“The hardest part is the thirst,” he says, adding that he has refrained from eating and drinking during daylight hours for Ramadan since age seven, so he’s accustomed to the discomfort. “The restaurant definitely slows down, but it’s good for me. I don’t like to cook while I’m fasting,” he says.
But here my wife and I are, demanding that Abdul fire up the grill for us in my pursuit of a deadline. And we didn’t regret it, either. Jerusalem’s menu is simple and short, consisting of falafel, kofta (ground meatballs), slow roasted steak, lamb and chicken, hummus and kibby (deep-fried, football shaped pockets of beef, lamb and onion), all offered as sandwiches or platters served with tabbouleh (tabouli). Sandwiches range from $4.99 to $6.99, and platters are $8.99.
Gyros are packed with a generous helping of lamb. It’s still tender despite its having been stored in Tupperware since the vertical spit broiler next to the grill isn’t in demand during Ramadan. The real standout may be the house-made tehinah (tahini). The sesame seed paste is great on the falafel and hummus, putting store-bought options to shame with its rich creaminess and pop of paprika.
“You couldn’t buy hummus in stores when I moved here,” says Abukhdair of the now ubiquitous popularity of his specialty item. “You had to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant to find it.”
In 1980, (when Abukhdair first arrived in the U.S. to attend school in Baltimore, at age 20), Middle Eastern restaurants were few and far between in the Southeast. After living in Minneapolis, Orlando, and a few years in Morocco (where he met his wife), Abukhdair moved to Charleston in 2008 to open Ali Baba restaurant in Mount Pleasant, with his brother. They sold Ali Baba the following year and bought a Hess Express gas station on Dorchester Road.
Their dream, however, was to open a new restaurant and grocery store specializing in halal meats, pita bread, and Middle Eastern specialty items. After searching for a downtown location, they found an affordable lease at North Charleston retail hub and opened their doors in April.
The deals aren’t bad — a 10-pound bag of couscous runs $17, while apricots are $3.59/lb and dates are $4/lb. Hookahs and shisha tobacco fill the shelves behind the register, and a selection of halal meats — animals permissible by Islamic law and slaughtered by hand while invoking the name of Allah — line the coolers along the wall of the two-aisle shop. The best value at Jerusalem, however, may lie in conversation with Abukhdair across the bar overlooking the grill.
For Abukhdair, the recent unrest in Israel hits close to home. Abukhdair’s six children live in the U.S., but his mother and extended family remain in Jerusalem. Like many exiled Palestinians, his stories include the loss of family land and homes a half-century ago, but the conversation turns poignant when he brings up Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old Palestinian boy who was captured in early July by Israeli vigilantes and burned alive.
Although the translation from Arabic to English has resulted in different spellings, the murdered Palestinian boy and the Charleston shopkeeper share a surname. Abu Khdeir’s father is Abukhdair’s second cousin, and they grew up in the same village outside Jerusalem.
“If we so much as throw a stone at a soldier, we are terrorists,” Abukhdair decries. “They burned my cousin alive. What kind of humanity is that?”
Despite the difficulty of such atrocities hitting close to home, Abukhdair maintains a peaceful presence, believing that real change can only begin “in our hearts.”
Today, Abukhdair is an American citizen, and he visits Israel regularly, although those visits are limited to three months by the Israeli government. As a result, it’s difficult to care for his ailing mother.
Raising his family in Charleston, he’s determined to keep the traditions of his homeland alive. This month, his seven-year-old daughter participated in her first Ramadan fast. The family attends the Central Mosque on King Street, and his wife wears the hijab (head covering), a decision he doesn’t insist upon.
“That is between her and God,” he explains, taking the same attitude to the Muslim-born clientele who patronize his store but don’t observe Ramadan fasting. Those customers include not only Palestinians, but Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Arabs, and Afghans. U.S. soldiers looking for items they enjoyed while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan also frequent the deli.
“We’re not only a Muslim store,” says Abukhdair. Still, come July 29, he’ll see a boom in business, once lunch comes back into fashion for Charleston’s observant Muslims. In the meantime, he welcomes non-Muslim clientele to enjoy a taste of his homeland. Although he’s thirsty and perhaps uncomfortable, you won’t hear him complain when you bite into a perfectly prepared lamb gyro and break into an anything-but-famished smile.
You may want to wait until the 29th for your first visit to Jerusalem Market & Deli, a Middle Eastern grocery and cafe that opened this April in an unassuming nook behind Sake House near the Tanger Outlets complex. Owner Abdul Abukhdair will still prepare his full menu of gyros and falafel during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan going on now, but he admits it’s not easy to cook when he hasn’t had as much as a drop of water since sunrise, much less a bite to eat.