fought very hard just to keep the community clean. And by doing that, they had to have somewhere to worship. And people tried to break down the halls of the worship -- so, you know, to get rid of them. That's what this all was about. But so happened, you know, they persevered, and today, they here but they're the total reason for one of the -- yeah, the reasons why the area is as it is today.

Z. ALI: So tell me what that change has been like. What are the changes you've seen in the last, say, 30 years, right? Because it's 30 years ago when they had the patrols.

S. ALI: Yeah, 1981. Yeah.

Z. ALI: So, the -- '81 is when the masjid was founded. And then in '88 is when they did the patrols.

S. ALI: Well, from --

Z. ALI: Tell me --

S. ALI: Okay.

Z. ALI: Tell me the -- and since the 40 or so years, --



Z. ALI: -- what you've seen as you looked out --

S. ALI: All right.

Z. ALI: -- on the street.

S. ALI: In these years, if you look particularly, now, you're going to see a small Wall Street. All the businesses are on the stock market. Most of them, except for a few ma and pa -- there are a few ma and pa businesses -- this is what it looks like now. So it has changed, not just changed, but drastically changed. But if you have Wall Street in Brooklyn, it must be something wonderful, or magnificent, or -- and the crime is way down in our area. I would say very -- way down, like 97 percent down. So we got to give the police some kind of -- thing. They're doing their jobs for the mayor, or anybody who was interested in all these things, you know. So we get good support and we support them, too. And, like I says, the Masjid at-Taqwa and imam, they were the people 14:00who working the hardest to make this area what it is. Now people from all walks of life, all over the United States, all over America, all over Europe, India and Far East, everybody's in Brooklyn to enjoy what these people all worked hard for.

Z. ALI: Can you tell me a little bit about when the patrols were happening, what that experience was like for you to see a little bit?

S. ALI: That was -- okay. In that time, in the '80s, when they were patroling, it was very frightening, because knowing that they were already -- these people were already founded, and we are just trying to secure a place. So they didn't want us in their society, doing what we were doing. So they used to have a lot of backlash, you know? A lot of Muslims got hurt just because they wanted to do 15:00the right thing and encourage the community to go right. And that's what it was like, you know?

Z. ALI: So tell me -- you spent most -- your childhood growing up in Trinidad, --

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: -- which has a significant Muslim population.

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: What it's like to be here, basically down the street from a masjid, that you could hear the adhan.

S. ALI: Okay.

Z. ALI: You know, what is that like for you to experience?

S. ALI: All right, so -- it -- so, a really wonderful feeling when you hear the adhan anywhere in the world. But on Fulton Street, it's very -- it's something like an immaculate call, you know? So, call, like, from God. When you hear it, you really realize that there must be a God, because when you remember in your mind, it changes that you're seen, that you can hear a call from the mosque, not only a church bell ring, but a call from the mosque. For Muslims it shows how we 16:00have come a long way in the United States, that we can share in everything, not just working conditions or making money, but in religious backgrounds, too. With respect to all the other churches in our area, we have Baptists, we have Catholic, we have -- every church you can think about is in this area. Hindus -- everybody, and all because of one people that came and started this trend.

So we are very proud of these people. And maybe nobody pays homage to them, but maybe they should be looking into these things. But historically, everybody's busy, so they don't see why things happen. They see things happen. They say, "Here's clean now." They don't see nobody selling drugs, or beating up their wives, or breaking windows, or drinking on the street. There was a lot of sacrifice people made, on both sides. Because for a man to just stop drinking 17:00where he's supposed to be doing his drinking -- you know, we had about three or four bars in this area. They're all gone now. But now, they -- the business bureau, they're coming back and re-applying the same thing, bringing back alcohol right in front of the mosque, right opposite the mosque, 10 yards from the mosque. All of this is just like planting a new root, so that the old root can come back, you know? I'm not saying it will, but, you know, everything begins somewhere.

Z. ALI: Have -- has -- have you or members of the community spoken out, or responded, or tried to challenge these developments?

S. ALI: Yeah, we do. We go to the community board meetings, but they just do what they got to do. I don't know how that works or what the law is for that, but we are living in a foreign country. We have to abide with the laws. But at 18:00the same time, you should have respect, you know, for not just our mosque, or other people's churches. You know, you can't do that, you know? We functioned to move it and now you come and you're implementing the same thing back in here.

Z. ALI: What do the bars represent to you? What do they bring, do you think, to the community?

S. ALI: Well, they -- one, they bring alcohol, and alcohol brings kind of arrogance, a little bit. I'm not saying in totality. Some people comes out to have a -- enjoy. But eventually, they're going to be smoking, and all these things. And this is what we are worried about. And now we are raising a different sector of our families: grandchildren, not just children now. We are into the grand and the great grand. So we don't want to go back and do -- undo what we did in 1981, you know? It's -- it should be where the business sector 19:00should look at communities and place these bars in a way that, you know, oh, yeah, you want to enjoy yourself? Oh, you have ten blocks down in the -- back there in the -- in Broadway, where there's no human being or something, and plant them in there. That would be like that area is set for the -- make it nice. Make it like how they make the wharf downtown, you know? But the alcohol is -- it shouldn't be in the business -- directly -- sector, and the schools and all that, you know? But, like we say, you know, they have laws, and there are rules, and people have to make money, and they want to be in the where there are fluctuation in the people. So when get a clean business area, and thousands of people are coming back, now it's going.


And we have another problem going on in these areas here. All the elder American people -- or they call them Black people -- they're all leaving. So now, where we used to be doing our business, it's changing, and every other business is coming in, which is okay, it's good. Different people for different stroke. But then, old people can't pay their rent. They can't buy food in this community no more. For instance, when we started our rent, and we were paying, like, about three, $400. Today, the smallest store in this community is between five and $6,000, and it's junk. But this is what it is. It's downtown Manhattan area now. Then we have the basketball -- the center over here. And they're putting up 21:00hotels all over this place. We have brought this place from totality into the future, really the future. You understand? But, like, I don't know if you guys doing pictures and taking over all the community and all that, showing the change in different years, all the different changes. It's gone.

Z. ALI: Do you have pictures of your storefront over the years?

S. ALI: Yeah. We have them, but I don't know, my daughter I don't know might still have them.

Z. ALI: [laughter] So let's talk about the Roti shop.

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: What inspired the --

S. ALI: Well, I --

Z. ALI: -- founding of this?

S. ALI: I was working in the city for, like, two dollars an hour and all that, and you have to pay token and take food, and when you finish you didn't have really, nothing. And you have a wife and children. How are you going to move on to the next era, you know? So when -- I used to come around, like I said, and 22:00hang with the people to find out what -- you know, how the area was. And in that time, we had, like -- we had about -- we had Khan's on Eastern Parkway. We had -- I don't remember this lady's name, but she died now. She had two roti shops. And there was about four or five more. But they were not really into the rotis. They were more rice, and fried chicken, and all that. But they sell a few rotis, you know? Because most of them, the background was not from roti. So I seen, like, there was a room for a small thing.

And at the same time, we had to evaluate this properly because, like I says, one block, there was one, and then all the way up north, from there, going up there about three or four. Some of them still out there, you know? And I said, man, I'm a Muslim, and the Muslims need to eat, too. So I was doing it not only as an 23:00immigrant. I was doing it as a religious immigrant. So I tried to see if I could work with the Nation of Islam. But the guys would come. "Is it halal? Is it halal?" I said, "Yeah, we got stuff that's halal." You know? And we made sure because if it wasn't like that before, we started to make sure, so when they ask questions, [inaudible] we have to send them to that person. So things worked out pretty good. Now it's totally halal, and we supply the masjid. You can speak to any member of the masjid about if the food is halal, and I think, from my knowledge, I would have to say, other than those African stores, this is on-- the only halal Caribbean store I know in Brooklyn.

