Exotica has its uses. There was a time when Muslim fashion was seen as exotic: Asian women with their colourful scarfs, Arab women with their vibrant headgear, the African women with flamboyant turbans. Not anymore. It occurred to a fashion house in Paris that there is a big market in Muslim fashion albeit it is limited to Muslim countries. Their two seasons of Muslim fashion were quite a success; an example other fashion houses were eager to follow. With a couple of years haute coutre became synonymous with Muslim high fashion. Then, street fashion from Casablanca to Cairo, Lahore to Kuala Lumpur, got into the act. It was Djellabas and Kurta Pajama all-round the globe. Stores like Primark, Macy’s and Gap could not satisfy an avalanche of customers. Supplies had to increase. Modesty became a badge of pride.
But it was not just fashion that caught the eye of the world. Islamic banking and finance, thriving on the side-lines of global system, was brought from the periphery to the centre. Folks seeking refuge from, the increasing personal debt, the runaway gambling and casino economy, found viable solutions with Muslim banks and financial institutions. Decorum in fashion led to an active interest in ethical solutions to financial and business issues. But the few ethical financial institutions in the West could not cope. So Muslim institutions stepped in to fill the gap. Initially, only a few – as the local regulations thwarted their advance. But once the proverbial flood gates opened, Muslim institutions spread rapidly. Much like Muslim fashion, halal banking became in vogue.
Indeed, halal became a byword for all things a la mode. Architecture has embraced the features and characteristics of Ottoman, Moghul and Maghrebi styles. Pop music has ‘gone Arabic’. Shopping malls are full of goods announcing their halal nature. Even the ‘halal chickens’ have gone halal: ethically farm and humanely slaughtered, free of fat and anti-biotics. So why are so many Muslims still complaining?
Short Story: The New Halal
‘Today’s woman,’ began Cynthia Draper as she sauntered around her studio, making cursory adjustments to the dresses hanging from the rails, ‘has transcended the juveline desire to impress by flaunting her assets. She has far too much dignity for that. Instead – oh, Mehdia, would you cut a bit off this train? It’s like a meringue exploded in here. Where was I?’
She drew out a long sleeve, teal watered silk embroidered with birds of paradise, and admired the way it glistened in the sun filtering through the shuttered windows. Harsh, dye-bleaching, African sun.
‘You still taking this down? OK. Today’s woman understands that the halal concept takes fashion to another level. More fabric. More queenliness. More canvas to express herself. No more throwing pearls before swine! She is a temple to beauty, grace, finesse. Her clothing reflects the architecture of her soul. Shall I stop there, do you think? How many words did Friedrich say he needed?’
‘That’s probably alright,’ Mehdia replied, juggling the tablet she was typing into and a pair of scissors as she trimmed the dress Cynthia had condemned.
‘You can always flesh it out a little tonight. How we doing for time? God, it moves so slowly in this place. It’s the complete opposite to Manhattan – there you can’t get anything done because time just whizzes past, but here you can’t get anything done because it’s moving so darned slow you feel like you’re crawling through maple syrup.’
Cynthia snapped open an agenda and scanned her order schedule.
‘How did I ever decide to come to Casablanca?’ she muttered, gathering her things into a large leather bag. ‘I mean, Manhattan rents were crippling me, but come on…Can’t get a decent latte here, either…Alright Mehdia, we’re shipping out. Gotta pick up those woven inlays from Khadijah. You know, the little old lady who lives in a vinegar bottle?’
Mehdia smarted. Khadijah was their faithful weaver, illiterate as a doorstop with barely a tooth in her head, yet a genius with colour and texture. But yes, she did live in something resembling a sardine tin. Mehdia threw her scarf over the head and tucked it into itself. Cynthia rarely looked at her when she wore her scarf to leave the atelier. She didn’t look at her much inside the atelier, either.
But Mehdia wasn’t complaining. It was a job – and one that looked great on paper: Personal Assistant to a Fashion Designer. Not just any fashion designer, either: Cynthia had set up Atelier Dru back in 2018, when halal fashion was starting to kick off in a big way. With her sculpted, multilayered shapes and metres of rolling fabric, ideally requiring several attendants to carry two thirds of the dress behind the person wearing it, Atelier Dru had been spotted on the red carpet numerous times.
