This okra is not just a thing I bought. It is a series of relationships.
And there came a day when I couldn’t eat.
It’s not that I wasn’t hungry — I was. Around midday, I would weakly wind up to the fridge and eat. And eat, and eat, not tasting it. Leftovers from who knows when. Rice, till I burst. Raw rice, even. Then, nothing, till the end of the day. It was inhuman, even a little bestial.
I pegged it down to vitamin deficiencies, health problems, something physiological. It wasn’t until I started choking on a piece of okra that I was willing to consider why I couldn’t. That my reactions were those of a vegan when confronted by meat. I was faced with injustice and human suffering, and I literally couldn’t stomach it.
Food in Canada subsists on slavery. When did I actually start realizing this? This is not just the large scale farming of beef or sugar or poultry, with its exploitative labor and inhumane practices. Every single food choice commonly available to us is a moral dilemma. Embedded in my food is the life and labor of each person who produced it. This okra is not a thing I bought; it is a series of relationships. It is a chain of impacts that increase pollutants, decimate biodiversity, deteriorate the climate — forces that are driving not just the farmer, but entire communities towards an unsustainable brink.
It is overwhelming. It is terrifying to own up and acknowledge my culpability in my food choices, and ultimately to be answerable for it to Allah SWT.
My okra probably came from a tiny fragmented 1-acre farm. The cultivator relied on his own labor and family (yes, including children) because automation and mechanization are not practical on a small scale. Farming being a low esteem job, my farmer is exploited everywhere and forced to sell his meager output to middlemen. Outdated laws and corrupt officials forces millions of farmers to sell their produce in regulated markets where middlemen take a hefty cut. The total margin of middlemen in the entire chain adds up to 75%. When I paid $2.50 per pound of wilted okra in my local halal grocery store, did I consider that my farmer didn’t get a living subsistence, let alone a fair wage?
From the hired truck that took the okra to the middleman, to the loading and unloading that happened, at every stage, the food being wasted till it reached the docks or the air freight. From the land and water pollution that took place with fertilizers and pesticides, to the fuel it took to get to my grocery shelf, this food has cost me enormously more than I could afford. That any person with a conscience could afford. No wonder it turned my stomach.
And what does Islam have to say about that to any person with a conscience?
Indeed, it is We who bring the dead to life and record what they have put forth and what they left behind, and all things We have enumerated in a clear register.
Surah Yasin, 12
Aathaar literally means vestige, or impact. Allah SWT informs us that our aathaar are recorded. There is a file with my name on it, and the number beside it is an exact measure of my carbon footprint. It is a scale that not only measures in kilotons of CO2, but in human suffering. And this is a very chilling realization.
I was beginning to get a sense of what a halal and tayyib lifestyle meant, and it was much, much greater than the zabiha meat I was buying in a corner “halal” shop in Toronto.