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It’s Sonny in Rogers Park

Posted on February 28, 2011

By Bob Spoerl for

Imagine being in the middle of Tahrir Square in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution. It’s something that’s not imaginary, but real for Ismail Ibrahim. He was there on Feb. 11. “Never in Egypt did I imagine this would happen,” says the 65-year-old Rogers Park resident. It was a dream come true for him, something that causes the practical businessman to jump up out of his seat. Ibrahim is perhaps best known in the 49th Ward as the owner of Sonny’s Food Store. Ismail’s friends know him as Sonny – in fact, everyone calls him that.

For more than 30 years, Sonny lived a block from Tahrir Square, the main site of this month’s protests to oust President Hosni Mubarak.  Sonny emigrated from Egypt in 1978. Before moving, he served in the Egyptian army. Sonny left Egypt right before Hosni Mubarak took over as leader of that nation.  He left for opportunity in America and found it, first as a manager at the Hyatt in Lincolnwood – he proudly declares he was the only foreign-born manager at the time – then, in 1985 as a small business owner on Sheridan Road. Ibrahim opened Sonny’s Food Store that year and never looked back. He’s been operating the small grocery on the corner of Sheridan and Lunt for more than a quarter-century while keeping ties with his home country. 

“I try to go back two or three times a year,” Sonny says. He owns a villa off the Red Sea in Egypt and other properties. He’s not sure what the recent overthrow of Mubarak will mean for real estate in his native state, but he’s certain the shift toward democracy is for the better.

Mubarak was a “heartless” leader says Sonny, a “two-face” dictator who tried desperately to keep his people under his thumb.  Unfortunately, with a state in control of the media, most people in Egypt were hopelessly oblivious to Mubarak’s fraud and crimes. It makes Sonny laugh, but in a kind of way that shows he feels sympathy for the duped Egyptian majority. Sonny comes from an educated Egyptian family, an elite family part of the Egyptian army now in temporary control of the country.

Some things about Sonny may or may not surprise you. First, although he believes in God and was raised Muslim, he does not pray the standard five times a day custom in Islam. 

“Don’t think God will take care of you,” Sonny says. “I think and God will bless me.”

Sonny’s religious view seems similar to segments of the American protestant tradition.  His wife, Rowina, and two daughters consider themselves moderate Muslims, but wear Western and European clothing.  Sonny says he rejects the generalized, but sometimes true Middle Eastern Islamic culture stereotype where women are kept down and forced to wear veils.  He sees his wife Rowina as a life partner; they discuss life and politics and their family. They even argue, in a playful way.

If Sonny’s religious views don’t surprise you, perhaps his politics will. Sonny watches Fox News.  He is Republican and likes Bill O’Reilly. But he also thinks al Jazeera provides the best news coverage in the Middle East. Overall, Sonny tends to view politics as interesting grounds for discussion, but nothing he obsesses over.

Sonny thanks his father, who was a police officer in the Egyptian army, for encouraging him to be open-minded.  When Sonny decided to go to university in the 1960s to become an accountant and not a police officer like his father, there was little argument.  His late father was old-fashioned, says Sonny, but open-minded.  Sonny’s father was anything but practical, Sonny and Rowina joke.

“He lived in his own little world,” Rowina says.

That’s one place where Sonny says he differs from his father.

“On my desk there is a list of what I am supposed to do every day,” Sonny says. He numbers it one, two, three, four, etc., and attributes his financial and social success to organization. And respect.

“If everybody respected everybody else, life would be a lot better,” Sonny philosophizes. Running his business in this way, trying to respect every customer, has helped him stay the course and keep Sonny’s Food Store afloat and profitable.

While Sonny says he is practical, it’s obvious that the lecturing style of his father rubbed off on him a bit. He admits that he tends to ramble. But, it seems that in his rambling, Sonny’s wisdom shines through.

Rowina and Sonny married in 1988. She had went to school for interior design. She also speaks four languages. After they wed, they had their two children, both girls. One is now a senior at Northwestern University double majoring in communication sciences and disorders, and anthropology, the other wrapping up school at North Side Prep, one of the top public high schools in the city. She wants to study engineering and is considering top schools like MIT, Stanford and Northwestern.

A sociologist might generalize that the Ibrahim girls were raised in a very Western manner, not necessarily how they would have been raised in Egypt.

“The most important thing is that our children are happy,” Rowina says. While Sonny and her encouraged the girls to study hard and stay active, they never forced the girls to take up a particular subject or inhabit a particular ideology.  The girls chose their own after school passions; both ended up falling in love with rowing. 

Just because Sonny and Rowina maintain an open-minded kind of philosophy in rearing their children doesn’t mean the house has no rules. But the girls live under a roof that would be considered progressive compared to many households in Egypt, or even here in the states.

Sonny hopes to return to Egypt sometime soon, when things are more stable. While he thoroughly enjoyed being there during the revolution, he understands that it may take time for a democracy to form. But he is so very happy for Egyptians and proud of the young people there.

“We thought that all the young people were spoiled and had no future,” Sonny says. “And we found out they were unimaginable – the best.”


* Bob Spoerl is a young journalist based here in Chicago. He attends the Medill school of Journalism and interned for the WTTW news hour ‘Chicago Tonight.’ Before Medill, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy from Loyola, where he developed an affection for Rogers Park. Read his weekly contributions at








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Reader Comments

I really loved the article about Sonny.  Thanks for details on a familiar figure.  But my editors pen never shuts up so I want Mr. Spoerl to correct to “While she and Sonny encouraged the girls . . . ” from “While Sonny and her encouraged the girls . . .”

There was something else, but now I’ve forgotten it. 

Thanks for the really good article.

Jan Boudart

Posted on March 04, 2011 at 2:03 pm

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