The following article appeared in the winter issue of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture. “Gastronomica uses food as an important source of knowledge about different cultures and societies, provoking discussion and encouraging thoughtful reflection on the history, literature, representation, and cultural impact of food.” - http://www.gastronomica.org/
Haifa places a head of purple garlic in my hand—an unexpected gift—then offers me a slice of crumbly blue cheese. I smile, feeling more like her guest than her customer. It is a Sunday afternoon on the cusp of early fall at the Tompkins Square farmers’ market in New York City. Heirloom tomatoes rest heavily in their plastic flats, their skin mimicking the startling red of watermelon flesh and the flamboyant orange of fresh apricots. Haifa’s husband, Zaid, chats with another customer while he weighs firm, plum-colored eggplants.
Like many small-scale organic farmers, Zaid and Haifa Kurdieh favor the direct farmer-to-customer relationships that markets like this one provide. Twice a week during the growing season they make the 450-mile roundtrip drive from Norwich, New York, to deliver produce to two farmers’ markets in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as to community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs) in Manhattan and the Bronx. Recently, the Kurdiehs started a CSA in upstate New York, at their own Norwich Meadows
Farms, where members pick up produce directly and spend time working in the greenhouse or fields. The couple began their business partly in response to the faceless, industrial food processing and packaging industry that has dominated the United States since the mid-twentieth century. However, one important characteristic sets Zaid and Haifa apart from similar small-scale organic farmers: their faith. They are religious Muslims.
Zaid’s grandfather had owned a farm in Palestine, where he cultivated oranges and raised sheep, but he and Zaid’s grandmother lost their land in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. Haifa’s grandparents also lost their farm that same year and were relocated to Jordan, where Haifa was born. When she returned as an adult to the site of her grandparents’ farm, she found it populated by Israeli settlers. “When my grandmother died,” Haifa recalled, “she still had the deed to the land.”
Haifa Kurdieh with a produce display from Norwich Meadows Farm.
Photograph by leah koenig ©2007
The Kurdiehs’ family history had particular resonance for me. Since 2004 I have organized CSAs within the American Jewish community to encourage families to put their purchasing power behind local, organic farms. The program is called Tuv Ha’Aretz, a Hebrew phrase that means both “good for the land” and “good from the land.” In addition supporting local farmers, Tuv Ha’Aretz works to strengthen Jewish community values in general and to reframe the notion of what is “fit” (the literal translation of kosher) to consume. Given the interest in faith and farming that I shared with Haifa and Zaid, I was eager to speak with them and understand their response to the burdens of recent history.
Zaid, who was born in the United States, said he realized as a high-school student in the early 1980s that he had inherited his grandfather’s interest in working the land. While his father and uncles had chosen professions in medicine and engineering, Zaid decided to study business and agriculture at the University of Wyoming. After earning a master’s degree in business administration at the University of South Dakota, he spent several years in that state, working to help large-scale farmers develop business plans and meet credit needs. As time passed, he met and married Haifa, and they moved east with their two young children. Zaid went to work for Cornell University’s cooperative extension program, helping farmers with their business plans. It was in 1998, during his time at Cornell, that he and Haifa decided to start their own farm. After so many years of working in the agriculture business, Zaid wanted the opportunity to work the land himself. He and Haifa wanted to grow food organically and sustainably while incorporating Muslim values and practices into their work.
When I asked Zaid how Islam has influenced his farming philosophy, his response quickly made me realize how narrow my question was. Zaid grew up in a traditional Muslim home. Apart from a self-described rebellious stage during his teens, his life and worldview from earliest memory have been steeped in Islamic tradition. Like devout people of all faiths, Zaid does not see boundaries between his secular interests and his religious ones. Everything that Zaid does, whether farming, conducting business, or interacting with friends and family, is rooted in his spiritual beliefs. Islam doesn’t simply influence his philosophy of farming—it is the foundation of his entire life. Zaid and Haifa’s faith-based approach to farming at Norwich Meadows Farm has become an extended form of religious practice, another way to live their faith.
Specific Islamic laws guide food production and consumption. The Qur’an categorically divides human action into acts that are either permissible (halal) or forbidden (haram), with some gray areas in between. At its most basic level, Islam decrees that all foods are permitted for human consumption except for those identified by the Qur’an as haram—namely, pork products, alcohol, illicit drugs, flowing (excess) or congealed blood, carnivorous animals with fangs, birds of prey, and the meat of animals and birds that have not been ritually slaughtered. The Kurdiehs believe that these tenets also encourage responsible steward-ship of the land and animals. Their farming techniques, carried out with considerable effort and soul-searching, are a logical extension of these precepts.
