There may be no place like home. But, for many Bay Area Middle Easterners, a new market just north of downtown Oakland feels a lot like it.
"The smells here remind me of my childhood," said Oaklander Ze'ev Sharone. "It's the aroma of the spices. Driving around, I saw it when it was under construction. When it was open, I came in and said, 'Joy and hallelujah.'"
Sharone, a therapist, was born in Israel. The 61-year-old likes to stock up on Israeli groceries, spicy Turkish salad, and fresh soups from the deli counter. "It's just what I'm used to," he said. "It's not the American version of Middle Eastern food. It's true Middle Eastern food."
Oasis Food Market has it all: an unmatched supply of oils, grains, and canned goods; a mouth-watering eat-in deli offering soups from scratch, juicy shawarma, olives, feta, and a bevy of stuffed vegetables; fresh-baked breads and honeyed pastries handcrafted on site; and a full halal butcher shop complete with hanging carcasses in a chilled case. And, of course, there are fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, juices, and, somewhat less expectedly, a Western Union counter, post office boxes, household goods, traditional Arab clothing, water pipes, and flavored tobacco.
Stepping through the shop's doors feels like stepping into another country. To the left, above heavy rice sacks piled waist-high, a large circular aperture in the sky-blue-colored wall opens into a painted alcove, accented with star-shaped windows and camel figurines, designed for dining and relaxing.
A large banner of Jerusalem featuring Al Aqsa Mosque hangs toward the back of restaurant not far from a domed skylight the owners installed to add to the ambience.
The blocks surrounding Oasis, which opened on the corner of 30th Street and Telegraph Avenue in August, host a handful of Arab shops: markets and delis, a bookstore, two butchers. Their concentration in this stretch of Telegraph is partially explained by the presence of the Oakland Islamic Center on 31st Street just west of Telegraph, although the earliest businesses say they moved in just because the properties were vacant.
About 7,500 Arabs live in Alameda County, according to the 2008 American Community Survey of the Census Bureau. That's a significant increase from the 4,300 Arabs who were recorded in the area in 1990. The relatively small size of the population and high margin of error in the data make these numbers difficult to rely on, but it's easy to see the Middle Eastern influence when walking near the mosque on any given Friday as afternoon prayers let out.
Men and women in traditional clothing stroll down the street speaking Arabic. They cluster on the corners, some in checkered kafiya scarves or small caps, to talk and wish each other well. Many have made it a habit after prayers to eat lunch inside Oasis or pick up groceries to prepare at home.
"We feel that this is like back home," said Mohammad Hammad, 44, a Palestinian who lives in San Leandro, as he ate lunch inside the market. "Our culture is Arabic. We feel comfortable because all the Arabic cousins are here. And sometimes I'm not hungry but I stop here to see the people. It's like a family."
Hicham Moufid of Hayward came to the United States from Morocco. Moufid insisted on buying a reporter a large portion of lamb and rice so he could talk over a meal. Others tried to share their food or buy tea. "It's how we treat guests," Moufid explained. "Coming here makes Friday very special. We sit down and eat together. We see other people from our own tradition. It's not that easy to be away from home."
Co-owner Mohsin Sharif, 30, who is originally from Yemen, said the lively Arabic shopping district in Dearborn, Michigan, inspired him to open Oasis in the neighborhood.
"In Michigan, there are streets of Arabic shops selling pastries, halal meat, shawarma and kabob," he said. "Why not have that here in Northern California?"
Sharif said the corner location is advantageous because of its proximity to the mosque and to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. He and co-owner Osman Othman, 52, had to knock down thirty doors in the former orthopedic surgeon's office to make room for the store and all its amenities.
The city offered $75,000 to help with renovations, said Christine Lebron of Oakland's Façade and Tenant Improvement Program. That program, which favors businesses that bring needed services to Oakland neighborhoods, aims to eliminate blight, fill vacancies, improve the conditions of buildings, and revitalize the city.
The stretch of Telegraph where Oasis sits is marked by vacant storefronts. The neighborhood falls in an "in-between zone," said Kathy Kleinbaum, who also works on development issues for the city. "It's in between downtown and between the MacArthur BART station and Temescal," she said. "The neighborhood hasn't had that much identity. But they're working on that."
To improve conditions and make the strip more of a destination, many local businesses pay taxes into a special fund that goes toward extra security, street cleaning, and other improvement efforts, such as banners or festivals. Darlene Rios Drapkin has run the program since it started in 2008 for the Koreatown/Northgate district, which stretches along Telegraph from 20th to 34th Street.
She said Oasis is a welcome addition to the community and hopes it will spice up Oakland's already rich culinary scene. "I've not found another Middle Eastern market like it," she said. "The Koreatown/Northgate district is extremely pleased to have such a great store with such wonderful hospitality in the neighborhood. It's an anchor for other new businesses we hope to attract."
Co-owner Othman, who is originally from Palestine, said it was a "big-time risk" to invest in the business given today's economic climate. But he believes the shop's emphasis on fair prices, fresh ingredients, and homemade, authentic food will be a winning combination.
"We're targeting American people more than Arabic people," he said. "I want it to be a cultural experience coming here."
Othman hopes to win customers one sweet tooth at a time, with an unparalleled selection of Arabic pastries baked in-house daily. Ghuraybeh cookies, similar to sand tarts; mahmoul cookies from Lebanon and Syria; knafeh pastries, like honeyed bird's nests, dotted with cashew and pistachio; and half a dozen varieties of baklava. A Syrian baker whose family has been in the pastry business for generations runs the operation.
Another baker churns out pita bread by the dozens, rolling the fluffy rounds out by hand and firing them in a large oven. Customers often leave the shop with half a dozen bags, a sure sign of the bread's popularity. Other breads, Ethiopian injera and Afghani nan, are also available. Plans are in the works for Iraqi bread, too, the owners said.
A Turkish chef prepares handmade grape leaves, stuffed cabbage, and zucchini, and eggplant pickles packed with nuts and spices. Behind the case, shawarma turns on a skewer, dripping with fat and flavor.
Othman promises his prices can't be beat. Bulk olives at $3.99 per pound. Any kind of boxed cereal, $2.99. Bulk almonds, $2.99 a pound. Organic honey, 17 ounces, $4.99. He guarantees low prices for his canned goods, challenging customers to find better deals elsewhere. And African products, flours, and grains from Ethiopia, including huge sacks of Teff ($48.99 for a 25-pound bag), also have a prominent place in the shop because of the large concentration of Ethiopians who live nearby.
Other Middle Eastern merchants nearby said that although they initially feared Oasis would cut into their business, the shop has actually been a boon. Ali Mogases runs Zahara Deli & Coffee two blocks north of Oasis. He opened in November 2008.
"I thought, 'Oh, this guy is going to open and kill my business.' But it's brought me more customers," he said. Mogases, 42, who is originally from Yemen but lives in San Leandro, said the new businesses have made the area cleaner and safer. "Before we opened, this part of Telegraph used to be a dead zone. You could not even walk here after six o'clock."
Mogases recalls seeing homeless people sleeping in the street or peeing in nearby doorways, drug dealers circling the blocks at all hours. "Now, you walk at 6 o'clock, it's a live street, a clean street. Neighbors come and say, 'Thank you for opening a store here,'" he said.
Sara Ahmed, 22, is one such happy neighbor. On a recent Friday evening, Ahmed walked home with her husband as he pushed their one-year-old son in a stroller down the street. The couple has lived in the neighborhood for seven years; they are members of the Oakland Islamic Center. The homemaker said she loves being able to walk to stores that steer clear of pork and offer halal meat and traditional cheese.
"We see more of our people around. It feels safer because there are more people," she said. "There are more Muslims, more of all races. People of all races are walking at night. It's really everything we need just right here."