Guest Contributor Fathima Cader shares her story “Meat” as a means of unpacking “privilege” and the aestheticization of poverty.
Cross-posted from Run.like the wind.
I had a conversation recently about poverty and art. Perhaps that’s a misleading way to describe it, as I don’t think we ever actually used those words. Instead it began as a conversation about access to fairly mainstream amenities, things as ubiquitous as gyms and meat. The young man (a university student from a wealthy family in Pakistan) with whom I was speaking argued that the fact that some people can’t afford these things doesn’t make everyone else privileged.
In and of itself I thought that argument exemplified entitlement in the way it willfully denied the very definition of the word ‘privilege’. My concern is with the way mainstream aestheticisation of poverty dovetails so well with our desire, as a consumerist society, to mollify ourselves into believing that we deserve what we have. I argue that the more distanced we let ourselves become from the tangible realities of poverty and privilege, the easier it is to reduce complex humans into pretty images.
Can we talk about poverty in a way that doesn’t exoticise it? Is this possible anymore? When we talk about elitism and about golf courses and convertibles, can we admit that conversations about privilege are also about government housing, about skipped school fieldtrips, and the way roaches will scatter in swarms across tile floors when you flip the kitchen switch at midnight?
“So what are you saying,” he says, “would eating meat be elitist, just because some people can’t afford it?”
And suddenly I have a flashback to Ramadans in Jeddah, and the hours of preparing food that would go into making that one iftar near the end of the month for upwards of a hundred Tamil Muslim men whom my father would use his vast networking skills to invite — labourers and streetsweepers, distant relatives some of them, boys from villages not far from places I would later come to call home. Shy, gawky men. I think of my father, those years in Saudi Arabia, and the guilt he’d always feel when we went grocery shopping —this is one labourer’s one month’s pay. Some of these sinewed boys were my cousins.
“My father couldn’t afford to eat meat growing up,” I say. Why do I sound so angry.
Is there a way we can talk about poverty that doesn’t make the leanness of labourers a mere thing of beauty. Can we talk about these things in a way that underscores the ugliness of living the way we do, this way that reduces other people’s struggles to spectacle. He tells me that where he comes from in Pakistan, this argument about the accessibility of gyms is moot because people there don’t need gyms. The streetworkers, he tells me, “were the most ripped guys you’ve ever seen,” and he tells me he knows this as fact because he’d seen them bathing in the canals by his house.
I wonder, I wonder, I wonder did he mean gutters.
There’s a certain evil here, in the photographs we Like of dusty children arranging bricks. You know the kind of picture I mean - the nameless, homeless man asleep in a streetside doorframe, a mess of hair barely poking out of a grimy sleeping bag. You know exactly the kind of photograph I mean. And the kinds of the stories we tell, about those cheery kids in the third world who sell gum at your car windows. So cherubic these kids are, with the dirt packed deep under their malnourished nails. And those sharp-angled beggars in the streets — the way the light falls on the clean lines of the hollows where missing limbs should be is spellbinding, but they smile so widely for you, don’t they.
I think of my father, how his eyes would sometimes cloud over in the middle of a conversation about his childhood, the way he’d pause. I think of how I now revisit the stories he’d told me when I was a child, and how they say things to me now that I coudn’t hear at eight, at ten, at fifteen. How I talk differently to my father now, how he cries more easily these days, this man I used to know as rock, as unyielding and as ageless.
I think of my father often these days. I think of how he raised us, this man with his particular combination of guilt and commitment, how money was skittish in his hands, how I grew up thinking we were poorer than we were, because my mother the doctor couldn’t seem to afford to buy us clothes except when they were on sale and we only ever seemed to live in cramped apartments across the world’s richest cities.
Later I would learn where that money went. And yes, charity is just that: charity. But there is a love here, that acknowledges the brutality of poverty, the way people can and do starve themselves into madness and into death.
Love isn’t enough.
I know the kids who go home to asbestos-infected flats in those unappealing parts of Toronto, who wake up at 3AM so they can fold the newspapers they deliver to houses where everyone’s still asleep. I know the kids whose fathers cut meat for a living, until their hands are raw and the smell of blood seems sewn into their clothes; and who drive trucks that they bought with their own pay and will sleep in; and who have pains they think must be normal because they’re everyday. I know what happens when your parents fall sick, when suddenly one day they can’t move, what things children will sacrifice for blood, and what kinds of futures get written off, how young people can grow into thinness, how the need to pay rent trumps everything else.
I’m not saying — listen — that happiness is foreclosed to everyone who can’t afford to eat meat; pay rent; buy gym memberships; attend university; be us. What I’m saying is that in this crusade for Beauty at all costs, we blanket violence with violence. It’s cannibalistic, how we consume the images of their bodies because it satisfies some horrific longing in us to believe that we can live with honour despite their pain.
They were ripped, I suppose, yes. And sure, the housemaids were svelte, weren’t they? So slender under the thinness of their clothes and the curves of the bones in their wrists so very delicate. And illiterate, except when they wrote my father letters, blue-inked tamil on near-transparent paper.