Many religious Muslims keep halal simply by avoiding food and drink that fall into the haram category and by buying only halal-certified meat. But, as Zaid explained to me, there is an additional, more-complicated Islamic principle that many devoted Muslims strive to follow. It is called tayyib, a word that translates as “good” or “pure.” In order for a particular food to be considered tayyib, it must be created in a wholesome manner. Although the concept of tayyib far predates the emergence of industrialized agriculture and factory farms, it is clearly relevant to the present realities of the mainstream American food industry. According to Zaid, produce that has been sprayed with pesticides, for example, or harvested by poorly paid migrant workers, would not be tayyib. Neither would fast-food cheeseburgers or sodas filled with high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives.
Zaid Kurdieh bagging produce for a customer at a New York City farmers' market.
Photograph by leah koenig ©2007
The problem is, not all Muslims agree with Zaid. The boundary between “pork product” and “non-pork product” is generally well-defined, but Muslims who want to be sure of eating only tayyib foods must consider the far broader physical, social, and even ethical implications of their eating choices. They must also know the right questions to ask of their food purveyors, such “Does this milk contain antibiotics or growth hormones?” As a result, keeping tayyib requires a higher degree of vigilance than merely eating halal does. Haifa told me about the stacks of letters she has received in response to the queries she has sent food companies, requesting information about products she was considering bringing into her home.
Haifa’s assiduousness is rare. Shireen Pishdadi, former director of Taqwa Eco-Food, a sustainable halal meat coop in Chicago, told me that not only do many Muslims fail to follow the principle of tayyib, they also have a myopic view of halal, concerning themselves only with “no alcohol” and “no pork.” Meanwhile, industrial production of non-pork products compromises the Islamic ideals that forbid cruelty to living beings and mandate that meat come from animals raised in sanitary and humane conditions and be properly slaughtered and handled gently after death. In recent years, some food companies, such as J&M Food Products Company in Deerfield, Illinois, have developed a system of industrial halal slaughtering with the intention of maintaining the integrity of halal while maximizing productivity. But these procedures are still evolving and are, at this point, voluntary. It is nearly impossible for Muslim customers to ensure that the halal-certified meat purchased at the grocery store upholds the standards legislated by Muslim jurists.
Zaid and Haifa, for their part, do not compromise. “The Prophet gave animals certain rights,” Zaid told me. “That’s why for the last fifteen years we haven’t eaten any meat that haven’t slaughtered.” Lately, Zaid has been slaughtering meat for others, too. In the fall of 2006 Norwich Meadows Farm launched its own usda-inspected halal poultry slaugh-terhouse. “I didn’t eat meat for six months after my family and I moved to the United States,” Haifa said, describing her dissatisfaction not only with American standards but also with the taste of industrially produced meat. These days, she helps Zaid butcher the chickens.
The relationship between faith and agriculture is hardly new, of course. Many of the laws in the Old Testament refer to buying and selling agricultural property, harvesting methods, the necessity of a sabbatical year for the soil, and God’s ultimate ownership of and control over the land’s productivity. These laws guided the agricultural practices of the ancient Israelites and shaped their perceived relationship with the land and with God. In Leviticus, God says, “If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments… then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit…and you shall eat your bread to the full….” However, if God’s laws are not obeyed, the land will wither and no longer be productive. Such a worldview made sense for an agricultural people whose livelihood depended on favorable climate conditions. Though less focused on specific agricultural laws, the New Testament is also rich with farming metaphors. Several of the parables attributed to Jesus begin with metaphors about planting and sowing, and the often-quoted axiom about reaping what you sow comes from one of Paul’s letters to the Galatians.
In the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson envisioned an American society structured around independent, hard-working yeoman farmers. While most scholars agree that Jefferson, a deist, rejected Christ’s divinity, the language he used in expressing that ideal was steeped in religious imagery. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose beasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”
The third president of the United States was writing at time when America was at a crossroads: Should the country remain primarily agrarian or become urban and industrialized? A few notable contemporary farmers continue to espouse Jeffersonian ideals. Wendell Berry, the poet and activist; Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm and the protagonist of Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma; and Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, an Orthodox Jewish maple farmer who owns Sweet Whisper Farms in Readsboro, Vermont, all follow the Biblical notion that humans are obligated to be stewards of God’s land.
Still, the idea of agriculture as religious stewardship does not enjoy mainstream status in America, where farming is still a largely marginalized profession and sacred and secular values are often polarized. Farmers and city-dwellers alike buy frozen burritos and plastic-wrapped string cheese designed for convenience. These foods, though not inherently bad, do little to create a sense of wonder or amazement—let alone a feeling of divinity—about the intricate and vulnerable processes involved in growing and harvesting food.
Zaid believes that humans are obliged to sustain healthy relationships with both the divine and the natural worlds, or else we will suffer the consequences. “Farming gets riskier in societies where we disobey God—that’s why we have weather that’s unstable,” he asserted. “I think we’re contributing to [that instability] by what we do in the world, but I also think God says, ‘All right—no water this year. Let’s see how you react. Remember who gives you the water.’”
