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Arabs and Veganism: The Difference Between Acceptance and Understanding

Posted Apr 15 2012 7:00am 1 Comment

When I flew home for Winter break, I ended up in a heated debate with some extended family members about   veganism and Islam , which compelled me to justify how I thought veganism was in fact in line with my spiritual beliefs.

That encounter aside, I was pleasantly surprised at just how accepting and open my friends were to my new-to-them lifestyle. Sure, a few hippy jokes were exchanged, but for the most part it didn’t phase them. They were even considerate enough to make sure I could find something to eat before we’d sit down at a restaurant for a meal.

This last trip was no different in that respect – I came home to find a fully stocked fridge complete with favourite brand of Almond milk in the fridge courtesy of my mom, and my dad let me drag him to one Lebanese place after the other (because he knows I can always find decent vegan fare there).

But anyways, I digress.

***

Encounter number 1:My brother came home one day after work and surprised me by rummaging through the fridge for sustenance rather than dialing hungerline. He settled on a roast beef sandwich and some taramasalata dip – which he offered me some. I politely declined and he inquired “why not? you eat fish don’t you?” I made a quippy remark and told him to look up veganism in the dictionary before confirming that I no longer eat fish, eggs or dairy. Now, my brother is a joker of sorts, so he took this opportunity to rifle through the fridge and tick off every single food item to ask whether or not I could eat it.

“What about cheese?” he said. I sighed emphatically and said no.

“Nada…I feel so sorry for you.” he said, half smiling. I laughed and assured him there was no need to.

Encounter number 2:

A group of friends and I were about to order food. I asked what everyone felt like, and the responses varied from “Anything” to “I’m not picky.” “Neither am I”, I said – a response that was met with a scoff. I was a little taken aback by the reaction, but my friend quickly clarified that he simply meant he could in theory eat anything, as opposed to me.

I ooh-ed and umm-ed at the menu trying to decide what I felt like, when that same friend made a slightly offensive remark (which I won’t repeat here), about cows and chickens. I rolled my eyes and made my order.

And here’s the kicker:

On the eve of my departure, I was super excited to try out a new restaurant that practically all of Bahrain had been raving about lately. The cuisine wasn’t specifically vegan, but I was reassured by a pretty extensive (by Bahrain’s restaurant standards at least) selection of main-course salads on the menu. Unfortunately, when I tried to place my order I was informed that all but two of the salads were unavailable, one of which had tuna. So I settled with a simple salad of greens, carrots and herb dressing with the addition of avocado. Moments later I was told avocado wasn’t available. Annoyed, but not wanting to make a scene, I ordered a side dish of eggplant instead.

Panache salad from Paul -why does avocado always makes a salad taste better?

Halfway through our meal, the head chef came around to ask how we were enjoying the food. We all nodded, smiled and thanked her mid-chew. “How about you?” she asked me. “Are you enjoying your salad? We do a great tuna salad, you should have ordered that!” I politely informed her that I don’t eat fish, to which she responded “Don’t tell me you’re a vegetarian too?” “She’s vegan” piped up a friend at the table. “Why?!” she exclaimed in shock. “Life is beautiful, life’s too short to be a vegan. Why do you do this to yourself?” she asked, half in jest. I felt intimidated and uncomfortable, so I smiled, shrugged and hoped she’d go away.

Thankfully, she did.

Much to my friends’ amusement, I made a snide remark about how “long my life would be” in comparison to hers, but said nothing else of the encounter.

The truth is, it really got to me. Not only do I take issue with her clear disdain for “vegetarians”, but correct me if I’m wrong: shouldn’t the head chef of a newly opened restaurant JUMP at the chance to cater to a diner’s dietary needs? Whatever happened to the customer is always right? And you know what, fine. I’ll accept the fact that she didn’t – but her inquiry as to why I “do this to myself” was completely unnecessary and hurtful in my opinion. At that moment, I found myself thinking “will Arabs ever understand veganism?”. The ironic/sad thing is, I’m sure if I had told her I was on a diet, she wouldn’t have questioned me further, which just goes to show how twisted our cultural views towards food can be.

 

I know that my diet and lifestyle are nowhere near what is considered the norm for Arab culture. Even though health-conscious diets have become somewhat trendy in recent years (which explains the organic this and that cropping up all over Bahrain and Egypt), vegetarians or plant based eaters are still considered an anomaly. To be honest, I think I’ve been naive and a little assumptuous in thinking people would just “get” where I’m coming from.

PETA activists during a less than successful  campaign in Jordan

I won’t lie, it’s partly my fault. I’m far more articulate on paper than I am in real life, so when someone I don’t know all too well asks for an explanation I often shrug, or reply with vague non-explanations like “because I don’t feel like eating those things anymore”.

The point is, these encounters taught me a very important lesson, there’s a huge difference between acceptance and understanding. While I’m certain my friends and family all accept my veganism – I’m pretty sure the vast majority of them don’t really understand why I choose to live and eat the way I do. I don’t mean for this to sound condescending, but my guess is that they haven’t really given veganism any serious thought (nor should they, if it’s not something they’re interested in).

What I’m desperately trying to get at here is that you will never truly understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I’ve made a promise to myself to better explain my motivations when probed in the future, but until then here’s my mile.

Although I initially pursued veganism in the interest of good health and nutrition, it’s evolved into so much more for me. I don’t think I can properly express how much importance it holds for me.

At a time where obsessive calorie counting, excessive exercise and a constant stream of guilt and self-hatred ruled my life – veganism was my saving grace. I’d forgotten what it was like to simply eat, whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I’d forgotten what it was like to enjoy food, and not have every mealtime be a torturous experience. Eating a healthy, whole foods based vegan diet opened me up to a world of foods I’d never tried before. After doing myself so much harm for so long, there was nothing that put me at ease more than knowing every single thing I was putting into my body was nourishing me to the fullest.

But a vegan lifestyle is more about food for me, and more importantly it’s not about me it’s about animals. I know this is the part that people who know me find difficult to understand the most – I was a vegetarian for years out of personal preference and had no connection to the ethical side of things, so why  now?

The honest answer? It happened when I wasn’t looking. Somewhere along the line, eating a vegan diet has awoken this sense of compassion in me that I never knew existed. I’ve always loved animals having grown up with a constant flurry of cats, dogs, hamsters, rabbits and even turtles around the house – but I never made the connection of farm-to-fridge until recently.

I remember watching Forks Over Knives (a movie that has nothing to do about animal rights, may I  point out) with my mom last December. There’s a scene in particular where an owner of a free-range organic farm is being interviewed, and in the background chickens are being plunged into large metallic cones and beheaded one by one. I found myself wincing every time I heard the frantic flapping and clucking of a chicken about to meet its end, and eventually I couldn’t bear to watch the screen or listen to the interview in the forefront.

As trivial as it sounds, that experience truly opened my eyes. I surprised myself with my own reaction, but it took that for everything to click within me. Every time I took my dog for a walk, the “why love one, but eat the other” campaigns popped into my head.

I knew then that no matter what my inclinations towards health in the future, I could never in my right mind, eat another sentient being.

In a word, veganism has taught me compassion. Compassion for myself, for animals, and for the environment. I’ve finally found a food ethos I can be comfortable with from all angles. I know that every time I take a bite, I’m doing something positive for someone and something other than myself, and that keeps me centered.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. I understand that veganism or even vegetarianism isn’t for everyone, and I have absolutely no problem with that. Beyond the attachment that people have to certain foods, I know it’s difficult to defy years of traditionalism in a culture that not only includes meat as an integral part of diet but also practices mass slaughter as a holy ritual.

But here’s my deal: It all comes down to personal choices. I’ll respect yours, if you’ll respect mine.

Comments (1)
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Bravo! Good for you for standing up for what you believe in. People are still anti-veg in the US despite popular culture recently commending vegan diets and vilifying the factory farming industry. I think what it boils down to is that people think you're restricting yourself or sacrificing something as opposed to doing something that benefits your health and longevity and is also compassionate toward other creatures. These people don't understand that our diets are no different than theirs in terms of variety and that their day-to-day dining choices are just as "restrictive" as ours. I have coworkers that get lunch from the same restaurant everyday, they don't know how to cook, and they claim they could never be vegetarian- yet they compliment the smell and look of every dish I bring in to eat leftover from last night's dinner at home.

 

In any case, you have a new blog follower in me! If you want to encourage your culture to be more vegan-friendly, perhaps you should start work on a cookbook! =) 

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