‘The Year of Hunger’ — food for thought

May 21, 2018
‘The Year of Hunger’ — food for thought
Mahmoud Ahmad

NEARLY two weeks ago, the anniversary of the tragic memory of what Najd people called at that time ‘the Year of Hunger’ was remembered with solemnity. It was described as the worst famine ever to hit the area, nearly wiping out the entire population of the Najd area. This was the year when people were forced to eat dead animals and lived on the protein got from cooking animal skin, which is generally discarded or used for tannery. The skin had to be cooked for a long period to make it tender and edible.

I had heard vaguely about ‘the Year of Hunger’ but did not make an effort to delve into its details or really learn more about it. The details of that era, once I learned about it, proved to be shocking and is sure to make one cry at the hardship and tragedy wreaked by the drought. It also reveals the tremendous pain and suffering the people of Najd area went through, while making us also appreciate God’s blessings and mercy on us, such that we do not feel the hunger they felt, and food is available, even for the poor.

‘The Year of Hunger’ happened in 1909. According to historical sources, and the narrated story about that time by a social media figure on YouTube, the main reason was the general drought that hit the area at that time due to lack of rain. The second contributory reason was related to the period before the World War I with the Great Game being played out in the Arabian Sea and the German Navy blocking the trade route from India in order to harm England. With food being scarce, people at that time had no choice but to travel away from interior Najd to Kuwait and the city of Riyadh in search for food and help.

The stories told about that time are that of people fainting and falling to the street unconscious because of hunger and thirst. It was reported that people were walking, toward what they deemed as greener pastures, over dead bodies on the street and past people, who were literally breathing their last, without a glance and not providing them with any help, because they were helpless themselves, and in no condition to take on additional burden.

People were said to have fought over pieces of dead animals, and sometimes even the carcasses’ skin, so they could cook it and eat it to quell their hunger. Mothers were forced to cook grass, which were not fit for human consumption, for their children to satisfy their hunger. It was also reported that people would travel for days and sometimes weeks in search for food, with no food in their possession except dry locusts for their sustenance.

One of the horror stories related was that some people nearly resorted to cannibalism when the pangs of hunger drove them to this desperation. They had decided to eat a child, but quickly changed their mind after seeing a dog with puppies. They spared the baby and ate the dog and her puppies instead. It was also reported that children would go knocking on doors begging for food, getting only disappointment in return. There were other gruesome stories of people finding children dead on the doorsteps when they opened their house doors in the morning.

We as Saudis and global citizen should remember this time not for its grisly tales, but as a fact that hard times affect humanity at any given time. At times when there is hunger around the world and in countries close to us, we as human beings should spare a thought for the unfortunates and do our bit to alleviate the situation, especially during this holy month of Ramadan.

There is a good segment in our society that loves to waste food, to a level that it has earned Saudi Arabia the tag as the No. 1 country in the world when it comes to food wastage. It is indeed sad to see people gorging themselves at events and parties without a thought for the size and number of helpings, thus eventually not only wasting food but also spoiling it from being repacked and given to charity. Even in the month of Ramadan — the month in which we are supposed to feel for the poor while also understanding the importance of hunger with our fasting — we cook excessively and in large quantities that mostly end up in garbage. This is not the way that we thank Allah for the blessing of food He has bestowed on us.

The Ministry of Agriculture announced last year that one third of our food ends up as wastage. It revealed that 90 percent of the food cooked in weddings and social occasions goes to waste, and that is mostly due to people, who like to show off. It is the same every Ramadan, when people, sometimes, set up a table that’s three meters long and arrayed with different variety of food (with the menu sometimes changing according to themes like foods of specific nations) that is cooked for a guest list that’s limited and small in number. Your guess is as good as mine as to what happens to the excess food ad where it goes? Yes, you guessed it right, it ends up in the garbage. The attitude of wastage is not restricted to homes, but also in restaurants, where, again, people tend to order more food than they need and end up eating little most of the time. The result is that food goes to waste.

Allah said in the Holy Qur’an, “O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.”

Wasting food is just as equal to not thanking Allah for his blessings. I wish if such people who love to waste food could read about the famine that hit our ancestors, and if not, they should at least look at the examples of countries suffering from wars or drought and see the pain they endure — especially being gaunt by hunger. Giving thanks to Allah extends blessings and there’s no better way to demonstrate that than preserving and respecting and thanking Allah for the many blessings, including food.

The writer can be reached at mahmad@saudigazette.com.sa

Twitter: @anajeddawi_eng

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