Translating Halal

In collaboration with Mayssa Jallad and Abubakr Haydar. 

Course: Conflict Urbanism, Language Justice.

Professors: Laura Kurgan, Lydia Liu and Michelle McSweeny.

The Project

This project as part of a course titled: Conflict Urbanism- Language Justice explored the world behind Halal Food Carts on the streets of New York City. The final deliverable was a webpage that would be published on the Center of Spatial Research's website

Introduction

Halal food carts have become a staple of the New York streetscape. Their presence on the streets of New York is no longer a novelty: they have become so inconspicuous with the urban context that it seems they have been there forever. It was therefore surprising for us to find out that unlike the quintessential hotdog cart, halal food carts have only been around since 1999. Their prevalence and popularity is even more puzzling given the small niche halal cuisine occupies in the American palate. Operated mostly by Arab speaking vendors and preparing food of Arab origin Halal food carts presented a rich field of investigation into Conflict Urbanism and Language Justice in New York: as arabic language speakers ourselves our initial interest stemmed from the obvious conflicts and difficulties vendors would run into operating within a predominantly english speaking public.

With obvious clashes within an operation run by predominantly arab speaking employees and an english speaking clientele our investigations led us into an attempt at understanding the role language plays in determining the standing of employees, the business opportunities available for vendors and the difficulties they face negotiating regulatory landscapes. Additionally, while arabic is perceived as a monolithic language spoken by natives in the arab world, in reality arabic speaking countries have a variety of dialects, some even barely intelligible to others.

Foodcarts in the New York Streetscape

On the streetscape of New York, Halal food carts perhaps stand out the most to Arab speakers. Within the context of signage, advertising a cultural icon such as the word Halal “حلال” is an anomaly. Our research was interested in the inevitable conflicts that would arise from the interaction between arab speaking vendors translating the content and nature of the “Halal” cuisine to an english speaking population. Another of our interests is how language differences, whether it be english speaking proficiency or different arabic dialects played out within the operation of a food cart.

Our research hence focused on interviewing a number of halal food cart vendors, asking questions about their daily exchanges with customers, their english speaking abilities and how that affects their performance within the food carts.

 

Halal in Midtown Manhattan



The interviewed food cart vendors were predominantly of Egyptian origin with the exception of one vendor from Algeria. The questions were aimed at establishing a number of fact that would help us gain an a clear understanding of the daily experience and located mainly in midtown Manhattan.

The questions for our interviewees were: 

+ Do you speak arabic? بتحكي عربي؟
+ Where are you from? إنت من وين؟
+ When and why did you come to America? To NY? متى جئت إلى أمريكا؟ إلى نيو يورك؟
+ How did you get this job? كيف حصلت على هذا الشغل؟
+ Where is the food prepared?
+ What is your typical day?
+ How did you learn english? كيف تعلمت إنجليزي 
+ What is your (arabic) dialect? من وين لهجتك؟
+ Do you like this spot? Is it popular? Have you worked in any others?
+ Is this cart connected to a restaurant?
+ Who own the halal food truck?
+ Who are your customers? Where do they usually come from?
+ What makes a strong market?

We interviewed a total of 7 food cart operators, their responsibilities ranging from grill operators, stocking workers to operation managers. It became obvious to us that a number of language operation were taking place within the food cart and through the interaction between food cart and customers.

The most prominent of these linguistic operations was the hierarchy that organised the working conditions within the food cart. This was directly linked to the workers’ english speaking proficiency. Divided into to job descriptions workers would either work the grill and stock the food or they would deal directly with customers. It became obvious that rarely do these tasks overlap. Employees with better english-speaking abilities dealt directly with customers and translated the orders requested to the grill worker. They were the de facto managers of the food cart, in charge of most managerial tasks. These workers tended to be more educated than their counterparts even though they shared the same backgrounds. 

 

Two examples of this hierarchy are the workers on two food carts, the first between 52nd and 53rd street on 6th Ave and the other on the NW of 47th and Broadway. In this first case the food cart, run by cousins from the same town in the north of Egypt (Banhaa, بنها), was registered under the company name “The Original Guys” . Bahaa, the younger of the two operators, had spent a longer time in the US (8 years), was a college graduate from Egypt and had spent a considerable time on food carts at this spot. His cousin (who did not disclose his name) was older and had spent considerably less time in the US (2 years). Bahaa was in charge of receiving orders from customers and relaying them to his cousin who worked the grill. During this transaction Bahaa would perform a number of linguistic operations, translanguaging and code-switching. This allowed him to communicate to his cousin certain specifics of the food order while also being able to complete the financial transaction with the paying customer.

