When The Butcher Cries: A Visit to an Organic Halal Slaughterhouse
A river of dark, red fluids frothed and pooled over drains. Men in green T-shirts scrubbed the floor with brooms as wave after wave of water washed away the sacrificial blood.
On an overcast October afternoon on the 2nd day of Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, a lamb nuzzled its mother’s flank as she munched lazily on hay in an airy chamber of the 15,000 square foot facility of Al Madani, an organic halal slaughterhouse, in Ozone Park, Queens. The sheep exuded an air of serenity that was utterly at odds with the ominous metal hook flush in the ceiling only yards away. An elderly man, wiry with a grey beard, dressed in an Arab-style tunic and waistcoat held out his fingers to the lamb and cooed at it as if it were a pet dog.
“As-salam ‘alaykum!” he said, as I approached.
Assessing the ease of his manner in these grim surroundings, I surmised he was a regular customer.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
When I told him I was here to meet Imran Uddin, the slaughterhouse’s manager, he smiled.
“Well, I’m his father!” he said. “And this happy lamb is Mantu. The mother arrived here pregnant on the truck by mistake.” He brushed his hand over the animal’s head and smiled. “My contractor says to me, ‘If she gives birth on Good Friday, the lamb’s lucky. Don’t you dare touch it!’ That’s exactly what happened!”
Across the warehouse, two rooms with doors ajar, bustled with activity. A river of dark, red fluids frothed and pooled over drains. Men in green T-shirts scrubbed the floor with brooms as wave after wave of water washed away the sacrificial blood. A sign on the wall outside read “Please Be Patient.” A wooden rack for slaughter sat empty in the middle of a room. It was cleanup time. Slaughtering was done for the day.
Imran Uddin, a former advertising executive in his early 30s, walked over to the manger where we stood. His blood-splattered jeans and stained rubber boots served as a map of his day’s activities.
“Did my father tell you the story of this sheep?” he asked, as he shook my hand. “He calls her Patricia, Ashley, Rana–everyday the name changes! He is so fond of her, and the employees are too!”
Imran, who oversees the halal facility for his father, Riaz Uddin, said they’d received 350 goats and 125 lambs especially for the Eid sacrifice. There are three mosques in close proximity to Al Madani. Each year, on the first day of Eid-ul-Adha following the Morning Prayer service, a few hundred people join the queue at the slaughterhouse and wait for their ticket number to be called. Patrons wander into the yard when their turn arrives, choose their animal, and get back in line with the animal in tow.
“The important Islamic prescription is that the animal be blemish-free and without injuries. Our animals are in excellent condition,” said Imran. “Some people prefer certain colors, for others the long horns are just more attractive. When I choose an animal, I look for an immediate attachment. It’s a very intimate experience.”
There was something surreal about standing in the space between the sheep, Mantu and Ashley, who were being caressed by passerbyers and the proximity of the slaughter room, just steps away, where animals are transformed into cuts of meat. Yet, the paradox is instinctively familiar. In Pakistan, animals for the Eid sacrifice spend days in people’s gardens, becoming acclimated, fed and fattened in preparation for the inevitable.
In a tradition that goes back to the Prophet Abraham, divine intervention turns an act of seeming paternal betrayal into a lesson of faith, surrender and the gift of renewed life. Muslims are obligated to offer an annual qurbāni or sacrifice, if they can afford it. Every year during the final month—Dhul Hijjah—of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims perform the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in commemoration of Abraham’s submission to the divine command. On the tenth day of the month, the sacrifice of a sanctioned animal, a camel, cow, buffalo, sheep or goat, marks the end of the pilgrimage. One-third of the meat is distributed to the needy, one-third to friends and neighbors and the remainder is kept for one’s own family. Those who are unable to sacrifice an animal, fast or donate money to a charity.
Halal slaughtering techniques, similar to Jewish kosher slaughtering, have been passed down through the centuries. At Al Madani, the slaughter is performed by an experienced, practicing Muslim. The animal is laid down, a prayer recited—Bismillah Allah hu Akbar—then a knife drawn over the animal’s throat.
