Posts Tagged ‘Jerbent’

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The death of a vegetrian. Or, “Displacement and the suspension of principles”

October 27, 2008

           24/10/08

           I have always rejected the dogmatic clinging to principle, because all value judgments take root in and are thus only valid in a specific context. I believe that as context changes, the tenets that people hold dear also change.

 

            Some would deem that fickle. Others would agree and argue for the contingency of the individual, recognising that as circumstances change, so the self changes. Both are charges that threaten us: on one hand, our integrity is compromised by hypocrisy; on the other hand, our adaptability pales in the face of immutable conviction. As with all things, therefore, it is a matter of balancing the two, of negotiating some stance between two-faced irresponsibility and blind, unconditional devotion.

 

*          *          *

 

            I have self-defined as a vegetarian for over six years. I say ‘self-defined’, because by some people’s standards, I would not have even merited the designation ‘vegetarian’, because I seldom chose to eat fish. Such a decision was motivated by the philosophy that motivated my ‘vegetarianism’ in the first place: an inclination towards boycotting exploitative methods of production while accepting local, small-scale produce.

 

            I stopped eating meat at the same that I started to acquire broader socio-political awareness. In my last year of high-school in France, reading books such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo and discovering the ”Another world is possible” slogan of the World Social Forum introduced me to the concept of responsibility in consumerism. On one hand, it was your classical late-nineties anti-globalisation fare, which entailed choosing not to buy products produced by sweatshop labour or associated with multi-national corporation (who abused human rights and undermined local, independent business). On the other hand, it led to me ceasing to eat meat, which in university continued into a penchant towards products (especially dairy) produced according to Fair Trade and organic standards.

 

            My borderline flirtations with eating fish sprouted from a belief that if you ate it from local sources, you were supporting small-scale industry and not causing too much environmental/social tension. Initially, I only ate it at the sea-shore in France, Italy or my dad’s house in the Caribbean (dare I divulge the privilege of my upbringing). But then, after a couple years, I became lazy and my occasional contingently-justifiable delights (once every few months) became more frequent indulgences, perhaps sushi in a self-proclaimed ‘sustainable’ sushi bar, or the odd package of Sainsbury’s Organic smoked salmon (the debate regarding purchasing supermaket-produced organic and fair trade products from huge companies that monopolize the market or threaten small business exceeds the scope of this piece, but is nevertheless something that requires much more deliberation).

 

            Consequently, it became that my principles concerning fish consumption were more flexible than before, and I found myself being more and more able to justify eating fish. Recently, more precisely over the last couple of weeks, my convictions regarding eating red meat have fallen victim to a similar tendency.

 

            The cause of my choice to boycott of meat products originates in a disgust of the industry. Consequently, I have often maintained that I would consider eating meat that came from animals reared in more humane methods, such as traditional shepherding. And during a stop over in the very small village of Jerbent in the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, on the highway between Ashgabat in the south and Dashogus in the north, I took myself up on that.

 

            Jerbent is pretty much the closest place I’ve ever been in to the Middle of Nowhere: a tiny village of perhaps a few hundred inhabitants living in single-story, rectangular houses scattered on the sand. Outside these houses, camels can be found either attached by ropes to wooden troughs or wandering aimlessly through strewn rubbish in the company of chickens. Sheep and goats are kept in circular pens made out of large, 2 metre-high tree branches, with their broader end fixed into the sand while the twigs of their narrower extremity reach up into the cloudless blue sky. One of the roads encompassing of the village had been completely encroached upon by the constantly shifting dunes of the desert, and served as the slightest indication of the power of the natural forces at play in that harsh environment.

 

            Our two cars pulled up to a house whose owner was accustomed to providing sustenance to passing drivers and their passengers, given that after Turkmenbashi ordered the demolition of the other main village on the desert highway, apparently because it did not conform to an example of the progressive society he was attempting to forge,  Jerbent is the only real source of human activity for a 500 km radius. We were led into a narrow room with no furnishings apart from a refrigerator and a collection of jars filled with stewed fruit and pickles in one corner. The ten of us (2 drivers and 8 passengers) sat around a plastic tablecloth spread out on the floor, something we had grown accustomed to during our time in Iran and which I had come to admire for its convenient dispensing of practicalities such as not having enough chairs to accommodate unexpected guests. Our hostess served us green tea, and then asked if we wanted something to eat. The only thing on offer was lamb, and, to the surprise of both my vegetarian and omnivore companions,  I put in a request.

 

            Now, I had had a small breakfast of coffee and biscuits a few hours before. I was by no means famished, and we had enough apples, apricots and various other tidbits to last through the 6 hours until we were to arrive at our destination. Therefore, my decision to eat the lamb was not motivated by a fear of hunger, nor was it out of politeness to the hosts. I, quite simply, was not bothered by the thought of eating a sheep raised in the Turkmen desert. In fact, and perhaps slightly morbidly, the idea rather appealed to me.

 

             The meat came in sizable chunks soaking in its gravy on two communal plates with some chopped raw onion sprinkled on top, to be eaten by hand with the help of bread. The flesh was salty, fatty and tender, and it gushed its full-bodied juices onto my taste buds. I chewed and chewed, entertained by the challenge of masticating that unmistakable consistency, while savouring the distinctive, succulent flavour.

 

            Yes, I really enjoyed that simple dish of dead desert sheep, despite feeling it sit heavily in my intestines following the meal. And, perhaps in total hypocrisy, I am not ashamed of that enjoyment. Even more shocking, I decided to reindulge the growing carnivore inside me about a week later, when I ordered a lamb shashlyk (grilled on a skewer) in Bukhara, Uzbekistan…

 

            So, what now? Do I consider myself a ‘meat-eater’. Should I? Is my claim to vegetarianism nullified by these recent spurts of lamb meat-love?

 

            In response to these questions, Di made the useful point that no labels are ever either seamless and therefore often dispensable. ‘Don’t call yourself a vegetarian, just say that you don’t eat meat’, she suggested. Yet although that may be a practical way of framing the situation when I’m ordering food in a restaurant, how does it sit when placed within the philosophical debate about the ethics of human consumption of animals? Does the fact that I have veered from the principled path of vegetarianism forsake the ground from which I am able to criticise the exploitative, unsustainable methods used in most western meat production?

 

            And what about other pro-vegetarian arguments, such as the fact that in view of the world food crisis, the amount of grain that it takes to nourish an animal could sustain many, many more people than the those that would get my on the amount of meat derived fro that animal. Accordingly, it would follow that the most humanitarian decision would be for us to renounce meat so that the grain that would normally go to the meat industry could be directly redistributed to those populations who experience food shortages. But where does shepherding fit into that logic? Surely, animals that survive on the dry, prickly vegetation of the Central Asian semi-desert are usurping neither actual food resources nor arable land? 

 

            Despite the rationalisation that I am increasingly capable of, I am left with a resounding suspicion that my relativism, through which I evaluate my actions based on the specificities of the context, still stinks of hypocrisy.

 

*          *          *

 

            In order to come to some sort of pertinent evaluation of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that my recent decisions to eat meat should to be situated alongside other choices I have made during these travels. For example, over the past month my qualms about purchasing certain products, namely from Coca Cola and Nestle, have been similarly neglected. Again, the decision to boycott these companies dates back to my student days, when Coke was accused of murdering some of its employees who were members of a turbulent trade union in South America; while Nestle occupies a prestigious spot on the ‘Black List’, a group of companies who have either administrative or economic ties to the Zionist movement. In the U.K., France, America, I am often adamant about the importance of such boycotts, framing them in terms of a broader ‘ethical consumerism’, which seeks to reject placing one’s purchasing power in companies that use sweatshop labour (Nike), or have investments in arms companies, or tend to monopolise certain markets (Chiquita banana).

 

            Since travelling, however, I have become so slack when it comes to following through with such principles: if i feel a bout of dodgy stomach emerging while on public transport, I’ll buy the first Coke I see because it really helps settle the stomach. Similarly, having to wake up at 7am to catch a bus after a night on the vodka is greatly assisted by a hot cup of instant coffee, which not always but often comes in the form of Nescafe. So, several years of practicing what I preached have flown out the train window,.

 

            I wonder:

 

            To what extent is being removed from one’s context or ‘normalcy’ taken as a license to permit oneself abnormal behaviours?

 

            Does travelling, with the vast changes that it implies in terms of language, culture, values, become a good excuse for deviance?

 

            Do the combined sensations of movement, temporariness, transit and difference combine to make us more prone to suspend our tenets in the name of ‘adjustment’ and ‘compromise’?

 

            Or, does travelling across the world with a backpack consume so much energy that we become, quite simply, lazy?

           

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