A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Pigicide Creates Resistance: Reflections on Pork and its Taboos

UPDATED: The Day Pigs were Slain in Egypt.

There is resistance in pig farms north of Cairo to the decision to kill all the pigs in Egypt. Some pig farmers apparently object to eliminating their entire livelihood, especially since a) swine flu isn't currently spread by pigs, and 2) there hasn't been a case of swine flu in Egypt yet.

I think what we're seeing here has only a tangential relationship to the swine flu near-pandemic. Both Islam and Judaism have, of course, a profound religious taboo against pork. All the pigs in Egypt are raised by Copts, and they do a pretty good job of keeping their pigs away from places where Muslims might come into contact. Pork butchers have to be separate from other butchers, and clearly labeled; they are for obvious reasons in Christian neighborhoods. I remember once going to a pork butcher in Cairo: not only were there plenty of signs to make clear to any Muslim who might venture there that this was not the place he was looking for, but the butcher had up photos and paintings of pigs and an extremely large collection of piggy banks, ceramic, pigs, etc., enough to make your average North Carolina barbecue joint proud. No desire, in other words, to have a Muslim wander in by mistake and be scandalized.

Most of us who have lived in Muslim countries have probably also encountered the phenomenon of Muslim friends invited to lunch or dinner seeking reassurance that we are not serving pork. The fact that it takes a real effort to find pork in Muslim countries and that no one other than a seriously disturbed person would try to sneak pork into the diet of someone for whom it is taboo doesn't seem to compute: there seems to be, among some folks, a fear that Christians will try to sneak pork to Muslims. This must be something inculcated in childhood; I can't actually imagine anyone but a really disturbed person trying to force someone to eat pork unknowingly.

There are plenty of theories about the Jewish/Muslim pork taboo; anthropologists often argue that it is a sign of the ancient rivalry between the desert and the sown: the pig is an animal of settled culture, raised in towns, wallowing in its wallow: no one drives great herds of pigs across the desert. Cattle are raised by nomads, and camels, sheep, and goats, but never pigs. (I believe Sumerians raised pigs but the Akkadians banned them: again the urban/nomadic origins influenced the taboo.) Some modern rationalists think it was a means of protecting people against trichinosis and other diseases of pork in hot climates, making Moses into a sort of Bronze Age Surgeon General. For believers, of course, the word of God is sufficient explanation of the taboo.

And it is a profound aversion. I have known Muslims who insist they do not believe very much in God or practice their faith, wouldn't think of fasting in Ramadan and drink like fish, but who nonetheless admit they would be physically ill if they were confronted with eating pork. The culture sometimes goes much deeper than the faith. And of course that is true for all of us, not just Muslims.

Many countries that are nearly entirely Muslim ban pork entirely, but I've also seen at least one breakfast buffet in Abu Dhabi where an entire table was set aside for foreign visitors with the word "Pork" in Arabic quite clearly displayed. The foreigners would just see bacon or ham, the locals would immediately be warned away.

Israel has always had a limited pork culture for the secular side of the country, always clearly distinguished, and usually not in Jerusalem. Christian towns, in Israel or the Palestinian Authority, serve pork, and a great many years ago in the West Bank Christian town of Beit Sahour (just down the hill from Bethlehem) I was taken to a place known for its bacon cheeseburgers, which offends Muslims with the bacon and Jews not only with the bacon but with mixing meat and dairy. A truly transgressive place, and I suspect with the growth of Islamist fervor and the coming of the Palestinian Authority, it's not there anymore.

Except for such deliberately rebellious or transgressive situations, though, there's just not that much pork in the Middle East. Since no Muslim will go near a pig, alive or slaughtered, I have no idea how the Egyptians think swine flu could be transmitted to the general population. I suspect we are seeing an instance, perhaps subconscious, of the profound cultural taboo against pigs. As I noted in an earlier post, Egypt has had several years of bird flu outbreaks, but hasn't tried to kill all the birds.

Some things are predictable: the fact that the pig farmers whose pigs are being destroyed are Copts will mean there will be new charges of religious persecution against the Copts; radical Islamists may use the whole thing as a reminder that pigs are a Christian presence in Egypt and therefore somehow subversive in their own right; and other rabble-rousing accusations. Lebanon has banned pork imports and Jordan is talking about limiting pig farms; and yet there seems to be no evidence that pigs are a major disease vector in this outbreak! The term "swine flu" refers to the source from which the original strain of human flu of this category originated and does not mean that pigs are causing it today. I really don't know why the Egyptians are doing this, except for pure domestic consumption. But it is a reminder of how profound at least some food taboos can be.

Addendum: Since I've had the word "Pigicide" in the title all day, I won't change it, but it belatedly occurs to me that "mass hamicide" would have been better. (Sorry.)

1 comment:

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