Saturday, September 20, 2014

Taste Not

Nakuru, Kenya. 1991.

The girls from my Form Two class at the international school had collected in the white-walled lunch hall where bright, equatorial sunlight lay in blinding streaks across the heavy wooden tables and the polished concrete floor. The double doors on either side of the room were open to the breeze—a long breath of eucalyptus and red earth and damp grass, fresh and warm after the drenching Kenyan rains.

I was attending the boarding school as a day student—the only non-boarder, the only American, and the only white student in my class—during the five months that my father taught journalism at the nearby university. Having arrived halfway through my eighth grade year, I was only just beginning to understand the manners and customs that shaped life at the school, and no hour of the day presented a steeper learning curve than the lunch hour. I had learned to wait to sit until our teacher sat, to always eat with my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right, and to never call "pudding" dessert as I would at home. I had also learned that food choices here were determined by more than a simple matter of preference.

Mlle. Dubois from Nice, who taught us French, presided over the table that day. She stood alone at our head, beautiful with her sun-freckled cheeks and long brown curls, hardly looking older than us thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls. She bowed her head slightly and led us in a hastily mumbled, "Bless us and these thy gifts, which we receive from thy bountiful goodness." A prayer generic enough to offend few and to please none.

She sat abruptly and stiffly. We sat loudly and awkwardly, all creaking chair legs and gesticulating arms and angular teenaged knees beneath our green uniform skirts.

We poured glasses of iced lemonade from a plastic pitcher, and our conversation trickled lazily around the table, changing accents as it flowed from girl to girl, while we waited for the food to arrive. A hadada ibis landed heavily in the tree outside, bouncing its weight on a thin branch, and began hollering its name, over and over, to the iridescent starlings that pecked for their lunch on the trim lawn below. “Hadada!” he hollered, “Hadada!” As if hungry for acknowledgment from any listener—even the lowliest of birds. As if he were afraid the world might forget his identity. As if he hoped his nervous bravado might be taken for confident laughter. “Hadada!”

A pair of best friends from India, Pooja and Sejal, sat on either side of me and leaned forward to speak in shrill, hurried whispers over me. From time to time they would include me in their banter, but they often interspersed their musical English with Hindi slang that I could not decipher, and now their stifled giggles formed an unseen barrier that I could not cross. Mlle. Dubois raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow their direction but said nothing.

The door to the kitchen squeaked open, and a row of servers walked into the lunch room carrying large beige plastic trays and the smells of fresh bread and oniony gravies. My belly rolled thunder, and I clutched my side, hoping no one had heard. At each table, a member of the kitchen staff in a wrinkled white apron placed a dish of overcooked mixed vegetables. The kitchen door swung open, shut, open shut. Then followed a basin of steamed pudding with a pitcher of warm vanilla custard to pour over it—something sweet to entice us to finish those limp vegetables.

We girls, with all of our varied religions and languages and nationalities and shades of ebony and mahogany and copper and pink, might have formed some kind of heartwarming, we-are-the-world postcard of global peace, gathered as we were around that under-salted bowl of vegetables. Green beans and lemonade. A bloodless communion. We took and ate—Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and we assorted flavors of protestants all serving ourselves from the same dish. Warm bread arrived next in towel-lined bowls, and we ate from the same loaf. Conversation began to build, and chatter about boys and maths and field hockey filled the air: “So, which house is going to win the tournament?” “Ha! You really think he’s cute?” “You got an A? Oh, shut it. That exam killed me!”

Then came the platters of meat.

I looked toward the Form Three table across from ours and made eye contact with my friend Angela Wahome. She smiled warmly. Her teeth had been recently repaired in Nairobi after a collision with a field hockey stick during one of our P.E. matches. They shone against her dark, even skin, and I admired their new, artificial whiteness, even as I wore my own whiteness like an outdated shirt. Not long after I had arrived at this school, Angela had sought me out, in her quiet and unassuming way, and had introduced herself to me. That I was the only white student in my class had made me uncertain of where I might fit in. That my class was an unfamiliar crowd of teenagers claiming a half dozen different religions made my own faith seem less comfortably certain. But Angela was a Christian. I was a Christian. To me that seemed bond enough. We were sisters, and she had become an anchor to my unmoored soul. I smiled back.

