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Meat is Medicine

The priciest meat in the Andijan market is now dog. The reason is more disturbing than curious. by Anvar Mahkamov 13 March 2006 In the markets of Andijan and other Uzbek cities there is a new trend.

Visit a meat store and alongside beef and pork – the latter commonly available despite Uzbekistan's Muslim heritage – you will see dog meat laid out on the stands.

That, in itself, is not a novelty. Dog entered the local cuisine – though only as a peripheral addition – as a result of Stalin's great purges and the forced removal of ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia. They brought with them their traditional taste for dog meat.

The novel elements are the price of dog meat and the number of ethnic Uzbeks buying the meat and its much-prized fat. Both beef and pork cost around 2,500 Uzbek soms (roughly $2) per kilogram; dog meat, by contrast, can cost up to 25,000 soms.

The explanation is, naturally, provided in the traders hawking of their wares. "Dog meat and fat! Buy the medicine for a thousand illnesses!" is a common refrain in Andijan's New Market.

"Dog meat has good nutritional value, which is probably why it can be recommended as a treatment for flu and colds," explains Sergei Moohyun, himself a dog-meat trader and an ethnic Korean.

As the price would suggest, Moohyun says that demand for this still unusual product among ethnic Uzbeks has risen dramatically in the past few years.

But, paradoxically, Andijan has no restaurants that serve dog dishes. Those who want to eat a dog-meat delicacy in a restaurant must travel the long road to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital.

And even there is only one restaurant, says Elyor Azimov, a driver who frequently travels between Andijan and Tashkent. "It is extremely popular," he says.

COMBATING CONSUMPTION THROUGH CONSUMPTION

Azimov tells an anecdote that reveals what is driving demand.

"Not too long ago I took one of my clients to Tashkent because he wanted to go to this restaurant," Azimov says. "His daughter was sick, so he got shurpa [a dog soup] there especially for her." The reason: she had tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is spreading fast in Central Asia. Figures from Andijan's tuberculosis clinic suggest the number of tuberculosis patients in the region has almost doubled over the past few years. Typically, many more cases go unidentified or undeclared.

With its Far Eastern reputation as a medicine for many ills, it was perhaps natural for Uzbeks to turn to dog meat. And, at a very basic level, the stories have some rational origin: dogs are more resistant to tuberculosis than many other animals.

However, "the stories about the wonderful influence of the dog meat are ridiculous," says one doctor in a tuberculosis clinic. "If they were true, there'd be no need for our clinic." Tuberculosis is not a disease that can be treated at home, he says; what is needed is intensive, continued professional care.

Indeed, rather that alleviating Uzbekistan's tuberculosis crisis, the consumption of dogs may be increasing the problem. Some who need care stay at home and eat dog meat instead. Some who were receiving professional treatment switch to a dog diet, effectively nullifying their earlier treatment. And as they mingle with others attempting to maintain an ordinary life, they spread the disease.

Unlike this child being administered vitamins in a clinic, some Uzbeks believe in the healing powers of dog meat. Photo © IRIN

DISEASE OF THE POOR, FOOD OF THE POOR

So why are Uzbeks paying – and paying high prices – for the dog-meat treatment when tuberculosis clinics supposedly offer treatment for free?

In part, because good treatment for tuberculosis sufferers is all but unavailable for free. Uzbek hospitals rarely have enough medicine to treat all patients. The sick typically have to pay to gain access to the drugs, and then for the medication itself.

Many patients, unable to cover the full course of treatment, leave hospitals in the middle of their course of medication, returning home and turning to folk medicines.

Others could not afford to start. Otabek Sultonov, an Andijan local, was diagnosed with tuberculosis five years ago. With a wife and four children to care for, he did not have the cash to stay in a sanatorium for the six to eight months that he says would be necessary. For him – and for a variety of neighbors and friends who are also tubercular – dog meat seems a good substitute. In all, since they opted for this form of self-medication, they have eaten four dogs.

Prisoners are a special case. Treated in indifferent fashion in jail, they are released frequently in a haphazard manner, with little or no thought given to their treatment outside. Many do not know where to turn; others know but cannot pay. This is not a small group. The prisons of Central Asia are sometimes called a "disease pump," pumping out the bacillus into the prison population and then disgorging them into the wider population. The result is that, according to experts, prisoners are amongst the most important carriers of the disease in the region.

Tuberculosis is, as experts point out, a disease of the poor; people unable to afford the type of medical treatment and diet (rich, for example, in proteins and vitamins) needed to fend off the illness.

There is, then, a paradox: the disease of the poor is being “treated” with the most expensive meat in the market. How is that possible?

For those unable or unwilling to find the cash, there is, of course, another option: to grab a dog from the streets, or elsewhere.

"I have already bought puppies three times, but once they get a little bigger, they disappear," says Hamid Mutalov, a local trader. "Several of my neighbors who've done time in prison have been stealing and eating dogs," he claims.

Anecdotal evidence provided by locals suggests the dog population is falling.

It is not just Uzbek law that is being broken; local Islamic leaders have ruled that eating dog, even for medicinal reasons, is a breach of Islamic law.

An alien import eaten by the unhealthy and the poor and in breach of what the local mullahs preach: none of this does much for the social cachet of dog meat. Many feel disdain for the practice. Others mix understanding with a disgust that has a moral edge. Safiq Oripov, a pensioner, says he can sympathize with the poor eating dog. "But I fear one thing: if things continue in the same vein, people might leave the dogs in peace and start eating each other."

But there are ethnic Uzbeks who, as the trader Sergei says of his fellow ethnic Koreans, "consider dog meat to be a delicacy and do not eat it only to get rid of some sickness."

One such is Abdruhmon. "I am completely healthy," he says, "but I eat dog meat anyway. It tastes good and it also prevents me from catching a cold. In other countries people eat frogs and snakes, so why not eat dog meat?"
Anvar Mahkamov is the pseudonym of a journalist from Andijan. The other names in the article are also pseudonyms.
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