Among those most vivid memories of my early childhood, I remember that I had what adults called a ‘healthy appetite’. With pleasure and without second thoughts, I devoured everything served. Then one day, while enjoying a kebda mchermla (lamb liver in sauce), I remember thinking: ‘where did this tasty meat come from?’ I would soon get to know its origin, and this would change the way I looked upon a part of my culinary culture.
I grew up in an animal-loving family. For as long as I can remember, I have been surrounded by cats, dogs and rabbits. We talked about them as social beings in their own right. Upon the arrival of a sheep at my grandparents’ house, I greeted it with the same enthusiasm as I would have welcomed a newly adopted cat. I must have been four or five years old and it was the first Eid al-Kabir that I can recall.
Then one morning, I woke up to find the sheep in the middle of the courtyard. My grandfather was there, as were the other men of the house, all gathered around the animal in a rather strange formation. They were struggling to keep it standing still, and before I had time to fathom the situation, I saw blood gushing from the sheep. My mother tried to ward me off as she did not want me to observe the sacrifice, but I kept standing there, watching with eyes wide open at this curious spectacle. They told me that it was just a red shampoo - I was young and naive, but not to the point of believing them! I remember very well that I felt neither fear nor sadness, only incomprehension. I did not understand how anyone could do harm to a sheep, it seemed to me absurd and pointless.
After this incident, it was as if a curtain had been drawn back revealing the backstage to all these delicious family dishes that I used to love. Initially, I only refused to eat red meat, but one day as I watched a roast chicken being set upon the dinner table, I recognized the animal’s shape and refused to touch it. Then the same thing happened with a fish. It was then that my family and the adults around me tried to intervene. They told me that it was impossible to maintain a healthy diet without meat, that I should at least eat fish. To prove that I was wrong, they ventured into the religious domain, asking: ‘Would you dare to forbid that which God has made permissible?’
Stubborn as I was, they learned to live with it. More and more often, we would all eat vegetarian food at home. However, eating out as a vegetarian was more complicated. If it was not the waiters’ incomprehension, it was the virtual absence of suitable food choices. As such, I often found myself left with an uneven match of side-orders while the rest of my family ate a full meal. At the time it was difficult to find a single vegetarian option on a restaurant menu. Even today, the primary plant-based option, a salad, often contains tuna.
In school I encountered similar resistance. During the month of Ramadan, when kids brought their lunch to school, my vegetarian meals were a fond topic of ridicule. At the time, my classmates often teased me for having poor taste, a taste ‘belonging to the poor,’ how easy and uncostly it might be to feed me with vegetables and seeds!
Eating meat in Morocco has always been a question of social status. In pre-colonial Morocco, meat was a highly prized food and only the most affluent classes could really afford it on a daily basis. The general population only ate meat on the occasion of the major celebrations: Eid al-Kabir; Ouziâ (Berber New Year); weddings, etc. During the rest of the year, the average Moroccan was confined to a near-vegetarian diet.[i]
With colonization and the emergence of the first modern slaughterhouses, Morocco’s diet changed profoundly. Celebration dishes became everyday favorites, and the foods which had previously been the preserve of the richest became common fare. Today, the average Moroccan consumes 17.4 kg of red meat per year,[ii] although this number does not (yet) equal that of most European countries (for example in France the figure is 60 kg per year), it does remain significantly higher than during the pre-colonial era. As the upper-class diet became accessible to the middle classes, the act of refusing it was frowned upon as curious at best, or at worst as haughty and snobbish.
The fast food boom cemented the role of meat and products of animal origin, casting them centre plate. No sooner had the major international fast food chains opened their doors in Morocco than they were beset by the country’s middle classes. To eat out became more and more popular, and among my classmates not eating cheeseburgers or deep-fried chicken wings was the very antithesis of cool. Luckily, in recent years things have become a bit easier for vegetarians - on most menus there is at least one vegetarian option, and even some all-vegetarian restaurants have seen the light of day.
Having become vegetarian for ethical reasons and been faced with the incomprehension of everyone around me, I often found myself justifying it as a matter of individual taste, which is to say that growing up vegetarian in Morocco, my biggest concern was not so much to claim the rights of animals, but simply my own right to exist—to be accepted for who I am.
With age, I became more and more comfortable with my vegetarianism. I surrounded myself with friends who, if not vegetarians themselves, at least understood my commitment. I discovered that vegetarianism had roots in my North-African culture, and I discovered several traditional Moroccan dishes that were ‘accidentally’ vegetarian: vegetable tagines, seven-vegetable couscous, lentils, white kidney beans, split peas, bissara, harira, herbel, seffa, etc.
