By Osama Diab
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