When Muslims make merry at Christmas

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By Khaled Diab

For Western Muslims, Christmas is just outside their doorsteps. For some, Christmas even skips merrily in from the cold and crosses the threshold into their homes. 

Father Christmas arrives by camel.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 6 January 2020

Here in Belgium, people do not traditionally set up their Christmas trees until after the chocolatey feast of Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, which mutated to form the American “Santa Claus” in the melting pot of New York, formerly known as New Amsterdam.

Not being one to stand on ceremony, my wife, who is Belgian, suggested we put out the Christmas decorations early this year to help ease the blues of our first full winter back in Europe after several years in Tunis and Jerusalem.

When the saintly gift-bearer, whose existence my 10-year-old son is beginning to doubt, arrived for what might be his final visit to our house, he must have been confused to find it all done up like a Christmas tree already. On deeper reflection, I am aware of the glaring contradiction between parents telling their kids never to accept anything from strangers and then pretending it’s okay for a mysterious old man to enter their homes in the dead of night to leave treats behind.

In our multicultural, irreligious household where we encourage our son to celebrate his dual European-Arab heritage, Christmas is his favorite festival, as it is my wife’s. With how secularised it has become in the West, it is more fun than the Islamic feasts we also mark, even though those also feature quite a number of secular delights.

When we lived in the Middle East, visits home for Christmas gave our son a warped view of Belgium, making it appear like a magical fairy tale land full of glittering lights and toys. Even for us as adults, these artificial Northern Hemisphere lights and the festive bustle on the streets help warm up the dark, cold winter’s nights. And it is dispiriting when they disappear shortly after the new year, plunging the second half of winter into unfiltered darkness.

As an atheistic adult, Christmas has become an integral part of my calendar. Typically, we spend Christmas Eve with my wife’s family; Christmas Day is often reserved for friends, not just Christian, but also Muslim and sometimes Jewish.

When I was a child, my Muslim family didn’t really celebrate Christmas, but it was all around, right outside our doorstep. I recall the thrill of touring central London with my parents to admire the beautiful lights.

Not wishing us to feel left out, my late mother allowed us to keep some Christmas traditions. We sent and received Christmas cards. Mum bought presents for our teachers and took us to Christmas fetes. We took part in the school Christmas play, and I sang in the school choir for a brief window before my voice broke. I still know by heart many Christmas carols and hymns.

Some years, Christmas even skipped merrily in from the cold outside and crossed the threshold into our home: We decorated the house, and mum attempted to make what were for us exotic Christmas dishes, albeit halal versions, with absolutely no booze in sight.

These days, with commentators declaring that Islam and Christianity are locked in a clash of civilizations, these anecdotes may seem strange or exceptional. They aren’t.

Although Christmas is not an Islamic festival, my mum believed in civility and saw it as a common courtesy to share people’s moments of joy and grief. Open-minded Muslim that she was, my mother saw no contradiction between celebrating the birth of Christ with our Christian neighbours and her own deeply held faith. After all, Jesus is an important figure in Islam — he is the most holy man next to Muhammad.

Of course, not all Muslims are as accepting of others as my mother was. The reverence with which Jesus is viewed in Islam makes the declarations by some Salafi imams — especially in hardline countries like Saudi Arabia — that Christmas is “haram” and pious Muslims must cold-shoulder their Christian neighbours and colleagues sound like petty, vindictive, intolerant sectarian humbug.

The main beef Muslim critics have is with the Christian conviction that Jesus is the “Son of God,” which they claim is tantamount to idol worship. But even if you disagree on the nature of Christ, there is no reason, beyond spite and insecurity, not to wish Christians a joyous Christmas.

And on closer inspection, the differences in the Islamic and Christian perception of Christ can, to the eyes of the sceptic, appear to be just another chapter in the centuries-long, hair-splitting tradition of Christology.