One of the kitchen staff rounded the corner and laid a covered dish on the table. He lifted the lid, saying, simply and softly, "Pork,” before moving on to the next table. The well browned roast, sliced thick and smothered in gravy, smelled of Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house. Comfort food. I usually gave little thought to what sort of animal had given its life for my lunch, but here in this room full of girls from every tribe and tongue and nation, the question could not go unanswered. We might break bread, but I could not break beef with the girl to my right or to my left. Every imaginable religious dietary restriction seemed to be represented in that room, and every restriction had to be honored. We were cut off from one another by a carving knife.

I picked up the platter of steaming pork, took a slice, spooned on a little gravy, and passed it to Pooja, a Hindu, who, still giggling, took a couple slices and passed it down the table. Some girls took and some passed it on without allowing so much as a finger to touch the meat. Today it was surprisingly good—tender, well salted, and more peppery than usual. On days like this I thought of the Sikh boy in my class, a vegetarian, and pitied him for what he must not taste, must not handle, must not touch.

Minutes later, the kitchen door swung open again, and a few more servers in aprons carried new platters of meat through the little lunch room, calling, "Beef! Beef!" A dozen or so Muslim hands shot up, and the servers worked their way along the tables, ladling cubed beef onto the plates of those with their hands in the air. Sometimes if the pork looked nasty, I'd opt for the beef along with the Muslims, but most of the time I ate the meat of the day without comment.

My Pakistani friend Shabnum sat across the table from me and was eating and talking in her animated way with another girl, gesturing with her fork as she spoke between bites. When the server neared our table and again called, "Beef!" Shabnum froze. She pulled her hands back from the table and dropped her fork and knife with such a sudden recoiling, as if they had transformed into a pair of serpents. She stared at her plate. She turned and stared at the server. She looked back to her plate again with wide-eyed horror. “What— What—“ She struggled for speech. “What is this? What are we eating?” Her dark eyes moved from face to face along our table, searching for reassurance.

“It’s pork,” Mlle. Dubois said bluntly.

In the bustle of the noisy lunchroom and in the excitement of sharing gossip, Shabnum had not heard the word "pork" when the server had placed the platter on the table. The meat was dark like beef, and none of the girls around her were used to paying attention to food concerns other than their own. Nobody had noticed Shabnum's mistake.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygod. Oh my GOD!” Shabnum’s chest rose in quick, shallow breaths. “Oh no. Oh hell. Hell! Oh God,” she continued in a hoarse whisper, pushing her chair from the table with a screech against the smooth floor. She held her hand to her heart and ran out the open door and down the slope toward the hockey fields, whispering panicked curses as she went.

Mlle. Dubois set down her fork without a sound. The room had gone nearly silent, and she looked down the table at our bewildered faces. I could hear the sound of my own chewing, and the noise of my teeth working seemed strangely offensive. I stopped and held the wad of half-chewed pork inside my cheek. We had several Muslim boys in my class, but Shabnum was the only Muslim girl. None of us knew what to do. Or to say. Or even to think. We looked to our teacher whose face showed that she was clearly as uncertain as we were. At last she said softly, “Pooja. Hannah. Sejal. Go after her and see if you can cheer her up.”

We glanced at each other nervously but stood. Cheer her up? How? Here we were, an American Presbyterian and a pair of Hindu girl friends, sent to bring good cheer to a young woman suffering from some kind of unspeakable turmoil of soul over a piece of pot roast. What were we supposed to do? Tell jokes? Sooo, two Hindus and a Presbyterian walk into a bar…?

We stepped carefully down the damp grass and whispered to each other. “Did you see what happened? Was it just the pork?” “Yeah, she ate it on accident.” “She thought it was beef.” “That was kinda scary.” “Completely. You think she’s OK?” “I don’t know. What do Muslims believe about sinning on accident?” “I have no idea.” “Where did she go?”

We wandered across the lawn until we turned the corner of the pool house, where we found her in the shadows, pressing her back against the cool cinder block wall and staring at the fast-moving clouds overhead. She did not look toward us, but we could see wet streaks marking both cheeks. Her arms were folded tightly around her tall, thin body. “Shabnum?” Pooja said. No answer. “Um, I’m really sorry. Um. Are you OK?”