Z. ALI: Now explain what is halal, and why is that important?


S. ALI: Halal is a simplicity, you know, but people think that the word is, like, a scary word. When they hear "halal," they want to know what we're doing to make something halal. What it is: We are following trend of Abraham (Alayhis-Salaatu wa's-Salaam) [Peace and prayers be upon him], Abraham of the Bible. Some people who don't know the Arabic thing -- he's a prophet of God, and he was the one that first went to slaughter his son, and he had to recite certain ayats [verse] from the Qur'an and the Bible of his knowledge, and then tried to slaughter his son and let the blood flow so that meat will become -- meat will become not only halal, but it will become lawful for anyone to eat. So that's Christians, and Catholics, and all these people, Jews, everybody, because that is something that the entire world forgot, except, like, in the peninsula 25:00of Arabia, where the Jews and the Muslims are. So we kind of brought that back here.

M1: Ali.

S. ALI: Okay, buddy. And we were trying to bring back today's yesteryear into the lives of people, so that not just Muslims, but everyone can participate in our endeavor of slaughtering the animal and letting the blood flow, and then serving it. We don't make no food out of the blood, and the waste -- we bury all these things. So this life we are living is like, you know, within religion and in between everybody else. And as a matter of fact, today, even though we are doing Islamic work with food, 80 percent of our customers are still non-Muslims. So they understand what Halal is, and they appreciate it, and they all 26:00participate in our business.

Z. ALI: Do you -- and I know sometimes there's -- there are posters up in the -- in here that refer to Islam. What kind of responses do you get from people who are not Muslim?

S. ALI: Well, most of the posters in here are what you call directional delivery. It's knowledgeable posters, you know? And the reason they were put there is just to reflect the same thing that you would see here from an Islamic standpoint, but from a section in the Qur'an. It's really from the Bible, also, and the Torah, you know? It's the way of life. Allah wants us to live this way. You understand? So some people -- we don't really get people offensive about that, but if we put up post-- like, a pamphlet that explain in -- more detail 27:00stuff, some people would be angry with that, you know? So they would write different sl-- what do you call that? Irresponsible words and -- but this is so lacking that people walks in here, and because they see halal, "Mr. Ali can I get an English Qur'an? Because I want to know what you people are all about." So we have, you know, pro and con.

Z. ALI: How do you balance the identity of this as a business establishment and, you know, the importance for you, as a Muslim? How do you balance that?

S. ALI: Well, I do believe that, at this stage in my life, this business is -- it's very important. It has to be balanced because, for the length of time we've been serving people, these people appreciate that. And, you know, people come in 28:00here. When they see -- right now, we are doing some structural work on this building and people think we are closing down, and they start, you know, offering, you know, their condolences and they're sorry, and, "You can't go. You have somewhere else to go around here, but don't move." It's -- this business is really -- what do you call it? Neighborhood -- or what was that word you were saying before?

Z. ALI: Like, a landmark.

S. ALI: A -- it has become a sort of a landmark because we have been with the politicians. We have been in magazines, newspapers, far as Florida, you know? The Miami Herald released a big stuff on it. We have New York Magazine, and we have Yelp, and all these people. We -- people just love us, not only -- some of them for the for -- most of them for the food, but they just love us for our -- the way we speak, like, still in a back-home manner. Sometimes we have little 29:00quarrels. And they enjoy that, you know? Some of them feel like -- So it's a part of, like, Trinidad still planted in Brooklyn. And I have to say, you know, some people get -- they get a little upset, but they don't get angry. Nobody who comes into the store gets angry. People line up -- sometimes people have to line up. And it shows the class how we have come. We wouldn't do these things in the Caribbean, you know? But now, we falling in line with the cultures of our own and bringing it from what our parents taught us back then. So it seem like the youths now are adhering and picking up some of those traits.