And not only on Arab royalty, either. Hollywood had discovered Cynthia’s whimsical creations and eye-popping price tags and started snapping them up. Once Reese Witherspoon had been seen wearing a Dru to a premiere (‘Saturnalia in Burnt Ochre’), demand had tripled.
Hence Cynthia’s move to Casablanca. Since the early 2020s, Casablanca had been a mecca for the burgeoning halal movement. From fashion to gastronomy, tourism to banking, everyone from Malaysian stock brokers to Michelin starred chefs had made a base in this strategic location between East and West. It was European enough for beach-loving Westerners, yet Oriental enough to allow visitors to get close to ‘authentic’ Moroccan culture – always with the possibility of retreating to the familiarity of a hotel room.
They reached the end of the alley where the studio was located, in an old sardine cannery that had been converted to house all the new artists and designers that were flooding the city, and hit the main road.
Avenue Hassan II was a halal consumer’s paradise. Everything had become halal certified, even things no-one knew weren’t halal in the first place. Suddenly there were halal toasters being marketed in the ecologically-minded houseware shop. Halal nails in the hardware stores, and halal gel extensions in the nail parlours. Clothing to suit any style, shape, budget, and degree of daring – all halal on the label. Designers had taken the limitations of modest clothing as a challenge to up their game. Every major chain from Prada to Primark had cottoned on; a couple of seasons of sell-out halal goods had turned their shareholders’ heads.
While Casablanca’s souq was a vibrant mélée of textiles, metalworks, baskets, leather, spices and wood carving – tightly controlled by the local mayor, who wanted to make sure nothing stopped the progress of the new economic direction Morocco was taking – Avenue Hassan II was crammed with chic cafés (nobody wanted to drink alcohol any more – too fattening), halal banks, technology superstores and, of course, fashion boutiques.
But the real winners in this mania had been the food outlets. Hamdi’s had struck the grill when it was hot, and now had restaurants everywhere from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro. Mehdia and Cynthia were now level with their flagship restaurant, a smart, wood-chrome-and-glass number with fake greenery to offset the murals of happy cows pleasantly munching grass. The windows were emblazoned with stickers of cartoon customers and speech bubbles with the Hamdi’s catchphrase in English, Arabic and French: ‘It’s halal? Then make mine a double!’
Mehdia glanced inside as they were passing; the A/C was clearly working at full blast, as the floor-to-ceiling windows were closed on the people inside, comfortably guzzling massive plates of every type of meat dish known to man. A stream of sweat started to form on the back of Mehdia’s neck in spite of the cool Atlantic breeze. The idea of eating made her salivate, but Hamdi’s gave her indigestion. Morocco was renowned for its food; nobody had succeeded in bringing McDonald’s here, yet somehow Hamdi’s had made it, as it had all over the world.
‘No time to eat now, Mehdia,’ Cynthia scolded. ‘In any case you really should think about going on a diet. You’re jiggling all over the studio and it’s putting me off my designing.’
‘Sorry,’ Mehdia muttered.
They continued past the gleaming fronts of halal banking institutions, Malaysian, Qatari, Emirati and even European – cornerstones of the global market’s newfound economic stability. Subtle geometric patterns clouded the glass and obscured the people sitting dully in the waiting areas within, shoulders hunched like quarried hills.
Around and behind these modern buildings you could still see the whitewash and blue of old Casablanca, and if you inhaled deeply – when a Lambourghini wasn’t driving past – there was the perennial tang of seasalt on the air.
‘Excuse me!’ Cynthia barked at a boy with a smattering of spots, knocking the flyers he was distributing all over the street. He looked back at her with a mixture of embarrassment and loathing. Mehdia stopped to help him pick them up, but only managed to read the top line of the flyers – ‘The Emptiness of the New Halal’ – before Cynthia grabbed her by the elbow and chivvied her along.
‘Sheesh!’ Cynthia muttered. ‘These guys give me the pip. We’ve turned their economy around, what are they complaining about?’