When the Kurdiehs started their farm in 1998 (with a business partner whom Zaid describes as “a hippie physician”), their original intent was to produce food that they themselves would want to eat—food that was both halal and tayyib to the fullest possible extent. As the business has evolved, they have not strayed from those goals. Today, Zaid is responsible for all farm-related matters and Haifa for managing quality control of the harvested produce. Haifa also assists wherever help is needed, from seeding in the greenhouse to harvesting, to being “front of the house” at the farmers’ markets. One job she does not relish is driving the tractor. “As you can see, I’m small,” she told me, “and it is very large. But I can do it if I have to.”
On first meeting Zaid, it is not immediately apparent that he—dressed in the work pants, long-sleeved shirt, and modest beard characteristic of many farmers—is a religious Muslim. Haifa’s traditional head covering (hijab), however, does set her apart. Although Zaid and Haifa do not seek to discuss their religion with their customers, they will answer questions if explicitly asked. They prefer to focus on teaching more universal ideas of healthy eating and local, organic farming.
I asked Zaid if he or Haifa had ever experienced discrimination from their customers. Zaid briefly demurred, then said that while many customers are naturally inquisitive, they are almost all ultimately supportive. In the weeks immediately following 9 / 11, at the height of racial profiling against Arab Muslims in New York City, Zaid and Haifa set up their usual farmer’s market stand near Borough Hall in Brooklyn (Zaid and Haifa sell their produce at multiple market locations across the city). As a precaution, the community of customers and local residents formed a rotating watch group to ensure that Haifa wasn’t threatened or harmed. Zaid did say that since 9 / 11 the police have stopped him more often during his long commutes into the city. And recently an aggressive customer chided Haifa for wearing a hijab and accused her of being subservient to Zaid. “That was one of the only times since 1998 when I asked a customer to leave,” Zaid told me.
Zaid credits New York City’s diversity for his customers’ tolerance. The greater difficulty with cultural difference, he said, actually occurs with the workers on his farm. Like most organic farmers, he and Haifa hire farmhands throughout the growing season. Too often, however, the helpers’ lifestyles have clashed with the Kurdiehs’ religious practices. The consumption of forbidden alcohol on the farm has been the most significant issue. Zaid told me sadly about a key worker who began drinking heavily, got into trouble with the law, and ended up losing his visa. Since then, Zaid and Haifa have been adamant about recruiting only Muslims who abstain from alcohol and observe Ramadan and other religious holidays and customs, as they themselves do.
Considering that such a pool of Muslim farm workers in America is nearly nonexistent, Zaid has for the last few years made an annual recruiting trip to Egypt. It is a complicated process requiring much time and lengthy paperwork—efforts that do not always yield results. In 2007, with ever-tightening immigration laws, Norwich Meadows Farm was short three workers. As a result, Zaid and Haifa had to compensate by working longer hours and, even with that measure, sacrificing the level of production they could have achieved with a full work force.
Lately, the Kurdiehs have been hiring Egyptian university graduates who have studied agriculture; unfortunately, the classes these workers have taken in conventional farming methods and monoculture do not prepare them for a hands-on farming experience. Nor are they generally familiar with the complexities of the sustainable agriculture techniques that Zaid and Haifa use at Norwich Meadows Farm. The workers face steep and sometimes unpleasant learning curves as they try to understand and execute far more complicated farming methods than they learned at university.
Homesickness and cultural acclimation pose other chal-lenges, especially during periods of political tension back home. “ ‘We want to go home—we don’t like this country, Zaid was told after the battles between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Even during less politically charged times, the workers—many of whom have never before left Egypt—struggle to adjust to the isolation and xenophobia they face in rural upstate New York.
Nevertheless, Zaid is hopeful that his workers, customers, and, ultimately, the Middle East itself will benefit from his and Haifa’s work at Norwich Meadows Farm. Indeed, one of the Kurdiehs’ explicit goals is to reintroduce self-sufficient agriculture to his ancestors’ homeland in the Middle East by way of their Egyptian workers; Zaid imagines them transporting back home the lessons they have learned here about sustainable farming methods. “The Muslim world used to be self-sufficient, and it’s not anymore. That concerns me,” says Zaid. And that’s what he wants to change.
Zaid admits to the magnitude of his goals, as well as to the difficulty and frustration inherent in trying to measure his success. “Being a farmer can make a person hard—I don’t want to become hard-hearted,” he said. What keeps him and Haifa going season after season? In a word, faith. Zaid and Haifa are planting seeds—literal and metaphorical. With a farmer’s patience they sow, tend, and wait, full of belief that in time something beautiful will emerge from the earth.
REPRODUCED AND REPRINTED WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE REAGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA -
GASTRONOMICA: THE JOURNAL OF FOOD AND CULTURE, VOLUME 8, NO.1, PP. 80-84