21 September, 2009

White Bread

In this part of the Mediterranean, white bread is something like a religion.  

There is an element of ritual in its daily partaking, although perhaps less solemn than simply dogged.  Like the call to prayer from the mosques, it is part of a daily routine, woven into the fabric of everyday life.  Its presence, its consumption, its ubiquity are all unquestioned.  Like religious dogma, it is taken in reflexively, without thought to its airy lack of substance.  Any rational reflection would expose both as sham, but it is difficult to reflect on something that is like the air you breathe.

Boys fetching home the daily supply of white bread.

Cheap, mass produced, stripped of nutrition, white bread is used here mainly as a sort of sponge-mop for wiping up the plate, with the added 'benefit' of producing a feeling of fullness in the gut that masks the absence of nourishment.

Its nutritional inferiority to wholegrain bread isn’t even a subject for debate.  The milling process removes each wheat grain’s outer hull, or bran, as well as the inner embryo, or germ.  With them go the dietary fibre and the whole range of B vitamins (in the U.S. the vitamins are reintroduced chemically; the white bread here, however, cannot even boast synthetic nutrition). It is then sifted and bleached to create a fine white powder that passes for flour.  The chemical bleaches have been linked to increased rates of diabetes, and the whole chemical-laden, industrialized process of refining uses much more energy, worldwide, than would the simple process of grinding wholewheat flour from wheat berries.  But nevermind the massive environmental consequences of this over-industrialization.  Such thoughts could be bad for business, so we are encouraged not to have them.

When this industrially refined white powder is made into bread, the result is mainly empty calories -- high GI (Glycemic Index) carbohydrates that send sugars into the bloodstream much faster than wholegrain bread, or, say, oatmeal.  You might think this would provide energy, but it actually ends up slowing down the metabolism because of the insulin the body produces to counteract the sudden rush.  White bread thus has a soporific effect, inducing lethargy (which may explain a lot here), and causing the body to store fat rather than burn it.  

Because white bread is so cheap and so filling it is understandably a major part of the diet in a country like this one, where so many are poor.  Yet it is just as prominent on the tables of the rich as those of the poor; the educated as well as the illiterate; the secular as well as the religious. 

White bread loaves making a pit-stop on the way home.

The Koran makes only passing mention of bread (which was probably not yet being refined down to its current white version), but it does say something to the effect of, “Don’t be wasteful in food. Don’t throw food away if it is good. Keep it for another time, give it to somebody else...”  (http://www.aljazeerah.info/Islamic%20Editorials/2002-2004%20Islamic%20Editorials/Food%20Islamic%20Rules%20and%20Teachings%20By%20Hassan%20El-Najjar.htm)   

As a result, many of the faithful here cannot bring themselves to throw uneaten or even stale white bread into the trash (composting is not done here).  Instead, they put it in plastic bags and tie them to the outside of the dumpsters where God can see them, and where somebody else, perhaps a dog, might find and dispose of them:

Conspicuous un-consumption as a display of virtue.

The trash collectors just rip them off and throw them in, but the original depositor can still take comfort in knowing that he or she didn't really throw the stale loaf away.  Suspending it from the handle a few inches above the dumpster's fetid contents thus becomes a moral act.  Nevermind that a few minutes in the hot, Mediterranean sun steams up the bags and turns their contents into a wet, moldy mess that is hard to imagine raising to one's lips. 

White bread, steamed in the bag to tender perfection.

The suspended loaf is not actually inside the dumpster, so a watchful God has been appeased (or a näive one deceived) for another day.   Heavenly brownie points, anyone?

But here is the real issue:  across the region, white bread is seen as the appropriate food for animals -- and not just street animals.  An eyewitness reported that a nearby animal "shelter" fed its dogs exclusively on leftover white bread collected from an Army base.  Even household animals (I hesitate to call them "pets") are fed white bread.  The owner of the dog below had just put out this bowl of it, and smiled proudly as I made this photograph.  The dog, however, wasn't having any.

White bread is not even palatable to many hungry animals.  A starving cat colony left the offering below lying in the street, untouched:


Even the ants ignored it, preferring instead the dry cat food I put out.  White bread like this often tends to lie there until wind and rain (or the occasional street sweeper) dispose of it.  So the few people who do put something out for the animals end up doing little more than littering the streets.  A handful of dry cat food would be more welcome, more nutritious, and ultimately more sanitary.

The predictable response to such a suggestion, however, is to invoke poverty -- to claim that the people are poor, and that white bread is all they can afford to give to animals (after paying their cigarette bills, of course).  Yet people here buy white bread for themselves, not for animals (who are only thrown the leftover scraps), and attempts to link its consumption to poverty imply that if people had more money, then they themselves would eat something better.  But of course that is not the case.  As I have already pointed out, white bread is not eaten here only by the poor.  Its presence on meal tables, in bags tied to dumpsters, and in piles on the street has nothing to do with poverty.  Its consumption owes, above all, to tradition, combined with an insular, provincial culture, lack of education, disdain for change, and other pressures for the status quo.

