My family loves red meat, probably more than is healthy. At a family gathering like Eid, dinners at my home may consist of several elaborate, high-fat dishes like kababs, trotters stew, goat-stewed rice, or brisket slow-cooked. And twice a month, when I was growing up, my mother and I packed our fridge full of goat, lamb, chicken, and beef packed in plastic bags from a butcher in Detroit. Bright red blood dripped through, soon congealing after we froze it. These halal cuts were the only meat my mother cooked, transformed into those legendarily complex dishes that we savored with friends and family. I’ve tried to reduce my carnivorous tendencies throughout my life, even dipping my toes in vegetarianism, but as with many immigrants, food is love. It’s difficult saying no to love.
Once, on Eid al-Adha — a major Muslim holiday which involves sacrificing an animal and giving some or all of it to charity — we went to a farm where my father slaughtered several animals. I heard from my Pakistani cousins how common it was to witness such things on the day of Eid, but my father kept me away from the actual slaughter that day and I’ve never seen a halal slaughter. He is, in fact, the only person in my direct family who actually keeps strict halal, relying on fish or kosher meat (both considered halal in our school of thought) outside the home.
When I moved out for college and taught myself to cook, I almost entirely stopped handling raw meat. At the grocery store, I felt nauseous looking at plastic wrap pulled tight over the pimply chicken breasts. I occasionally tried to go to halal butchers, but it was never an easy habit. It was easier to dissociate myself from the meat itself, from the slaughter, process and breakdown of it.
I wonder sometimes if it would just make more sense for me to keep halal — that if I’m going to eat meat, I should follow in my father’s footsteps and go to the farm. The halal slaughtering process is, in some ways, part of my inheritance, and I wanted to see an example of what it looks like in America. So this month, in preparation for our See Something Say Something Eid al-Adha podcast episode, I made my way to Berry and Sons, a halal slaughterhouse in Detroit to witness, and eventually perform, my first halal slaughter. It should be noted that we made sure that we were slaughtering an animal that was already slated to be killed and that the meat would be donated to charity.
Now, let’s get one thing straight — Halal is not just a type of street meat served hot out of a cart in the streets of NYC. Halal is a category of Islamic law that encompasses things that are allowed or permissible in the religion. This constitutes most things in the world — sleeping, seafood, and smiling are all things that are “halal,” while pork, alcohol, and stealing are not. But of course, what’s allowed is up for interpretation, and ultimately, in most modern experiences of Islam, in lieu of a centralized legal authority, the final interpretation ends with each individual believer.
Most commonly, when people talk about halal, they mean meat that has been slaughtered in a “dhabihah” or “zabiha” manner. There are plenty of Islamic sources about how to perform zabiha, but the basic idea is this: You separate the animal from the others, hide the knife (and presumably the blood of other slaughtered animals) from it, so it does not know it is about to face death, cut the jugular vein, and let it bleed out. You also care for it and treat it well in its final days. That is what makes the meat halal for people like my father who keep the practice. To me, it has always read as humane a treatment of animals as the 7th century could muster.
But that wasn’t really based in any fact. The trip to Berry and Sons was be my first time seeing an animal slaughtered, or even die.
Though the slaughterhouse was full of carcasses, seeing them strung up wasn’t so bad. I’ve seen enough images of hung meat to understand what a skinned animal looks like. Meat is meat, after all.
The actual worst part was seeing the heads. And the organs.
The organs looked both too real and too fake, too much like what prop intestines and guts look like on Game of Thrones. And staring into lifeless, glassed-over eyes never feels normal.
The facility was clean though, and the butchers made it clear they had thought about how to ease the animals’ suffering. Yasseen from Berry and Sons took care to mention that the animals were raised locally, given a day of rest before slaughter, and were held at the facility for a minimal amount of time before slaughter. In fact, we arrived a bit late and the butchers wanted us to move to the slaughter quickly because the animal (and workers) had been waiting for too long.
But the context — being around so many carcasses and so much meat — made me realize that it’s impossible to provide this much meat without sacrificing some things. I realized I had an idealized image of what makes something halal — an animal loved and cared for and slaughtered in an isolated room, away from other animals. But in a way, a slaughterhouse has to run contrary to that if it is to keep up with the extraordinary demand for halal meat.
In the room where I would perform the slaughter, there were no signs of life, but there was blood on the floor, being hosed away into a drain. After looking at the heads and guts, I told the butcher I couldn’t do it. But to his credit, Yaseen was a calming presence, both for me and the animal. When the lamb came in, it was strung up by one leg, bleating and squirming, but Yaseen’s hand on the animal’s neck calmed it. I didn’t ask, but I assume it was tied up that way so it could drain properly as the jugular bled. I had thought I would talk to the animal, make it feel better, but seeing it hanging there, I wanted to get it done quickly. I said the words — bismillah Allahu akbar (in the name of god, god is great) — and I made the cut. The blood splattered on my shoes. The lamb moved for a few seconds afterward, but to my surprise, it was over quickly. It was over easily.
I didn’t wait to see the rest of the process — how the animal was drained, skinned, and chilled. I have always known that eating meat always involves sacrifice, always involves pain, but still, my heart pounded and my fingertips tingled. I needed to take a walk to understand my feelings.
Soon after, I talked to my sister, also a former vegetarian, and she mentioned that she had been at the farm with my father that day too, and had seen him slaughter those animals. Unlike what I had just seen in Detroit — an animal placidly awaiting its fate — she said she watched several men chase and pin down an animal that was squirming and trying to avoid the knife. It sounded violent in its own way, more chaotic than the rather procedural experience I had in the slaughterhouse. I talked to my father too, and he helped me put those two experiences together: “No matter what we do, death is an experience that involves pain.”
I have not stopped eating meat after my experience at Berry and Sons. I don’t think we should all slaughter our own meat or that everyone should feel the red, hot spurt of blood on their hands, like I did. Instead, what I learned from my experience is that I need to do more research about every single thing I eat. Even if it’s uncomfortable. In fact, if it’s uncomfortable enough that I feel like I can’t do it, it’s probably worth witnessing in person.
Words like zabiha or halal seem so pristinely sacred, like eternal kernels of wisdom passed from our ancestors. But these things change over time. The halal of a slaughterhouse in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market is probably nothing like what my parents grew up with. It’s probably not even very similar to any other slaughterhouse. And it’s certainly different from the the age of the Prophet. “Halal” is always changing. And if cruelty and justice are something you care for, it’s worth knowing what your tolerance for slaughter is. I’m not sure I know if the process I saw was just or not. It wasn’t what I expected, but I also understood the choices the Berry and Sons had made to make the process easier on the animal. I can only say that by going to more slaughterhouses and doing my own investigation, I can actually move toward a more ethical consumption of meat. That journey has just begun.
If you want to hear more about Ahmed's experience slaughtering an animal for Eid al-Adha, listen to the first episode of Season 3 of See Something Say Something, the BuzzFeed podcast about being Muslim in America.