‘You are not leaving,’ Zahid told me, grabbing my hand. I edged toward the door of the house but was pushed from the back by his brother. A plate had been set for me on the dining table and I had no option but to join the Siddique family for dinner. Other from claiming to be on a strict diet of prosciutto and red wine, it is impossible to turn down the invitation to join a Muslim family for a meal.
I was in Luton, a run-down satellite town about 50 kilometres north of London. It is home to a large Muslim community, most of whose parents emigrated from the Pakistani controlled region of Kashmir more than a generation ago. They found jobs in Luton’s car factories and engineering works. Their children, including Zahid, are a symbol of what Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, regards as the most serious political problem facing the West today.
Zahid has a strong Luton accent and chats about the fortunes of Luton’s football team. He also spoke of growing up drinking in pubs and experimenting with drugs. Now he is a devout Muslim and regards his primary identity not as a British citizen, but as a member of the Ummah, the community of the faithful that does not recognise national boundaries.
The main course for dinner was chicken on the bone with potatoes baked in a Kashmiri sauce. One of the features of this Himalayan cuisine is the use of cream in sauces, with aniseed and dry ginger added to the coriander and other more common South Asian spices. Walnuts and raisins are also sometimes cooked in the curries. ‘The best curry in the world is from Kashmir,’ he declared.
Zahid was an amusing and friendly host. I had met him at Britain’s Muslim television channel a week earlier and he invited me to his house. The British government accuses people like Zahid of not ‘integrating’ into national life. ‘What does integration mean?’ he asked me. ‘Eat pork? Drink alcohol? I am fine as I am. I am happy as a Muslim’.
Blair repeatedly justifies his ‘war on terror’, including the invasion of Iraq, by claiming that Islamist extremists are threatening the British way of life. I find this a ridiculous assertion. Britain’s two million Muslims play a part in society but are hardly able to change the fundamentals of British life. The nation’s bars and clubs have never been fuller, drugs more easily available or its popular culture more sexually explicit.
If Muslims are trying to change the lifestyle of Britain they are not doing very well. Although I do remember one Muslim woman’s public attempt to influence young non-Muslim men in her town. ‘Please’, she pleaded, ‘stop urinating on the wheels of my car when you leave the pub.’
The political problems surrounding Muslims in Britain emerged following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A small number of British Muslims responded with fury and murderous intent, including those who bombed the London underground in July 2005.
Blair responded with even more draconian anti-terrorist legislation to combat what he sees as an enemy within. The government appears stunned that most Muslims in the UK are more loyal to the insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than British troops. For this project, I was prevented from taking photographs in several restaurants and mosques because Muslims feared having their photo taken.
The government has also launched a campaign to ‘integrate’ Muslims in order to make them more ‘British’. This is a priority for the politicians but is much less an issue for those who work and mingle daily with Muslims. It’s worth remembering that the majority of non-Muslim Brits also opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Food does ‘separate’ Muslims from non-believers but should that not be celebrated rather than feared? It also separates Jews from the British mainstream but that is not considered a problem by the government.
The Muslim faith requires that a believer eat only Halal, or lawful, food; meat where the blood is drained from the dying animal. Several years ago when I was in the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, a traditional seat of Islamic learning, an Egyptian cleric passed me instructions on Halal cooking. He impressed upon me the value of the Qur’an: ‘It is a guide for life,’ he said. ‘I only have one book on my shelf. It is all I need. It tells me everything about life, including instructions on how to kill and cook a chicken.’
I glanced at the shelves behind him and he was right. They were empty except for a book holder and an open copy of the Qur’an. ‘Christianity is a faith that is practised for an hour a week in church. Islam instructs your whole life,’ he warned, looking gravely at me. I suspected that he had never cooked in his life but whenever I eat Halal meat, I am reminded of the instructions that he squeezed into my hand.
Sharpen your knife every time before you slaughter, but not in front of the animal to be slaughtered. Do not slaughter an animal in the presence of other animals, and feed and rest the animal before slaughter. The idea is to stop cruelty to animals.
The name of Allah should be recited while slaughtering the animal. ‘And eat not of that whereon Allah’s name hath not been mentioned, for Lo! It is abomination.’
Slaughtering consists of cutting the jugular veins of the neck, so that all the blood is drained out. The spinal cord must not be cut, because the nerve fibres to the heart may be damaged during the process, causing cardiac arrest and hence stagnation of the blood in the blood vessels of the animal. Since blood is also forbidden in Islam, it is incumbent to see to it that the blood is completely drained from the animal during slaughtering.
Islam provides a blueprint for daily life. The Qur’an is much more of a practical guidebook than the Bible. It is also less abstractly spiritual. Unlike the Church, Islam doesn’t appear to compete with science. Muslims argue that science must catch up with the knowledge revealed in the Qur’an; this includes explanations of why mountains were formed, the make-up of clouds, as well as the origin of the universe and the functions of the human cerebral cortex.
It is understandable then that the faith guides its followers on food and drink. Alcohol is Haram, or forbidden, because it damages the body. It is described as an attempt by Satan to pollute the mind and steer drinkers toward sin and transgression. It is also said that anyone who dies drinking alcohol will be forced in the afterlife to drink ‘the sweat of the people of Hell’.
The cleric in Cairo had cut out a report in the International Herald Tribune detailing the recall of pork products in the United States following evidence of contaminated meat. ‘Eating pork causes food poisoning because of parasitic worms,’ the cleric declared with authority as he waved the article. Another Muslim told me a story that I have never tested; if you pour a soft drink such as Coca Cola onto a cut of fresh pork and leave it overnight, worms will crawl from the meat in the morning.
A Muslim’s relation to food is at the central core of the faith; one of its five ‘pillars’ of Islam is the requirement to fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. From dusk until dawn, a Muslim must abstain from food and drink, including water, as well as sex. While fasting plays a part in spiritual practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, it is only obligatory in Islam.
‘God commanded us to fast – that’s why we do it,’ Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian living in London, told me at his local mosque. Mahmoud was detained in Britain’s high-security prisons for four years after the 9/11 attacks. The government still believes he is linked to terrorism. ‘I eat just once a day,’ he said as he ended his fast with dates. The dates, rich in sugar, are easily digested and revive sometimes-flagging energy levels. But Mahmoud must only eat an odd number of dates; ‘It is commanded that we eat either 3, 5, 7 or maybe 9 dates. Never an even number,’ he wagged his finger at me.
Ramadan had finished but Mahmoud was still fasting. He quoted the Prophet: ‘Whoever fasts during the month of Ramadan and then follows it with six days during Shawwal (the next month) will be rewarded as if he had fasted the entire year’. Muslims are advised to fast three days each month during the remainder of the year, he told me.
Fasting is a display of spiritual strength. ‘It also makes me think of those who are hungry in Africa,’ said Mahmoud. ‘It makes you more conscious of things around you, especially when you cannot go near your wife in the daytime.’ Food and sex are similar temptations and both demand inner strength to deny their pleasures.
During Ramadan, the meal after fasting, called the Iftar, is a ceremony shared with family and friends. ‘It is an important moment to give thanks for the life that God has given,’ Mahmoud told me. He also said that the decline in the Western family is caused by children eating separately, while watching TV or playing video games; ‘Eating is a time to be together as a family.’
The requirements of an Islamic diet often make it difficult for Muslims to go to the same restaurants as their fellow non-Muslims. Even when the meat is not Halal, non-meat products are often not edible. For example, the animal fats used in producing buns and apple pies in a Burger King restaurant makes them forbidden too, according to one Islamic food guide. The only item declared Halal was the milkshakes.
While much of these eating codes seem strange to non-Muslims, it shouldn’t make Muslims appear outsiders within our society. I went to a secular school in England and yet out of respect to Catholics, fish was always served for lunch on Fridays. Perhaps we should now accept the growing number of Muslims in Europe and respect rather than fear their traditions.
Zahid Siddique often makes the pilgrimage to Mecca. In Saudi Arabia, he likes going to McDonald’s. The McDonald’s restaurants in the UK do not serve Halal meat so Zahid cannot eat there. ‘The food in Mecca is not spicy enough for me,’ he said, ‘so I have an early lunch of a Big Mac with fries. It fills you up for a day of prayer.’
Rather than following a news agenda that emphasises the ‘war on terror’ and a ‘clash of civilisations’, perhaps we should listen to the actor and director Orson Wells. He once said: ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what’s for lunch’.
Taken from the latest issue of the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 24)
Phil Rees is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster