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Merciful Meat

For the owner of a Solano County slaughterhouse that's both humane and halal, the dictates of religion don't go nearly far enough.

Ahmad Karaouni grips a slaughtering knife in his right hand, maimed in a car accident more than 40 years ago in Lebanon.
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Ahmad Karaouni supplies a largely immigrant clientele with something that most are unaccustomed to: fresh, cheap, pasture-raised halal meat.
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Karaouni walks the grazing fields horseshoeing Nature’s Bounty.
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Tending to customers inside the kill room.
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Shortly after Karaouni bemoans his community, a blue station wagon carrying five passengers, four men and one woman, skids to a stop in the gravel driveway. He sighs, readying himself to argue about something. They exchange pleasantries in Arabic, and Karaouni leads all five into the corral. Trouble starts when they press him for a male lamb that’s not castrated. Impossible, replies Karaouni, whose lambs are castrated at two weeks. He tells them that he doesn’t have any. The visitors push back, believing that he must have at least one.

“If they had balls, you walk in this place, and everybody would have to cover their nose,” Karaouni says defensively, his voice rising. “They smell.” A family conference ensues in Arabic. Karaouni tries again, in English: “I killed 500 males for qurbani [the Eid al-Adha sacrifice]. They were all castrated.”

They retreat, finally believing him, but now demand that Karaouni let one of the younger family members—a tall, burly twentysomething man wearing knee-length shorts—enter the pen and select the lamb himself. “They’re wild animals, not feedlot animals,” Karaouni warns, warily opening the pen. As the youth scuffles with a lamb, Karaouni shouts, “You’re not supposed to touch them like that!”

The family, it turns out, has fled from Iraq. The woman, the mother of the lamb catcher, explains in halting English that they’ve lived in the United States for three years and were in Syria before that. She once had another son, a goldsmith in Baghdad who’s now dead, shot and killed by bandits. As she speaks, one of her companions, a balding older male, disrobes behind the open door of the station wagon, exchanging his trousers and plaid button-down for a cotton robe, unadorned and dull gray. He strides purposefully into the kill room, barefoot, with a white handkerchief draped like a hood over his head. Inside, he ceremoniously unsheathes, from a wrapped towel, an ordinary kitchen knife, making it apparent that he’ll slaughter the lamb himself.

Karaouni glances up, his eyes widening when he spots the foreign knife in his shop. Wordlessly, he takes the knife and stalks to the paper towel dispenser, stretches a single sheet military-bed tight, and attempts to slice it in half. The knife fails the test—twice. “Is there any reason you need this knife?” he asks loudly. He drops the knife on the stainless steel counter, the clang echoing his disapproval. The Iraqi agrees to a new knife, which he sanitizes with hot water before slaughtering the sheep with a sawing motion. “That’s enough!” Karaouni turns away, spreading his hands in disgust at the unnecessary aggression—the lamb had already died.

Over the course of several visits to Karaouni’s farm, I ask versions of the same question several times: Why is he so committed to something— knowing the provenance of his animals—that most of his customers, more interested in custom-processed meats at low prices, really aren’t. He answers differently each time, depending on his mood. He won’t sell anything that he wouldn’t also feed his children. He’s inspired by his religion. He disdains Walmart. He has a reputation to uphold.

But one evening just before sunset, after the kill floor has been hosed down and Eddie and Armando, his skinners, have left for the day, Karaouni answers by talking, as he sometimes does, about South Lebanon. His father, he tells me, employed a herder, an elderly man who was improbably spry, to graze his goats—he owned about 2,000 of them—in the mountains near his farm. Often his father would ask the young Karaouni, then 12 or 13, to run lunch up to the herder. “One day I asked him,” Karaouni says, “‘Don’t you ever get sick? I don’t understand how you can take care of these goats at your age.’” The herder laughed at him. “He said to me, ‘I’m up in the mountains, where there is fresh air and spring water. If I get thirsty, I catch a goat and drink.’” Karaouni pantomimes pulling a teat toward him and craning his neck for a gulp. “‘Why would I get sick?’” He looks up to confirm that I see the connection. “When you see where my animals are, you’ll ask the same thing.”

His animals, he means, have the hills, which is all they really need.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of San Francisco 

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