Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Visit to the Slaughterhouse

WARNING: If you are a vegetarian, easily disturbed by descriptions of the slaughtering of animals for human consumption, or averse to tales of mammalian blood loss (my friend Joe Gaylord come to mind), I recommend you discontinue reading this post now.

I agreed immediately to accompany the preventive medicine officer on his inspection trip to the local Afghan Army slaughterhouse. Several months ago I had seen photographs of slaughterhouses here depicting men with bloody butcher knives in their mouths, cats serving as the rodent eradication force, and sickly animals nonetheless passed as safe for butchering and eventual human consumption. I also eat in the Afghan Army dining facilities occasionally, and the beef, lamb and goat from this particular facility stocks all the army kitchens in Kabul; so I was curious as to the origin of my lunch meat.

We first visited the holding yard where all newly acquired animals spend a minimum of twenty-four hours to ensure that they are robust enough to at least eat and ambulate. The cows, sheep and goats in the yard enjoying their last few hours of life when we visited were certainly able to scurry away whenever we ventured close to them for a photograph. The Afghans giving us the tour thought it funny that we would want our pictures taken with a herd of goats, but I’m sure it was just the latest of American behaviors incomprehensible to them.

The stockyard smelled like any other stockyard. In other words, it smelled like an animal pen from a Midwest farm, so I rather enjoyed the earthy scent as it elicited pleasant childhood memories of my family visits to the Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky where Uncle Ronny, my namesake, lived as a Trappist monk and worked with the other brothers a very large dairy farm. The farm featured a pen with a bull, and my brother Dave and I would sit on the fence and take in the smell of hay and manure as we waved a red shirt at the beast in an attempt to get him animated. I was rather cautious of the cattle in the Afghan stockyard, as I know from personal experience that taunting can get them agitated; and I was happy to note that they were leashed.

The Afghans informed us that they segregate all the animals by sex when they arrive. Afghan culture dictates that men and women rarely socialize with anyone of the opposite sex outside of their own families, so I thought this routine might be an extension of that custom. I also thought it rather cruel to separate the male and female beasts, thus negating the possibility of one last night of carnal pleasure before they were sacrificed for the nutrition of the Afghan Army and its American mentors. Through an interpreter, I suggested to my Afghan colleagues that perhaps they should do something nice for the animals here and allow the males and females to consort together on their last night of life.

Attempting to amuse another person through an interpreter is a rather dicey initiative. Oftentimes the interpreter himself will not understand your joke, or perhaps the languages differ so much in vocabulary and contextual imperatives that an extremely witty line in one tongue becomes simply a befuddling phrase when translated into the other. The interlude necessary for the translation of your words is painful enough with regular conversation; but when you’ve told a joke, and are anticipating some display of mirth from your interlocutors, the period during which you wait while your colleagues hear your words in their own language can be excruciating. You begin to fear that what you said was not funny at all to them; or worse yet, offensive. Thankfully, at the slaughterhouse, I had with me a very fine interpreter who immediately laughed when I proposed cohabitation for all animals awaiting slaughter, and every one of the Afghans surrounding me roared with laughter after they heard the translation.

What I like about most Afghans with whom I work – good Muslims all of them – is that they like to eat and they love to laugh, even if the humor is a bit bawdy. It’s my kind of Islam.

From the holding yard, we went to the cattle slaughtering room. It was easy to find, as approximately fifteen severed cow heads were piled outside the door. The eyes I could see had a rather stunned look, as if the animals were shocked that this was the end. Inside the slaughtering room, men worked at several carcasses of beef, stripping away the skin and fur, pulling out the innards, and sectioning the meat with axes. In fact, the slaughtermen did all of the work with their hands or with a hand ax. I was impressed with the men sectioning the meat, as they obviously were quite skilled and practiced at slicing the carcasses with a simple ax, and they were able to partition the meat nicely.

The room itself was cleaner than I had expected it to be. Some of the butchering was done directly on the floor, which itself was not exactly a sterile surface. The USDA inspectors would not have liked that practice, but Upton Sinclair probably would never have bothered writing The Jungle had this been the only slaughterhouse he saw. I remember a neighboring farmer in Indiana who would annually butcher a cow by killing it then hoisting the animal by its hind legs with the front lift forks of his tractor before he disemboweled it. The work in the Afghan slaughterhouse seemed at least as clean and sanitary as that farmer’s, and I remember the fresh beef our neighbor delivered to my mother as tasting delicious.