In fact, as I show in my book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, the Quran’s conception of Christ would sound hauntingly familiar to a Christian, an observation that is bound to enrage these myopic clerics.

Not only was Jesus born a “boy most pure,” according to the Quran, he is also the only character in Islam’s sacred book who is described as the “Word” of God. The Quran even quotes God as claiming that “We blew into [Mary] of Our Spirit.” Here we have all three sides of the holy Trinity (the ‘Father’, the ‘Son’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’), not to mention Mother Mary, but they are perceived to intersect differently in the minds of Muslims.

This central importance of Jesus in both the Christian and Islamic traditions helps explain why the annual media controversies over the “War on Christmas” leave many Western Muslims miffed. For example, while I understand the urge for inclusiveness that motivated the mayor of Charleston, Amy Goodwin, to rechristen the Christmas Parade the “Winter Parade”, it was wholly unnecessary.

How inclusive a festival is depends on how it is conducted, not what it is called. When we lived in Tunis, my son’s school held a Christmas party even though the majority of the kids were Muslim, as was Father Christmas himself, and everybody seemed to enjoy it.

At the school before that, in Jerusalem, Santa’s arrival on camelback was greeted with the same level of thrill and enthusiasm by Christian, Muslim and Jewish children alike. In Jerusalem, we also enjoyed marking the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which often overlaps with Christmas.

Nuns admiring the Christmas tree in Bethlehem.
Image: © Katleen Maes

Just down the road in Bethlehem, the town in which Jesus was reportedly born in a manger (of which a chunk supposedly survives), Christmas continues to be a big deal, especially on Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Although Bethlehem is still home to many Christians, there has been a long and steady decline of the Palestinian and Israeli Christian populations, which was around 10% a century ago and stands at less than 2% today.

Christmas lasts a very long time in the Holy Land. There, you get a month of Christmases: Western (25 December), Eastern and Orthodox (7 January) and Jerusalem Armenians (19 January). In a sort of quantum metaphysics, Western and Eastern Christmas are on the same day and they are not (7 January in the Gregorian calendar is 25 Decweber in the Julian calendar still used by Orthodox churches).

Christmas has retained much of its religious flavour for Middle Eastern Christians. For example, midnight Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is so popular, even amongst some Muslims, that tickets are acquired via a lottery.

Here in Belgium and in most of Western Europe, Christmas has become a far more secular affair, effectively morphing into a winter festival for the majority non-church-going population, which is what it originally was prior to the arrival of Christianity. Despite my aversion to the runaway consumerism of the season, it is this merry, jolly, secularised festival that suits my unbelieving heart the most.


This article was first published by The Washington Post on 23 December 2019.

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Merry Muslims at Christmas

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By Khaled Diab

Despite fears of an anti-Christmas jihad, many ordinary Muslims enjoy getting into the spirit of the season.

Father Christmas arrives by camel.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 21 December 2018

Chérif Chekatt, the Strasbourg-born man named as the mass shooter at the city’s beautiful Christmas market killed two, left one victim brain dead and wounded a dozen others. He also reportedly yelled out ‘Allahu Akbar’, which is Arabic for ‘God is Greatest’, during the attack.

If the theory proves accurate that this former criminal, whom French police say was radicalised in prison, was motivated by Islamic extremism, then the target chosen by this ‘gangster jihadi’ has its own twisted logic. Not only is a festive market a soft and hard-to-protect location, it is also hugely symbolic because jihadis believe they are engaged in a religious war with ‘Christendom’ and Christmas is the most important, or at least the most joyous, holiday in the Christian calendar.

This helps explain why this is not the first time that a Christmas market has been targeted by Islamist terrorists. Previous attempts include a foiled plot to bomb the Strasbourg market in 2000 and the truck-ramming at the Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, carried out by criminal-turned-extremist Anis Amri.

Christmas is under siege because there are large numbers of Muslims in the West,” claimed Robert Spencer, the conservative Christian founder of Jihad Watch who is quite literally on a political crusade against Islam in the West, in the wake of the Berlin attack. “The responsibility lies with those who admitted them without regard for Islam’s doctrines of religious warfare and supremacism.”