Z. ALI: So you -- when you were talking about what inspired you to start the business, --

S. ALI: Yes, well, I --

Z. ALI: -- were you -- what -- did you have a background in cooking, or what -- who -- where --? Yeah.


S. ALI: No, my wife. My wife's family, when they got off the boat in Port of Spain from India, they started cooking back then. And then, they moved to St. James, some of them, some to San Juan. And my wife family, they picked this back up in about the '60s. My father-in-law, he started back this business with his wife. In those days, the roti, in Trinidad, was being sold for, like, 12 cents for meat, about six cents for a potato roti. So we have come way, way up the ladder from that. And we try to keep the same amount of love that we put into the food back then. We, in person, we try to hold and maintain that situation because we have to compete with people. Whether they're better or worse, I don't know, but we try to hold a middle course to keep people happy.


Z. ALI: So when you established the business, you had -- you were -- it was a partnership with -- or who was working with you?

S. ALI: Yeah. I did start it with my uncle. He was the one that came and I said, "Since you're wife know the business" -- and his wife used to work for Mungal's [phonetic] in Port of Spain. She's a relative, too. And so they have background. But my wife and my mother, the major background because, up to today, they are still in the roti business in Trinidad and Tobago. So, you know, like, that was the incentive. I use that leverage on my wife. To be honest, that's exactly what it is.

Z. ALI: So who was doing the cooking in the early days?

S. ALI: My wife was doing it, then my mother, as well, and my aunt. So in those days, like, they would only sell, like, $40 a day. But that's the way money was in that time. You know, $40, $50. By the time you pay everybody, you didn't have 32:00nothing. So we knew one day it would catch on, you know? So that's how life was on the incentive of the idea.

Z. ALI: So was the business always located here on Fulton Street?

S. ALI: Our business, yes. It was 1313 Fulton Street. And then we moved here, like, in the '80s, after the mosque there. So we came up here in that time and today, thank Allah, we here now?

Z. ALI: So one of the things you talked about was the challenges with the next generation. What are you -- what have been some of the challenges? Did you think of -- since you've been here, since you were 19, what were some of the challenges of growing up and growing a family, a Muslim family, here in Brooklyn?


S. ALI: Before the Muslim part, it was -- that was logical and was easy. But to raise a family was rough because you had to work, and we had to take babysitters. Like I said, with these small salaries, we were out there in the snow and everything, and it was a mess, man. I felt just like how my parents were because I have a vague memory of how my mother raised eight children. And my father used to work for, like, $35 a week, all right? And he had these children, and my mother and him, just two rooms, and I thought they were struggling then. But when we came out here now, and things started to escalate, little by little, I saw sometimes my wife can't work because she have to take the babies to the doctor, to the this, no insurance, small -- oh, yeah, clinic 34:00every day, and this and that. It was really hard. But we met nice -- we were lucky. I don't know about the other people. Our family stayed within our radius, so, like 10th, 15 blocks, you know? So we could sometimes depend on one -- if one was off, one would do this for you, you know?

And we really -- but the challenge was met, but when you remember about the hardship, it's just part of what people are going through today. People say they're struggling. They're fighting for more money. So it really hasn't changed any. In America, wherever you live, you'll find that struggles on your way up has to be met. Then you have to worry about education for the kids. Then you have to go to the school meeting. This, that, the kids get into trouble. All 35:00those things, when you equal it out, is the very same matter that my parents had, that we are having today. So everybody should hold steadfast, you know? It's going to work out. And it does, eh?

Z. ALI: So, you know, when you started the business, even with all of the challenges, when do you think was the first time where you said to yourself, "This was a good thing that we did"?

