Piggy in the Middle


In his story Breaking the Pig the writer Etgar Keret describes the relationship between a kid and his pig-shaped savings box. Once the last coin has been inserted, it seems about time to break Margolis (the pig) open. But the bond between him and Yoavi (the kid) has grown strong and so Yoavi decides to save Margolis: “That night I got up very quietly to sneak out to the porch with Margolis. We walked in the dark for a long time, until we reached a thorny field. ‘Pigs are crazy about fields’, I told Margolis as I put him down on the ground, ‘especially fields with thorns. You’ll like it here.’”

artfarm065Wim Delvoye, Art Farm, 2003 – 2010, Beijing (China)

While the story doesn’t tell us anything about pork-consumption, it indicates something about how much we fetishize animals, even their material replica – for quite arbitrary reasons. Throughout history, animals have been at the centre of human belief-systems, often as signifiers of balance and strength. The respect for cows in Hindu culture, still widespread in India and Nepal today, is a well-known example. Whales have been seen as symbols of dark, inexplicable forces, guards on the border to the unknown, from the Bible up to Dickens. There are endless other examples. In contrast to these animals the role of pigs throughout history seems a bit petty. On one hand they’ve been seen as symbols of luck and fertility. The origin of the “piggy bank”, pigs like Margolis, as incarnated savings accounts: in traditional farming cultures pigs were crammed with crop waste left from the summer and thus became needed protein and fatcarriers essential for human survival in the cold winter periods.

But there’s another myth to pigs: they’re simply dirty. This conviction is seen when the word “pig” is used as a curse, common in most languages. “Pig”signifies hypocrisy, betrayal, just filthy, bad behaviour. Wanting to understand the origin of the pig’s supposed impurity leads back to two world religions, Judaism and Islam. Pork meat is excluded from dietaries of both religious Jews and Muslims. In fact, albeit a few wild exegetic exceptions, eating pork – and other pig-related products like gelatin in gummy bears – is neither kosher, nor halal. Explanations are vague, though. Both the Bible and the Quran state the general unlawfulness of pig consumption for its believers. In Jewish law, which relies also on the Halachic text corpus, the Talmud and Jewish philosophers like Maimonides, pigs are said to be non-kosher, since they simply don’t meet one of the crucial parameters that animals need for kosher fabrication: split hooves. The Quran contains different verses about pigs and their consumption, which is forbidden. Concretely, it states not to eat of “the flesh of swine”. Yet, in theory, it seems that Islam offers more interpretational flexibility. In the same verse about the swine follows: “But he who is driven by necessity […] then surely, God is Most Forgiving, Merciful.”

artfarm085Wim Delvoye, Art Farm, 2003 – 2010, Beijing (China)

Essentially, the fact that pork is not allowed in orthodox lives of Muslims and Jews, is clear. However, both the Jewish and the Islamic explanations for why exactly the pig is not allowed are a bit unsatisfying. What seems to make more sense than the actual religious accounts, is that historically these texts justified a simple, sociological fact at the time of their genesis: pork meat was more likely to go off than other meat, and therefore more likely to transport sickness. After all, Judaism and Islam are both born and anchored in the Middle East, an especially hot and humid surrounding, where bacteria spread quicker than in other places. Another scientific explanation that stems from the anthropologist Marvin Harris holds that prohibiting pork also had ecological foundations. He argues, that unlike other animals, pigs are omnivorous bummers. They eat anything they come across, including carrion and garbage. In early Middle Eastern societies which kept large stocks of pigs, this could pose a threat to whole ecosystems.

Clearly, pork prohibition is still taken seriously by orthodox Muslims and Jews. For their secular counterparts, this is a little different. In Israel for example there’s a flourishing pork industry. Even though it’s sometimes hard to find an open restaurant in Shabbat hours, pork is mostly on the menu of Jewish places (unless they hold a ‘kosher’seal). In Israel’s collective memory pork became a metaphor for assimilation and political tension. Russian Jews who immigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union looked at pork-prohibition as interfering with their own food traditions. And back in the time of the Intifada, right-wing Israelis demanded that suicide bombers would be buried covered in pork skin to prevent them going to heaven. For a moment the pork-taboo didn’t just constitute the common ground between the two religions – it became a symbol for seemingly incurable hatred between them.

artfarm014Wim Delvoye, Art Farm, 2003 – 2010, Beijing (China)

Today, many secular Muslims who drink alcohol still don’t touch pork, going by the principle, if you don’t drink, you don’t drink. For pork, there’s still all types of alternatives. The status of pork also had recent media attention in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris following attempts of the political right in France to redefine secular, national identity. Sarkozy demanded French schools should stop serving halal food. If Muslim kids wouldn’t want to eat pork, they could just forgo eating at all. While bacon and sausage dinners are being used that way by rightwing politicians to determine what it means to be French, the pork-discussion generally seems to replace years of controversies over headscarves in Europe – it seems to become a new battleground for a hypocritical, often racist debate over the place of Islam in European societies.

Regardless of individual decisions it should be clear that Jews, and – obviously – vegans and vegetarians, are similarly affected by such we-against-them, that is, pork-or-nothing policies. With respect to the pigs, it seems that the history of those animals can teach us a lot about the way food habits change culture and the other way around. By the way, in the end of Keret’s story, Yoavi desperately waits for Margolis to answer him. “Margolis didn’t say anything, and when I touched him on the nose to say good-bye, he just gave me a sad look. He knew he’d never see me again.”

artfarm006Wim Delvoye, Art Farm, 2003 – 2010, Beijing (China)

© Studio Wim Delvoye for all pictures


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