YIWU, China (Reuters Life!) - Saied Elnagdi is at the heart of the growing trade links between China and Muslim nations, and the 26-year-old Egyptian loves it.
Elnagdi runs a bustling cafe-restaurant in the center of Yiwu, a famed wholesale market town in the eastern province of Zhejiang, known for its hard-driving private enterprises.
His clientele: the tens of thousands of Muslim traders who live here or pass through regularly to buy small consumer goods that eventually find their way into homes from Kabul to Cairo.
“Here, I don’t feel like I’m living in a foreign country,” Elnagdi said in his restaurant, the smell of scented tobacco permeating the air. “This is my second home.”
And Yiwu does feel like home for many Arabs and Muslims because the town has become a magnet for merchants from Afghanistan to South Africa.
Traders plying the markets occasionally pause from bargaining over everything from doorknobs to wall hangings to pray in the hallways. On Fridays, thousands gather at the local mosque for prayers, often meeting up with friends afterwards for kebabs and conversation in the stalls set up out front.
Touts outside the mosque even offer to illegally install satellite television channels to help the homesick keep up with news from back home.
“Everybody knows about this place,” said Mahomed Paruk, a South African trader spending a couple of months in Yiwu during his first trip here. “I’ve always been meaning to come here.”
Merchants like Paruk may come for the inexpensive goods, but they stay in part because life is affordable and comfortable.
Far from restricting religious observance as it does in parts of China where separatism is rife, such as the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the government built the main mosque and assigns police officers to control traffic during Friday prayers.
Dana Hamad, an Iraqi Kurd working in Yiwu as branch manager for an air cargo company, said he chose to live here rather than in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou because it is smaller, safer, and the people more friendly.
To Hamad, moving here was a good chance for a fresh start after having his hopes of becoming a teacher dashed by war and finding few other suitable opportunities back home.
“What can I do in my country, with wars happening all the time? This place is much better for doing business. China to me means opportunity,” he said.
Life in Yiwu, however, is not always easy.
Elnagdi, the restaurateur, said it took him some time to sort through all the red tape involved in setting up a business in China, and that stepped-up security during sensitive times such as last year’s Beijing Olympics could be a hassle.
Still, business is so good that he plans to open a second restaurant. He is even thinking of making longer-term plans to stay here.
“I hope I can find a Chinese wife, and then I’ll stay on,” he said. “People are very friendly here, and more importantly, China is the future.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy