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11/29/09 On Vegetarianism

"Ur da-ttagh aksum."

I don't eat meat.

I say this a lot.

How detailed my explanation becomes depends on the audience. Yesterday, speaking to a dear little old Berber lady, who's not only illiterate but probably didn't know anyone literate before her 60th birthday, I simply said, "I don't like meat." She responded, "But it's delicious!" I smiled - her entire face is mapped with smile lines, it's impossible not to love her on sight - and said, "Yes, delicious, but for me - myself - it's not good." My host mom was there, to chime in with her explanation that meat makes me violently ill (based on a misunderstanding last summer that I've never attempted to correct), and I let it go.

When I'm talking to people who have encountered other cultures and seem interested in hearing a nuanced discussion, I'm more likely to say something like, "In America, there are many vegetarians, for many different reasons. Me, I'm vegetarian because so much is wasted on animals. Animals need so much food and water and land; I want food and water and land to be used for people, not livestock. And here in Berberville, the sheep ate all the vegetation and now the mountains are naked, so they have to go far, far away to find grass - and we still grow more grasses in the fields, to feed them in the winter. I think that's a problem, so I don't eat meat."

I've been vegetarian since I was fifteen. And I'm the oldest Volunteer in my stage, so that tells you that it's been a while.

When I joined Peace Corps, my recruiter and I had a conversation about meat. He pointed out that in most Peace Corps countries, everyone who can afford to cooks meat as often as possible. Even if I were to limit myself to the vegetables served with the meal, they'd still have been cooked in the meat juices. He asked about the last time I'd had red meat. It was about six months prior, and resulted from my willingness to eat whatever I'm served when I'm in someone's home. The next day, I was sicker than I think I've ever been. It may have been a coincidence, or may have reflected that my body had gone so long without complex proteins that it viewed them as something foreign and toxic, and responded with the symptoms of extreme food poisoning. I told him something along those lines, and his advice was to re-introduce meat into my diet, a little at a time. I'd have enough challenges in starting life in a new country; I wouldn't need to worry about an inability to digest meat.

So ever since - and that was in May of 2007 - I've eaten meat every few weeks, give or take. I don't think I've gone a full month without meat since then, and I know a few times - like when I'm in the US, or when I'm in a city with great shwarma like Oujda or Essaouira - I've eaten meat up to half a dozen times in a week. Generally, it's every two to three weeks, but I don't think about it much.

I never eat meat with my host family or other Moroccan families, except on 3id al-Kebir, when I do it to show respect for the religious beliefs of my community. So I pretty much only dip a toe into the carnivorous lifestyle if PCV buddies and I go to one of the chicken houses in SouqTown or if I'm at another Volunteer's house, and they want to cook meat.

So I ate turkey at Thanksgiving (both Thanksgivings!), and meat-based chili when my PCV buddy Jamal made it - come to think of it, the last four times I ate red meat were when Jamal cooked it...hmmm - and have eaten shwarma in pretty much every major Moroccan city...but I still identify as vegetarian.

Which, I know, is inconsistent, and makes life harder for all the true vegetarians out there. (No, I really don't want meat. No, not even a little. Not even white meat. Not even fish. No, really, I *am* vegetarian. Really.)

But I like eating low on the food chain, and I know that all the animals in Morocco lead lives that a factory-farmed American animal could only ever dream of - the chickens run so free that I have to be careful not to step on them - so I'm OK with my compromise.

I eat enough meat that I don't have to be afraid of the meat-soaked potatoes and turnips I eat from Ama's tagine, but not enough to feel like a true omnivore.

So am I vegetarian? Not in any strict sense. But I identify with it for political and social and heck, even historical reasons (don't all my years of vegetarianism count for something?), and I'm OK with that.

Plus, I like not having to eat eyeball or brain or testicle - all of which are on the menu here. I eat intestine-wrapped organ meat once a year, and that's all the sheep I need. So I ate my half-dozen pieces of shishkebab'd sheep organs yesterday, will probably have the same again today (the 3id is a multi-day holiday), and then I'll get to return to saying Ur da-ttagh aksum.

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