“It is swift, and done as humanely as possible,” Imran reiterated. “The most important tool is a long, sharp knife because it has to cut through the trachea, the esophagus and jugular veins with one swift slice of the blade.”
The animal dies immediately, and the blood drains out over the next 15 to 30 seconds. Blood is the life of the animal, but it is also the carrier of disease. For the meat to be halal (or kosher) for consumption, the blood has to first be completely drained from the animal.
The subject of an award-winning documentary, A Son’s Sacrifice, Al Madani’s history carries biblical undertones even as it stands out as a quintessentially New York immigrant tale. In the year 1991, Riaz had undergone open heart surgery; at the time, he’d been a steakhouse and nightclub owner for the past 29 years. His wife and elder daughter supported selling the club, but his younger daughter, completing her Masters in Islamic History at the time, protested.
Recounting the story with pride, Riaz plunged his hand into the deep pocket of his tunic and pulled out fraying letters of his daughter’s academic achievements, one of which included a document confirming a Fulbright Fellowship.
“My youngest daughter understood me,” says Riaz, “She said to her mother, ‘Abba spent his whole life in public and you’re telling him, ‘No more business!’ He’s going to go crazy. ‘I’m on your side, Abba,’ she said, ‘but I want you to provide a service to people. I want you to open a halal business.’
With no formal knowledge of butchery, Riaz prayed to Allah and asked for guidance. Equipped only with a Muslim layperson’s knowledge of halal food, he went out the next day to inquire about zoning laws. He located the Al Madani property and realized it belonged to John Gotti, the head of the Gambino crime family, who was serving time in prison. He also happened to be an old friend.
“I told his son, ‘You don’t know me but I know your father.’ I put a note in his hand. ‘When you visit your father, open the window. Tell him I want that building on 94th Avenue,’” Riaz said, chortling.
Gotti instructed his son to take his mother to meet Riaz and sign the building over to him at zero cost.
“Of course, there was a debt on the building, and I had to contend with the city to get the license. But everything came to me.”
Next, Riaz visited the Animal Research Center at Cornell University through which he began networking with farmers.
“You see, there is a straight path,” Riaz said. “Allah says, ‘If you walk towards me, I’ll run towards you.’” He shook his head as if marveling, in wonder, and his eyes filled with tears. “I only have a basic education from India and Bangladesh. But America gave me great opportunity. My daughter has a Ph.D., and she knows seven languages. So, if America needs my last drop of blood, I won’t hesitate for a second.”
Al Madani is no ordinary halal slaughterhouse. It is a business backed by a family’s heartfelt commitment and unswerving faith in divine ordinance. The astonishingly mild manner of both father and son trumps every stereotype one may harbor of butchers.
“The day you become immune to taking the life of an animal for your benefit is the day you lose all your humanity,” Imran said in a somber voice.
The workers at Al Madani are under strict orders to treat the animals with respect. There is absolutely no tolerance for manhandling. Imran confessed that once he got into a tussle with a new worker after he’d witnessed the worker grabbing a lamb roughly by its legs and shoving it across the room. The employee was instantly fired.
Some believe that sacrifice by means of the slaughtering knife was unprecedented until the Prophet Abraham received the command to carry it out. Muslims believe there is a talismanic power to calling out the name of God before taking a life for food. Most slaughterhouses in America use hammers, stun guns, and electrical devices to kill the animals before carving them up. As I watched torrents of bloody water swirl and swish beneath the hand motion of brooms, I asked Imran to describe what he considered to be the salient, differentiating features of a halal butchery.
“Well, actually, that’s a really deep question!” he said, raising a brow. “If you ask a hundred different Muslims, you’re going to get a hundred different answers. The way I interpret halal is–were these animals given sufficient food and water? Were they treated well? Were they happy? Did they lead a good life? That’s just one part of halal. There’s also the matter of how I conduct my business. Am I honest to my customers? Do I treat my employees well? How do I have conversations with people? Am I being sincere?”
