Saturday, 18 April 2015

Coffee Tables, the Cuteness of Being Pink and Cultural Sensitivity

There’s a pig on our coffee table. It’s no ordinary pig because it has wings, but then any pig in Saudi Arabia is extraordinary.

You see in this country pigs are haram or forbidden.  Their meat is considered impure and so no one eats pork or any pork derivative. Not surprisingly, images and references to pigs are also absent in wider social settings. For instance we walked through Hamley’s toy shop not so long ago, and saw children’s kitty banks, froggy banks, and cow banks. Piggy banks were notable by their absence.

As a result there’s a whole mine field of political correctness that needs to be very carefully navigated. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. When teaching, I had to choose books to read to my class of nine year olds. I knew they’d be a mixture of nationalities with the majority of Arabic descent. As a teacher I’ve always loved reading to children, so choosing a book to read aloud is something I do with care. More care here I realised pretty quickly, than I'd anticipated.

My first thought was Charlotte’s Web, the children’s classic by E.B. White. But among the raft of animal characters is Wilbur, a pig. And any book which ends with a spider’s web spelling out the words “some pig”, thus turning Wilbur into the hero of the story, was not going be a comfortable choice. I thought again: this time Lady Lollipop, by Dick King-Smith, an easy read with the sort of scatological humour bound to appeal to nine years olds. It’s all about a spoilt young princess who desperately wants a pet pig for her birthday. Her parents, the King and Queen, demand that she toilet train it before it can come and live with her in the palace. At about this point I realized I'd hit another non-starter. And I won't mention either how quickly The Sheep-Pig, another Dick King -Smith, entered and exited my mind.

Another book I’ve loved reading to children in different schools and countries is The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong, set in China during World War II. The protagonist is a small boy, Tien Pao, who becomes separated from his parents when the invading Japanese descend upon his village. In the face of great danger, he arduously makes his way back to his parents and is ultimately reunited. It's part adventure and part human interest and beautifully written. All of which would be great, if it wasn’t for the fact that Tien Pao makes his long foot journey with the family pig, Glory of the Republic, making him as important to the story as Tien Pao. Another non-starter.After also discarding my favourite poems, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and his version of The Three Little Pigs, I did eventually make a safe choice: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. It’s the first of The Chronicle of Narnia series and prequel to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The only animal in it is an elderly cab horse named Strawberry, so I felt confident that here at last, I was on safe ground.

It’s a funny thing, though. Despite one’s best intention to be culturally sensitive, the tables sometimes turn. I remember one day setting a small poetic task. The children had to write a simple acrostic poem describing an animal. It would be a little like a riddle, but with only one word per line, which in totality made a simple sentence.
And here’s the poem that I liked the best:


Fatima smiled as she handed me her writing and I smiled too as I read it.  I’m pretty sure that the only pigs she’d ever seen were the sort found in picture books, rather like the one on my coffee table. And nothing at all like a real New Zealand Kunekune pig.


  1. I had an interesting conversation with an Egyptian Arab lady regarding Muslim beliefs regarding pigs and western sensitivity toward pig references. She said that they may not touch or eat pigs (and their products). There is nothing wrong with them referring to pigs in poems or literature or even just having a general conversation about them. This was after I had done "This little piggy" on my son's toes and made a comment about not wanting to be offensive.
    Any story where the pig is glorified, however, might be shaky I'm glad you were rather safe than sorry! 😄
    You didn't get any feedback on the heavily disguised allegorical and metaphorical references in the CS Lewis book??? 😜

    1. I guess that trying hard not to cause offense means you naturally err on the cautious side. For instance, one thing I didn't refer to in this blog was an art lesson where the children were meant to create a line drawing of a pig. I didn't do this either because it just felt wrong.

      And no, the secondary level of meaning in the Narnia stories is not something that ever came up. Probably a good thing!

      Thanks for your interesting feedback... all food for thought!