Young Arabs get down to business in China
GUANGZHOU, CHINA // Looking up at a waitress, Ahmad Shalabi, 26, switches briefly from English to place his order in Mandarin, before resuming the story of how he came to China.
When he arrived in Guangzhou from Irbid in Jordan eight years ago to work in his uncle's restaurant, the city's Arab population was just starting to grow and Arab restaurants and Muslim supermarkets were difficult to find.
Now there are Yemeni, Libyan, Lebanese and other Arab restaurants serving a population that has swelled dramatically thanks to the city's role as a key centre for trade with the Middle East. Four years ago, of about 60,000 Muslims in this city of 13 million in southern China, at least half were from overseas.
The waitress at this Libyan restaurant returns with two small glasses of Arab-style tea, as Mr Shalabi chats: "Arab people like to come to Guangzhou. We like to stay in China. It's an easy country, good business."
As the centre of China's world-dominating manufacturing industry, Guangdong province and its capital city attract Arab visitors looking for sources of low-cost goods.
Electronic Qurans, clothes, toys and plastic cups are on sale in wholesale markets, some of which have red or green neon Arabic signs to lure customers.
The growing Arab influence in Guangzhou comes as trade between China and the Arab world has increased significantly, more than quadrupling from US$36.4 billion (Dh133.6bn) in 2004 to $145.4 billion in 2010.
The new influx of Arabs, Iranians and other Muslims has important historical echoes.
About 1,400 years ago, the first mosque in China is believed to have been built in Guangzhou by Arab Muslims travelling along the Silk Road and beyond, attracted like their modern-day equivalents by the city's role as a trading hub.
Just as the city has returned to its historical role as a magnet for Arab and other foreign Muslim traders, it also attracts Muslims from other parts of China. Uighurs from the far-western Xinjiang province have set up restaurants, and Hui people from Ningxia in central China run food stores.
Su Zhengjun, 41, a former soldier who has two supermarkets, says it is "very important" that halal food was available. He imports food from the UAE, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, and is keen to expand his supplier base.
"If you cannot get food, you cannot do business here," he says. "I'm a Muslim, so I know what they want. I want to build a global Muslim food store. I want my store to have Muslim food from every country."
At the Huaisheng Mosque, built on the site where China's first mosque was established as early as 627, about 40 per cent of the 5,000 worshippers each Friday are from overseas.
"These people coming to Guangzhou, many of them settle down and live here for a long time. The number grew from the late 1990s. You cannot compare the number then with now," says Bai Zhaokun, a mosque employee and member of China's Hui minority.
The worshippers include Malaysian tourists and visitors from the Middle East who make regular trips to Guangzhou to buy goods, but do not live in the city.
Many Arabs here spend the evenings in the city's Arab-run restaurants, watching Middle Eastern satellite television or chatting with fellow traders.
"I sit with my Egyptian friends," says Nour Soud, 54, from Giza, who has come to Guangzhou regularly for the past seven years to arrange orders of factory equipment.
He enjoys the availability of halal foods and especially the "Arabic restaurants and Turkish restaurants".
Not all Arabs in Guangzhou are here for trade. A 30-year-old Syrian kitchen assistant at the Durra Al Shan Restaurant fled to China six months ago to escape the violence in his home country. When the fighting is over, he plans to return to Syria to work.
Among the long-term residents, Mr Ma from Lebanon, who has taken a Chinese surname, has lived in Guangzhou about seven years, moving here after completing a master's degree in computer science elsewhere in China.
Originally not intending to settle, the Beirut native now speaks fluent Mandarin, some Cantonese, and has a business finding supplies of construction materials for export.
Like a number of Arabs in Guangzhou, the 32-year-old has married a Chinese woman and the couple have a four-year-old son.
"It's not easy to do my business in the US or Europe. To be in China, it's easy. The people are peaceful. No one disturbs you. Be good and everything will be good for you," he says.
While Mr Ma put down roots in Guangzhou, other Arabs arriving in the city eventually settle elsewhere, depending on what goods they are dealing in.
Those who buy and sell ceramics gravitate towards Foshan, a short distance away to the south-east and famous for its ancient kilns. Anyone specialising in tools is likely to base themselves in Yiwu in the east - like Guangzhou, a key centre for Arabs.
Mr Shalabi travels between Guangzhou and Yiwu dealing in clothes, furniture and plastic flowers.
His dream, which has become feasible because of the Arab boom in southern China, is to open a Middle Eastern clothing store.
"Not wholesale. One piece, two piece. But until now I'm not doing my dream. Slowly, slowly," he smiles.