MUNICH — As a guest in the Forum for Islam religious community center in Munich several months ago — before the coronavirus pandemic — I was given a book and a bar of chocolate. Written on the wrapper of the confection in German, Hebrew, and Arabic were the words “kosher” and “halal.”
My curiosity piqued, I sought out and managed to sit down with Nadia Doukali, the woman who marketed and sold the candy — and who insisted, despite what detractors said, on labeling it with Jewish and Muslim dietary certification side by side.
The 49-year-old entrepreneur moved to Germany together with her family from their native Morocco in 1975. Recalling the summer vacations spent back in Morocco each year, Doukali said it was completely normal to see Jewish children in yarmulkes playing next to Muslim kids with crocheted headgear.
“Both head coverings were made by the same tailor,” she said.
In Germany, Doukali was shocked to discover the word “Jew,” which she claims in Morocco was a playful stand-in for “shrewd,” was used as a curse in her new school. At the age of 12 she realized that most people in her clique were Jewish, and ended up attending bat mitzvah celebrations at synagogue.
“When I told them I knew [about the custom] from Morocco, they were surprised because they didn’t know there were still Jews there. We learned a lot about each other. Later on, some of these friends opened Jewish restaurants in Frankfurt,” Doukali said. That’s where she got her first taste of kosher food.
Doukali is an articulate, friendly and modern Muslim businesswoman who tries to use her religion to build bridges with others — such as through a children’s book she wrote about the Prophet Muhammad which was later recorded on audio. The book contains positive references towards Jews.
In 2017 she designed a Ramadan calendar, the “Iftarlender,” a portmanteau containing the Arabic word Iftar — the evening meal with which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast. Behind each of the 30 little doors in the calendar hides a term from the Koran and a chocolate-coated date. In an additional e-book, Doukali put explanations of various Muslim terms together with parallels from other religions, including Jewish proverbs.
A logical continuation of Doukali’s Ramadan calendar, she said, was chocolate. She also wanted the product to bring Jews and Muslims together, similar to her experience in Morocco.
“When I decided it would be a halal chocolate bar, I thought, why not make it kosher, too?” she said.
Through her Jewish friends, Doukali contacted a local Orthodox rabbi who happily advised her on kosher laws. Her next stop was the German chocolate manufacturer Weinrich, which agreed to produce the chocolate according to her recipe.
“When I told him it should be kosher and halal, he asked me if I was sure,” Doukali said. “When I said of course, he responded by saying nobody would buy it. I just ignored him.”
The company agreed to bring the factory up to kosher and halal standards — which usually involves a thorough cleaning for the production run and careful monitoring of the ingredients — on one condition: the Doukali order at least 500,000 chocolate bars.
“I said I’ll take the risk because I have clients who found it to be a great idea that a Muslim wants to market her products as kosher and halal in both Hebrew and Arabic,” Doukali said.
After six months the manufacturer was able to satisfy all the religious requirements for Doukali’s nine chocolate brands. The kosher certification was provided by the European office of the New York-based Triangle-K supervision agency, which Doukali didn’t contact directly.
“Surprisingly,” she said, “the Muslim certification was harder to get. With the kosher certificate you have to follow a few rules, then the rabbi comes and certifies the product. With halal you have to satisfy all seven streams of Islam.”
For example, she said, Shiites ban carmine, a red pigment, because it is derived from insects, while Sunnis allow it. “I wanted a product that would appeal to every Muslim. That was difficult because only alcohol and pork are prohibited for all Muslims,” she said. However, carmine is also not considered kosher because it comes from insects.
Doukali said she was overwhelmed by the response to her Iftarlade chocolate bars, “especially from people who promote intercultural dialogue and from Muslims who have Jewish friends or a Jewish partner.”
“They are disappointed that such [interfaith and intercultural] relationships are mostly overshadowed by the conflict in Israel and Palestine,” she said.
The German press hailed Doukali as a brave businesswoman. Only the German-Jewish blogger Chajm questioned (German link) the Jewish “junior partner” status in the creation of the interfaith product. “Because of its name, the Iftarlade isn’t a halal-kosher chocolate. Rather, it’s a chocolate for a Muslim target group, which Jews are also allowed to eat.”
Chajm doubted that “sensitive Jewish buyers” would buy a chocolate whose name is derived from a religious Muslim ritual, the Iftar — especially when they can buy other kosher chocolate. Doukali wrote back questioning the criticism. She explained the various meanings of the term “iftar” and her idea of being “united in chocolate.”
Chajm did change his mind somewhat, Doukali said, but he didn’t revise his text. “Some people are afraid to bring Jews and Muslims together, even if it’s only over a chocolate bar,” she said.
Doukali also received pushback from her fellow Muslims. “At a food fair, Muslims from Saudi Arabia and a few Palestinians told me they cannot accept the Hebrew lettering on the wrapper,” she said.
Elsewhere, that fact of the company’s female management was the issue. An Egyptian buyer once approached Doukali’s male marketing assistant and said he wanted to place a large order. When the employee went to call his boss, the Egyptian grew irritated, Doukali said. “And when I came and greeted him, he stood up he stood up and left without even shaking my hand,” she said.
When Orthodox Jews approached her stand, Doukali had her male sales manager take over. In some ultra-Orthodox circles, male-female interaction between people other than spouses and relatives is discouraged, and touching is forbidden.
“I trained my staff to handle it this way out of respect for the other group,” Doukali said. “But I gave all the explanations about the product myself and made the decisions about the price, and that wasn’t a problem. When they were unsure what it means for a product to be halal and kosher, they asked to see the certification, and when I showed it to them they were pleased.” A handshake was not necessary.
The most popular Iftarlade is the milk chocolate with dates and salt, said Doukali. “Everybody loves the combination of German chocolate, dates — which are central to Ramadan — and kosher salt,” she said.
Doukali is a perfectionist, and constantly in action as a single mother of three sons, one of whom still lives at home. Because of the coronavirus pandemic she had to pump the brakes hard — just in time for Ramadan.
“Every year I ‘stumble’ into Ramadan from my fast-paced life, and I never find the time to prepare spiritually and physically,” she said. “I never find the time to slow down. This year all of a sudden I did, and it made me so happy. Am I allowed to say that while so many people are anxious and even in a panic? For me the plague is a blessing!”
“Social distancing is a form of Ramadan,” she explained. “We are ‘fasting’ from our social contacts, we work from home, and we don’t celebrate in public. The only grave difference is that we’re not allowed into mosques.”
As far as celebrating Ramadan without visiting friends and relatives: “It’s hard,” she said. “But I accept it.”
The effect of the coronavirus crisis on Doukali’s chocolate sales is bittersweet. The mosques are closed, “but thank God the supermarkets are open and my Ramadan calendar is on sale there. In addition, the crisis releases many stress hormones and the best way to deal with them is through chocolate. The chocolate consumption is immense.”