By Madiha Gomaa
“Molokhia” is a thick green soup made of the leaves of Corchorus olitorius, known in English as jute mallow. It is a quite popular dish in the Middle East and something I did not think I’d find in the United States. But when I walked into Baba, Malden’s first Middle Eastern grocery store, I saw “Molokhia leaves” on one of the boxes. I quickly took a picture of it and sent it to my mom in Egypt. I soon was able to speak to store co-owner Mounir Kabbani and learn how the business started.
Sixteen years ago, Mounir Kabbani and his family left Lebanon and came to the U.S. with his family hoping for better education opportunities. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in business management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, followed by a master’s degree in political science from Suffolk University, and now he runs his family business, Baba Supermarket.
Mounir and his dad, Adib Kabbani, together started Baba in 2011. It’s hard to miss as it’s located next to Malden’s city hall. There, you can find Middle Eastern products and groceries that are usually difficult to get.
Mounir likes how sometimes his store reminds people of their home countries, traditions, and childhood. “I remember how someone walked in and was surprised to see a sesame candy bar. It reminded him of his childhood as he used to eat that candy all the time when he was a kid. He got so excited that the next day he brought his kids, who had never seen a sesame bar, to try it,” Mounir said.
When Mounir left Lebanon in 2006, the country’s economy was more stable than today. Currently, Lebanon is going through the worst economic crisis in its history. As Mounir has a degree in political science, I expected to have a long, heated conversation with him about Lebanon’s current political and economic situation. But he didn’t really want to talk about it. However, the disappointment on his face said everything. “May God help people there. They’re suffering; they’re the ones who are paying the price! And it’s getting worse and worse day after day,” Mounir said.
Coming to the States from a Middle Eastern culture can pose challenges for adjusting and fitting in. Mounir did not find that difficult. However, he didn’t expect how people here get so consumed by work that they don’t have time for anything else. He misses being socially engaged, something he was used to all the time in Lebanon. “I have no time for social life here. It’s all about work,” he said.
Mounir’s dad used to run a cafeteria back in Lebanon. His family has always been into business. So, when Adib moved to the U.S., he wasn’t looking to work for someone. He wanted to start a family business here too. And he did.
Adib rented a small section in Haymarket and turned it into a Middle Eastern food station that sold shawarma, falafel, and hummus. Five years later, in 2011, Mounir was walking down the street with his dad in Malden when he saw this place with a “for rent” sign; he told Adib they should try calling the number. At that time, they were looking for a new place to upgrade their food business. However, they didn’t expect, within a matter of days after the phone call, their small food station in Haymarket would turn into a permanent grocery store in Malden.
It wasn’t hard to choose a name for the store. Mounir describes his dad as one of the most sociable people he knows. He likes being around people. If he didn’t know you, he would approach you anyway and start a conversation. Adib even got a bit emotional when Mounir told him they had to be on Grubhub and Uber Eats; Adib knew that most people would probably find it easier to order online than come to the store. But for him, it meant less social interaction, something he appreciated and loved about being a store owner.
“He felt as if he was a dad to everyone. All people who knew him in Boston started calling him Baba, and that’s how he got his nickname,” Mounir said.
So, when it was the time to choose a name for the store, Mounir suggested “Baba Supermarket” and his Baba liked it.
Mounir has always liked having his business in Malden. Having a Middle Eastern place doesn’t necessarily mean that most of Baba’s customers are Arabs. Malden is one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts. People from all countries walk into his store, and he loves it. He enjoys meeting new people from different countries, backgrounds, and cultures.
He believes that Mayor Gary Christenson’s administration is exerting efforts toward embracing this diversity and transforming the city into a more attractive and welcoming place. “I think that the mayor is doing a great job. Malden has never been active as it has been now. They’ve been holding many events and festivals yearly to engage people and strengthen the sense of belonging to a community. People love it,” he said.
“Family is everything,” Mounir said. Although he received his master’s degree in something he’s been passionate about – political science – he didn’t want to work in the field because it’s time-consuming, and the jobs involve politics and diplomacy that keep people away from their families and require much traveling. Mounir wanted to spend every moment he had with his parents. “My dad is getting older. I don’t want to wake up one day and regret not spending enough time with him,” he said. “This is how you combine family and work—working in a family business that keeps you around them most of the time. I never felt obligated or forced to take on that responsibility. I love it, and it’s what I want to do,” he said.
Operating during the pandemic
Like every other business, Baba was struck hard by COVID. The business deals with multiple vendors who import products and goods from the Middle East. With a global pandemic hampering the international trade and crippling the supply chains worldwide, many items regularly stocked were no longer available.
Although running the store during the pandemic became challenging and even unsafe, Baba never shut down. They cut down working hours but kept their doors open to everyone. The main reason was that the owners believed they had a social responsibility toward their community. They had to offer the help they could during this difficult time. “If everyone started acting selfish and relied on the government’s financial assistance, life would’ve been hell,” Mounir said. “If somebody needed to do shopping, the necessary basic stuff, and all places were closed because owners are afraid of getting COVID, how would it be possible to go about our day?”
For Mounir’s family, staying open during the pandemic was never about money. They were eligible for the government assistance; they could’ve applied for it and closed their store, but they never did. “It was about overcoming this crisis as a community by showing solidarity, offering every support possible, and being there for each other,” Mounir said
To be a Cosmic Dancer
Mounir hasn’t been through the culture shock phase like most immigrants when they first arrive in a new country. What helped him adjust quickly was a philosophical concept he adopted long ago; go about life as a “cosmic dancer.” He explained that being a cosmic dancer means trying to blend in, interact and communicate with people from different cultures and backgrounds. He said that in a diverse community, you need to “dance” with everyone by stepping out of your comfort zone, letting go of your preconceived ideas, and being open to “different.” But it could be tricky as sometimes, people lose their identity within dancing.
“Stay open-minded, accept new things, accept new cultures, and love everyone. But don’t lose your identity, don’t underestimate yourself or your culture, and at the same time, don’t think you’re superior to others. It’s all about finding this balance,” Mounir said.
All photos by Madiha Gomaa