Meet your neighbor: Imad Brookins brings artisan wares from around the world to Penn Ave.

One January morning in Cairo, Highland Parker Imad Brookins woke up to find the Internet and phone had been cut. He didn’t know it yet but it was early days of the pro-democracy protests rolling across Northern Africa and the Middle East that later would become known as the Arab Spring. Imad had moved to Cairo eight months earlier to study Arabic.

With only government propaganda on TV and no way to communicate with friends or family, Imad set out from his apartment to buy water and phone cards, even though he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find a working phone. He and a group of others converged at a friend’s house; one of them had a satellite phone that he shared despite the steep expense so that his friends could call relatives abroad.

Imad Brookins, behind the counter at Jamil’s

Imad’s Cairo experience was the start of eleven years away from Highland Park, where he grew up with seven siblings and his parents, the founders of Penn Ave. institution Jamil’s. His mother Rashida recently returned to Highland Park after a few years on the North Shore and Imad and some of his siblings help run the store.

After the Egyptian government first cut the phone and Internet, Imad spent about another month in Cairo trying to get out. Once, he managed to make it to the airport and found U.S. Marines and embassy representatives in the midst of the chaos offering to put U.S. citizens on planes – but they couldn’t say exactly to where. Imad held out. Ultimately a friend from Puerto Rico who was living in Indonesia was able remotely to buy him a same day ticket to Jakarta. After a scramble to pack what he could – Imad traded his TV and other belongings to friends for their suitcases so he could pack up his books – he made it out. He ended up having to leave behind products that he was selling in the local market as well as some unique tools used to make beads.

Fabrics in the shop

Just like in Cairo, in Indonesia Imad sourced goods to be sold in Jamil’s and also sourced and sold silver jewelry and batiks. Imad moved back to Pittsburgh in the early days of the pandemic. While picking up and starting over, first in Cairo and then in Indonesia, sounds impossible for many people, Imad’s childhood and parents perhaps made the thought of packing up for a faraway land within the realm of possible.

Imad’s late father, for whom the Penn Ave. shop is named, started out in construction but got into vending, initially at flea markets and other national events. He then joined other vendors lining Penn Ave., selling goods outside year around. One day a store front became available and Jamil and Rashida decided to risk it. “I remember my folks taking the table and running across Penn Ave. and put it in there, where it stayed for a while,” Imad said. That was 1994.

Jamil and Rashida traveled extensively. “Most of their travel was by invitation,” Imad said. “People saying, ‘I want you to meet my family in Morocco or Namibia or London.’” Once there, they would spend time in the marketplaces, haggling for the non-tourist price for goods that they could sell from the shop.

Today, Jamil’s website describes the store as “a community and marketplace that offers artisan wares, and books that celebrate black culture and history.” In addition to books, incense and jewelry, Jamil’s sells body care products including Jamil’s-branded shea butter and black seed oil that Imad makes in Rashida’s kitchen. Jamil’s also sells goods made by Imad’s sister Baiyinah who is a seamstress with an online store called The Woven Kente.

Imad, with some of the products available at Jamil’s, including Jamil’s branded shea butter

Visitors to Jamil’s receive a warm welcome and fascinating insight into the origins and history of some products. The shop counter is a jumble of squeeze bottles containing various scents, a combination of which may be similar to those used by Cleopatra, who is said to have used perfumes to attract men, Imad said. According to the label, Jamil’s African Black Body Soap Body Wash is a type of soap that has been used for centuries in west Africa and is made via an elaborate process that starts with drying plantain peels, coco pods, palm tree leaves and camwood bark and then roasting them. The remaining ash is mixed with shea butter and other oils and then cooked for up to 24 hours.

Entrepreneurship clearly is strong in Imad’s family. In Jakarta, Imad started a youth development program with his wife and business partner Widia Ratnasari. He’s currently at work on a couple of projects, including one that would offer live virtual shopping in marketplaces around the world and another that would set up a space for Pittsburgh artists to create and gain skills for marketing their art. You can find Imad working on Fridays and Saturday in Jamil’s.

Chairs fit for a king and queen at Jamil’s (all photos by James Rooney)