Around the corner was the taxi rank. Petrol was about the only thing that hadn’t gone halal yet; the king had been seen being driven in an electric car, but they were still out of the reach of most Moroccans. An emerald green Mercedes, made in the 1950s and still going strong, had already started already rumbling into life upon seeing Cynthia’s ash blonde bob and lashings of lilac linen swing into view.
‘Douar M’zab,’ s’il vous plait,’ Cynthia requested in her strong NY accent. The taxi driver knew where she needed to go – every month or so she would run out of woven trims, and Khadijah was well known among locals for her skills. They weaved through town between dazed tourists encumbered with shopping bags, and then made a zoom for the outskirts.
They flew through Quartier Afriquia, which had lately been turned into a mesh of hipermarchés, technology outlets and fashion warehouses. Demand had been so great here in this ‘Dubai of the West’ that these were just the bottom floors of giant blocks of flats, built so quickly and from such dubious materials for an earthquake zone like this that locals refused to live there. Many had become summer flats for Europeans, while others stood empty, bought by wealthy investors in China and the Gulf.
The blocks petered out and started to break up into smallholdings and shanty towns that had sprung up around clusters of industrial units. Buildings dropped to single stories. Roofs were not tiled with terracotta half-cylinders like on the picturesque seafront; here corrugated iron drew waves along the top edge of the houses. Half-starved cats skulked amid piles of rubbish. Barbers, seamstresses and grocers had set up shop in tin shacks, painted with Western phrases and warped portraits of Hollywood stars by budding local artists.
The taxi turned off into a side street, then onto a dirt track. Women walking by in brightly coloured djellabas with shopping baskets drew their scarves over their faces to keep the rising dust out of their nostrils. A squat mosque, built of wooden pallets and with a stepladder instead of a minaret, stood to one side of a dusty esplanade. All the major mosques in the country had already gone solar, but in the slums there was no option but to use candles.
Cynthia usually began to grumble by this point, about public hygiene, access to clean water, and the probability of parasites. But Mehdia found something comforting about Douar M’zab. The souq, with its tall cones of spices, racks of jewel-toned babouches, wool blankets and red Berber rugs, was not unlike the marketplace in the metropolis, but with none of its formality. Here stalls could be made out of opened-out oil drums, street food was sold wrapped in old newspaper, and – best of all – you could still haggle. There were children playing wild games of tag all over the place, barefoot and gap-toothed.
They pulled up and got out, Cynthia gather her skirts painstakingly to avoid getting them dirty. Men sitting outside makeshift cafés paused their backgammon games to watch, hookah smoke drifting from their nostrils.
‘OK Mehdia. We get the trims, pay Khadijah, and scram. Got it?’
Mehdia nodded reluctantly. Together they weaved through the ramshackle neighbourhood, tiptoeing around the open drain that ran down the centre of the dusty track, until they came to a door being slowly turned to lace by woodworm. It was ajar.
Cynthia went to knock when an unexpected noise from inside made her hesitate. It was a high, keening sound, interrupted by shuddering gasps.
‘Hello? Bonjour? Lebess?’ Cynthia tried, turning to Derija in desperation.
The sound halted. Mehdia pushed the door open to find Khadijah lying supine on the tatty reed mat at the foot of her loom, her eyes not quite closed, a complex geometric trim unfinished on the warps. A younger woman was kneeling over her, sobbing more quietly now.
‘What happened?’ Mehdia asked in Derija. The woman shook her head and leaned back to let Mehdia through. The latter stooped over Khadijah, touched her throat, and drew back sharply.
‘Holy crap!’ Cynthia cried. ‘How’re we going to get these orders off if we have no woven trim?’
The younger woman burst into renewed wails, rocking back and forth. Mehdia crouched down and began to talk to her in their language.
‘Does her husband know?’
The young woman shook her head miserably.
‘Where is he?’
‘He works with the animals.’
Mehdia understood the grim significance of these words. She looked down at Khadijah, the cinnamon face dotted with blue tattoos now inert, and raised her hands to recite the Fatihah for her. Then she led the shaking Cynthia back out into the alley.
‘What am I gonna do?’ Cynthia was whimpering. ‘Macy’s have already paid in full! I was just bluffing that they were ready! And I’m gonna have to take that embroidered halal bearskin wrap off my website…shoot…’
‘We’re going to the farm,’ Mehdia replied firmly.
