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Interview With a Thanksgiving's Turkey and Other Creatures of Rituals

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Americans gather together this week with family and friends for one of their most important holidays: Thanksgiving.

Throughout American history, it has been in times of great trouble when the holiday has meant the most.

Even during the Civil War and Great Depression the country was able to pause and give thanks. But I can think of someone in the United States who never enjoys the fourth Thursday in November: the turkey.

If I ever had the chance to sit with a turkey and ask its views on this holiday, I think it would say something like this: "Can't they stick to tofu turkey?"

While most don't make a distinction, other then it being "food," male turkeys are known as toms, or gobblers, and female ones are called hens.

Most historians agree (some dispute it) that the first Thanksgiving was set and celebrated in 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast. Unlike today where the stuffed turkey is the main course, the table back then had everything from shell fish to swans, deers, ducks, geese, and even seals as part of the feast. The turkey was buried somewhere among the dishes.

"But then why pick on me?" a turkey would ask.

Apparently the turkey ended up being singled out because there was just more of it walking around back then. They were also supposedly easier to "trick" or catch. (I personally wouldn't know; I've never tried to catch one.)

In the end, geese lost that honor of being the main course at Thanksgiving by just a few feathers.

But it seems there was always something special about a turkey.

In a letter to his daughter sent in 1784, Benjamin Franklin reportedly suggested that the wild turkey would be a more appropriate national symbol for the newly independent United States than the bald eagle. Mr. Franklin wrote that the turkey was "a much more respectable Bird," "a true original Native of America," and "though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage."

"Yes, we are brave. We have to face Thanksgiving every year," Mr. or Ms. turkey would add.

I am not against celebrating holidays and rituals, but I just want to say, please remember the animals and the birds. I know too many people who end up wasting their food and throwing away half of the turkey without a second thought to the sacrifice of the soul on the plate.

As a vegetarian bordering on veganism, I feel bad for the turkey, as well as for other creatures that end up being sacrificed for one of our special occasions.

But the honors for the most abused bird goes to the chicken. Poor thing doesn't need a special occasion.

I don't want to pick on "Turkey Day" -- it is just one of many special occasions that include feasting on a particular bird or animal.

I knew it might ruffle some feathers, but during the recent Islamic Eid Al Adha, the festival or celebration of sacrifice, I took inspiration from my cousin, a towering man with an intimidating physique, who has joined the forces of animal activists and vegetarians.

I copied on my Facebook page something he had posted: "Goats and sheep are beautiful animals. This Adha Eid, don't sacrifice these sweet animals, give the poor what's already on the shelves of the supermarket. There is enough food around, if not too much."

That is when I was bombarded with posts on the wall of my Facebook page and messages sent to my inbox. "How dare you question this?" one friend said. Another wrote: "Why are you even thinking about this? Animal slaughter is an issue that makes everyone uncomfortable and better not to bring it up."

Others suggested solutions that others might appreciate next year when they make their preparations for Thanksgiving or Eid: "If every person had to do the slaughtering themselves of whatever animal or bird they want to eat, then this could help reduce this cruel mass production of livestock where animals and poultry are bred just to be killed, and rarely killed in a humane way."

This friend told me how her husband does just that: He slaughters the livestock from their farm on top of the roof of their house for special occasions like her child's birthday.

"This way, I am sure the meat we eat didn't suffer in captivity and in its death," my friend said from Saudi Arabia.

Animal-related rituals are important in many different faiths and some are controversial. For instance, in Judaism, there is the rite of Kapparot, where on the eve of Yom Kippur, against the better judgment of many rabbis, a live chicken is swung over someone's head three times, symbolically transferring sins from the person to the chicken, which is then slaughtered and donated to the poor.

At least in these cases, the animals are consumed as food. But what of the tradition of bull fighting in Spain, Portugal and parts of Latin America? These traditions appear to go back to the pre-Roman era where bulls were worshipped and sacrificed. Like lions and tigers, bulls were used for sport and spectacles in the tradition of gladiators.

The Aztecs and other people native to the Americas also made sacrifices to appease spirits, to ask them for favors, or to follow certain traditions.

But isn't it time to think about how we can practice our own traditions in a more humane way?

I saw the most brutal side of animal sacrifice when I lived in Canada and worked as a volunteer at an animal shelter.

During the week before Halloween, the director of one of the shelters would remind us not to allow anyone to adopt a black cat.

While rare, apparently some people "sacrifice black cats" on Halloween. The director tried to explain this horrible ritual to me but I understood it well enough. I quickly remembered how a neighbor in Saudi Arabia tried to kill my friend's black cat.

Some believe that a black cat is an evil "jinn," a mystical mischievous creature made of fire. Poor black cats have endured centuries of torture by superstitions linking them to witchcraft, devils and black magic.

Of course, that is far more extreme than eating certain meats as part of a traditional meal. And no, I am not trying to impose or advocate a vegetarian lifestyle for everyone. The more you lecture or force your opinion on others, the less likely they will listen to you.

But as we celebrate our different holidays, we might pause, if just for a moment, to remember and appreciate where our meal came from.

I share with you a poem by one of the Arab world's greatest poets and thinkers, Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri (973-1058) from Syria. He was blinded as child from small pox, but that didn't stop him from seeing what most of us miss.

"I No Longer Steal from Nature"

You are diseased in understanding and religion.

Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.

Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,

And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,

Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught

for their young, not noble ladies.

And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;

for injustice is the worst of crimes.

And spare the honey which the bees get industriously

from the flowers of fragrant plants;

For they did not store it that it might belong to others,

Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.

I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I

Perceived my way before my hair went gray!

Until then, a few turkeys will be lining up to get that special annual pardon by the president, where one or two of these Thanksgiving turkeys will be spared from slaughter and sent to a retirement farm where they can gobble or cluck away in peace.

I hope President Barack Obama pardons at least four turkeys this year, in honor of winning "four more years."

Rym Tina Ghazal is a senior feature writer and columnist for the National Newspaper. She is working on her second book, Single in the City.

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