I read this fictionalized short story of my family's accidental run in with pork and the trials of resettlement in a foreign land in my writer’s workshop. Many people shared that they too had similar experiences. I realized that perhaps there are similar stories out there that we can all relate to on some level. This post is in honor of World Refugee Day 2014
Pork Eating Afghans - My Love Affair with SPAM
It’s our family’s first week as political refugees in Germany. Food stamps safely tucked in her purse, Jeja, my mother, scans the shelves of the German supermarket with awe and confusion. We walk up and down the endless aisles, our mouths gaping; we have never seen so many varieties of chocolates, sodas and breads.
When the social worker handed Jeja the bundle of food stamps, my 11-year-old mathematical mind converted Deutschmarks into Afghanis. I am overjoyed at our wealth. But soon I realize we are not so rich after all.
In the unwisely chosen Ambassador Hotel in the red light district of Frankfurt, Afghan refugee are crammed in rooms too small for their families. Most of these Afghans come from well-to-do families with big homes, servants and walled in compounds where family secrets are kept safe from outsiders. In 1979 when the Russian tanks rolled into Kabul the educated and wealthy Afghan’s were pushed right out of the country into foreign lands. Now, the Ambassador Hotel is a stew of frustration, discontent and lost hopes, wafting its foul smell through halls brightly lit with fluorescent lights.
Among the refugees, a thin, tall and self-important woman has appointed herself as advisor to all newcomers. We called her “Bossy Lady.” She gives advice on how to navigate the streets of Frankfurt, how to ride public transportation without paying and how to shop wisely to make food stamps last. But her advice is not free; in return for her help she extracts every family’s tragic story, which she stores in the vault of her mind. Perhaps our tragedies help her forget her son’s early death at the hands of Russian soldiers.
In Afghanistan we ate fresh food, but living in a hotel room without a refrigerator or a stove Jeja has to be creative with meals. Which is how we learn about canned food. Bossy Lady gives us sample cans of garbanzo beans, kidney beans and a special meat called Spam, which she raves about; it is delicious, very cheap and it doesn’t go bad.
That night we have a feast. German rye bread, garbanzo bean, yogurt and sliced Spam. We love the salty and creamy texture of Spam and ask for seconds. Not knowing German or the ingredients of this magical meat Jeja wonders how on earth did they make this beef so tasty, so long lasting and so pink.
As we find our footing in our safe new world we slowly lose fears of exploding bombs, entrapment or being shot by Russian soldiers on the side of the road. Since most of us are just passing through here on our way to our final destinations, we live an amorphous life. Our days start and end without much structure except for breakfast. Everyday between 7-8 am all residents of the Ambassador Hotel meet for the only meal where we sit in a dining room with tables, clean starched white tablecloths and proper serving dishes. The servers offer tea, coffee or milk with soft warm rolls, eggs butter and jam. Since most of us left lives where we were served and treated with dignity, we cherish this one meal.
But on a random Tuesday, we again lose our footing. We emerge from the elevator around 7:30 am to find a major commotion in the breakfast hall. Women are wailing. Men look like they are mourning the death of their first-born son and children are looking down into their hands with shame. The Bossy Lady is in the center of the room eyes wide open with the whites showing, hands flailing as she shares the horrible event that brings us disgrace.
It turns out a young Afghan man has befriended Germans and learned that Spam is not beef. Spam is short for Spiced Ham. This young man and his family sit in the corner of the room, far away from everyone, looking guilty, as if the whole Spam incident is their fault. You see, eating pork is a major sin in Islam and right there we have 300 pork eating Muslims.
The Afghan mothers who are expected to be the protectors of piety are tormented every day when they leave the hotel with their children in tow and have to pass windows dressed by nude prostitutes selling their bodies. Now they have to face the extra sin piled upon their families: the consumption of pork.
Finally, the Bossy Lady states what we already know. No one could be blamed for this; since everyone unknowingly participated in the Spam gluttony it is not a sin in the eyes of Allah. That settles it; her statement gives us all permission to accept our innocence. From that day on not a single can of Spam entered through the doors of the Ambassador Hotel, but it was too late for me. I could not forget its delicious taste.
* Bossy Lady is a fictional character
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