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A vegan meal of hummus, salad and veggie fingers. (Nitsan Simantov/Wikimedia Commons)

Veganism in the Arab World

While not yet widespread, diet is gaining in popularity

In the Arab world, the concept of veganism is often met with confusion. Many people do not understand why someone would adopt a diet that excludes meat or animal-based products or think that there is something wrong with you for undertaking such an endeavor. However, these attitudes are now changing.

Nada Elbarshoumi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based writer of the “One Arab Vegan” blog, told The Media Line via email: “I believe that veganism is on the rise in the Arab world, especially within the last five years or so. There is a growing awareness of plant-based diets in the Middle East, particularly due to health reasons.”

She explained that other reasons for people in the region becoming vegan included the environment and concern for animals, and contended that Arab countries were generally similar in terms of vegan meal options.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint specific countries for being vegan-friendly,” Elbarshoumi wrote in her email. “I have enjoyed incredible vegan fare here in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries (UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait) as well as in Lebanon and my native Egypt, and I’m positive that other countries in the region would have similar things to offer.”

Ahmad Safi, founder of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Animal League (PAL), believes that Palestinian society is already vegan-friendly because restaurants in the Palestinian Territories offer vegan options.

“There is a falafel stand on every corner,” he told The Media Line.

He also contends that vegan food is more economically accessible as it is less expensive than meat dishes – although blogger Elbarshoumi emphasizes that meat plays a significant role in Arab society.

“Meat is almost sacred in the Arab world – it is at the center of so many of our meals and dishes and as a result forms a lot of the Arab cultural identity. It’s also very tied to religious festivals and celebrations,” she said.

Safi told The Media Line that meat signals magnanimity in the community.

“Meat is a symbol of generosity. You offer meat to your guests when they come over,” he said, adding that where he lives, people believe that something is missing when they don’t eat meat.

“They don’t consider a meal without meat to be a ‘full’ meal,” he explained.

Elbarshoumi agrees, adding: “I think the barriers to veganism in the Arab world are largely cultural – there’s a perception of plant-based diets as being inferior from a nutritional point of view, and a notion that not eating meat makes you inherently less ‘Arab.’”

Despite not being widespread, veganism enjoys the support of powerful figures in the region. Saudi Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal is a vegan and has tried to promote veganism in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world. He has expanded upon his initial plans to open 10 vegan restaurants in the Middle East to 30.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said in a statement to The Media Line: “From Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed’s new chain of vegan restaurants to the Beyond Burger that has started popping up in Dubai and the soy milk now available in many coffee shops, the demand for vegan eating is growing quickly in the Middle East – which is already famous for traditional vegan fare, such as mujaddara, muhammara, dolmas and more. AnimalsInIslam.com is a popular website, and celebrities such as [Jordanian boxing champion] Arifa Bseiso are teaming up with PETA to show that vegan living is a global issue. [Editor’s note: AnimalsinIslam.com is sponsored by PETA.]

PAL’s Safi contends that a vegan diet is more in line with Islamic values.

“When the Prophet Muhammad ate meat,” Safi told The Media Line, he did so under very specific conditions. He said that you should eat based on your needs and that you shouldn’t kill animals indiscriminately.”

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkley, California, disagrees.

“In a famous collection of [the prophet’s] sayings, we find ‘Beware of meat, for it has an addiction like that of wine.’ [However,] he did encourage meat on feast days and said, ‘Meat is the master food,’” Hanson told The Media Line.

“The Prophet Muhammad would today be categorized as semi-vegetarian,” he said. “Given the current treatment of animals, he would be appalled and only eat grass-fed, humanely treated animals.”

Blogger Elbarshoumi believes that the number of vegans in the Arab world will only increase as the society grapples with an increase in diabetes and heart disease.

“The more that the ‘food as medicine’ movement catches on, the more likely people will be to adopt and embrace veganism,” she wrote to The Media Line. “I think that we need to become more open-minded as a culture, drop the stigma around plant-based eating and encourage awareness of the benefits of eating a vegan diet.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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