S. ALI: Okay. Okay, well, the first -- the f-- the very first time we opened the business, I couldn't -- we had problems in communication with my partner and all of that. After, like, four years, he was going to sell the business. The business was not worth nothing. So I said to him, "You can't sell the business because everything is on my name. You know, you have to come to me. I'm the one who could sell the business because if there's any shortcomings, and anythings 36:00after, I'm the one who's going to be responsible." So then he said, "So give me $15,000 and take it." I said, "I don't have 15 cents. What do you mean $15,000?"

So I went to the Chase Manhattan Bank. The manager used to buy from us. So I said to him, I said, "Look," -- I wasn't looking forward, eh, to anything." So when I went there, I said, "Look, you come sometimes. You see how nice the food is." He said, "I come every day. I eat there. So what is your problem?" I said, "My partner want out and he want 15,000." He said, "I'll do that for you. I'll do all the paperwork. You just come and sign. Don't talk to nobody. Don't say anything." Went in, we did it, boom, boom, boom. We did it.

And we had one year on the lease. You know, I wasn't thinking there's one year on the lease. I already put up 15 grand, you know? And when we started, we only 37:00paid 10,000 -- I gave him to pay the guy who we took the 10,000 from. So he paid the guy the 10,000. So that's why he was looking back. For his money, he wanted a little profit. So I called him. I said, "Man, you know, this is not right. We're about to lose this thing and, you know, I mean, if your heart is in any good way, you see, I leave you for three years. Whatever profit you made, I never came and checked. So if you want, give me back a few thousand dollars, man." I said, "Talk it over with your wife. I don't want to create no problem. If you can't, it's okay. But if you do it, do it from your heart, you know? It's only unfair that, you know, you made a profit and you're making a profit again. And me, I'm coming in now like I'm just starting with one year on the lease. If the guy don't renew the lease, my money's gone."

So he said to me -- well, he really wasn't in no financial status, himself. He 38:00probably -- money was done. His wife moved to Canada, all kind of thing. I said, "Look. Leave it alone." One of my sisters, she had money, saving to buy a house. A down payment was $3,000. She said, "Look. I won't buy the house. Take the money." So, with that, we iron that out. So now, when the year came, the guy tells me, "If you don't give me $900 a month, you can't -- I can't renew the lease." I said, "How are you going to go from this rent all the way up to 900?" And he said, "That's the way, somebody offered me $1,000. So, for me, it's going to be worth it." So I says, "You know what? You can have it." And I shut it up. I said, "Take the building. Take the," -- all the equipment was old and everything, and five years old already. So I stopped.

And one day, I came to Woolworth's here and the manager, his name was Mike. And 39:00he saw me and he grabbed me. "What's the matter with you man? I'm hungry. I need food." I said, "Where am I going to prepare this food? I don't have no money. I don't have a job." He said, "Listen. Go across the street here." That's -- Woolworth's was there, that building there, GameStop. "Tell the man I told you to give you this piece of rent." From where you see that wall -- you'll see it later on. The first wall there, that was the roti shop, right here. This wall to here, on this side.

Z. ALI: Just as planned.

S. ALI: Have a little piece here. Going back, then, will be about 25, 30 feet, and here must be about eight or nine feet, maybe 10. Say 50 feet, then. That's it. And we came here, and I met a young fellow from Guyana. He said look -- he was my friend, still is. "You know, the only thing I do wrong is I take a little 40:00drink. But you know what? I want to help you build this place for free." I said, "How are you going you to do that? I ain't got no money to pay you." He said, "You don't worry." He was working for the City as a plumber, so he was making big money, you know? He said, "Come." He talked to the landlord. He said all about the plumbings and stuff, and this thing's probably not important, so you don't have to put it in. And the man said, "Nobody lives in the building. Anything you cut, you put a stop." So he borrowed all the copper, and the pipes, and gas lines, and he run everything and -- toilet and everything he run. And you know, there is not much partitions, only this one [laughter] was the only partition. And it was a little shorter, and it was open then. We had the steam table right there where that electrical plug was. Table was about this big, from here to here, four feet. And we started back with that.


