The Great Gelatin Divide

“Do they have gelatin in their treats?”

My son is four years old and full of wonder. The world must seem massive and wild through his eyes. There are so many trucks, trains, plants, animals, and, religions, to categorize. He comes from engineers on both sides, so this compulsion to organize and label, is not surprising to me. What is surprising is this need of his to flesh out the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims, before he can even read.

Like any kid, he is attracted to sugar, and it seems the higher the index of FDC #’s the better the treat. It’s just that most of those vibrant, gelatinous treats contain well, gelatin. We keep a halal kitchen and are fortunate to live in an area of the country where halal markets and restaurants are abundant. So when we are in the gas station or the grocery check out line and he asks for gummy worms, Starburst, Skittles, or any other similar treat, I read the labels. If it has gelatin, I tell him we can’t eat it because it has gelatin and Muslims don’t eat that. It’s always been, ‘nuff said, tantrum abated.

I could explain the dangers of high fructose corn syrup, or artificial preservatives and additives, but in the midst of a whining episode, religion’s finality is too appealing. And like many expediencies of parenting, it has come to back to bite me.

Entire cities have been typecast. “Mama, in San Francisco, they eat gelatin and have dirty streets, right?”

“Do people who eat gelatin also watch TV?”

Or even more worrying and difficult, “Does Grandma eat gelatin?”

We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse places in the world. Surrounded by all of this diversity, perhaps this is my son’s way of organizing himself into this world. There are steam engines and diesels, and people who eat gelatin and those of us who don’t. It doesn’t seem to bother him, nor does it seem to contribute to fear or arrogance towards those who are different than us. It’s more a process of acceptance.

A few months ago a new halal market opened up on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. It bakes its own fresh pita bread, has organic flours and produce, a bakery, clean aisles, and a delicious restaurant. It’s a step forward in the world of dingy halal markets. And to my son’s pleasure, it also has a substantial sweets and treats section. On quaint wooden shelves there are rows and rows of colorful, gelatinous treats, none of which contain an ounce of gelatin. I love to watch him approach the sweets section, at first with caution, then a dawning enthusiasm that gives way to excitement, and finally to a sense of ownership and pride. It’s comforting to know that he can accept, at such a young age, that there are restrictions to our Islamic life style, but that there is also great abundance, if only we are patient and follow some simple rules.

He is my first child, and having grown up without feeling an outsider in my country, ‘an other’, I am still uncertain that this categorizing of those in the broader community is a healthy thing. Many people whom he loves dearly, Grandma, Grandpa, aunts and uncles do in fact eat gelatin, even bacon. But perhaps this is where we hand off the torch to the next generation of American Muslims, to ease off of our fears of being labeled, of looking different, and let our children guide us towards articulating the differences between ‘us and them’ in a manner that inspires. To let them figure out how they fit in, and to trust that rather than find restriction in the rules, that they will find rows and rows of sweets to marvel at. Even here, on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, California.

Shannon Staloch

Shannon Staloch is a mother and a midwife in Oakland, California. She keeps a blog at www.hakimamidwifery.blogspot.com.

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