I also discovered that vegetarianism was not a novel phenomenon, and that thinkers whom I admired like al-Maʿarri had been vegetarians long before our time. Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri was a great 11th century Syrian poet and philosopher. To this day, he is considered one of the greatest thinkers and poets of the Arab world. His notoriety is often accompanied by anecdotes about his vegetarianism and solitary lifestyle. In his poem, ‘I no longer steal from nature,’ al-Maʿarri writes:
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes… [iii]
I understood perfectly his refusal to eat animal flesh, but what about the other products, such as milk, eggs, or even honey? I had already asked myself these questions, but had not thought them through. As a child, when I asked my mother whether the milk we drank did harm to the cows, she said that it was what kept them alive longer. I took her word for it, partly because I was afraid of change. Just like the omnivores who were afraid of changing their habits and perplexed in the face of my vegetarianism, I was perplexed in the face of veganism.
I did not understand the vegan lifestyle, which I found radical, and I had a hard time imagining imposing so many restrictions on myself, restrictions that at the time I hardly understood. In addition, I already felt secluded in my vegetarianism and was afraid to become more so by adopting veganism. I had a hard time imagining myself explaining to others why I would refuse to eat a piece of cheese or a slice of cake containing egg. Within my own circle, I was often told that as long as I ate eggs and dairy products, it was OK, as long as I did not become like those ‘crazy people’ who would not eat anything that comes from an animal.
Those ‘crazy people’ were the vegans. A vegan is a person who practices a lifestyle, which excludes, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals; whether this is for food, clothing or any other purpose.[iv]
The Internet gives us a privileged opportunity to see for ourselves the flip side of certain popular phenomena. Thus while surfing online, I discovered these infamous vegans and found that they did not seem to have a more complicated life than mine. Gradually I came to see them as ordinary principled people, people among whom I might stand.
More and more often I came across websites and webpages directed towards vegans in Morocco and the Arab world and found comfort in the feeling that I was not so eccentric after all. I closely followed one of the first websites on veganism in the Arab world: Vegan Life.[v] I had been following the Facebook group Vegetarianism in Morocco[vi] for a long time already, but from 2010 on I noticed a substantial increase in the number of vegan members. This trend has become more and more pronounced in recent years; that is, more and more vegetarians have adopted veganism.
Exposed to other vegans in Morocco, I no longer saw veganism as a totally inconceivable practice. I was already avoiding leather and inspired by vegans I started to seek out information on the origin of hygiene and cosmetic products, doing my best to avoid those that might have been tested on animals. However, I continued my consumption of eggs and dairy products. I still did not understand what might drive anyone to such extremes, until the day I got my own visual evidence.
I must have been 20 years old when I first saw a video disclosing the hidden reality of the livestock industry. Until then, except for the ritual sacrifice of Eid al-Kabir and a few fleeting visions of caged chickens in the souk, I had not really looked the violence of the livestock industry in the face. Until then I had never seen what happened behind the slaughterhouse walls. I looked into the eyes of the animals and saw a distress that marked me deeply. I now understood that, in addition to meat, products like dairy and eggs were also the product of violence and suffering.
When I spoke to my friends or family about these acts of violence, they often assured me that it only happened in the West. They insisted that in Morocco, livestock farming was radically different from what one saw in the Earthlings documentary. However, I was not satisfied with this response. To me it was only a question of scale. Whether small or large-scale livestock farming, animal suffering and exploitation was inevitable in the production of meat or milk. I also learned that slaughterhouses had been introduced in Morocco at the very beginning of colonization and that in developing countries the application of industrial livestock farming produced, if anything, even greater suffering than in that of their colonial counterparts.[vii]
I felt completely paralyzed in the face of this suffering. While animal protection organizations are becoming more numerous in Morocco, they focus almost exclusively on pets or the welfare of animals such as donkeys, still used to pull cargo in villages and towns. The livestock we eat and which produce milk and eggs for human consumption remain without any protection whatsoever. As such, I knew that something must change in order for me to align myself with my true values and that would start on the plate right in front of me.
I started transitioning towards veganism, even though I was still afraid of the social consequences: incomprehension, exclusion, and the new difficulties I would have to deal with on a daily basis. Not speaking about it to anyone, and little by little, I started excluding products of animal origin from my lifestyle. The list of things that I could eat in restaurants narrowed, but becoming more and more creative in my orders I still managed to eat decent meals. At home my taste became more sophisticated and I discovered all the subtleties and delights particular to vegetable cuisine: cashew-based faux cheese; egg- and milk-free cakes that had nothing to envy of their predecessors; ground lentils and nuts for a flavorful Bolognese; crushed chickpeas curiously reminiscent of tuna; perfectly creamy coconut milk-based ice cream, and more still.