And one day, the guy, while he was fixing here, he finished the front, right? He said, "Listen, tell your wife start cooking food and bringing it." I said, "Boy, we don't have no license. Nothing. We can't do that." He said, "You listen to me. While I work in here every day, 15 people are coming. So I told my wife. She says, "Okay, we'll do some beef and chicken." And she's going to wrap them and then bring them here. And we do, like, 30. We get, like, 30, about $4 for a chicken and beef. Get $120. He said, "Go and apply for your license." Then we sell a little bit more. We went and applied for the tax number and everything, and we had to do something with the fire department, all them things, draw a map. I draw the map myself. A little out of shape, but what are you going to do? And we started there.

So thank God, today, from that little endeavor -- the line used to be, like, up 42:00the block there. But we had to do something. Then, the owner, the guy who was running the place, died. And some Italian guy told me, "Look, if you want here, it's $1,500 more." God now, we've gone from this little rent here now, $1,500 more and we now we started [laughter]. So I said, "You know what?" I said, "We'll take it." But there was a stairwell here. Half of here, but still, here was narrow. And he said, "Look, I'm going to break down the stairwell, but if I break it down, you have to give me $700 more with that." So he want $2,200 more. Well, I went by the mosque and make two ra -- walaikum salaam -- and I talked to some people, and said, "Look, if you like the business, and you feel it's going to take care of your family." -- so I went for it. And this is history now.

Z. ALI: So what do you attribute the popularity of -- because you don't -- to my 43:00knowledge, you don't do a lot of traditional advertising or anything like that. What do you attribute to the popularity?

S. ALI: No, no. Not really. In the early going, --

Z. ALI: Yeah.

S. ALI: -- I used to be all over the Caribbean radios and I used to do things with guys who are just coming up and thing. They would want special -- to run ten advertisement. And then we were popular -- like, I told you we used to go around the All Fours [card playing tournament], so we were in the community. Right? And we go to a party and we give out some pamphlets and stuff. And people: "Where you from?" "San Juan" "Oh, it's -- your family did that?" "Now, that's my wife family, you know?" But, you know, they -- Ali -- so the name just -- and then, why I came here, why I liked here, is because this guy, he already 44:00was a millionaire from Trinidad. All the Calypsonians used to be there [Charlie's Calypso City record store and studio].

Z. ALI: Oh, yes, yes, yes. The record --

S. ALI: [Mighty] Sparrow, Arrow.

Z. ALI: Calypso -- the --

S. ALI: Everybody.

Z. ALI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Records, yeah.

S. ALI: So he had a influx of customers. And anywhere you find people in the Caribbean, three things you will find: music, alcohol, and food. So where would he want to go? And I didn't want to go on Nostrand because there was too much competition, you know? So --

Z. ALI: So how long did you live in this area?

S. ALI: The area, we lived about -- well I could call this -- in some way, I would say I have to live my whole life here. I only went home to sleep. And that 45:00was it. I went home to sleep, bathed in the morning, shop, and back here again. Because in that time, it was -- that -- when you're building a -- a enterprise, you have to really sacrifice. You can't sleep. And, you know, like, the Qur'an says, you know, can't stay in the masjid and just say, "Allah, give me money," you know? You got to get up to be successful. We talking about -- not just build a business. You know, like, back home, you have little parlor. When the sun hot, they close it because the sun coming in. We can't do that here in America. And you don't know when you're going to make a living. So, today, you know, that's what it is.

Z. ALI: Where did you get -- who helped you during these years, as you were working in the business? Who worked with you?

S. ALI: Most my families.

Z. ALI: Yeah.

S. ALI: Most of my families. And our initial money came from a guy, not here -- when I started, I started in my own -- when we was on the next building over 46:00here, we had borrowed -- my uncle and I -- he had borrowed from his brother-in-law the $10,000 that we started with. Muslim brother, of course. And that was our beginning there. And then, when we shut down, we stayed away a few years, and then we started back here.

