Every morning during my time in Baku, my step kids, two out of five that I would eventually raise during my twelve-year marriage, walked four blocks to the corner bakery and bought fresh bread, kleb, a large, heavy whole-wheat loaf of chewy denseness. Fresh bread was a sacred rite in this part of Central Asia.
I learned to appreciate the awkward yet promising juxtaposition of a former Soviet Republic springing to life. There were the Islamic halaal meat stores next to the places that sold liquor (which, incidentally, also sold fresh kleb). Bread and vodka was the nectar of post-communist life. People threw Islam in for good luck.
I have a disdain for fast food places, but Baku’s McDonald’s was the only efficient, brightly lit restaurant that prioritized customer service. To be honest, that McDonald’s is the only one I’ve ever liked. The service was far superior to any here. It satisfied an anemic-induced desire for cheeseburger. But a very simple act of obtaining one at a McDonald’s in a foreign country presented unique challenges.
I was six months pregnant and desired the comfort of American-flavored beef. And when a pregnant woman craves something, it carries twice the weight of whatever is growing in her womb. I walked up to a cashier, a young Azeri excited to speak English with sleep still resting in the corner of his eye.
“I’d like a cheeseburger, please, ” I said. (I remain fascinated that one can order exactly the same way as one does in the United States. This is also true of Starbucks anywhere in the world.)
The cashier looked and me and said, “Sister, the meat is not halaal.”
Sister, the meat is not halaal. He saw my large, fleshy form donned with the Islamic veil.
In that schizophrenic moment, Azeris were carefully revisiting their Islamic roots after having aspects of this history systematically destroyed during communism. This young Azeri felt historically and religiously obligated to inform me that the McDonald’s patty was not Islamically sanctioned. He stared at me like this decision was critical, as if the outcome of my soul and his hung on that piece of meat he was about to put in that bun.
Nowhere in the world have I ever had someone behind a fast food counter instruct me the food served was not spiritually permissible. It was a moment of crisis. Should I eat it or not? In doing so, I would out balance my religious identity in favor of a haraam (forbidden), American food item.
I had to pick which identity mattered most.
“Well, I don’t care,” I responded. “I’m pregnant and I need two cheeseburgers.”
There was a reluctance to proceed with the order. He was having his own spiritually induced burger trauma.
Right there, at that moment with an overly processed forbidden food item, two of my worlds collided. My gestational-American palate demanded the cheeseburger; my Islamic sensibilities set up a barrier. This conflict would torment me for years until I let it go and redefined my American and Islamic identity by rolling them up into one, like a decadent cigar with multiple layers of heirloom tobacco. The brilliant irony is that this struggle materialized at a fantastically yellow McDonald’s in a former Soviet republic.
I got my two cheeseburgers and I enjoyed them very much. But let me tell you, during that time in Baku, I learned to appreciate the American fast food business model a great deal.