Even before I met Ibrahim Abdullah, I knew he had a passion for food simply from looking at his family’s website. Never before had a description for a store been so poetic.
And he’s right – when you walk in this store, you do get an overwhelming desire to go through every aisle, because each one promises something different. There are teapots from Germany and rose water from Lebanon, Sri Lankan tea and Burham honey from Turkey. As the largest Middle Eastern market in Oregon, the Abdullahs have given us an intersection of many cultures right here in Corvallis.
Yet Bazaar International Market and its attached restaurant, Al Jebal, often feel like one of Corvallis’ best-kept secrets. Abdullah and his family want you to know they’re here. Consider this article a shout from the rooftop.
From Northern Iraq to the Pacific Northwest
Bazaar International has been here for seven years but, before that, the Abdullahs had a similar business in Portland. When Ibrahim’s sister transferred from Portland State University to Oregon State University, her family decided they’d rather be in Corvallis.
“It’s better to have the family all in one place,” says Ibrahim, who runs the store side while his parents mostly work in the restaurant, which his sister manages.
But before they called the Pacific Northwest home, the Abdullahs lived in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. They came here as refugees about 20 years ago, as part of Operation Pacific Haven. Ibrahim’s father worked as a chef for the U.S. army, so his family was given political asylum. They traveled through Turkey and stayed in Guam for six months before eventually settling in Oregon.
When Ibrahim traveled back to Kurdistan for the first time in 2013, things were looking up for the region, but that economic boom didn’t last long.
“Kurdistan was going to be like the next Dubai. Everything looked good, they were building, money [was] flowing in… I went about a year and a half ago [and] it’s the complete opposite,” Ibrahim says.
“No one knows the future for us; there’s been cut spending and no one’s really building, so it’s a tough time right now. A lot of our family members – there’s no salary, the government completely cut off. There are people literally working for less than $100 a month.”
Thankfully the Abdullahs are here doing what they love: bringing amazing food to the community they’ve come to call home.
From South Corvallis to Monroe Avenue
Ibrahim’s father worked at a halal market in Portland for over 10 years before finding a partner that would help him open his own store.
Halal, Ibrahim explained to me, is “like our version of what kosher is to Jewish people. It’s very similar to theirs as well. It’s how the meat is slaughtered, but also how the meat is taken care of. All the animals are taken care of, the cows have to be grass-fed, not just corn fed.”
The Abdullahs raise their own lambs, goats, and cows on a farm in Dayton, Oregon, and their chicken is sourced from companies that do strictly halal meat. At first, most of their meat was purchased by Muslim customers who were specifically looking for halal products, but more people are starting to catch on.
Ibrahim says his father takes care of the meat, and his mother does the cooking. When I arrived for our interview, Ibrahim was gracious enough to order some food for me to sample, and explained each dish with pride. I sampled the Veggie Mezze & Pita and the Chicken Yogurt Tandoori, all of which was fresh and fragrant, showing the Abdullahs’ dedication to great food.
But the restaurant is only part of what the Abdullahs offer. One of their main goals in coming to Corvallis was serving the growing population of international students, especially those from Saudi Arabia. But what started out as a heavily Middle Eastern store has evolved into something much more eclectic, including products from India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and more. This was in response to the decrease in students from Saudi Arabia and the influx of students from Asia.
“I remember at one point almost 1,500 to 2,000 Saudi students lived in Corvallis [but], for about a year, I haven’t seen any new students. It’s been difficult, so that’s why we’re branching out. Last time I checked, there were 1,500 Chinese students at Oregon State,” says Ibrahim, who clearly knows his market.
Ibrahim recently opened Monroe International Market close to campus with the hope of reaching even more of the student population. He takes the needs of his clientele seriously, ordering products as they’re requested.
“The first time I had a student come in asking for a matte tea, I said yeah, give me a week, and he was so excited. [He] said it was the first time he’d been in a store and someone actually listened. That next week I had an order, it was on the truck and on the shelf,” said Ibrahim.
Whether you’re looking for an elusive spice, tea from Yemen, or Macha Kit Kats, the Abdullahs have you covered. Ibrahim pointed out that they even have Turkish Delights; he smiled when he recalled people’s fascination when they realize this treat from the Chronicles of Narnia is not fictitious. It’s something you can have in your own backyard.
“We have a couple families in Medford that come every couple of months. They’ve been buying from my dad for 20 years, so there’s that trust,” says Ibrahim.
Stop into one of their stores just once, and you may become a customer for life. We hope you do, because the Abdullahs are the kind of neighbors you want to keep around.
By Anika Lautenbach