|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 March 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (380)
Seventy-five years ago an Al-Ahram contributor gave what would have been timely advice in the midst of today's "mad cow" scare. He explained why beef-eaters would be better off if they were put on a vegetarian diet. His series of articles, which focused on the relationship between man and nature, suggested that to be happy in life, man must first know what to eat -- and it certainly should not be meat. The writer claimed human beings were not created to be carnivores and that nature never created any form of meat fit for human consumption. He said meat was not essential for strength and could cause disease. The alternative was a return to raw foods, to the diet of our forefathers, which he said improved health, stimulated thought and increased energy. As evidence, he named several famous philosophers and successful athletes of the time who were strict vegetarians. The stories were unusual in a society which to this day places a premium on meat. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* writes about the call for meatless meals
Cutting out the beef
Mohamed Reda, curator of the Egyptian University Library, was an Al-Ahram reader who regularly provided the newspaper with his writings. Being a denizen of the library, he clearly availed himself of the wealth of knowledge at his disposal and happily shared the information he had collected with Al-Ahram audiences. One of his stories, about philosophy, appeared in Al-Ahram on 4 March 1925. Philosophy, Reda explained, "is Greek for 'the love of wisdom' and is the science of mankind's search for truth to the best of his ability." Following a lengthy discussion on the various meanings of philosophy, he said the science was divided into theoretical and practical philosophies and included such branches as physics, mathematics, home management, religion, ethics and politics.
Of particular interest to Reda was physics, which he defined as "the study of existing bodies in terms of their propensity for change and in terms of their state of movement or inertia." Physicists, he continued, were "those philosophers who focus on the investigation of nature, which they view as the self-regulating force governing all entities." He listed the branches of physics as "medicine, astronomy, physiognomy, linguistics, the philosophy of language, the science of symbols and chemistry."
The article would have gone without much notice, in the manner of most of the curator's articles published in the newspaper, except that it caught the attention of another Al-Ahram reader, Kamel El-Bahnasawi -- holder of a bachelor's degree in law as he signed himself -- who responded with a series of articles that appeared in the newspaper over the winter of 1925-26 under the headline, "The Philosophy of Life."
El-Bahnasawi in his series sought to explore the relationship between man and nature. He opens with a discussion of physiocracy, a school of economics philosophy fathered by a number of 18th century French thinkers, notably François Quesnay, physician to Louis XIV. Quesnay argued against the mercantilist school of economics, with its assumption that wealth springs from trade and industry, and emphasised labour on the land as the only true source of wealth. His call for the return to the land was epitomised in the saying, "Let nature rule."
El-Bahnasawi took up the slogan of the physiocrats, whose school of thought was not destined to endure, and applied it to more general considerations of human existence. Of all creatures, he said, man alone has departed from the laws of nature, a departure that has had terrible consequences. Referring to the writings of the Roman philosopher Seneca, El-Bahnasawi pleaded for a return to "the innate goodness and nobility the force of nature has inspired within us and the glowing flame inside us which is named reason."
El-Bahnasawi's argument was an appeal that had acquired some popularity in Europe at the time: a call to stop eating meat.
Having made nature the idyllic society, El-Bahnasawi supported his claim by comparing the world of man and the animal kingdom. Clearly he favoured the latter. Look at the kingdom, he told his readers, "where instinct is the supreme guide," and the state of mankind, which "has forgotten its innate disposition and does not abide by the canon of nature." He continues, "One glance at the society of bees and ants informs you of the meaning of immense activity and astounding persistence. Bees know of no working hours, no workweeks, no holidays, no unions and no lunch breaks. Peace, tranquillity and contentment reign for in that world one does not hear of sit-ins or strikes!"
In another comparison between beasts and the "civilised animal" he expresses his amazement at the former's "power of survival." Citing statistics taken by biologists, he observes that the life span of eagles and parrots is about 300 years, that of snakes and crocodiles 500 years, elephants 700 years and tortoises which can live up to 1,000 years. "The civilised animal, that master of the animal world, lives only an average of 70 to 80 years." El-Bahnasawi said that because of his awareness of his short stay on earth, man is forever obsessed with death while other animals "live in blessed ignorance and, therefore, do not give it a thought. "Who is better off then: we or the tortoise?" he asks.
But this astounding ability to survive did not apply to the animal kingdom alone. "The seed that is cast on the earth finds its sustenance in the ground upon which it has been cast, whereas man engages in a constant search for the best that nature provides to help him survive. In spite of this, trees can live thousands of years while the life of man is but brief."