Certainly, there was nothing dissembling or affected about the Uddins or their facility. The butcher and his father resonated with tenderness for the animals despite their commitment to the work of slaughtering them. The back area of the butchery carried the air of a petting zoo. About fifty lambs and twenty goats— all a year or older in accordance with Islamic specifications–grazed peacefully in a courtyard spread with lush green grass.
A handful of customers roamed between the animals, stroking their flanks even as they peeked at the weight and price tags neatly pinned to their ears. The goats and sheep ranged in weight from 80 lbs. to 120 lbs., the average price for each is $450. Indoors, pens containing partridges, guinea fowl, quails and turkey mirrored the tranquility of the pastoral scene outdoors.
There was a time when New York City was populated with abattoirs, many of them mom-and-pop poultry markets, until a city ordinance prohibited them from operating within 1500 feet of residential dwellings.
“Before, if you had a few hundred dollars you could easily get a license for this type of business,” Imran explained. “But then issues of hygiene, sanitization and, the inhumane treatment of animals came up and the city said, ‘Enough!’ and clamped down.”
At Al Madani, they like to do things the old-fashioned way, aiming to keep alive the traditions of two generations past. Hence, their poultry and livestock are sourced either from Amish farms in Pennsylvania or ranches in Texas, where the animals are nourished by plenty of sunshine, green grass and open space.
“The Amish are very hands on,” Imran said, “They actually go out and feed the animals themselves. They have knowledge regarding the care of these animals. The animals we source are really calm and docile, because they’re accustomed to being around people. We don’t deal with auction animals. By going through auction, the animals endure so much stress that their immune systems go down. They just aren’t as healthy.”
Of the eighty-nine live poultry markets in New York City, most are not organic. Only about a quarter of them are licensed to sell livestock, goat and lamb. Most facilities look at cost before purchasing.
“We not so much,” said Imran. “We’re concerned with the health and quality of the animals and how they’re being raised.”
This might, indeed, be the reason that Al Madani is the supplier for some of the city’s popular restaurants including The Breslin, Left Bank, Fatty Cue and M. Well’s Dinette at MOMA PS 1. But restaurants make up a small proportion of Al-Madani’s business; the bulk of it relies on walk-in customers. Last year, for the Thanksgiving holiday, alone, they supplied a thousand turkeys. When it comes to cattle, however, Imran is reluctant. He sources larger animals only on special request, preferring not to bring them into the city.
“Cattle, as big as they are, are actually very fragile animals. They can easily die of a heart attack when they get over-excited and they get scared easily. I’d rather not put them through that stress,” he admitted.
As we stood in the yard beneath in an industrial-gray sky, petting the animals and admiring their Zen-like calm, I felt as though I’d received a scriptural lesson, witnessed in meaningful practice the Abrahamic story of sacrifice. Time had collapsed in this slaughterhouse. A dream dreamt thousands of years ago carried the bite of urgency here.
A brown sheep waddled over to me and I held out my hand for it to sniff. I asked Imran if he remembered his first slaughter.
“Oh you never forget your first time!” he exclaimed.
Years ago, Riaz picked him up from college and asked what he wanted for dinner. “Chicken curry,” Imran replied, without a second thought. Father and son went to the poultry market where Riaz nudged him to choose a chicken. At home, in the kitchen, he handed him a sharp knife. “Here son,” he said, “if you want to eat chicken tonight, you have to take its life.” “I was very young, just seventeen or eighteen,” Imran swallowed hard. “I still get really emotional talking about that. I didn’t eat the chicken that day but the memory’s always stuck in my head.”
Harboring such sensitivity has got to be a professional hazard for a butcher. Didn’t it make his job more challenging?
“Well, that’s the beauty of halal,” Imran said, tears streaming down his face. “You realize you’re taking the life of the animal so that you can continue to live. And every animal that you slaughter, you never forget.”