The second example was the halal food cart on the North West corner of 47th and Broadway. The operators of this cart were also Egyptians and had developed an operational hierarchy similar to that of “The Original Guys”. The younger, college educated (an accountant), ran the main food operations of the cart. He would receive orders from clients, process payments and give orders to his fellow cart employee regarding stock changes or grill tasks. His cart assistant, an elderly gentleman had been in the United States for all of 2 years and could barely speak english, this lack of english speaking proficiency automatically relegated him to the position of lower level employee.

Translanguaging and Code-Switching

While interviewing the food cart vendors we were able to make note of how vendors negotiate the the linguistic conflicts during the selling of Halal food. An interesting example was the vendor Salman who worked the food cart at the intersection of 53rd street and Broadway. Originally from Algeria Salman had learnt to speak Arabic and French first and then in later years English and Spanish. Although his arabic dialect is Algerian, Salman could through code switching and translanguaging convey the contents of a client's order to the grill worker. These transformations would be from English to Arabic to Egyptian Dialect, an operation Salman was able to conduct flawlessly. This ability positioned Salman as a vendor in charge of his own cart and the point man communicating with clients. 
 

Hierarchies in the Kitchen

 Entrance of the Halal Guys' kitchen warehouse in Astoria, Queens. All Halal Guys' food carts are brought here every night to be washed and stored.

Entrance of the Halal Guys' kitchen warehouse in Astoria, Queens. All Halal Guys' food carts are brought here every night to be washed and stored.

Our findings relating to how language abilities affect the employee hierarchies within the food cart necessitated research into how these conflicts manifest within a different working environment, one that is bound to include a larger number of workers and a potentially more diverse workforce. The investigation moved to the main halal food cart kitchen in Astoria on the west side of Queens. The kitchen was the main operation area for the Halal Guys food carts and supplies food for all 6 carts owned by the operation. Inside the kitchen we conducted interviews with the general manager regarding how language conflicts are manifested in that working environment.

The Halal Guys kitchen originally employed a large number of workers from diverse backgrounds, including Egyptians, Algerians, Tunisians, but mostly workers from Latin America. Egyptians we met usually call Latin Americans “the Spanish”, in relation to the language they speak. Workers in the main kitchen are not required to be fluent in english, what is required is a minimum of English knowledge to make contact with workers who speak different languages easier and with the bilingual Egyptian boss. However workers at the food carts are considered “professionals”, they have to be fluent in english so as to communicate effectively with clients. This effectively places food cart vendors on a higher standing than that of kitchen workers. This adds another tier to the operation with food carts managers on top, grill workers below and kitchen workers at the bottom.

Egyptian Dialect as Lingua Franca


Most recently, Halal Guys moved to employ a majority of Egyptians in their kitchen. This has been largely due to the recent crackdown by US authorities on undocumented migrants, most of which are latin american; employees can no longer be payed in cash, and each needs to have a legal ID and social security number. The Halal Guy owners gravitated towards employing Egyptians with legal status in the US. This has created a clear majority of workers who speak arabic with an Egyptian dialect in the kitchen and understand each other perfectly.

Arabic speakers from different countries have had to adapt to Egyptian dialect as a “Lingua Franca” as it has dominated the kitchen operation. This difficulty often means that workers unable to speak with that dialect are employed in jobs where the communication is not a priority, for example truck drivers, cleaners etc. More skilled workers like Salman, who are capable of speaking multiple languages and are fluent in speaking the egyptian dialect are promoted to working at the food carts. 

This video demonstrates recordings of Translanguaging and code-switching by food cart vendors during the daily transcation with clients ordering "Chicken over rice". This was chosen as a baseline for comparison between vendors' dialects.

Conclusions


The halal food cart sits at the intersection of a number networks, its mobile nature a good indicator of how these networks are manifested in the urban context. However its unique cultural identity, the promise of halal food, brings a number of linguistic conflicts to the fore. The success of selling halal food is not predicated on the taste of the food or the economics of its operation, mostly it is predicated on how well ts vendors can adapt to the predominant use of english in its immediate surrounding context. Its cultural identity, it’s the main selling point, is required to undergo a linguistic translation to enter medium where it is fully comprehensible to its consumer. The conflicts do not stop there, rather their effects are felt in the entire hierarchy of employment in the halal food operation as job positions, promotions and even the independence to navigate the regulatory system are predicated on the capability of vendors to speak english proficiently. Traversing all these conflicts the identity of halal food is distorted, what is essentially a cultural cornerstone for Arabs in general is commodified and abstracted through linguistic transformations, all to enable it to become a saleable commodity on the streets of New York.