Do unscrupulous kebab shops really serve unsuspecting customers with the meat of feral street dogs?
We Egyptians regard meat with a certain intimacy and affection. No dinner table is quite complete without it. We even have a word for a meal that's missing that essential ingredient: “urdihey,” many a husband has complained.
Now, picture the scene in one of the poorer districts of town, where the houses are crammed together like passengers on a rush hour bus; where the streets are long, narrow and winding, often leading nowhere. In one of these neighbourhoods, an enterprising young man named Hammouda al-Thaalab opened up a no-frills, economy restaurant called the People's Kebab Shop.
He targeted the bottom end of the market to whom meat was an exotic concept. Some customers recalled that they'd tasted meat before but couldn't quite remember when. Others had only heard their grandmother's tales about the good old days when an entire lamb could be got for 25 piastres.
Hammouda was on to a real money-spinner. In no time at all, the shop was working round the clock to churn out enough kebabs to meet the demand. The clientele decided that meat wasn't all it was cracked up to be taste-wise, but it wasn't entirely without merit. Everyone was satisfied, and everything would have been rosy if not for a certain spiteful individual who was obviously envious of Hammouda's success.
Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud, the local food inspector, smelled a rat. He didn't trust Hammouda one bit. The man was far too shady and suspicious. How could he run a profitable business selling goods so cheaply? Mahmoud certainly didn't buy Hammouda's story that he had a cheap supplier of imported meat.
Ahmed tried and tried but couldn't get a warrant to test a sample of the meat. For a week, he kept a close vigil on the shop. All Hammouda's behaviour was clean (too clean, thought Mahmoud). One night, Mahmoud lay in bed tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep. Something was missing – what could it be?
Dog barks? Yes!! Where were those dastardly night prowlers? Why weren't they howling the night away as was their habit? Had there been a mass exodus out of the district, or was this the aftermath of a deadly eradication campaign?
He wasted no time. The following morning, he rushed down to the local police station and asked the sergeant if the police had been culling dogs recently. The sergeant told him that they hadn't in ages. “Why? Are they keeping you up at night?”
“No, no – I was just asking.”
“Funnily enough, Ahmed, we were discussing that matter only the other night. And we're quite keen on doing some culling very soon. Get rid of some of those rabid nuisances.”
“I don't think you need to bother,” replied Ahmed. “It's been taken care of.”
Mahmoud had a hunch. He could feel it in his nose – the odour was overpowering and it stank. He stormed into his boss's office and told him about his theory. After much arguing and deliberating, Mahmoud finally got the warrant he was after. The People's Kebab Shop was inspected thoroughly and a sample of meat was sent to the lab for examination.
As Mahmoud had suspected, the sample turned out to be dog meat. The shop was promptly and quietly shut down. In return for a shortened sentence, Hammouda al-Thaalab confessed to everything. He told the investigator that this was part of his grand plan to get rid of an annoying pest while feeding the poor.
The whole affair was hushed up. As the story goes, the Ministry of Health supposedly decided to keep the story under wraps to avoid mass panic and a public scandal.
Hammouda al-Thaalab is a fictitious name and, indeed, the widely circulated stories of kelabgis – a play on kebabgi (kebab maker) and kelab (dogs) – is almost certainly an urban myth.
According to Mohamed Ali of Akhbar al-Yom's accident and crime page, “There is no recorded incident anywhere in the police files to give such a story credibility. No one has ever been caught passing dog meat or donkey meat onto unsuspecting customers.” Ali goes on to explain that “offences involving food are usually confined to selling out-of-date or substandard produce”, and even the frequency of these incidences has dropped in recent years.
This article appeared in the 9-22 March 2000 issue of Cairo Times.