Shabnum uncrossed her arms and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “No,” she said.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Sejal said brightly. Shabnum did not uncover her eyes. Sejal looked at me and shrugged with a forced smile still on her face.

“Yeah,” I added. “It was an accident, right? God will forgive you, right?” I felt a shudder go through me. Do Muslims believe that Allah forgives? What about understandable mistakes? I wondered. I didn't know what I was saying.

“No!” Shabnum flung her arms down. She turned her red, watering eyes toward me, and I felt my own begin to burn. “You don’t understand!”

Pooja and Sejal both stepped toward her to put a hand on her shoulder. I stayed back, uncomfortable in both my skin and in my soul. The air was growing warm, and the humidity felt like weight. Shabnum shrank away from their reach, but Pooja tried again, “Shabum, I’m sure there are millions of people who do stuff like this—who eat the wrong thing or do the wrong thing on accident. It’s totally understandable.”

“I mean, it was a complete accident, yeah?” Sejal said, “'Cause you thought it was beef. Allah knows that, yeah? He knows you thought it was beef, so it wasn’t, um, a sin or whatever.” Sejal looked back at me and shrugged again. We were foolish girls wading into waters blacker and deeper than we could tread. My neck itched, and the air grew heavier.

“Oh God!” Shabnum shouted at the grass. “You don’t understand!” We three would-be comforters looked at each other in confusion. “Oh hell!” Shabnum shouted again. “ I might be going to hell!” The last word cracked in her throat. She slid her back down the rough wall, sat on the damp earth, clutched her knees, leaned her head back, and sobbed.

A bell rang. Students from the lunch room began to fan out across the lawn toward the various classroom buildings. Several girls looked down the hill toward us with curiosity. Angela stopped walking and looked at me with concerned, questioning eyes. I stuck out my lower lip and shook my head. She grimaced and walked on. 

“Oh God!” Shabnum wailed again, seemingly unaware of how her voice carried across the school grounds.

“Allah won’t send you to hell for eating pork by mistake!” Pooja said with a kind of vehement certainty that surprised me. “He wouldn’t do that!” She sounded almost offended.

Shabnum's tears fell on her white blouse and formed an uneven pattern of translucent dots where they landed. “You don’t understand.” Shabnum repeated. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand.” And I didn't.

How could I understand? I could not understand what it was to feel the crippling fear of damnation. I could not understand how anyone could find hope of relief from a god who, it seemed, might send a repentant teenaged girl to hell for a cafeteria mix up.

I wanted to tell her something about guilt and forgiveness, about freedom from shame, but I found no words. In my remaining months at the school with Shabnum, we would never again speak of this incident. We would proceed as if nothing had happened. Shabnum would laugh, and I would laugh with her, and we would pass the plates of meat around the table as we had done before. But the memory of those moments would trouble me for many weeks and months. Even now, decades later, when I push my grocery cart through the checkout and see the headlines on women's magazines that say "Eat without Guilt!" I sometimes picture Shabnum's thin form shuddering with guilt and fear next to the pool house. And I wonder what more I might have said.

Mlle. Dubois appeared at the top of the hill. “Time for class,” she called to us. “Are you ready?” We looked at each other, unsure of what further good we could possibly do, and unsure of whether to leave Shabnum alone in her misery. Mlle. Dubois sighed. “No? O.K. Ten more minutes. Then come to class.”

We nodded and turned back toward Shabnum’s crumpled figure. She was biting the side of her hand as she wept, and the three of us stood in silence and listened to her muffled sobs. We watched her shaking shoulders and felt the humid air rustle our polyester skirts. “Hadada!” hollered the bird in the tree. “Hadada!” another laughed in return. “Hadada! Hadada! Hadada!” The joke seemed mutual now. The starlings pecking the grass did not look up.

“Shabnum?” I said quietly when her weeping had calmed to sniffs and sighs.

“Please go,” she whispered. “Please go away. You don’t understand.”

“Hadada!” In the branches overhead, an ibis continued to laugh.

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