Land of Plenty

The Holy Land Market • 3609 Sutherland Ave.

Other towns have tracks to be on the wrong or right side of; Knoxville has ridges. To be sure, it makes driving north to south more complicated than crossing a railroad track. However, it also creates and incubates pools of lifestyles so surprisingly various that whether you're on the right or wrong side of anything ceases to matter.

Drive east to west through Knoxville for 30 minutes and nothing happens—you can watch Kingston Pike gradually become more like itself. Take two minutes to hop over a ridge to the north and you're in a whole different country.

For example, it is about eight blocks down the hill from old-money Sequoyah Hills homes to Sutherland Avenue's cheap apartments for University of Tennessee foreign students.

All is not cut-rate on Sutherland Avenue. There are a couple of check-cashing businesses, but a new apartment complex has sprung up across from West High School and retail space is under construction nearby. There are a number of auto repair and building-material suppliers, as well as the upscale outdoors emporium River Sports and the headquarters of the business technology company Thermocopy.

The Holy Land Market on Sutherland Avenue directly across from the UT student housing demonstrates the wonders that can spring up in environments financially modest but rich in diversity.

As far as proprietor Walter Ajlouny is concerned, diversity is what East Tennessee is all about. Ajlouny, dark-eyed, bewhiskered, direct, and outgoing, is as Middle Eastern in appearance as the owner of an Arabic grocery store should be, but his accent is New York, New York.

"I was born and raised in Michigan," he explains, "and lived 28, 29 years in Long Island. My wife is a native New Yorker." He had family in Knoxville; an aunt owned and operated the Falafel Hut restaurant in Fort Sanders for years. "My wife and I bought the Holy Land in October 2005. We were moving here from New York, all of my family is here, and they told us about the store."

In 2006, a fire that started in the Mexican grocery adjoining the Holy Land threatened to put the store out of business, but the Holy Land rebuilt better than ever. "The landlord had to redo the whole building almost like brand-new: new electrical, new lights, new plumbing, new floors," Ajlouny says.

"We picked the colors and I had the cabinetry all custom-built. We tried to do it in the Old World way, you know, where you scoop the dry goods and grains out of bins, we were trying to get that look."

Not only grains, but beans, lentils, fresh spices, and what appears to be every olive known to man are available in bulk at the Holy Land. "We're known for the variety of our feta cheese," Ajlouny says, "six different kinds of feta cheese, and our spices are very reasonable. I've got dried bakala. You know what bakala is? Dry salted codfish, yeah, we have that here, and we have smoked herring. That's stuff that you can't find in a supermarket."

The aisles of the small store are tight, but tidy, packed with specialty foods, including a wonderful selection of sweets. After the fire, a friend of Ajlouny's decorated the glass front of the Holy Land with a wildly colorful mural featuring swirling Arabic script and what looks like a fourth Wise Man on a camel.

The variety of the store's products draws customers beyond the foreign students from across the street. I observed customers who looked like they had come to the Holy Land direct from the Fresh Market; Ajlouny claims to have served people from Greece, Italy, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Do all these people really pass through this corner of East Tennessee? Ajlouny's business depends on it, and he says he's ready to cater to whomever walks through his door.

"We're slowly trying to increase our inventory, trying to get different nationalities of food from around the world. I tell people if there's something we don't have that they're looking for, we'll try to get it. We're trying to make everybody happy." m