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Aftershock: Customers bring joy to Pakistani store manager

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ever since Sept. 11, the way Pittsburghers have reacted to him has shocked Mohammed Asif, who is from Pakistan.

Mohammed Asif runs a 7-Eleven store on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, Castle Shannon. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

There was one woman, a white woman, who, three days after the terrorist attacks, handed him something wrapped in foil.

"I don't know her name," Asif says, sitting on a stool in the back room of the 7-Eleven store he manages on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard in Castle Shannon. Nor did the woman, one of 1,000 customers who come in any given day, know his.

"She brought bread," Asif says, his whole face softening at the thought. It was still warm from the oven. "It was very fresh. Very delicious. She says, 'Are you OK? I'm so worried about you guys.'

"I got a lot of respect for her now," he says. "It wasn't just bread. It was how much she cared for us."

It wasn't just bread.

Another customer handed Asif his business card and said, "If you have any problems, just call me." He is a Baptist minister.

Another regular -- a Morgan Stanley assistant vice president -- handed over his card with his home phone number written on the back and said, "Asif, don't worry about anything. If you don't feel safe in your home, you can stay with me. Think of my home as your home."

It was, Asif says, "very sweet."

Especially considering how ugly some reaction was right after the attacks, which the United States attributed to Islamic extremists.

Across the country, Muslims and other brown-skinned people have been threatened, harassed and attacked, including a Pakistani University of Pittsburgh student. Among the incidents being investigated as hate crimes are four murders; each victim was a man working in a small store or gas station, including a Pakistani near Dallas.

How Lives Have Changed

One in an occasional series on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have affected ordinary Americans.

Previous Installments

Navy diver certain her next assignment will be in Mideast

Fascination and fear grip 10-year-old in equal parts

Kurt Angle embraces role as U.S. icon

He leaves his adopted country after ugly encounters

A volunteer confronts the pain at WTC

US Airways' mechanic escapes 'certain' layoff, but reprieve only prolongs uncertainty


Sure, Asif was concerned, and still is. But in his store there's only been one ignorant reaction: The man who, after the United States attacked targets in Afghanistan, invited one of Asif's five Pakistani workers to celebrate by getting drunk. (Most Muslims don't drink).

Pittsburgh in general hasn't seemed to have experienced a big backlash. (In fact, last week, the "Lil Pakistan" restaurant quietly opened in the Strip District, where one burly worker stopped in on the first day, told the owners to call if they had any trouble, and then blessed the place in Italian.)

Still, Asif continues to be pleasantly surprised by how many customers in his predominantly white neighborhood are concerned for him and his workers.

"I feel so lucky to be here," says Asif, wearing the traditional garb of his country: athletic shoes, jeans and a polo shirt.

He's American now.

He was born in 1958 in Lahore, the second-largest city in Pakistan. His parents, along with millions of other Muslims, had moved there from India after Partition in 1947.

Asif, with his easy sense of humor, laughs at how Americans used to know little about where he's from. Now Pakistan is plastered all over, including on the racks of newspapers in his store. "Now I think almost everyone knows Pakistan is an independent country."

Even his regular customers might be surprised to learn that, after college, Asif worked for Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The same buddy he followed to the United States in 1992 is the one who got him into 7-Elevens. That's one explanation for why so many convenience stores are run by Pakistanis, says Asif (who has three cousins running them in Pittsburgh): "We keep learning from each other."

It's hard work, at stores that never close. After a couple of years in gritty Camden, N.J., Asif came to a cousin in Pittsburgh and worked two years at his store in Plum. Two years on the overnight shift, and Asif can recall just one bad incident, when someone sprayed something in the store. He has much more to say about having met and made his best friend here, a typical Pittsburgher who shared her Irish heritage.

Asif moved to this store (owned by the same cousin) and to a Mt. Lebanon apartment about four years ago. He's been very happy here, and now is a well-liked fixture in this business district. All the tellers at his bank wave when he comes in. He invited the bank manager to his reception after his wedding, last November, to a Virginia woman --- arranged, as is traditional in his culture, through friends. Also present at the party was his Irish-American friend, who helped him clean up his bachelor pad for the arrival of his bride, whose name is Rehana.

Asif is unabashedly crazy about her, as you can see by the way he beams when he says, "She's a very nice person. She's a wonderful wife. She cares about me too much."

He keeps using the word "lucky." Like when he talks about how they have a baby on the way. He wants to name the girl "Sheeza," a name he's been testing out and thinks is easy enough to say for other Americans.

He embraces his Pakistani culture -- from the traditional dress to the food -- but also has adapted to this culture, so strongly embodied in his 24-hour store and gas station. He is not always able to properly pray five times a day, and can't get to his mosque on Fridays (though he allows a co-worker to go). He and his wife both enjoy eating at Atria's and the Olive Garden.

Thus, the stars and stripes he flies out front of the store, and the "Proud to Be An American" T-shirts and "God Bless America" signs he sells -- it's "from the heart," he says.

Otherwise, he avoids talking politics in the store.

That's not what most customers ask him about. Instead, as he rings up their papers and coffees, they ask him things like, "How's your family back in Pakistan?"

Asif, who has five sisters and a brother there and a sister in India and lots of nieces and nephews, has been lucky to be able to say they are all fine.

Lucky, too, to be able to tell them the ways people here react to him.

"It makes me feel like we're in a secure place."

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