If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last five years of my journey its that the struggles vegans and vegetarians face are for the most part universal. That said, I think there is a case to be made that Arab and Middle Eastern cultures are not exactly the most accepting when it comes to vegan diets.
As of late I’ve received countless messages and e-mails asking me how I deal with my family and culture when it comes to my diet and lifestyle. It seems that so many people are worried about the potential negative backlash they may receive from their family, friends or community should they choose to take the plunge and transition to a vegan lifestyle. Now, I won’t lie, it hasn’t always been easy for me. With time however, through trial and error, patience and a lot of vegan baked goods (more on that later) I’ve managed to maintain strong relationships with my loved ones while still staying true to my vegan ideals.
So without further ado, I present to you my top 5 tips and on dealing with family (or friends and acquaintances) as a Middle Eastern vegan*:
*Although I’m referencing Middle Eastern culture specifically (because it’s what I know and can shed light on through personal experience) it’s worth noting that these tips would come in handy to most people transitioning into a vegan diet. Those from a culture where a large emphasis is placed on food and mealtimes as a means for family gathering may also find that a lot of the below resonates with them too.
1. Don’t put a label on it…yet.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you lie or try to hide your efforts to go vegan – but you may want to hold off on announcing your veganism to anyone who will listen and sporting your “Meat is Murder” t-shirt to Friday lunch just yet. The reason I say this is that labels can often sound extreme, intimidating and often prompt cause for concern, especially where traditional parents are involved.
Think of your family’s acceptance of your lifestyle choice as a journey – the same way it may have taken you time to come around to the idea of going veg, they too will need time to adjust, and a little hand-holding can go a long way. You can start small, for example by opting out when your mother offers to serve you a piece of chicken at the dinner table. “I don’t feel like eating it today” or “I’ll have the okra instead” are perfectly normal sounding answers that won’t raise any alarm bells all the while subtly setting the stage for eventuality that you will no longer be consuming animal products.
2. Educate yourself, and others
If you’re from a Middle Eastern culture you’ll know that privacy is a concept lost on most families, and that contrary to what you might think, your business is in fact everyone’s business. Arabs are about as nosy as they come, and not only will they impose that nature under the guise of thinly veiled concern, they will also take it upon themselves to ask you every stupid question under the sun, upon finding out that you are vegan or vegetarian. Long story short? You gotta be prepared. It helps to have a few statistics on hand and make sure you can confidently ask the generic questions (“where do you get your protein from?” “Oh but you eat fish, right?” “But God gave us meat, why would you refuse a blessing?”).
Educating others, particularly your loved ones, can also be a very powerful tool, when done right. Instead of shoving your vegan agenda down everyone’s throat (which no one likes, Arab or otherwise) try suggesting a documentary for family movie night like Forks Over Knives or Vegucated. Post an article on the link between vegetarian diets and chronic disease on your mom or dad’s Facebook wall (we all know how much Arab parents love Facebook), or try sending a vegan meme or comic to your family WhatsApp group. It’s all in the delivery, and you may be surprised at how open and willing your family and friends will be to learning more about your choices and the reasons behind them.
3. Learn to cook your own food
Let’s be honest – if you’re going to hurt your mother’s feelings by turning down her infamous home cooked meals, she probably isn’t going to take too kindly to being treated like a short-order cook. If you’re truly committed to a vegan lifestyle, you need to learn to be independent and make your own meals, particularly when it comes to communal mealtimes. Not only will this demonstrate your resolve to sticking to a vegan lifestyle, it also allows you to participate in important rituals like a weekly lunch/dinner or family iftars in Ramadan without being singled out.
Cooking for others is also a great way to communicate how exciting, delicious and satisfying a vegan diet can be. If you’re making something for yourself, always cook up a little extra and encourage people to try some if they express interest. If you’re not one for the kitchen, crack open a cookbook or search online for vegan versions of recipes you think your family might enjoy and bring it to your next gathering. Pro tip: baked goods like brownies, chocolate chip cookies and muffins are always winners. I’ve long been a fan of using food as activism and for good reason – once people see for themselves how simple and tasty vegan food can be, it becomes a lot more accessible and approachable, even just as a concept for them to wrap their heads around.
4. Demonstrate acceptance and respect
This one sounds like a no brainer, but it’s pretty important in my mind. When you make any big lifestyle change, you’re silently asking and expecting those around you to both accept and respect your choices, and in turn you owe them the same courtesy. That means not wrinkling your nose at the meat on the table, or complaining about the smell of fish in the kitchen. Hold off on the passive aggressive comments about what someone else is eating, no matter how strong your opinions on the topic may be. The approach I’ve adopted is that I choose to be vegan because its what works for my body and personal tastes and is the lifestyle that best fits my morals and personal ethics. I acknowledge that it isn’t for everyone and don’t try to impose my view on others, nor do I judge those who aren’t vegan or vegetarian for their choices. I don’t readily volunteer my veganism, especially when meeting new people because often times its not even relevant to the conversation at hand, but I’m more than happy to answer questions and discuss my reasons for being vegan, when prompted.
5. Give it time
Again, I know this sounds fairly “on-the-nose”, but patience is really key. While your family may react negatively at first, bear in mind that your proposed lifestyle choice probably goes against everything they have ever known about food. In societies like ours, food is so much more than just sustenance. Food is the way we communicate our culture, heritage and background – by just a few simple spices you can identify a dish as being from another region of a specific country. Food is at the core of our meeting times as a family – it’s there when we celebrate, and it’s there when we mourn. Food is also so closely tied to religious rituals – Ramadan, Eid Al Fitr, Eid Al Adha – each of these occasions have traditional dishes associated with them that can usher in a whole slew of emotions and memories.
The point is, try to put yourself in their shoes, and understand that a radical change like this won’t be accepted overnight. It’s important to stay positive, respectful and most importantly to hold your ground and stick to your guns when it comes to your lifestyle choice. With time, your family will grow to accept your choices, even if they don’t completely understand or agree with your reasoning. Your veganism will become the new normal, and you may even find them flying your flag for you by ensuring there’s something for you to eat at the table, or alerting extended family members that you won’t be eating the macaroni béchamel during Eid lunch at their house.
How do you deal with your family when it comes to your own lifestyle choices?
Until next time, dear readers.