Ultimately, it would be cheaper just to crack some eggs on a newspaper for the animals, as well as more nutritious.  But throwing out some white bread scraps is not about providing them with nutrition, just as it is not about poverty.  It is an expression of an attitude toward animals, one that combines ignorance with disdain.

For whatever reasons, people here like white bread, and if it's good enough for them, the attitude goes, then it's good enough for the animals.

Except that it isn't good for either of them.

07 September, 2009

Sleeping Beauty, Empty Belly

You have probably noticed that tourists from wealthy countries have cultivated the ability to look at poverty and call it quaint, or to see privation as picturesque -- especially when looking through their cameras.  

There is no shortage of reflection on the ability of the camera to shape our perception of reality, to "de-contextualize" what is in front of it, to make the mundane seem interesting, to render the ugly and profane strangely beautiful, and above all to distance the viewer morally from the thing depicted.  "To suffer is one thing," Susan Sontag once noted, but "another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen the conscience and the ability to be compassionate.  It can also corrupt them" (from On Photography, 1977, p.20).

As if to illustrate this, someone recently posted the photograph below at Flickr (I'm probably violating a copyright by reproducing it here) with the title "Sleeping Beauty of Foça".   You can see the original HERE, along with several unfortunate reader comments.

As I happen to be living in Foça, this is a sight I see dozens of times every day: a potentially beautiful, but filthy, dirty cat sleeping . . . . in an open garbage dumpster.

Why is it sleeping there?  Because it is a comfortable place to rest?  Because that is where happy, well-fed cats go to wile away the afternoon?

Isn't it pretty to think so?

The cat is sleeping there because it is waiting --  waiting for someone to come along and throw in the next bag of food scraps, which will inevitably be mixed with coffee grounds, tea leaves, disposable diapers, and god knows what else.  Garbage is the sole food source for cats like this one, and so it waits for the next rotten load.  The food waste here isn't like that of, say, Notting Hill.  Its journey to the dumpster doesn't pass through Whole Foods or some fashionable delicatessen.  By the time it reaches these receptacles it seems unfit even for flies, but that is the starting point for cats like the one above -- and those below:


To see some other "Sleeping Beauties of Foça," take a look at the photos  HERE  (click on "slideshow").
Some of these dumpsters are unbelievably foul smelling.  In some places the local people won't even go close enough to throw their trash into them, preferring instead to throw it at them, so it can accumulate on the ground, as seen below:


The dogs and cats, naturally, rip the bags open and scatter the contents in search of edible bits.  The locals then blame them for making the mess in the first place, and so on.

Any rational person would see this as a sad state of affairs for which humans bear some responsibility, yet note the extent to which the comments posted in response to the Flickr photo are oblivious to the problem:

"Lovely picture."   "Kittens everywhere!!  How wonderful."

Yes, it is -- if you like seeing them bone thin, diseased, blind, and abandoned by mothers who cannot feed them.   See, for example, the little slideshow at the bottom of this page.

I brought one of them home a few weeks ago.  It was already well beyond food and medicine.  All I could do is give it a clean, quiet place to die, and then wait.  I didn't have to wait long.  The experience was repeated two weeks later with another one.  It was covered with flies when I found it, though it was still breathing.  The smell was horrible, but I brought it home and let it die in peace.  

Foça is "well known for its pretty cats," reads the caption under the Flickr photo.   Yet there is not a single Veterinarian in the whole town. 

What does that suggest about the condition of the "pretty cats" -- and about the prevailing attitudes of its nearly 14,000 human residents?


05 September, 2009

It ain't pretty

Anyone who has spent any time in the Mediterranean knows that there are stray animals, street animals -- dogs and cats -- nearly everywhere, on every street, down every alley, and of course around every dumpster.

The scene below is not from the streets as such, but it illustrates the extent of the problem.  It was made in one of the Mediterranean's most remote corners:  far out on the Karpaz peninsula of Cyprus.  It is an idyllic scene, in which a dog and some cats inhabit the picturesque ruins of an old Byzantine church at the edge of the sea.  Amid the crumbling walls and faded floor mosaics, they all get along peacefully.  Nearby, there is even a tiny, isolated 'inn' of sorts where they could feed on garbage and handouts. 

A few months later they were all gone.  

The nearest village, even the nearest house, was way too far away for cats to find.  The dog might have followed the road and got there eventually, but it would have been unlikely to find a handout.  I lived in that village for nearly a year; the streets there were already full to capacity of other animals.

Professional photographers like Hans Silvester, whose coffeetable books include titles like  Sleeping in the Sun: Carefree Cats of the Greek Islands, give the impression, as does the photo above, that life is good for the animals in the Mediterranean, and that everything is beautiful.

Yet the beauty of the Mediterranean belies the harshness of life for the animals that live here -- not just in quiet, seaside locations the like the one above, but in nearly every street, in every town, every city, and every village across the entire region, from Beirut to Barcelona, from Izmir to Oran.

Addressing the problem will mean acting locally, but so far there is no sign that anyone has set out to think globally about a solution.