Z. ALI: So how long, in this location, have you been?

S. ALI: Oh my -- like I says, it's approximately, say -- say, between 25 and 30 years, maybe a little more [inaudible]. It's more than that but --

M2: Ali.

S. ALI: We're going to use 25 as a road, you know.

Z. ALI: So as we wind down the interview, --

S. ALI: Yeah.

Z. ALI: -- what is something that you would like for people to know about you as 47:00a Muslim in Brooklyn?

S. ALI: As a Muslim, I would like everybody to know, very much so, that I am a Muslim, and with no regrets to anyone, and no hurt to anyone's religion. And I know, over the years, a lot of the non-Muslims have become Muslims because of us. And we would like to be known in this area for what we have done for the community, as a M-- well, I am a Muslim, like I says. And I didn't do it just for Muslim. To say that we are selfish, that we were working for -- I was working for all people insha Allah [God-willing]. And today, I still have that thing, like a flower garden. I have all these people here still with us. And I 48:00hope that some of them get to understand that Muslims are not all what they think about. They should learn. They should get a hold of an English Qur'an or visit our masjids. We have special days for non-Muslim lectures and talks. And if you want one on one, we can get that for you at Ali's, too. If you don't want to go there, we can have it down here. Anything, questions to be answered, will get you answer within days. So, most of all, people in Brooklyn should know that our participation was for all human being, for we believe everybody was born a Muslim, you know?


S. ALI: So, I'd have to thank them for -- I want to thank them, most of all, for their participation in our endeavor, and may God continue to bless them and their grands, and hope that they continue to have the future love with the 49:00business here. Even though someday my demise might come, I pray that we still be here for you guys. So, with that, I think that's it.

Z. ALI: All right. Thank you so much.

[Interview Interrupted]

Z. ALI: Okay. This is Zaheer Ali. We're still here with Shafaiat Ali. We wanted to continue with some additional stories. So, tell me one of the -- this is a famous place now, Ali's Roti Shop. I heard about it before I moved to Brooklyn. A lot of people know about it. What are some of the people who have come through here that people may recognize?

S. ALI: Over the years, we had, like, Calypsonians from Trinidad, Calypso rules, Sparrow, Arrow, Crazy. All the other Calypsonians used to come through here. 50:00They all participated in our business. They all loved us. And we had some -- we have some heavy metal guys, and all these people used to come here. We were fortunate enough to have the Prime Minister, now, of Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. [Keith C.] Rowley. He was here. He shook hands with all my workers. Kamla Persad[-Bissessar]. She visited next door, Charlie's Record Shop, and she came by. So we -- over the years, we had a lot of people, you know, coming in and helping us out. Insha Allah.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Shafaiat Ali

Shafaiat Ali was born in 1948 in Trinidad and Tobago. He immigrated to the United States in 1968 and settled in Brooklyn. He married his wife, who also emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago, in 1971. They opened Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the late 1970s. They have since expanded the restaurant, which was one of the first in Brooklyn to serve Caribbean halal food.

In this interview, Shafaiat Ali discusses his family, his immigration to the United States, and his marriage. He speaks at length about his ownership of Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the restaurant's strong focus on Caribbean food, and community support for the restaurant. He also talks about changes in Bedford-Stuyvesant since he opened the shop in the 1970s, including the development of Fulton Street's commercial businesses and efforts by members of the nearby Masjid At-Taqwa to reduce crime in neighborhood in the late 1980s. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.

This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.


Ali, Shafaiat, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, August 27, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.28; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Ali, Shafaiat
  • Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Masjid At-Taqwa (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)


  • Community policing
  • Cooking, Trinidadian
  • Family-owned business enterprises
  • Food
  • Halal food
  • Restaurants
  • Trinidadians
  • West Indian Americans


  • Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)


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Finding Aid

Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories