Exclusive report: When mansaf ingredients fight back

For one particularly hungry town in Palestine, the sheep almost had their way.

Beitin, a small town in the West Bank where the trees bloom with ripe plums and mansaf is eaten as recklessly as it is prepared, boasts a very vibrant community of sheep. But the sheep have long been oppressed at the hands of overly-hospitable aunties and neverendingly-hungry fathers who bask in the warmth of the oily yogurt concoction.

Due to their poor socioeconomic status, their inherent inability to organize efficiently, and seemingly insurmountable language barriers, Beitin’s sheep have found it virtually impossible to fund and develop the infrastructure necessary to protect their self-interests. Although their population levels haven’t necessarily declined in recent years, they do experience relatively stark losses on a regular basis.

In January 2008, for example, fourteen sheep were designated to establish a legal framework to protect their rights in the town. But Saturday evening happened and twelve of these fourteen legal minds went missing. The other two were later discovered in a local meat market later that week.

Needless to say, they remain largely marginalized in society. Beitin’s children derogatorily characterize them as “toys” and grandfathers curse them the very moment they begin to make noise. A poll conducted in May 2010 showed that 39% of taxi drivers who operate in the Ramallah and Al-Bireh Governate have considered running them over at least once in the past week, while 61% have considered running them over two or more times.

By December 2010, the situation had grown so grim for Beitin’s sheep that they prepared to seek asylum in nearby Deir Dibwan. But upon discovering the condition of their compatriots in this village, the sheep gave up hopes for a population transfer and decided to focus their efforts at home instead.

Charged by the sentiments of the Arab Spring, a number of Beitin’s sheep gathered in private to organize actions to publicly demand their right to life and security. One inside source who wished to remain anonymous revealed that the sheep were in the beginning stages of organizing a strike scheduled for late March when a family of fourteen descended upon the sheep’s headquarters and walked away with three organizers. One of the three, it was quickly discovered, was only ten months old.

This apparent hostage situation drastically increased tensions between the sheep and Beitin’s human population. Several eyewitnesses reported seeing two of the three sheep caged inhumanely in a small yard on the 4th of March while three old men smoked and played cards in their vicinity, pretending to be oblivious to the sheep’s fate. The third sheep, the youngest one, had not been found.

Two days later, Beitin’s sheep took to the streets. The spokessheep of the protest outlined the sheep community’s public demands which included, first and foremost, the right to refuse participation in the preparation of any Jordanian national dish. Critics quickly pointed out that the sheep had cleverly disguised their disdain for anything mansaf-related by presenting their demands as complementary to Palestinian national self-interests.

The protest remained peaceful for the first twelve minutes before a man, discovered to be single and in his mid-thirties, shouted slurs at the sheep and stretched out his arms. Arm stretching and waving is universally considered to be offensive to sheep since, historically, these gestures have been used to intimidate them into forming bunches against their will.

When the man stepped closer to the sheep with his arms outstretched, six sheep charged. Staff photographer Wedad Yassin was at the scene of the protest when the sheep broke ranks and plowed forward. Her photograph, shown above, has only just been authorized for publication following a years-long investigation. The man, who experienced no injuries, was found guilty of public incitement and endangerment in Beitin’s district court and was sentenced to nine months without mansaf.

The sheep embraced the unexpected verdict, although the spokessheep is on record criticizing the court for not looking into the man’s past hunger-driven abuses against Beitin’s struggling sheep community.

It is unclear how many casualties the sheep suffered as a direct consequence of the protest and subsequent court case. Even though the man with the outstretched arms was formally charged, little else seems to have changed. Beitin’s sheep still face an uphill battle and putting an end to the systematic production of rank mansaf dinners does not appear to be a priority for Beitin’s lawmakers.

Nevertheless, the actions of these few brave Beitini sheep will certainly resonate with sheep communities throughout the Middle East.

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