‘What? You’re out of your mind! We’re go straight back to the city and –’
Mehdia wasn’t listening. She’d spotted their taxi driver from before, sitting on a low stool and drinking a small glass of green tea while he watched a domino game in progress.
After a brief exchange in Derija that sounded bolshy to Cynthia but was in fact rather polite, they were back in the taxi, this time hurtling even further from the city on a back road that quickly became narrow and pitted. Huge trucks loomed towards them down the middle of the antediluvian tarmac, and the taxi had to veer off the road, the driver muttering curses under his moustache.
‘I don’t like this,’ Cynthia told Mehdia out of the corner of her mouth. ‘This guy’s going to dump us out in the desert and take our wallets! He probably doesn’t even know where we’re going. ’
‘Yes he does,’ Mehdia replied curtly. ‘Everyone around here knows the farms.’
The driver cast them a swift, suspicious look in the rearview mirror, swerved to avoid a goat, and went back to driving in his tense, expectant way, chewing on a miswak.
Far out of town, on the sizzling hot plains of the hinterland, the outline of a huge structure began to come into view, writhing through the heatwaves on the horizon. It looked momentarily like a citadel, a ksar, a whole village placed in the middle of arid plains dotted with argan trees.
It hadn’t always been this dry. In recent years colossal farms had sprung up to cater to the sudden rise in demand for halal meat. Cows, which had never been farmed intensively in Morocco before as they were too resource-heavy compared to goats or sheep, had become the kings and queens of the Moroccan plains. These new farms were monuments to the halal principles of rearing and slaughtering livestock: with all the attention they received, including from journalists’ drones filming them from above, the farms had to make sure the animals’ wellbeing was constantly visible. So they had fresh grass flown in from Switzerland every three days to a nearby private airport and the finest organic grains shipped from Spain every month. Water had been diverted from nearby springs, which had supplied local watering holes where pasture animals had drunk for millennia, and brought to the thirsty cattle in reinforced concrete tubes to protect them against the wrath of local shepherds. These ranches were animal spas, with special baths to let the heifers cool off and even custom-made massaging machines to keep the meat tender. When the time came for slaughter, they were led off into a palatial barn, fed the choicest grains for three days, and treated to a soothing course of hypnosis that eased the suffering when they met their end with a blade so sharp they could barely feel it.
Visitors to this agricultural theme park would sometimes ask how the farms could possibly afford all these luxuries, when the cost of halal meat wasn’t much higher than that of the mass-prodoced farms of old. The response was that the bosses simply didn’t take huge bonuses at the end of the year – the principle of good ethical practice didn’t only apply to the cows. The tourists would smile reverently, satisfied that business had finally learned from its former mistakes, and go home with several kilos of frozen steak.
The taxi joined a more salubrious road momentarily, one with picnic benches by the roadside and oleanders in the central reservation, before turning off into the Hamdi’s Halal Ranch carpark. For Hamdi’s was not only a chain of restaurants, but a meat production facility that supplied franchises across Europe and America; land here was cheap enough to counterbalance the shipping costs – not to mention those of labour. And there were no regulators sticking their noses in.
Mehdia got out, but instead of heading through the main gate (marked ‘Visitors’ in black-and-white splotchy cowhide lettering) she turned right and made for the trade entrance, hung with heavy plastic strips to keep the heat out. Cynthia followed, holding on to her voluminous dress as though she might blow away in it.
Inside they found themselves in a huge warehouse, chilly as winter in the Atlas Mountains. Stacks of boxes stood like a cityscape on the concrete floor, an unmanned forklift buzzing between them hurriedly. Workers stood at a conveyor belt that ran by at a dizzying speed, cutting and packaging in a panic. Others ran this way and that, pushing trolleys, loading trolleys, packing boxes as fast as they could at a separate bench. As they approached, Mehdia saw the labels on the boxes more clearly: a relaxed cow knelt on a bed of grass, being fanned by cheerful children and chewing the cud. The tagline read ‘Halal means happy!’
