Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Halal and the ingredients of identity, in the UK or in Qatar

As pork goes on sale in Qatar, it raises issues about identity similar to those I experienced as a child in Britain.

When I was a child growing up in suburban England, my family had to travel some distance to find a cheeseburger, steak or succulent barbecued chicken. There were plenty of restaurants close by, but none served exactly what we were looking for. Halal meat is what we needed, stamped and certified for Muslim consumption.

It was usually on a special occasion when my mother suggested that our carnivorous clan travel more than 50 kilometres to London just so we could order a meat dish.

There were a handful of options and they usually involved curry, something my mother (obviously the best cook in the world) could make perfectly well herself.

What we wanted, my two sisters and I, was to have the all-American experience; we dreamt about hip waiters serving us a plate of nachos topped with minced beef, a fried chicken burger like the ones in commercials or a pizza slathered with pepperoni - the beef version, naturally. We searched everywhere without result.

In the last five years, fortunately, as the number of Muslims in Britain has continued to grow, a trend has emerged. Now, there are branches of KFC, McDonald's, Subway and, my personal favourite, Nando's that offer halal options. A greater variety of cuisines is available, too. I can enjoy a Chinese takeaway, West Indian-style jerk chicken and rice, an authentic Thai curry or a baked lasagne without feeling guilty.

Last month, pork was made available to residents of Qatar for the first time. You need a licence to buy it, confirming you're not a Muslim, and it's on the shelves of the only shop in Doha where alcohol is sold.

The shop, known as QDC (Qatar Distribution Center), sent an email to everyone in Doha who has a licence when the meat arrived. "Please note that we sold the first 10 per cent of the first container in four hours yesterday," it read. "As you will discover we do not really have space for this new venture, so please bear with us if the crowd in the new room is too much and the queues too long."

One of my friends who bought some proudly posted a picture of sizzling bacon on his Facebook page, adding that he felt liberated. But the development wasn't popular across many other sections of society.

There was an outpouring of anger towards the Qatari government on social media networking sites, criticising the authorities for allowing the meat to be sold.

Some even called for a boycott of Qatar Airways because it's linked to the distribution company.

"#PorkInQatar is just the first step toward Westernizing Qatar, stay tuned for more," tweeted RAlkaabi.

"Ppl don't get it. Its [sic] not about the pork - its [sic] about us feeling more & more like a minority - in our own country. #qatar #porkinqatar," wrote user Sewalef.

I might get in some trouble for saying this, but I don't think selling pork here is such a bad idea. It's being sold from a discrete location to people who have to confirm they're not Muslim before getting a licence.

Living without the availability of halal meat in England many years ago made me feel a bit awkward. I had to check whether I could share food with friends, I got utterly sick of ordering fish and fed up with explaining what halal meant to my non-Muslim friends.

In Britain, the availability of halal food was a financial decision. In recent years though, there has been opposition from animal-rights groups who complain the Islamic way of slaughtering is unethical, and from the far-right British National Party that claims, about three times a week at least, that the country is being taken over by Muslims. The fact that no one has taken much notice of either group means my family and I still get to eat as we wish.

Although there is no religious requirement for Christians and others to eat pork, allowing it to be sold and eaten is not a big deal.

There are certain delights expatriates miss hugely. For me, it's proper chappatis the way my mother makes them, chip butties and the cream cakes from my local bakery. For others, it's pork. Fake bacon, or fakon as it's known in the region, just doesn't cut it, apparently. If my friends are happy that pork has finally arrived, I am happy for them.

Allowing pork to be sold here does not mean Muslims will start eating it. Having lived for 24 years in the UK, I was never once tempted despite being told: "You don't know what you're missing."

Anealla Safdar is a former National reporter now working in Doha

Updated: December 11, 2011 04:00 AM