Let us not confuse matters. France’s problem with the veil is different from its problems with restaurants serving only halal meat. The veil is being banned on grounds of not being part of the mainstream and carving a separate niche. The argument against the restaurants is discrimination against the majority.
Quick, a Belgium-based chain, has gained popularity in France. Burgers are stuffed with smoked beef instead of pork.
The mayor of Roubaix, a small town, said, “It’s very good that a restaurant like Quick offers halal (meat), but why get rid of what there is everywhere else? The fact that they do not offer other choices to non-Muslim clients is not acceptable.”
Has the mayor not heard about speciality restaurants? Would he have the same problem with sushi bars, vegetarian eateries, stores that sell organic foods, bakeries with only brown bread and sweets that are sugarless or eggless? Has it not become the norm to find new ways to market cuisine by emphasising that the place has only a certain kind of menu or even ambience? What about the Heart Attack Grill in Arizona built like a hospital that has cardiac arrest inducing burgers and provides wheelchairs to its clients as an after-meal incentive? Or the one in Japan that has toilet seats? What about picking a fresh piscine from a tank and open kitchens where you can watch the fish breathing its last just before it is brought to the table? We can take the argument even further – about places that offer only one kind of music, a limited wine list or are alcohol free.
Societies develop their own culinary culture that may be frowned upon by others, whether it is certain insects in the Far East or restaurants in Africa that serve game in what might be termed hunter style. How about a table with a hole where a monkey’s head has been cut off and the diners pick on bits of brain as it is cooked slowly? How about several parts of animals that are marketed as aphrodisiacs?
All these will be explained in terms that are politically correct or wonderfully chic. The problem with halal meat is that it is lawful according to the Quran only if the animal is bled to death and slaughtered in the name of Allah. No one protests as they have their probiotic meals in the name of bacteria or bothers to understand that several Indian restaurants that serve strictly vegetarian food first offer a bit to the gods.
These are cultural nuances and as long as you do not have to watch the process, and are assured of its goodness for your palate, there ought not to be any problem. Halal meat is not restricting others and it is not as if the French were waiting for this chain to open and are now disappointed. The motives are clear; no one is being cheated. You enter with the knowledge of what you will get.
Therefore, it is a bit surprising that the agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, is making it into an issue: “When they remove all the pork from a restaurant open to the public, I think they fall into communalism, which is against the principles and the spirit of the French republic.”
Communalism is when you force your thoughts on others. In my travels I have noticed that many countries in Europe do not understand the concept of vegetarianism. The troubles begin in the aircraft when “no meat” is understood to include fish. Should one accuse them of communalism?
The new French renaissance has a lot to do with the monetary aspect, too. It is a € 5.5 billion halal market catering to five million people, which is the largest Muslim population in all of Europe. A few years ago there was a halal version of Burger King, Beurger King Muslim (BKM) in France. It did not even attempt to look like an Arabic place. It serves an imitation of bacon made from halal turkey meat. This is rather surprising. Why would anyone who does not want anything to do with pig products wish to experiment with something like it? The only explanation is curiosity.
It is unlike some vegetarian restaurants that use soya to mimic meat and one restaurant in Hong Kong has specially created vegetables to look like chicken wings and lamb chops. Is this the grand idea of secularism?
Reports mention about how people drive from long distances just to get a taste of the sort of food they like but with the sanction that their faith permits. Besides the food, BKM also allows its female staff to wear the headscarf. What, then, would be the stance of France’s need to reclaim a national identity when it objects to the veil and yet wants its citizens to have access to a ‘restricted space’? Isn’t it a contradiction?
There are places where you go to experience exotica or the local flavour; it might include putting up with topless waitresses, having tea with yak milk or sitting on the floor. There are the subtle differences in the way cutlery is used or not used at all. I had once visited an institution in Mumbai and lunch was served as per old British traditions, but the meal was Indian. It was a sight to see my host roll his chapatti and use a knife and fork as he dipped it into the gravy as though it were sauce. We were alone in that dining hall, so even if he used his fingers to take bits of the chapatti and spooned the curry it would not have seemed odd. He would have felt perfectly in sync had he chosen to break bread with his hands, though, in a fancy restaurant.
However, amused as I was, I would not consider this as a loss of identity. He was just aping what he thought was modernity, while it was merely a western paradigm. Just as one would not see the West as one whole – the American hanging on to a Mac Whammy might seem a bit gauche to the Frenchman gently prodding quivering crab flesh with a fillet knife.
There are no standardised ways to eat and what to eat. It can be conditioning.
I do not eat pork. There are several other meats I do not eat. But, although I am not a practising Muslim, the reason I do not eat pork is considered a conservative option. The fact that I do not go looking for halal meat places should then make me a liberal. Combined, this may well damn me as a fence-sitter when all I am doing is exercising my choice to eat what I want without offending anyone.
Identity is larger than what you relish on your tongue or let slip off it.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com