Human beings, El-Bahnasawi wrote, were best summed up in Goethe's famous saying: "Mankind uses his intelligence to be less intelligent than animals." He explains that the Creator bestowed all creatures with instincts and the senses -- sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. These he called the guiding elements led by the mind. In nature, after the senses determine their findings, "the mind takes over and stimulates the will to act or not to act." Herein lies the difference between humans and other animals. "Our minds ignore the demands of our senses and either fail to implement them or work against their dictates." He concludes, "This painful truth manifests itself in our choice of food."
After having deftly brought the reader this far, El-Bahnasawi now broaches his subject more boldly. He turned first to another German philosopher, Schopenhauer, who wrote: "We were not created to enjoy ourselves but rather to suffer and pass away." But, he added, life would not have to be so grim if we lived closer to nature because "our true senses are always correct in their judgment and forever work towards our welfare and benefit."
The first prerequisite for "a happy and natural life" was to know what to eat and drink. Although the lowliest insect instinctively knows what and what not to eat, the master of animals has no clear idea what food is good for him. As a result, "this most rational being exists against all rationality, impervious to the fact that nature has created a food for every creature that suits its physique and constitution, a food that is ready-made and requires no intermediary processes of dissolution, diversification, cooking, blending or mixing."
Challenging an entire history of diversification in foodstuffs, of inventions of new modes of preparation and of much progress in the art of cuisine, El-Bahnasawi warned that "cooking destroys much of the natural energies contained in food." The alternative, he proposed, is a return to raw foods, to the diet of our forefathers, which consisted primarily of nuts and fruit, "as chemical analysis has proven that such foods as almonds and hazelnuts contain three times as much protein as do the best cuts of beef and lamb." He added that not only do nuts supply energy and purify the blood, "they are rapidly digestible, fortify the muscles and do not produce fat in those parts of the body prone to obesity."
To illustrate, El-Bahnasawi relates a story he had come across in a British magazine about a boat that was shipwrecked on an island in the West Indies. For 90 days, the stranded passengers were forced to survive solely on nuts, cocoa and fruit. When they were finally rescued by another ship, not one of them showed any indication of illness or infirmity. The moral of this story: "Our present generation is a slave to its stomach. This was not nature's intention. We were not created to eat; we eat in order to live."
To further corroborate his point, El-Bahnasawi quotes a leading British physician at the time who said, "The primary cause of many of the most debilitating and fatal diseases that afflict human beings today -- cancer, heart disease, sclerosis and rheumatism -- is the unnatural foods we eat, foods which we compete to fabricate, boast of their excellence and urge others to consume." When the doctor was asked what foods nature intended for mankind, he said human beings were not created to be carnivores and that nature never created any form of meat for human consumption.
But El-Bahnasawi had an entire range of other scientific material at his disposal to support his defence. An analysis of human saliva, for example, revealed that the excretion serves to break down starches and convert them into sugars. The same function is performed by the glands in the stomach lining, excreting pepsin that aids in the digestion of nitrogen compounds. Other digestive juices in the small intestines and those supplied by the pancreas and liver were not strong enough to break down and convert various types of meat. In another study, the dissection of the human digestive tract revealed that the length and composition of human intestines closely resembled herbivores while yet a third study shows that "the natural pores that exist in humans to supply nourishment to the skin, release bodily excretions and bring oxygen and air into the body do not exist in carnivorous animals."
Having thus grounded his case in scientific evidence El-Bahnasawi, in a spirit of levity, asks his readers to picture a sophisticated gentleman seated at an elegant dining table bedecked with flowers and set with the finest china and silverware, preparing to set upon the finest creations of Turkish or French cuisine. Strip this gentleman of all his urbanity and throw him back to the Stone Age, to the time of the caveman. Is this man a meat eater, he asks? Impossible, he answers. His teeth are too small and not appropriately arranged. "They do not resemble in the slightest those fangs one sees in carnivorous beasts." He adds it was because we were not constitutionally created to eat meat that we invented all those condiments and concoctions of spices, the purpose of which was to stimulate our saliva glands and dupe them into accepting harmful meat products.
If meat is out, what did El-Bahnasawi recommend as an alternative? Among the healthy foodstuffs, he listed milk products for the fats, sugar and minerals they possessed; eggs; oil in moderate quantities and, "best of all, starches which are found in great quantities in pulses, potatoes, rice and some fruits. These are the foods that nature created for us."
But as though predicting the revolution in processed and preserved foods, he cautioned that "commercial competition forces people to consume the cheapest and most noxious substances." He also warned against the excess use of salt which is the source of many diseases because it harms the red blood cells containing the haemoglobin that combines with oxygen in the blood and feeds it to the entire body. Salt, he said, is also detrimental to white blood cells that fight microbes that enter the body. "Always remember that your body is a laboratory that manufactures its needs and requirements on the basis of the food that you furnish it. When you supply it with healthy substances it produces healthy results," he said.