It took a while for Mehdia to realise that the supervisors of this warehouse were not human. Androids glided about the forecourt, inspecting the work being done. From time to time it was clear they were displeased by what they saw, and pressed a cylindrical instrument built into one mechanical arm into the unfortunate worker’s back. The latter would arch violently but silently, and collapse onto the floor for a moment before being picked up by the intelligent forklift and returned to their position.
‘Oh…my…God…I’m going vegan,’ Cynthia proclaimed. ‘I can’t believe this is even legal!’
‘Look,’ replied Mehdia, ‘isn’t that Khadijah’s husband? We met him one time when we went to collect trims.’
A stocky man wearing a white overall and a hairnet had just separated from the production line to carry a stack of trays filled with choice cuts of meat to the bench, where boxes were being filled and labelled at a phenomenal pace. His expression as he peered around the tower of trays was fixed in keen concentration.
‘Mr Mahmoud? S’il vous plait?’ Cynthia asked, stepping forward.
The man was so surprised that he stopped abruptly. The trays of clingfilmed meat he was carrying fell from his hands and tumbled all over the floor, attracting the attention of a supervisor. Casting terrified looks alternately between the approaching android and Cynthia and Mehdia, Mahmoud scrambled blindly away from the inevitable shock of the cattle prod, and smashed into a pile of empty polystyrene trays, crumpling half of them with an unpleasantly plastic squeak.
‘Mr Mahmoud!’ Cynthia yelled across the forecourt, cupping her hands around her mouth. ‘It’s your wife! Votre femme! Elle est morte!’
Mahmoud gave a strangled cry as the supervisor pinned him under one of its wheels and then delivered a charge, filling the air with the smell of singed skin and electricity. Mahmoud’s muscles twitched; he laid his cheek flat on the floor, though whether it was from unconsciousness or to avoid getting into more trouble, Cynthia and Mehdia couldn’t tell.
Then the android’s head, or rather the hemispherical container on top of its chassis that housed various camera lenses, swivelled towards the newcomers. They were close enough to see the lenses tighten as they focused on them.
Panicking, the two women ran for the doorway, blundering through the hanging plastic strips, and found themselves a moment later blinking in the bright sunlight and stark, dry heat of the parking lot. The supervisor bot clearly didn’t have instructions to pass this limit; all that could be heard was the faint muzak of the ticket office. Cynthia shuddered.
‘Well, that went well. Let’s get out of here.’
The taxi driver was leaning against his Mercedes, still chewing his miswak. He regarded them coolly under thick black eyebrows that met in the middle.
‘Vous avez terminé?’ he rasped. Mehdia and Cynthia tumbled into the back of his car without even replying. He got in calmly and started the engine.
It was a while before either woman could speak.
‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ Cynthia managed to say at last. ‘What was all that about? I thought this halal business was meant to be ethical!’
Mehdia thought of the pittance Cynthia used to pay Khadijah but said nothing.
‘All those people scuttling around like mice…and the machines…’
She wound down the window and stuck her head out, drinking in air.
‘Who is this Hamdi guy, anyway?’ she went on. ‘I feel like going over to his place and sticking one of those electric zapper things right where it –’
‘There is no Hamdi,’ the taxi driver growled from the front. Cynthia and Mehdia stared. ‘It is a company. Halal Meat Derivatives Inc. It was not even started by a human – it is a digital entity that was running algorithms on market trends and discovered it could make money from halal meat.’
‘You mean the whole outfit is run by artificial intelligence?’
‘Yes. All intelligence, not a drop of soul. Mais it is halal, n’est-ce pas? Nothing in the Qur’an about robots.’
‘How – how do you even know this?’ Cynthia stammered, unwilling to believe him.
‘I used to work for them. Cleaning. But I prefer to work for humans. They give more holiday.’
They drove on in silence, the passengers reeling from this new information. Broad expanses of dun countryside flew past, dotted with gnarled argan trees. At the sight of a flock of goats that had climbed up into the trees, looking for argan nuts, Cynthia smiled in spite of herself. She nudged Mehdia. The latter gave her a grave look that softened when she followed Cynthia’s gaze.
Then they saw the goatherd, a scrawny man in a straw hat and a faded cotton djellaba, squat down on a rock and pull out a phone, swiping with his thumb until he receded into a dot in the distance.