This post is the twelfth in a series which starts HERE.
Samir’s father motions for me to follow him into the garden. He goes to a ramshackle shed full of white rabbits and grabs one by the ears. I notice he has a knife in his other hand.
One of Samir’s sisters joins us and I ask her what’s going on. ‘Papa wants to show you how to prepare a rabbit.’
‘Hak,’ he says. Take this. He hands me the fluffy bunny and shows me how to hold it down over the stone basin. It feels soft and warm and my heart thumps. I’ve never killed anything bigger than a bug before.
‘Only men are allowed to kill,’ says Samir’s sister in response to my panic-stricken look (and I feel an inappropriate flash of relief that women are considered so inferior).
I’m not against killing animals for food. I’d be a hypocrite if I was; I love steak. But I rarely give any thought to the connection between the living creature and the cellophane-wrapped meat in the supermarket. I know I should think about it more, especially the living conditions of the animal I consume. At least these bunnies have had a reasonable life in a spacious shed, unlike most mass-produced meat.
Back in the UK, I might browse in my freezer to find something for dinner; in the Tunisian village they pop into the garden to get a rabbit or hen, or they buy a lamb at the market for a special occasion. Kill it, skin it, eat it. In a rural environment where electricity and fridges are still relatively recent additions to the average household (Samir told me his family got electricity when he was six, in 1984), it is traditional to keep animals alive until it is time to eat them. How else can you store fresh meat in the African heat? There are roadside butcher shops which are nothing more than shacks built around a blood-soaked tree stump, with a sheep tethered outside, waiting. Sometimes a cow’s head is nailed to the wall, rotting grotesquely. But this serves a purpose – attracting the flies to keep them away from the fresh meat that’s for sale.
Trying to stop my hands trembling, I grip the rabbit as Samir’s dad slits its throat and blood pours into a basin. Then he hands me the knife and shows me how to skin it. It’s remarkably easy, like removing a jacket. I try not to think about the red stains on the white fur.
With encouraging nods, he teaches me how to cut into it to remove its intestines; they spill into the concrete basin in a disgusting bloody mess. It’s fascinating how quickly a living creature can be transformed from a cute bunny to a pile of meat and gore.
We carry the spindly carcass into the kitchen, a darkish room with bare concrete floor, walls and shelves. Food prep is done sitting on low stools around a metal tray with short legs. Meat chopping is a group activity; two people hold the carcass, while a third uses the knife to cut through it. With large families there are always plenty of children to help with such chores and the less contact meat has with any surfaces, in this hot, dusty and fly-ridden environment, the less chance of contamination.
Onion, garlic, chilli and pepper are frying in a pot over a free-standing gas ring; the smell is amazing. Less than half an hour after it had been gaily hopping about, the rabbit is added to the oil, followed by tomato puree, then water and salt. A couscous steamer is placed on top of the large pan and to ensure all the vapours from the spicy stew are directed into the couscous a dish cloth is wrapped around the join to seal any gaps.
Two hours later we eat. The sauce-infused couscous is placed into an enormous metal dish, and topped with the small pieces of rabbit, chickpeas and the various vegetables that were added to the sauce: carrot, turnip, broad beans and pumpkin. The dish is carried across the courtyard on a large tray with legs and placed in the main living area. Everyone sits cross-legged on the floor around the dish with a spoon and digs in. There is a lovely sense of companionship as I listen to the family talk and laugh together, sharing food and stories of the day.
Thank you little bunny rabbit; for being such a tasty meal, for helping me to appreciate where my food comes from, and for giving me this bonding experience with people who make me feel so welcome in their lives.
If you enjoy these blog posts, you might want to consider my debut novel, Daughter, Disappeared, a hard-hitting ‘women in jeopardy’ thriller, set in Tunisia. Please read the reviews on Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2eCnZRf. Or to purchase on Amazon.com, for those in USA/Canada: http://amzn.to/2ozbGe8.
There’s also my facebook page: Fiona MacBain – Writer – thank you!