I have been staring at this pig for some time, studying every detail of its body, its every movement, every sway of its belly, every twitch of its ears, every flip of its snout. I listened to every grunt, every snort. To my surprise, the smell wasn’t unpleasant. Memories of my first ever taste of bacon and black coffee one freezing morning washed over the pig. I couldn’t believe I was actually envious of a sow’s eyelashes. Today, I am going to touch this pig.
It is 2000 CE, a year reserved for grand gestures and cataclysmic events. Leaning with my folded arms on a low wall, on the verge of breaking my final taboo, the feeble English sun stands by to bear witness. The gesture would be too banal, too ordinary for anyone to notice, but to me, it is the stuff of millennia.
From as early as I can remember, pigs were dirty and forbidden — not just dirty in the way that I, as a child, got dirty during the day and washed myself clean at night, no. This was an altogether different kind of dirty. Pigs were so dirty that none of our books had pictures of them, we had no piggy banks and we never spoke the word, inside the house or outside. Once we really understood, right in our dreams, just how unspeakably dirty a pig was, we learnt that Christians eat them. Most of our neighbours were Christian.
I am going to touch a pig today.
The redemption of this humble creature began in the winter of 1988. Coming from the bitter cold into the loud warmth of the student café was always an occasion. Friends greet one another with the boisterous camaraderie for which Glasgow is rightly famous. But that day there was more. Mixed into the aroma of fresh coffee was another smell, altogether disarming. My friends, affectionately entertained, explained it was bacon frying. Bacon curled and crimped and sizzled on one half of a grill, eggs fried on the other, and a very long line of students waited for the two to be brought together between the halves of a buttered bap, lathered with brown sauce and served to them. I joined the queue before any “mechanisms” could kick in. Scottish bacon fryers work fast and pretty soon I rejoined my friends, bacon-and-egg bap in one hand, steaming black coffee in the other.
My friends sat back and simply enjoyed my discovering quite the most incredible taste I had ever experienced. I made many different sounds and gestures, all confirming bacon and eggs as definitely one of the delights of Heaven, right up there alongside milk and honey and virgins. I’ve been let into Christianity’s best-kept secret. It must’ve been Christians who put Muslims up to despising pigs in the first place! 1.4 billion fewer bacon-eaters; an early case of supply-and-demand manipulation. My entire life flashed before me. “If my dad could see me now…” I finally said to my friends on the final mouthful. Only then did the gravitas of the moment really hit home. I’d broken the last of the Great Muslim Taboos I’d been brought up with. Free at last, free at last.
So here I am, leaning on a Yorkshire stone wall on an agreeable autumn afternoon, finally having come full circle to introduce myself to the real, live version of the thing I never set eyes on in Cape Town, and that I tasted for the first time on a distant winter’s morning in Glasgow. It is turning out to be much harder than I had thought. The pig is sunning itself right here in front of me. I just have to reach down and I would touch its back. It is taking an awful lot of concerted will to penetrate less than an arm’s length of empty space. A pigeon in the far corner pecks around in the pigs’ dung and I almost lose it. I stumble away from the wall and retch so much that people come over to check I’m OK. “I’m fine. Thank y,”—retch!
After a few deep breaths, it’s back to the wall: this is a new millennium; an occasion for profound beginnings. I am determined to defy the hidden landmines that my parents, madrassas, imams and general social milieu have left behind in my psyche, and that I only just became aware of. I am going to touch that pig. I find the animal still lounging against the wall as if saying, “Take your time. Whenever you’re ready. I’m not going anywhere today.”
On its way down to the pig’s back, my index finger encounters an impenetrable force field. The Muslim I thought I had banished in 1979 I now discover has concealed what was left of itself deep inside a cave in my soul. My finger finally punctures through and for the briefest instant the tip makes direct physical contact with the next worse thing to Shaitan himself, like an exotic hit in a particle accelerator.
What strikes me is not a lightning bolt from on high, but the texture of the pig’s skin. I always thought of pigs as soft and squidgy, like oversized marshmallows, but its skin is rough and hard. Disappointed, I realise I have to revisit my preconceived notions of pigs.
Away from the obliging porcine, reprocessing the experience, I think of my high school friend who was from a farm, and his explaining how one kills a pig. It is not by cutting the jugular, as I’ve seen done with sheep outside our mosque on the second Eid. Instead, the writhing, fighting pig is forced onto its back while four strong men hold it by the legs. A fifth man pushes a thin metal rod through its heart, finally ending the animal’s awful squeals. I remember admiring that: a pig didn’t submit, like a sheep.