El-Bahnasawi also appealed for a vegetarian diet for the sake of "defenceless animals whose flesh we consume, leaving only their bones." His plea is passionate. "Perhaps people think that that dumb animal has no soul and no moral purpose and that this justifies the brutality by which it is killed. We give no thought when squeezing the life out of that poor creature rather than leaving its destiny to fate."
On this basis, he asks his meat eaters to contemplate the crime they commit by "killing those docile creatures -- created for you to tend and care for -- in order to satisfy your cravings." He also asks them to consider the absence of "the spirit of compassion and mercy among those butchers" who provide them with the flesh of those animals. "I am convinced that if you visit slaughterhouses in Egypt and hear those poor creatures screaming to the heavens you would realise your brutality and thereafter stop eating meat."
Again El-Bahnasawi turned to scientific sources to support his appeal, this time to the father of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin who, he says, claimed that "all those senses, instincts and various emotions and endowments such as love, memory, awareness, curiosity and intelligence of which mankind boasts also exist in a relatively advanced form in animals."
Such moral considerations, El-Bahnasawi believed, should be compelling enough to make us refrain from eating meat, especially when the alternative "improves your health and strength, stimulates clarity of thought, increases the energy and agility of your body and prevents many illnesses that are caused by eating meat." Adopting a sermonising tone, he urged, "Why not depart from your aberrant path which steers you to the precipice and shortens your life, while you blame nature as the cause?"
In his last three articles, El-Bahnasawi discusses the vegetarian alternative. He feels compelled to refute the commonly held belief that meat was essential for human beings to provide strength. Contrary to this belief, he wrote, some of our largest beasts of burden, such as the camel, horse and buffalo, were herbivores. To drive home his point he pointed to sports champions who were vegetarians.
Vegetarians were not only found among track and field athletes. El-Bahnasawi lists a lengthy number of vegetarians who acquired fame in such physically demanding sports as wrestling, weightlifting, swimming and mountain climbing, concluding: "Now that you know that all these people were vegetarians, this should convince you that your belief that renunciation of meat would be debilitating is purely an illusion. I think that many of us can recall how many times circumstances forced us to have an entirely meatless meal without it causing us to feel weak, simply because we did not stop to think about it. The fact is that any sensation of weakness that comes from not eating meat is purely a form of hysteria in which the composition of the human body plays no part."
A number of El-Bahnasawi's readers did not agree with him and wrote to Al-Ahram that meat was indeed necessary for those who perform intellectual tasks. El-Bahnasawi devoted his seventh episode to refuting just that notion.
This time he rested his case on a lengthy list of names of philosophical luminaries. Saddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism and author of the concept of nirvana; Socrates and Plato, the fathers of Greek philosophy; Pythagoras, the Greek pioneer in mathematics; the Roman philosophers and poets Plutarch, Ovid and Seneca; Newton, discoverer of the law of gravity; Rousseau, philosopher of the French enlightenment; Abul-Alaa Al-Mearri, "of whom you have undoubtedly heard and are acquainted with some of his lofty notions on life;" Voltaire, lord of the theatre and novel; Wagner, the king of music; and Tolstoy. All these and more, El-Bahnasawi wrote, were vegetarians.
The last episode of "The Philosophy of Life" appeared in Al-Ahram on 14 May 1926. In this concluding article, El-Bahnasawi reveals that in this and all previous articles he was doing no more than "defending the principle in which I have the fullest faith and by which I abide." Moreover, he said he was determined to continue appealing, for he still had much more to say on the subject, particularly on "the trade in livestock, the question of unemployment and labour, the care and nourishment of children and the prevention of disease."
Following this brief introduction, El-Bahnasawi returned to a subject he had broached in his first episode: the quality of human life when faced with the certainty of death. Once again he draws the distinction between those whom he termed "the pessimist philosophers," whose grim outlook is founded upon the belief that man was created to toil and suffer before his brief candle expires, and the "philosophers of naturalism," who "accept life as it presents itself before them, not as it should be." Clearly of the latter school, El-Bahnasawi argued that scientific experiments had demonstrated that "nature does not end in a void; what ends is the outward form of things that we perceive, for matter does not die." This reality, he concludes, should encourage people to accept the reality of death "with joy."
Thus Al-Ahram gave prominence to the first Egyptian advocate of a vegetarian lifestyle, but his appeal may continue to flounder against the ever-popular craving for kofta and kebab.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Recommend this page
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time