x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Save the sheep? Sure, but don't forget the people

In temperatures higher than 50 degrees Celsius, they suffer in distress, cramped together in a single container.

In temperatures higher than 50 degrees Celsius, they suffer in distress, cramped together in a single container. After being unloaded from vehicles where they were kept in the dark for several days, they become disoriented, squinting to adjust to the sunlight burning their eyes. They mill out searching for clean water to wet their dry throats. The future is not getting any better for them; they are stuck in a fight for their lives.

No, I am not referring to a description of the "No man's land" Ruwaished refugee camp in Iraq on the border with Jordan. Nor am I referring to the conditions of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. This is the story that is told about Australian sheep arriving by boat to the Middle East. Committees across the world are set up and petitions signed to stop the export of livestock, especially during Eid Al Adha, the "Festival of Sacrifice". These range from the "Save the Sheep" society and Australian committees that monitor the export of livestock to the Brigitte Bardot Foundation's campaign to stop ritualistic sacrifices during Eid Al Adha.

Every year millions of pilgrims gather in Mecca to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam, and have to end this ritual by sacrificing livestock. For outsiders trying to understand why Muslims perform such a ritual, it might be amusing, or incomprehensible. Or maybe it's amusingly incomprehensible? Before understanding the ritual of sacrifice, we have to understand the concepts of rituals. Why do people adhere to rituals? It might be because rituals hold a symbolic significance, or they are a tribute to ensure the continued practice of a certain belief. Rituals are almost by definition ancient, and it is generally assumed that everything ancient is by default uncivilised, and everything that is uncivilised has a certain element of barbarism.

This year alone, over 34,000 signatures were collected in Australia in opposition to this act. It seems sending sheep to the Middle East is similar to Americans sending their children to war. In both cases they want to increase their profits while saving their humane and civilised reputations. So by setting up committees and screaming slogans, they save their humanity while at the same time profiting from their trade.

How about African and Indian livestock? We don't hear about any campaigns or committees set up to save Indian goats? Maybe they are not "white" enough to deserve a humane campaign. Of course, I am fully supportive of treating animals in a "humane" manner, and they should be shipped in good conditions. Plus, good travel conditions are required for the livestock to arrive fit and healthy. It's simple; if they don't arrive fit, they won't be sold.

Which brings me back to the point that, most probably, the travel conditions are not really the main concern and it's simply an issue of the "civilised" world not comprehending our rituals and viewing them as barbaric. Of course, I agree that some Muslims may act in an uncivilised manner by dragging a sheep into a hotel bathroom and slaughtering it right there. The poor housekeeper might go into shock after seeing the blood and wondering what happened. Maybe the hotel guest should place a "Do Not Disturb, In Room Slaughtering" sign on his door.

This time of festivity and Eid brings us back to, how to sacrifice in a civilised manner. A recent advertisement in local papers presented the advantage of performing the ritual at the slaughterhouse in contrast to in-house slaughtering. Pictures of happy, bubbly sheep prancing around were used to encourage the activity. The advertisement was not only run in Arabic-language papers (which might have been enough to reach the Muslim community) but also in English-language papers - the usefulness of the English ads might be debatable, but then I guess we need to present our civility to the English-speaking community.

My friend in Riyadh says that her mother wakes up before dawn every Eid to check on the goats in her backyard: she places henna on their heads, reads a prayer to them and leaves them in the hands of a macho Afghan butcher to slaughter them. The children, including my friend, used to watch with anticipation the ritual was performed. None of those children, now adults, became inclined towards violence. In fact, they are more peaceful than sheep themselves.

On the other hand, my mother stopped the slaughtering in our backyard, not only because it is illegal but also she realised that it is much more hygienic to send the goats to the slaughterhouse. However, I can't seem to judge: what is more humane, my friend's mother's personal touch? Or my mother sending the goats to a mass slaughterhouse? At the end of the day, just because Muslims have to perform a symbolic ritual of slaughtering livestock does not change the fact that we are not the only meat-eating people in the world. But I guess when people's basic needs have been met, they have so much time on their hands to set up committees and campaigns.

In this age of "To Do" lists and setting one's priorities, I believe it is more relevant and "humane" to worry about the conditions of people in similar (or sometimes worse) situations than these Australian sheep. But then, of course, basic needs are determined by geography and demography. Where else but in the West do you see a homeless person with a dog, a mobile phone and a packet of cigarettes?

Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher who has recently decided to come to terms with her barbarism