To Aqaba: Live sheep exports

When my family and I lived in Jordan in the Nineties, we went exploring every weekend. Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum, Damascus, Jerusalem – it was three years of wonder, cardamom-scented coffee, vehicle check points and beer in teapots.

Back then, Amman was small and dusty. Our front garden was rimmed by young jasmine bushes and scrubby cats leapt out of the stinking wheelie bins every time we drove past and lobbed in a bagful of rubbish. We ran across a six-lane highway when we wanted the best shawarma in the neighbourhood and we bought trendy Airwalk trainers from a market that sold UN-donated clothing. We were invited to the fanfare-filled opening of the country’s first McDonald’s and our school bus driver stopped to pick up fresh, steaming hobbes bread as his round neared its end.

It was the Australian lamb – big, fresh legs of lamb – that amazed my Australian mother. Dirt cheap and direct from pastures my mother trusted, the meat was available at butchers all over the city. She loved the connection to home. And when we went on our weekend trips to Aqaba, often several times a month during the summer heat, we understood more about that connection.

We saw the massive sheep ships dock, packed full. We saw the trucks, stacked high with twitching brown fur, ply the bumpy highway from Aqaba through the desert to Amman. We knew that with every ship’s arrival on Jordan’s tiny stretch of coastline came a great white shark or three. They followed the ships, taking advantage of easy meals every time a carcass was thrown overboard. It put us off – even when we had no idea how many sheep died or how they were treated in their short lives.

That was 22 years ago. Every time I’m visiting family in Dubai, I see Australian lamb in the supermarket fridges, its stamp of origin bleeding into the white fat and still far cheaper than what we pay in Australia. We avoid it these days, knowing what goes on further up the chain. But most don’t. They trust, I’m sure, that lamb from Australia is treated ethically and tightly regulated. Few understand that some (thought not all) of those vacuum-packed cuts are butchered in the Gulf only after surviving a truly ghastly journey. After all, do you know how the last meat you ate lived and died?

But this is not about those lamb eating expats and Arabs. This is about the silence of those who know and sit back and make money and who are content not to rock the boat, so long as another country’s lax ethical codes can be exploited. It’s meat, it’s Australia, it’s what Australians do, right?

So, my mind leaps back to Aqaba’s coral diving and fish restaurants, its fort and the shambolic Alcazar hotel, which split in two with us inside it when the 1995 earthquake struck. And down at the port, those ships, those sheep: arriving from a country where lamb is a cultural king, but where morals are shovelled onto crud-caked racks, stacked 20-deep in the stifling, dark heat and allowed to perish at sea.

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