I’ve never been inside a proper slaughterhouse, and I don’t have a burning desire to start taking tours. But the most arresting moment of the trip Sir Loin and I took to Morocco last fall was watching men in Marrakesh shop for chickens.
To see it for yourself, this is what you have to do. Go to Morocco and head south until you hit Marrakesh. (Sir Loin and I actually split up in Marrakesh and took separate trips over the Atlas Mountains; I to horse camp for a week — charming! — and he to ride quad bikes — blech! — before we met back in Marrakesh for a day. But you can just go straight there.)
Hit the Djemaa el Fna, the enormous square and marketplace said to be the busiest in Africa. Take a deep breath and duck into the souks, a snaggly labyrinth of stalls partitioned into rough sections. The leather souk, the slipper souk (check out the kitten in the basket of slippers!), the metalworkers’ souk, the olive souk. Wonder about the tunnel leading off to your right marked “Chicken and Egg Souk.” Resist the urge to ask yourself which came first and suppress a little nausea at the smell of . . . of something emanating from what appears to be a dead end. Turn into the souk.
It opens up into a pretty big cul-de-sac with a view of the sky. It’s immediately clear why the chicken guys get the most open-air part of the otherwise covered and dank marketplace. Remember, it’s hot here in Northern Africa: The smell of chickens is pretty overwhelming. Chickens, chicken poop, chicken feathers, and chicken blood. One side of the market is lined with cages and the cages are crammed with birds. Chickens of all kinds, rabbits, doves…birds of all feathers. Behind counters in front of the cages stand the chicken sellers.
This is how you buy a chicken from the chicken sellers. You jostle past the other men to the front of the cluster. (There are no women here.) Once you have the seller’s attention, you gesture to the cage containing your creature of interest. He pulls out one chicken and you shake your head and waggle your finger. Not that one. He pulls out another, then another and you make affirmative noises that the American woman watching you can’t translate. In a quick motion, the chicken seller twists the wings of each chicken behind her back so they’re hooked together like boomerangs. This keeps the chickens still while the seller plops them on a scale to weigh them one by one, hands them over across the counter by their feet, and drops the money in a little box.
Then you grab the two chickens in one hand, their beaks almost brushing the ground, and take a few quick steps across the courtyard. There, a man is standing in a very clean stall with nothing lining the walls behind it. No cages, no chickens, no nothing. You hand the chickens to him with one hand; he takes them with one hand, which dips down behind the counter. There’s a little bit of a squawk. That’s it. There’s 60, maybe 90 seconds between wing snapping and throat cutting.
I think the killer guy then dresses the chickens and plucks them and whatnot, but I didn’t see that part. I was too stunned and just sort of wandered back out to the main corridor and breathed in the comforting fumes of cheap leather and frying merguez sausages. (I was also too stunned to take pictures, but the images here are from the same day.) Was this a humane way to shop? I kept thinking about how awful it was for the chix to have their wings (shoulders?) broken like that, but how nice it probably was for them the other 99.9 percent of the time they spent on the planet.
At least that’s what I hoped: During my horseback ride, we clipclopped through a great many villages and past acres of henna fields littered with chickens scratching here there and everywhere. Some of them certainly find their way to markets just like this one. Which, on the balance, seems to me pretty much okay.