However, the time soon came when my dairy- and egg-free dishes began to spur intrigue. People around me started asking questions and I was forced to speak about it. To put my new commitment into words was difficult. I was afraid to seem pushy towards my interlocutors, to seem too weird or too extreme. I was especially afraid of assigning blame, aware that it is a sensitive topic involving complex questions, such as: As humans are omnivorous, are we not supposed to feed on animals? Do we really have a moral obligation towards animals? Should we not above all abolish human suffering?
Growing Our Understanding
The incomprehension I encountered upon turning vegan was even greater than that which I faced at the time of my vegetarianism. But this time, older and armed with what I had learned from Moral Philosophy and Animal Studies lectures, I had a little more confidence in my own position. Without judging or pointing fingers, I calmly explained my point of view, why I had chosen this lifestyle, and why it was not as far-fetched as it may have seemed. I started out by stating clearly that it was not simply a question of personal taste, the pretext that I had previously used in order to avoid embarrassing discussions. I also explained that it was neither a whim concerning calories, nor a purity dogma; I simply did not want to contribute to animal suffering.
Reading Peter Singer’s work,[viii] as well as the thoughts contributed to Effective Altruism[ix] I understood the importance of a pragmatic approach to the cause of animal welfare. While I am now committed to a vegan lifestyle, and do feel regret about my past consumption of animal products, I have learned to appreciate vegetarians, flexitarians and all those who in some way attempt to limit the suffering caused to animals. When it comes to practice, two ‘semi-vegans’ may do more to alleviate animal suffering than one vegan, and the large majority of people are more likely to adopt this ‘middle way’.
From Melanie Joy, I learned that what she terms ‘carnism’ is a dominant and invisible ideology based on ‘the three Ns of justification,’ namely that eating meat is ‘Normal, Natural and Necessary.’[x] Echoing the issues relating to meat and social status described above, I could add yet a fourth N in the Moroccan context, that is, ‘Noble’. I also learned that there was a whole psychology behind the act of eating meat; much more complex and deeply embedded in our culture than my 5 or 6-year-old self could have ever imagined… sitting at the table before a roast chicken dinner.
We grow up in a given culinary culture. It marks us from early childhood. We associate certain flavors with communion with others, place, identity and value; as such, it becomes difficult to relate these to the face of a suffering animal. Moreover, and just like me when I first became vegetarian, and then vegan, people are afraid of isolating themselves, of feeling misunderstood or becoming the subject of ridicule. These are all factors that make resistance towards my lifestyle so strong. Instead of opposing them with anger or frustration, I learned to deal with them by means of a more open and understanding mind. On this new ground, I learned to communicate better in my everyday life, whether it be about veganism or any other topic close to my heart.
Coincidentally, as I became more and more comfortable with my veganism, the people around me became more receptive to it. More and more, I was able to share my lifestyle with family and friends. Some people around me have even chosen to become vegans, or vegetarians, or to reduce their consumption of animal products.
Surfing the Internet, I discovered that there were other vegans in Morocco, that I was not as isolated as all that. Within the group Veganism in Morocco I made some friends, we shared meals and thoughts upon our experience as vegans au Maroc. To my knowledge, this was the first time I had met another vegan in the flesh.
I also discovered L’Vegans,[xi] one of the first vegan communities in Morocco. The collective aims to unify vegans and vegetarians, not only in Morocco, but throughout the Arab world. Another of L’Vegans’ objectives is to normalize veganism in the eyes of the non-vegan public. To this end, they have begun to organize events around the discovery of the vegan lifestyle. The first event took place last Ramadan in Casablanca, in the vegetarian restaurant ‘Veggie’. The program consisted of a 100% vegan Iftar and coincided with the release of the documentary Forks over Knives,[xii] which deals with the health consequences of animal product consumption. The event was a success, and the collective plans to organize further events in the near future.
[i] Mohamed, H. (2008) Le Maroc végétarien 15ème - 18ème siècle: histoire et biologie. Casablanca: Éditions Wallada.
[ii] Entreprises-Coloniales (2017) Société Générale des Abattoirs Municipaux et Industriels au Maroc: Création de la Société Générale des abattoirs municipaux de France, de la Cie générale du Maroc. Available online at: http://www.entreprises-coloniales.fr/afrique-du-nord/Abattoirs_industriels_Maroc.pdf Accessed: 15 August 2018.
[iii] al-Maʿarri, ‘I no longer steal from nature’. Trans. (Adapted from) R.A. Nicholson (1921) Studies in Islamic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available online at: www.humanistictexts.org/al_ma'arri.htm
[vii] Faunalytics (2017) Factory Farming in Developing Countries: A Review. Available online at: faunalytics.org/factory-farming-developing-countries-review Accessed: 18 July 2018.
[viii] Singer, P. (2009) Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
[x] Joy, M. (2011) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. Newburyport: Conari Press.