Chérif Chekatt, it would appear, is part of the armed wing of the wider cultural ‘War on Christmas’, which Western conservatives believe is being waged by Muslims, in collusion with leftists and self-hating liberals.

But do Muslims really hate Christmas and wish to abolish or even to destroy it?

To be sure, ultra-conservative Scrooges and grouches are so set against Christians and Christmas that they refuse even to wish their Christian neighbours and acquaintances a merry Christmas. However, many other conservative Muslims who believe that they should not celebrate or take part in Christmas festivities because they disapprove of the Christian creed that Jesus is the Son of God still wish their colleagues, friends and neighbours ‘Merry Christmas’.

Beyond the rigid conservative edges, tonnes of Muslims do Christmas – and see no contradiction between it and their deep reverence for Jesus. In fact, if my experience is anything to go by, there were almost certainly Muslims wandering around the Strasbourg market – I have barely been to a Christmas market in Europe in which I have not come across Muslims enjoying the delights on display and the warm lighting illuminating the winter’s darkness.

Away from the markets and TV screens, most western Muslims do not mark or celebrate Christmas at home. However, some do. When I was a child growing up in London, my mother, not wishing us to feel left out and wanting to raise our awareness and tolerance of others, allowed us to put up decoration and write Christmas cards, gave our teachers gifts, and even experimented with baking an entire turkey on at least one occasion.

As an atheistic adult married to a non-Muslim, I am pleased to watch our son have fun over Christmas. In fact, with how much Christmas has been secularised and transformed into an entertainment spectacle, it is easily my son’s favourite ‘religious’ festival.

The same goes for some of our Tunisian friends who, despite not being Christian nor living in a Christian-majority country, like to get into the festive mood with a Christmas tree or visit one of the numerous Christmas markets taking place in December.

Xmas at my son’s school in Tunis.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In fact, a few hours before writing this piece, we attended the Christmas market at my son’s school, where more than 90% of those in attendance were Muslim. Even Father Christmas, with his long beard, was being played by a Muslim, or someone who looked remarkably like the father of one of my son’s friends. In keeping with the mood of the occasion, one mother had colour-coordinated her hijab to match the wobbly reindeer’s antlers on her head.

In Jerusalem, where I lived prior to moving to Tunisia, Christmas lasts a very long time, and Father Christmas sometimes arrives riding a camel. There, one is treated to a month of Christmases: Western (25 December), Eastern and Orthodox (7 January) and Jerusalem Armenian (19 January). Many of those coming to view the tree on Bethlehem’s Manger Square or to enter the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, are Muslims.

When I see what a big deal Christmas can be in some parts of the Arab and Muslim world, I find fears about the death of the festival in Europe or America rather bemusing and bewildering.

I understand that rapid change can be troubling and that the presence of significant numbers of Muslims in societies where there was barely any a few generations ago can cause anxiety. But Europeans should not allow the actions of a few violent extremists to blacken their view.

There are plenty of Muslims who exist beyond the headlines, out in the murky no-news zones of Greyville, who live in peace with their Christian neighbours and share their sense of Christmas cheer.


This article was first published by The New Arab on 13 December 2018.

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Buying camel’s milk in Arabic

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By Philip Hall

Conversing about camel’s milk may not be the most useful Arabic to learn, but learning the language can open up the Arab world to Europeans.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Once, in Princess Gardens, we were in a hurry to get home. I saw a side gate and walked towards it. “It’ll be closed,” said Teresa, my wife, “Let’s try anyway.”

Outside, on either side, sat two young people who began to stare at us as we approached. When we were about ten yards away one of them blurted: “It’s closed mate.”

“Let’s go,” said Teresa.

“No, perhaps it’s open,” I insisted.

We walked the last ten yards, the teenagers staring all the time. I pushed the gate and it opened – Snap! The attention of the two watchers broke and we walked through. Every day, we face invisible barriers. Something stops us from opening a gate. We don’t ask for help when we really need it. We don’t ask someone charming for a coffee date. We don’t apply for a job we are probably well suited for.

Some invisible barriers are much bigger than that. Some are huge. For example, after you consider the facts, you might conclude that it is deeply irrational for European governments not to promote the teaching of Arabic in European schools. The numbers speak for themselves: the Arab world has over 400 million inhabitants, some 300 million people speak Arabic as their native tongue, and many millions more speak it as a second language.  Moreover, there are many native Arabic speakers in European countries. For example, Arabic is the mother tongue of nearly a million people in France, not to mention all the second and third-generation North Africans there who speak at least a little of the language.

Before coming to work in the Middle East, I had a short conversation with my recruiter. He was British and had worked in the Gulf for 35 years. There was a prosperous, flushed look to him. He was on the point of retirement. “Your Arabic must be fantastic.” I probed.

“No”, he said proudly, “I haven’t learned a word of it.”

This puzzled me. What was going on here? And why was this man so proud of his failure to learn Arabic? The accumulated prejudices of a thousand years seem to be blocking the path to language learning, and consequently blocking the path to mutual understanding between the northern and southern halves of the Mediterranean: two parts of a whole, shared culture.

But nowadays, who believes in historical determinism? I certainly do not. Do you? Who believes that what has happened in the past is the single decider of what will happen in the future? Why not choose our own future? Why not choose to overcome prejudice and do so by learning Arabic?

Government policy-makers can take the rational step towards funding and promoting the learning of Arabic in every school in Europe. As an individual, you can make this choice. Together, we can break through invisible historical social, cultural and political force fields by being practical and rational.

I am following my own advice; I am now learning Arabic. Our teacher is proficient in teaching primary school children, but we are middle-aged men. She is teaching us to ask for information, to talk about our families and describe what they do, to talk about what’s in our houses, and to say what we want when we go to restaurants. “Peteer,” she says, a little like a Palestinian Joyce Grenfell. “Did you do your homework?”

Peter says ,“No,” in a small voice, “I was too busy working”. His grizzled face looks down in embarrassment. “Oh Peter!” she exclaims, “We must do our homework.”

Secretly, however, my classmates and I are learning the poems of Adel Darwish, as sung by Marcel Khalifa. We are watching Palestinian cultural programmes, Egyptian soap operas and listening to Lebanese pop songs. I have even had my first conversation in Arabic. It was with Yemenis and it went like this:

“Do you have any camel’s milk?”

“Oh yes, I do, it is over there.”

“I love camel’s milk.”

“Yes it is very nice but the milk is much healthier fresh from the camel’s udder.”


“Yes, but not if the camel is ill.”

“Can I get fresh camel’s milk here?”

“No, you have to go to any small town in the desert. It’s easy to find camel’s milk there.”

“ Well, I will be sure to do so. Thank you for your advice.”

“My pleasure.”

Clearly, if I can converse about camel’s milk with a man from Yemen, the doors of the Arab world have now swung wide open for me.

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Ugly discrimination in the face of beauty

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By Khaled Diab

The curious case of Arab men reportedly deported for being “too handsome” demonstrates that the beautiful can also be the victims of discrimination.

Friday 10 May 2013

Imagine a land where beautiful people are so stigmatised that they are banished simply for their looks. Does it sound like a sci-fi fantasy dystopia?

Well, this is exactly what reportedly happened to three Emirati men on a business trip in Saudi Arabia who were apparently deported for being “too handsome”.

The men were detected and ejected by Saudi’s notorious “morality police”, the mutaween, also known by their formal Orwellian-sounding title, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, who “feared female visitors would fall for them”.

When I first read about this, I wondered how the mutaween had decided these men were too hot to handle. Did they do it scientifically, say with some high-tech gadget that monitors seismic activity caused by collective gasps of approval or a sort of Geiger counter that measures the fallout from radioactive beauty, counted in Cutie units? Or did they have a panel of judges, like some sort of warped beauty contest, who held up scorecards, with the winner receiving a one-way ticket home?

Since the hunks’ return to the neighbouring Emirates, no reports have emerged of any fallout from the radioactive presence of these killer men – though I should be careful using that description of Arabs in these suspicious times.

Nevertheless, if the mutaween had hoped to keep a lid on the affair and spare women the undoubted agony and suffering prolonged exposure would almost certainly cause, they failed desperately. Not only has the story gone super-viral around the world, a crowd-sourced manhunt has already uncovered the probable identity of one of the Arabian thoroughbreds.

In a world where Arab men are seen mainly in the negative – not so much as fun but rather as fundamentalist, never fans but always fanatics – I, who never read gossip or glossies, was mildly pleased that the much-maligned male from my part of the world was getting, so to speak, a media facelift.

Of course, some of the attention in the West was somewhat condescending, of the “look-what-those-weird-Arabs-are-doing-now” variety, rather like the mirthful reactions to news reports of camel beauty pageants.

But is it really so hard to believe that some people’s beauty can cause them trouble or even that attractive people can be discriminated against? These men may have been sent home, but boy did the experience raise their street cred and made of them minor celebrities, even if the identities of two of them are still shrouded in mystery.

Others have not been so fortunate. Take Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant who lost her livelihood for no other reason than her boss found her too attractive.

Naturally, this goes against the overwhelming stereotype of beauty, and how it serves its owner. And as endless studies have regularly shown, good looks can help people get ahead in life, from getting laid to getting a job or promotion – and even, rather dubiously, make them happier than their more mortal peers.

In fact, for some careers, such as the glamorous mainstream of acting and the media, good looks are more often than not an essential, if unofficial, qualification. There is even, I have learned, a term to describe this sort of positive discrimination in favour of the beautiful people: “lookism”.

In contrast, bad looks are a well-known source of discrimination, a social handicap for their bearers. Not only are people endowed with fewer physical assets often disadvantaged in life and love, the very semantics of language subliminally slaps them in the face – and the title of this article is no exception. When we disapprove of something or wish to say it was really horrendous or terrible, we regularly employ this alienated and lonely adjective: an ugly situation, the ugly face of warfare, the ugly underbelly of poverty, etc.

Although I won’t for a moment suggest that there is equivalence, beautiful people don’t always have it their way and can be the victims of discrimination. This can be seen in the age-old bias that beauty and brains can rarely be united in the same body. This leads to stereotypes that attractive people, particularly women, are likely to be shallow – consider all those dumb blonde jokes or the idea that hunky men who take care of their appearance are hollow airheads.

This can be a real problem for good-looking people. For instance, though looks serve them in “feminine jobs”, attractive women trying to get ahead in professions that require intelligence or authority or toughness do face discrimination.

For example, I have met young female professionals, including scientists, who complain that male colleagues, especially older ones, don’t always take them seriously. One attractive but tough-as-nails woman I know who works in the construction industry says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that she has no trouble with her subordinates, but her peers exhibit hostility and disrespect towards her.

In addition, there is the issue of harassment. Though unwanted amorous or sexual attention is not the exclusive domain of attractive people, it is more likely to occur if the target happens to be beautiful – and, again, a woman. In public, what is taken as aloofness, can sometimes simply be a defensive mechanism against unsolicited interest. Even flattering gestures such as holding doors open for attractive women or providing them with more favourable treatment or greater attention can cause distress to those of them who wish to be treated as equals and ordinary.

Moreover, extreme beauty can be alienating. Incredibly attractive – gorgeous, I believe, is the technical term – people may well draw many advantages from their physical assets, but their looks can also act like a chasm separating them from their peers, making natural, casual interactions difficult, with many members of their own gender viewing them with suspicion and those of the opposite sex typically acting flustered or nervous in their company.

This hostile reaction to beauty can be seen in the traditional view that being too beautiful was somehow immoral. It can also be discerned in music and song, in which the gorgeous are often attributed with negative characteristics like cruelty and vanity. Take Alice Cooper telling us that his lover’s blood is “like ice” and her lips are like “venomous poison”.

Though we may try to curb it, we will never end discrimination based on looks. And it would seem that nature and evolution have disposed us with a natural bias towards beauty, however subjective and frivolous that concept can be. Nevertheless, while the beautiful set may seem to have the world at their feet, we must remember that not all that glitters is gold and beauty has its unattractive underbelly too.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 2 May 2013.

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Just say moo

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By Osama Diab

Animal rights activists are calling for global vegetarianism, but the Middle East is not ready to sacrifice its meat-eating lifestyle.

9 November 2010

As you sit down at the iftar table, you sneak a glance at the chicken, bulti and mouza (beef shank) fattah on your family’s plates. And then you load your dish up with koshari, tomato and cucumber salad, and as a special treat, meatless mahshi (stuffed vegetables).

Hard to imagine? The idea of choosing to follow a vegetarian diet isn’t new to the Western world, but in the Middle East, the notion is still novel. The American animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to change that. PETA has recently become active in the region, but the organisation — which works to stop the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific experiments — is facing an uphill battle.

However, that hasn’t stopped PETA from trying to promote vegetarianism in the region through several characteristically quirky initiatives.

In Amman in July, a Jordanian PETA activist wearing a green ankle-length gown covered in lettuce was arrested for trying to conduct what police said was an “unauthorised” one-woman demonstration; she was carrying a sign urging “Let vegetarianism grow on you” in Arabic. At least the police had a sense of humour about the incident: according a 25 July AFP report, the woman was escorted to a restaurant to change her outfit before heading to the police station.

July was a busy month for PETA. Here at home, PETA recruited two women in tight white t-shirts, black mini-skirts and red leggings to dump a large mound of red chili peppers on one of Mohandiseen’s main streets and wave placards with “Spice up your life, go vegetarian.” As Daily News Egypt reported on 18 July, the move backfired: people rushed to collect as many free peppers as they could, with two women even coming to blows over the coveted chilis, which sell for as high as LE 10 per kilogram on the local market.

“Of course, I will not stop eating meat, however expensive it may be,” restaurant owner Mohamed Hassan told the Daily News Egypt. “But now I have a whole lot of peppers, which should last me at least three days.”

Suffice it to say that the Middle East isn’t exactly fertile ground for promoting a lifestyle free of animal products.

A Western lecture
Due to a long history of Western imperialism and foreign intervention in the region, many Egyptians are sensitive to and sceptical about anything that seems to be handed down from on high by the West, especially the United States. There must be some hidden agenda behind it, the argument goes.

Manar Ammar, a local PETA volunteer and animal rights activist, disagrees that a vegetarian lifestyle is too foreign a concept to catch on here. Ammar is a vegan, meaning she does not eat any meat, eggs, dairy and any food prepared or processed with any type of animal product. In support of this philosophy, she cites Surat al-Anaam (Livestock), verse 38 from the Qur’an: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.”

“Ali Ibn Abi Taleb [son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)] said ‘Do not make your stomachs become the graveyard of animals’ long before PETA ever existed,” she adds.

She argues that the notion that vegetarianism is a form of cultural imperialism is wrong. “However, the true cultural imperialism is adopting factory farming from the West and applying it here,” she says.

Even without a hidden agenda, PETA’s push for vegetarianism seems culturally clueless in countries where the charitable distribution of meat is an integral part of Islam and common social customs.

Muslims believe that after Prophet Abraham proved his obedience to God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Ismail, God stayed the prophet’s hand and sent a sheep to be sacrificed in the boy’s stead. On Eid el-Adha, every Muslim able to afford it sacrifices an animal as a symbol of Abraham’s devotion to God, and distributes the meat among family members and the poor. The nation’s poor already follow a vegetarian diet based on fuul and taamiya out of necessity, and for many this is the one time of year when they get meat.

While distributing molokheyya and mahshi might be equally appreciated, the religious symbolism of the holiday would be seriously watered down.

Distributing meat is not just a religious duty, but a sign of social status, wealth and generosity. As such, an ‘ordehi‘ (meatless) meal has a negative connotation for many of us, and is considered a gift of lesser quality. It is hard to imagine that celebrations, such as births, weddings and Ramadan iftars without meat or even our beloved Sham al-Neseem holiday without fish and eggs.

Egypt flirted briefly with vegetarianism as a public policy, but had to abandon the effort. In the 1970s, with the price of meat skyrocketing, the government attempted to promote a vegetarian diet for economic reasons. The campaign tried to convince people that plant-based food, such as protein-rich fuul, was a healthier option than our four-footed brethren.

In response, satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote one of his most famous poems, Il Fuul wil Lahma (The beans and the meat), with tongue-in-cheek verses announcing that the writer would rather die eating meat than live eating beans.

It’s a sentiment many of us seem to share. “I can’t imagine Egyptians giving up meat,” says Abdulrahman Sherif, a businessman. “Rich Egyptians just can’t live without meat, while poor Egyptians can’t live without at least looking forward to it.”

Saving the world with veggies

Activists like Ammar are hopeful that this climate can change if people understand the economic, health and environmental repercussions of eating meat.

“Poor people will not be giving up meat for animals rights but rather for human rights, for their own right to be fed all year round instead of one day each year,” the PETA volunteer says. She claims that to produce one kilo of meat, 16 kilos of feed are required. “Now imagine if all that land is used to grow vegetables, grains and fruits instead of feed, every one will be fed.”

While reallocating resources away from meat production may yield more food, it ignores the fact that there is already enough food to begin with. On the Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) notes there is “enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life”. According to the WFP, “the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment,” along with recent financial hardship that have hit families in recent years.

Ammar believes that Islam glorifies humbleness, compassion and looking after one’s health more than it promotes meat. “The Prophet (PBUH) was a semi vegetarian according to many trusted sources. He ate meat rarely and even washed up after eating camel meat. Islam calls for sustainable ways of living in harmony with the planet and its creatures. Throughout the Qur’an, the miracle of creation and animal diversity is very obvious and repeated.”

While vegetarianism (at least by choice) is currently practised by a handful of the nation’s educated elite who might perceive it as the cool thing to do, Ammar is confident that when people are educated about the lifestyle, they will adopt it as a way of healthier living that can save the environment and spread compassion.

It is possible that people will adopt a more healthy and environmentally friendly life when they are educated about it. But there are many other things this nation needs to learn first, such as skills to support themselves and their families. One-third of the country’s population is illiterate and almost half live on less than two dollars a day. Many unprivileged Egyptians struggle to put food on the table – any food, and they have more pressing issues than to watch what they eat.

That said, the way in which meat is produced remains a significant problem and one that should be addressed. A 2006 United Nations study titled Livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options states that “[Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.”

Air pollution, water shortages, climate change and land degradation are all issues of critical concerns to us as a nation, and they have more complex causes than just simply global meat production. Some sort of action is certainly needed, but convincing people one by one to give up meat may not be the quickest or most effective way to solve these problems.

Vegetarians are confident that what they’re preaching will certainly lead to results. Given the cultural climate and PETA’s oddball attempts thus far to change hearts and minds, however, don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, pass the shawerma.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved

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Beauty and the bleat

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By Khaled Diab

Are Saudi Arabian beauty shows for goats as weird and outlandish as they seem?

23 November 2009

Can a man kill a goat armed with little more than his eyes? Well, the US military seemed willing to believe in the possibility of such superhuman powers, as revealed in The men who stare at goats, Jon Ronson’s book about how the American army investigated the application of psychic power in combat situations which has been turned into a film starring George Clooney.

Another group of people who believe in the eye’s destructive power on four-legged bovidae are Saudi breeders of pedigree goats for competitions. “Like everything else, goats are also believed by some to be affected by the evil eye,” writes Omaima al-Fardan in Arab News.

One luckless goat-trader claimed that he had tried to revive his prize goat’s ardour, after he had allegedly been struck by the evil eye, by using Viagra. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. And this kind of smiting can cause a big dent in the wallet, given that a thoroughbred newborn Damascene goat can fetch as much as 50,000 riyals (about £8,000) – I kid you not.

That goats can have a pedigree may come as something of a surprise to many outsiders, especially Europeans, for whom goats, if they appear at all in the popular imagination, tend to be associated with lust and evil – recall that popular depictions of Satan have him sporting a goat’s horns and hooves, not to mention a goatee. Of course, goats do produce the most beautiful fabrics in the world, such as cashmere wool.

The animal has become so prized in contemporary Saudi Arabia that last year the kingdom held its very first goat ‘beauty contest’. Reflecting the novelty of the event (or possibly nepotism), most of the participants were descendants of a single patriarchal goat, the fiery Burgan (Volcano) – you could call him the Abraham of pedigree goats, you know the one who had to sacrifice his son so that Ismail/Isaac, depending on the version, would be let off the hook.

The winner in the male category was a son of Burkan who fetched a staggering 450,000 riyals. In fact, the goatly patriarch has made his owner a neat 8 million riyals to date.

In an ultra-conservative country where the nearest thing to a female beauty pageant is the Miss Beautiful Morals contest, the outlandishness of goats strutting their stuff on a catwalk is fertile breeding ground for all kinds of goat-related jokes and innuendos, similar to the ones provoked by camel beauty shows (where as much as $3 million have been paid for thoroughbred camels).

But are goat and camel pageants so strange? Saudi Arabia may have its camel and goat contests, but the West has its equally surreal cat and dog shows. To an outsider (and many insiders), how weird is it to see manicured, pedicured and shampooed hounds and felines being paraded in all earnestness before judges?

How must the world’s poorest citizens react to the news that our cats and dogs are often better fed than they are? In fact, it turns out that, if a recent book is to be believed, the average western dog lives off more land than the average Ethiopian.

Then, there are thoroughbred horses (a trend also, incidentally, started by the Arabs). Last year, for instance, an American stables paid a staggering $14 million for a horse named Better than Honour (for that price, I should hope she is).

So, why all the jokes? Part of the reason is the exoticness of other societies’ fetishes. In addition, this particular brand of humour has an ancient pedigree, stemming as it does from centuries of Western suspicion towards the ‘licentious’ Arab and his shady intimacy with the ‘ship of the desert’. Growing up in London, I was constantly asked by wits of clone-like originality if I came to school on a camel and whether my parents owned an oil field – I was even advised “not to get the hump” if I exhibited any impatience with these wearisome questions.

That’s not to say that there’s no truth to the Arab soft spot for camels. Although this most powerful and versatile of desert beasts has become obsolete in the modern age, except in the most isolated of desert communities, its place as a cultural icon lives on, particularly in Arabia proper.

But given the enormous economic, political and social role camels over the centuries, this is no great surprise. After all, the Arab conquest of the Middle East was achieved on the backs of camels, whose mobility and stamina proved conclusive in battles fought over great distances. Moreover, camels helped the Arab and Islamic worlds dominate the global trading system for centuries.

Of course, Arabs are not alone in suffering from this kind of humour. Basically, any peoples with whom you share a historical rivalry are fair game when it comes to insinuations of bestiality. Consider, for example, all those Welsh sheep jokes.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 21 November 2009. Read the related discussion.

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