Lapsed Muslims may get a taste for alcohol but pigs will fly before they allow pork onto their dinner plates.
Over the years, I have witnessed my faith dwindle and unravel. But long after my spirited embrace of alcohol, my “sinful” attitude to sex, my loss of faith in the temple of organised religion and my agnosticism and indifference towards the supreme being, one bizarre artefact of faith – a sacred cow that refused to be slaughtered – clung on with obstinate pig-headedness: a distaste for pork.
For years, this irrational aversion intrigued and amused my wife. Katleen would wonder why it was that many secular Muslims would drink alcohol and commit other non-orthodox acts, but never touch pork. And I would watch her with awe-struck fascination as she tucked into a spaghetti carbonara, with apparent enjoyment.
My theory was that, for believing but non-practising Muslims, there is nothing that can really take the place of alcohol – even hashish or marijuana, which is consumed by many Muslims as an alternative because it is not explicitly prohibited, is not the same as a glass of wine or beer. My friends tend to agree with this analysis.
“If you don't drink you don't drink,” remarked Ahmed, an Egyptian in Paris who is a great connoisseur of beers, rakis and ouzos. “But as for pork, there are other types of meat.”
Then, there's the psychological barrier that even the most lapsed Muslim must grapple with. “I think all the talk we hear in childhood of how pigs are bred in zebala (rubbish) areas and how they feed on garbage revolts us,” said Abdou, a Cairene who has developed a taste for certain types of pig meat, but not others.
In fact, eating pork for Muslims is not merely tantamount to eating dogs for westerners, in certain cases, we could go as far as to liken it to consuming cockroaches – so unclean is the image of these animals.
Some Muslims rationalise their porkophobia by explaining that pigs are dangerous to eat, especially in hot climates, but pork is no more risky, at least in the modern world, than beef and poultry.
The injunction may have originally been connected to health concerns, environmental worries in an arid climate where foraging pigs could destroy precious grazing land, or as a simple test of faith and obedience.
“We are not a pig-friendly people,” Abdou observed.
And, indeed, we're not. At school in England, I could tell that, unlike Aladdin and Sinbad, the Three Little Pigs was certainly not a Muslim fairytale. No self-respecting Muslim wolf would be wasting his breath, huffing and puffing, just to get his claws on some poor pig's bacon. A Muslim wolf would be far more interested in skewering Mary's little lamb to make mouth-watering kebabs.
Miss Piggy would never have got past the audition couch for the Muslim version of the Muppet Show – even for comic effect. Muslim casters may have hired instead Miss Bully, a doe-eyed bovine beauty who flies into sudden fits of rage like a bull in a china shop.
That said, pigs don't get a completely smooth ride in western culture. In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the pigs are duplicitous hypocrites who end up taking the farm over from the humans. In England, the police are not so affectionately known as “pigs”. The animal is used a term of insult, as in “male, chauvinist pig”, or “capitalist swine”. And people greet unwelcome comments with snorts of derision.
Nevertheless, this more sympathetic view of pigs may have influenced Jews, despite the fact that pork is prohibited by both kosher and halal rules alike, to adopt a more relaxed attitude to pork. “Pork evokes no special image in my mind. Pigs are cute. I just don't eat 'em”, Debby, an American Jew, said.
“Almost all of the Jews I know eat pork,” Hagay, an Israeli artist, told me. “My grandmother even used to say: ‘If you're going to eat pork, you might as well have the fat drip down your chin.'”
That said, many Jews share the Muslim kneejerk horror and revulsion towards pigs. “Both my parents can't stand the idea of pork,” admitted Gal, a student in Tel Aviv. “Neither of them are particularly religious … but both my mother and my father find the idea of eating pig repulsive.”
And revulsion could be the key to my longstanding distaste for pork. I still clearly recall my first taste of pig's meat. On my second day at school in England, the dinner lady offered me a slice of Hard to Ascertain Meat (or Ham, for short) which had provoked my curiosity because it looked a bit like the luncheon cold-cuts we ate in Egypt.
I don't much recall the actual taste, but I do remember the shocking aftertaste when my mother and father – who had casually been inquiring about my new school experience – informed me that I'd probably consumed ham. Although my parents were relaxed about it and explained that I wasn't to blame for it was an accident, I sensed disgust wash over me.
Since then, a recurring question I have asked in restaurants around the world is: does this contain pork? Sometimes, I've even resorted to mime and snorting to get my point across. I recall the spellbound fascination with which I regarded an old Cairo friend as he tucked into the Italian salamis and hams he had recently developed a taste for.
In recent years, I have got the better of my demons and now eat pork, although there are still certain types of pig's meat I cannot stomach. As someone who prides himself on his culinary intrepidness, I am pleased with this small victory for gastronomic rationality. And now I can finally bring home the bacon!
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 2 July 2008.