I asked the supervisor how they actually killed an animal, as we entered the room when the cattle had already become simply large sides of beef, and he told me they first tie the legs and then quickly slit the animal’s throat. He then became excited, and told me that he would go fetch a cow and kill it so I could witness the procedure myself. I really had no interest in watching that process, nor did my colleagues who just uttered “Oh my god” after our interpreter told us the supervisor’s intent. I grabbed our interpreter and, luckily, we caught supervisor just as he was making his way to the stockyard. I explained that I really didn’t want to interrupt the routine of the facility, and that although I appreciated his willingness to down one more head of cattle for our edification, the additional slaughter really wasn’t necessary. He understood, thankfully, and then suggested that we move on to the room where they dealt with the sheep and goats. I told him that was just fine with me.

As we continued the tour, I joked with my colleague Dr. B-, one of the Afghan army officers who was accompanying us, that the sight of all the fresh meat was making me hungry for lunch. Dr. B- laughed, and as we entered the next room we encountered three freshly slaughtered sheep hanging on a hook, one of which was obviously a male (until recently) as its inordinately large testicles hung down over the abdomen of the inverted carcass. Dr. B- pointed to the testicles, smiled and told me “We will prepare these for you for lunch as you are very hungry!”

Dr. B- and I have become friends over the past few months. I was impressed when I learned that he has fathered twelve children, and I always make mention of his virility whenever we meet. After he suggested the testicles for my lunch, I took his hand (an appropriate gesture of friendship between men in Afghanistan) and told him that I would eat them if the meal rendered me as fertile as he is. Dr. B- laughed at my retort, and told me that when this inspection tour was over we must take tea together. He’s my kind of Muslim.

There was very little activity in the sheep and goat section of the facility. The workers slaughter a specified number of animals each day, and that morning they had already killed, skinned and sectioned the allotted number of sheep and goats. The supervisor decided, however, that since we were not able to see how they killed the cattle, that he would bring in two sheep so that we could witness the slaughtering process from start to finish. We couldn’t stop him this time. When we learned of his intentions through our interpreter, he already was heading back from the stockyard literally dragging and carrying a bucking sheep that acted as if it knew precisely the consequences of the very near future.

I hope, when my time comes, to die a peaceful death, and pass from this world during a night of deep sleep. If I have to die by the knife, however, I want one of the Afghan slaughtermen I met to take me out, because they went about their work as quickly, professionally and humanely as you get when you are killing an animal with a sharp instrument. One man grasped the hind legs of the sheep, and another secured the front legs and upper body of the sheep before he took what was certainly a very sharp knife and, in one smooth motion, slit through the animal’s neck so deeply that the head looked as if was swinging back on a hinge.

As he killed the animal, the slaughterman recited in Arabic a prayer which translates roughly as “God is great and he provides for his children.” His voice was deep and rich and resonated throughout the room, and all the other workers paused and attended to his words. The prayer surprised me, so much so that for a moment I forgot what was taking place in front of me, and I stared somewhat transfixed at the slaughterman instead of the sheep dying in his arms. The prayer and the sincerity of the men transformed a simple, ugly slaughter into a religious sacrifice. Of course, that’s my view on what transpired. I’m sure the sheep interpret the act differently.

The slaughterman sliced the sheep’s neck over a drainage trough that caught the animal’s blood. The animal exsanguinated and died quickly, but for a couple of minutes the sheep’s muscles continued to twitch and exhibit reflexive movement. The slaughtermen kept the animal secure with their arms until it finally settled still. They then completely removed the head and injected air under the skin that ballooned the animal so much that they could use the sides of their knives to play the belly of the animal like a drum. The air allowed them to slice through the skin without cutting open any of the internal organs of the sheep, and once they had removed most of the skin they hung the animal on a hook and continued on with the butchering.

The temperatures were in the mid-40s the day I toured the slaughterhouse. I’m glad I went during the winter, as I do not want to imagine the smell and heat of the place during a Kabul summer. The only temperature control for the slaughter rooms seemed to be windows, which were open, partially closed, or completely shut.

The clothing of the men working there was soaking wet, with what I will not describe. I never saw showers anywhere in the facility. I hope they are located somewhere we didn’t tour, although I expect the most that might be available for the men is cold water from a hose. Most Afghans have no running water in their homes. Even my interpreters, who make comfortable wages by Afghan standards, typically hire someone to bring water to their houses, and then they heat what they need in a pot on their stoves. The men at the slaughterhouse likely were paid enough to enable them to survive. Nothing more than that. They certainly need bathing and laundry services at the end of their working days, but how they manage that I do not know. Theirs is yet another trade in Afghanistan that I’m glad I won’t ever have to undertake in order to support myself.

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