From chopped cheese to coffee, Yemeni Americans make their mark in New York City
“Behind the Counter, a New Political Force” proclaimed a headline in the New York Times on Yemeni Americans who were making their voices heard and leveraging their economic clout to take on the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post — a viciously anti-Muslim, anti-Arab tabloid.
What landed the Post in hot water this time was a 2019 inflammatory frontpage attacking Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — and there was no reason why Yemeni American bodega (convenience store) owners should continue to prop up a hateful rag.
"Bodegas are not the only business associated with the Yemeni community. Increasingly coffee from the old country defines the second generation of Yemeni entrepreneurs"
“The Yemeni-American bodega owners expressed concern that the provocative imagery of the World Trade Center in flames could trigger violence against Muslims in New York,” the Times relayed. And so a boycott of the Post was organised by the roughly 4,000-6,0000 bodegas owned by the Yemeni community, accounting for half of the city’s mini-marts.
It was an act of protest in defence of a community already jittery in the face of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies — in 2017, a community-wide bodega shutdown took place so owners could attend a protest against the Muslim Ban.
Both actions symbolise how Yemeni entrepreneurs, now organised under the Yemeni American Merchant Association (YAMA), have become essential to the city’s landscape; as the Times reported, “Yemeni-owned bodegas are sprinkled throughout every borough of New York.”
Yemeni immigrants started flocking to New York City in the 1950s where they quickly learned the trade of mini-marts, which were mainly Latino-owned (hence the nomenclature bodega).
Pretty soon, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn became a sort of Little Yemen. Although rising real estate prices eventually pushed most Yemeni business owners elsewhere, the bodega business remains firmly entrenched within the community.
New immigrants learn the trade and later open their own stores; parents also pass on shops to their children. A little part of Little Yemen even remains in the gentrified downtown neighbourhood where two Yemeni restaurants reside on Atlantic Avenue.
Today, bodegas are not the only business associated with the Yemeni community. Increasingly coffee from the old country defines the second generation of Yemeni entrepreneurs.
Hakim Sulaimani is one such coffee tradesman. The owner of Yafa Cafe in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Sulaimani sources his beans from Yemen’s Yafa’a mountains.
As a boy, he recalled, he was “super-hyped” when he learned that one of the most popular drinks in the world was invented in his homeland. Yafa Cafe is not the only game in town.
There’s Qahwah House in the super-trendy Williamsburg neighbourhood. In Cobble Hill's Diwan you can pair Yemeni coffee with $90 bottles of rare Yemeni honey. And in the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab community, the Bay Ridge neighbourhood, Asal serves coffee with a Yemen honeycomb pattern drawn in the foam.
Most of the new owners are young people who were inspired to “shine a light on Yemen” after the war began, according to Debbie Almontaser, one of the pillars of the community who helped found YAMA. “The best and most informative way is through coffee, our contribution to a civilisation dating back hundreds of years.”
It was not easy trying to source beans from Yemen. Beyond the violence and instability of the civil war, imports to the US from the country are subject to strict scrutiny.
But for those who succeeded, it was about more than launching a business; it is a coming-out party long in the making. The second generation of Yemeni Americans grew up in the shadow of 9/11 and hate crimes against American Muslims.
When he was a child, someone threw a brick through a window at Hakim Sulaimani’s home. His sister’s hijab was torn off, and she was slapped, on the subway.
Fearful for their safety, his parents reinforced the front door and hung American flags outside the home. Such tales are not uncommon. Taking back the narrative by showcasing one’s culture is how many have chosen to fight back against prejudice.
Both Sulaimani and his father attended the demonstration against the Muslim Ban, but the younger generation is going beyond politics to reshape perceptions … one cup of coffee at a time.
The new coffee trade is even the subject of a 2018 real-life account by famed novelist Dave Eggers about Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a down-on-his-luck child of Yemeni immigrants in San Francisco who flew to Yemen to meet with coffee farmers (75% of whom are women) who became his suppliers behind the brand Port of Mokha.
In 2022, Mokhtar started the National Yemen Coffee Auction open to roasters from around the world.
Mokhtar is somewhat of a controversial figure in the community after some Yemenis accused him of taking their money but subsequently cutting them out of the business.
It is, of course, somewhat natural that many Arab-Americans seeking greater connection with their roots would choose coffee.
Coffee emerged in Yemen’s Sufi shrines in the 15th century (the beans were procured from the Ethiopian Highlands), and from there spread to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa and eventually made its way to Europe where the Arabic qahwah became the English coffee.
The coffee trade made Yemen rich until Europeans exported the beans elsewhere and employed exploited and slave labour; cheap coffee decimated the Yemeni trade and by 1800 Yemen accounted for less than 10% of coffee consumption.
By reviving coffee from Yemen to satisfy Americans' cravings, the new generation of Yemeni Americans has come full circle.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications