A MALAYSIAN WOMAN cooks falafel, South Asian Biryani and even cheesesteaks in a restaurant at Bustleton and Harbison Avenues, the crossroads for Arab businesses in Northeast Philadelphia.
"We have a diversity of customers all over, from Uzbekistan, from China, from Vietnam - just all over," said Moni Khan, who bought Al-Sham with her Bangladeshi husband last January.
Arabic script artwork decorates the tangerine walls, an Islamic prayer time clock hangs near the register and an array of Arab desserts immediately entices customers when they walk in.
Al-Sham is one of a handful of Arab restaurants and convenience stores on the two-block stretch of Bustleton that provide an important sense of community, a place for new immigrants to shop and come together.
Arabs have flocked to the Northeast and West Philly in the past decade, with their population in those areas growing by 68 percent between 2000 and 2010. An estimated 8,874 individuals of Arab ancestry live in the city. Recent immigrants are mostly from Iraq, granted refugee visas, or from the West Bank Palestinian territory, reunited with family in the city.
Born in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Munther Raja, 38, moved to the Northeast to "make a better living." He believes it is important to "follow your people," so he settled in the area where his uncles had lived for years.
"I know about this business from my country back home," he said, adding that he ran a halal meat market and grocery store in Ramallah.
When he opened Al-Amana in 2002, Raja was the only Arab business owner on the street.
"We are a special store; everything here is special," Raja said. He provides the halal meat needed by his Muslim customers - it is slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines - and ethnic items like tahini, hookahs and Arab yogurts.
"Greek, Albanian, Arab, Pakistani, Indian, [Bangladeshi], mostly foreigners," Raja said about his customers.
"I'm Palestinian, and it makes me feel connected to Palestine," said Narmeen Raja, 22, a community resident who sees other Arab neighbors at the supermarkets, even when she doesn't want to.
" make you feel like you're somewhere in the Middle East," said Moustafa Daraz, 57, a Northeast resident originally from Alexandria, Egypt.
Egyptian soap operas blare as Daraz peruses Al-Amana's refrigerated shelves for things he misses from Egypt, like Romy cheese and molokheyyah, a leafy vegetable that boils into a slimy green soup.
He is thankful the local grocery store saves him a two-hour car ride to New Jersey's Arab markets.
But while Daraz still shops at Al-Amana every two weeks, most of Raja's customers have cut back. He said his business is down 20 to 30 percent since the economy declined.
While Arab businesses in the Northeast have grown - on the stretch of Bustleton Avenue between Unruh and Tyson, they join a stretch of shops already reinvigorated in recent years by Hispanic and Asian immigrants - they haven't been immune to the struggling economy.
The nearby Al-Amana Food Market and Al-Jana Food Market have also seen a decline in business, their owners said.
In 2010, Raja had to close the home goods and Arab clothing store he opened next door to Al-Amana.
"Since real estate stopped, people stopped buying stuff like this," he said. "People used to buy more than now."
Raja said higher gasoline prices have raised the price of the halal meat and items he buys from vendors in New Jersey.
"Still, we don't need to make more money," Raja said. "Whatever comes is enough."
Meanwhile, at Moni Khan's restaurant, she is still searching for ways to connect with her customers. She's planning to expand her restaurant to a hookah lounge next door.
"We have two menus now . . . this is all breakfast, this is Middle Eastern, then we have American [and] then the international," Khan said, pointing out items on the four-page Al-Sham menu. "As long as we have all this certified halal, of course, we'll cook anything."
Even with all of the ethnic food on the menu, her most popular item is still the cheesesteak. Even though most of her customers are newcomers to the city, the Philly classic still reigns supreme.