by Patrick Slattery
Last week while packing cabbage in the root cellar, I entertained two visitors. The first was Jaris, a very polite, well-dressed, 24-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. After pleasant conversation and giving him a bag of free squash, I took Jaris upstairs to share his message with Peter Drake and Terese’s mother, Grandma Cummings. They both received copies of “The Watchtower”, and after my coaching, were supposed to have shown “The Watchtower” to Terese after she came home from school and tell her they had converted (they failed to execute my plan).
But the fellow I wanted to tell you about was the next visitor, Ariat. He is a bald little fellow, aged 53, a member of the very small Arab community that resides nearby in LaCrosse. They all know one another, and hang out at a gas station owned by a Pakistani. Ariat was looking for onions and garlic, which I gave him along with a package of frozen venison.
“Where’s Ali?”, I asked of him, “haven’t seen him in a long time.”
Ariat replyed: “He’s gone from LaCrosse. Living in Rockford, has a new wife.”
“That’s too bad”, I said, “because I’ll miss seeing him.”
But before he fades from memory, I’d like to tell you about Ali, as a fellow farmer and occasional visitor here at Sweet Ridge Farm. Ali grew up on a farm in Iraq. He was one of twenty-three children (his father had four wives). He didn’t like Sudam, and had spent some time in jail in Iraq. Somehow he got to this country, and after living in Chicago and a number of other big cities, ended up in LaCrosse. Ali is a Halal butcher, meaning that he kills and processes livestock according to Islamic law. He worked in a number of Halal slaughter houses. “Despicable work”, he told me. And although he wasn’t employed in that capacity while in LaCrosse. He none the less continued butchering Arab style, and thus was always on the lookout for sheep to “do in”. I don’t remember how we connected several years ago-Ali just showed up in our driveway one day and asked if I knew of any sheep or goats that were for sale. As a city-dweller, he was always in need of a place to butcher on the farm, which is illegal of course, but that makes it only more fun to say yes when he suggested that he might do so at our place. We didn’t do it often, maybe a half-dozen times, but I do remember his excellence and skill with a knife. I believe his ritual was to face the animal east, shout “Allah is great!” and then proceed to slit its throat. He could entirely process a sheep in 10 or 15 minutes. I well remember the time he pulled into our driveway, honking the horn of his old Cadillac with three lambs and various fowl in the trunk, yelling out the window, “Hello brother!”.
Ali had the most gravelly voice that I’ve ever heard. A most impressive fact about Ali is that he never spent one day of his life in school, yet somehow he passed a driver’s test in the U.S. and was able to find his way all over the interstate highway system. Ali had lived in some pretty rough neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere, and was grateful for how safe LaCrosse, WI was in comparison. He especially liked being around farmers, as he considered himself a kindred spirit. He like the “Ameesh” (Amish) but they used to haggle ferociously over price. He could tell how old a sheep was by looking a the number of teeth in its mouth. He prepared us a lamb and rice dinner one Sunday, and my son Raphael well recalls it as one of the most delicious meals he ever ate. I also remember him once eating here with his cousin, and they twittered in Arabic and pointed to my wife Terese, who was barefoot at the time and sweeping the floors and had also poured them coffee. “She is just like the women in my country”, Ali pointed out with marvel in his voice. Ali’s wife in LaCrosse was American, and this proved to be his undoing. She was a nurse who worked odd hours and didn’t share his rural interests. I had never met her, and Ali seldom talked about her, but I can only presume that she wasn’t very satisfied with her husbands way of life. He did however bring out his daughter, Alia, a pretty, well behaved little girl. We were all struck by what a fine father he was.
So we can only presume their marriage bond had dissolved and Ali went elsewhere to find a new bride. Ariat said Ali had come back to Lacrosse several times to look for his daughter, but mother and child had disappeared, and there was no tracking them down. Ariat promised to come back next spring and help with the garlic. If the need arises he is welcome to slit a lamb’s throat now and then. I am sure he is good, but no one I suspect will do it with as much grace and style as Ali-my lost Iraqi brother.
This article is part of an occasional series written by Patrick J. Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan. Pat was a journalist for over 30 years, writing about faith, farming, and family. For the past few years he has stepped away from the keyboard and into the fields as a full time farmer. The first articles in his series are available here: