The Wrong Shark

Arianne Shahvisi

‘The Bazaar at Constantinople’, watercolour by J.F. LewisWellcome Collection

One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws.

As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying. That something as mundane as buying food could be so quirky, disgusting or cruel seems to epitomise and justify the gulf between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but it also feeds an appetite for the exhilaration and romance of difference. Chinese food is the third most popular choice for Britons eating out, but one of the most tired racist stereotypes about Chinese people accuses them of unsavoury culinary practices, such as eating the ‘wrong’ animals, bought at wet markets.

‘Wet’ snags in the Western mind as a peculiar modifier. Damp, sodden, dripping. Wet with blood? Moist with viral vapours? Wet as in ‘wetwork’? But wet markets are just food markets, farmers’ markets, Sunday markets. They’re cheaper than supermarkets, with fresher produce, less packaging, and vendors who know more about the food they sell and are more likely to make friends with their regular customers. Wet markets are so called because their floors are regularly hosed down after meat and vegetables have been washed or prepared, and water and ice are used to keep perishable produce cool and fresh. In other words, the name reflects the measures taken by stallholders to keep their products and the environment clean and safe.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which has been linked to some of the earliest reported cases of Covid-19, is not a conventional wet market. It has a section dedicated to the sale of wild animals, which makes that part a wildlife market. When distressed animals are penned into a place of high human density, there is a small chance that a novel zoonotic disease may cross from one species to another.

Several of the early cases were connected to the market, but not all, and not the earliest. If Covid-19 did make the jump from animals to humans at the wildlife market, it would not be the first time that a severe health threat has arisen through unwise practices in the meat industry. Sars and avian flu are two recent examples. And Britons would do well to remember the BSE anxiety of the mid-1990s. If cultural practices around food production and consumption can be judged objectively, the idea of feeding cows the ground meat and bones of their butchered peers may deserve particular disgust. In that case, too, the government was criticised for a slow, opaque, inadequate response. And it is not over yet: we may be due a second wave of deaths from vCJD.

When you orientalise a group, you stop seeing the obvious ways they’re similar to you, and risk missing your common frailties. The initial lockdown in China was interpreted elsewhere as a quirk of foreign authoritarianism, rather than a necessary public health measure. An Italian health minister admitted to the New York Times in March that the unfolding crisis in China had looked like something from a ‘science fiction movie that had nothing to do with us’. The UK government imagined it could put our ‘freedom-loving instincts’ ahead of any other consideration. Admitting to and understanding the role that race and culture played in our failure to see China’s crisis as relevant to us will be a vital part of bringing us to a place of greater safety in the uncertain years ahead.

Returning to that scene in Jaws: the mayor, keen to get back to business as usual, hangs up a shark caught by local fisherman to satisfy the islanders that the culprit of the terror has been found and slain. But later, in private, the sheriff and oceanographer cut open the shark’s digestive tract and find no human remains. It’s the wrong shark. The real thing is still out there, still a threat.

The wrong shark


  • 20 May 2020 at 5:34am
    neddy says:
    A timely comment on the BSE scare, Ms Shavisi. You are right, of course. Our European hands are not clean of "disgusting" food practices. And we shouldn't forget smallpox and the many other misfortunes carried all over the globe by our adventurous forbears. Many thanks for your post.

  • 20 May 2020 at 6:11pm
    Demetrio Tavares says:
    Another leftist lie--to criticize a horrible cultural practice is to be racist. Gee, I guess the British imperial army should have let indians keep their practice of burning their widows at the funeral pyres of deceased husbands.

    • 21 May 2020 at 1:38am
      neddy says: @ Demetrio Tavares
      Horrible cultural (food) practice? Have you ever been to an abattoir? That's a wet market Western style, and it is wet with blood and gore not just water and ice.

    • 21 May 2020 at 8:48am
      Joe says: @ Demetrio Tavares
      The point the article is making is that criticisms should be rational – not based on unexamined cultural prejudices. To reverse the situation: an Indian Hindu, looking at the BSE crisis in Britain in the 1990s, might have wished to frame it as an outcome of the generally barbaric practice of eating beef. However, we know that BSE was caused not by beef production per se, but by particular practices used by British farmers at that time – and ending beef consumption across the Western world would not have been a realistic way to resolve the BSE crisis.

      Of course, ending beef consumption may be a very good goal – but a Hindu wishing to pursue this at a global level would need to find universal – rational – arguments, and not rely on their particular cultural/religious viewpoint. By the same token, if you don't like the barbaric treatment of animals at Asian wet markets, you need to disentangle what you dislike on a rational basis from the thicket of cultural prejudices surrounding it. My guess is that if you do this, you'll be left not with a picture where Eastern barbarity towards animals contrasts with Western civility, but one where mistreatment of other species is a near-universal human vice.

    • 21 May 2020 at 12:19pm
      neddy says: @ Joe
      Fair comment.

    • 21 May 2020 at 2:48pm
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      I have been to abattoirs and it’s not a sight for the faint-hearted but efforts are made to minimise stress on the animals. From what I’m aware of, and I’ve seen a market in China, I don’t believe the comparison holds up.

    • 22 May 2020 at 1:30am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      Well G'day Adelaide. We meet again. I can't respond directly to your post as you don't state WHY you believe the comparison doesn't hold up. As for minimizing stress on the animals about to be slaughtered, what do the abattoirs do? Play country and western music? I'm not sure that a creature's awareness of its impending death can be "there there'd" by pastel colors, music, deodorants or a backscratch on the way to the knife. Have you seen the slaughter videos put out by PET? These animals are visibly and horribly stressed, and clearly aware of what is being done to them, and of their impending doom. Given the impact of animal husbandry on CO2 emissions, I'm surprised that a person who believes in the climate change emergency, thereby professing concern for the planet and its inhabitants, would ever seem to defend (emphasis on "seem"), even obliquely, the cruelty inflicted on hundreds of millions of animals every year all over the globe. PS . How are you coping with the covid19 restrictions? I trust you are well as SA is apparently free of the virus. I haven't been able to visit my grandkids or friends since the border with Victoria closed, and I have had to put on hold looking for a new residence in fair Adelaide. At least I have and can daydream. Regards.

    • 22 May 2020 at 5:20am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      Ahem. An error in my response to your post. PET is PETA (Persons for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). No offence to our furry, feathered and ocean dwelling friends. "Persons" may also actually be "People". Cheers.

    • 22 May 2020 at 3:18pm
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      I have visited (admittedly only three) abattoirs in Sydney and South Australia (government food inspection duties) and it is undeniably a gruesome process. Nonetheless, efforts are made to minimise the stress on the animals by keeping them calm and not allowing them to see the fate of the animal in front of them as they are led to the killing pen. If for no other reason reducing the stress minimises the amount of lactic acid in the muscles and makes the meat more tender. And the killing itself is swift and instantaneous. I’m not saying that the animals are not distressed or unconcerned about what is happening but if it is agreed that people should be able to buy steaks at a supermarket for a reasonable price then I think it fair to say that the processing in a well run, regulated meat works in Australia is something that consumers have to accept. I fully appreciate than many people don’t think that steak should be available at reasonable prices, if at all, but that is another point. The point I was making is that, to Western sensibilities, what goes on in Australian meat processing establishments is a lot better than what happens in other parts of the world.

      I haven’t seen the PETA videos you referred to but I’ll assume they weren’t the large, export-registered establishments I’ve seen and I don’t defend their practices.

      As for meat consumption’s impact on CO2 I’m not defending that either. I want CO2 levels lower but also to fly and eat steak from time to time. Maybe we should all do less of both.

      My sympathies for the Covid restrictions keeping you from your grandkids, a terrible situation. Mine moved from Sydney to Adelaide late last year and, with access to child care facilities reduced, we have them for 3 days a week. Very lucky. All the best to you.

    • 23 May 2020 at 2:10am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      Thank you for your reasoned, balanced, and articulate response. It's clear you took care in writing it and I appreciate the effort. You are right; the PETA videos I refer to are not of Australian establishments, but of overseas facilities, whose licenses to buy and process Australian animals were subsequently suspended (by Australia). I acknowledge that Australian abattoirs are strictly run and controlled, thanks very much to the efforts of persons such as yourself. I confess to being very conflicted over the issue of meat consumption. I am a meat lover but became an ovo-lacto vegetarian, with occasional lapses, some ten years ago, to reduce my contribution to total human cruelty, not from considerations of personal health. I have not been able to stop consuming meat totally, and I accept that my conscience does not itself have a conscience. I will continue to wrestle with this issue - and the many others that confront us all. Regards to you and your family.

    • 23 May 2020 at 6:49pm
      CarpeDiem says: @ Joe
      Just to be very clear - a lot of Hindus, in India and outside, do eat beef. These include, but are not limited to, Dalit Hindus. See

      And India exports a hell of a lot of beef - it is the world's second largest exporter of beef. See (this is article is from 2014, but it seems this is still factually true).

    • 24 May 2020 at 2:15pm
      Delaide says: @ CarpeDiem
      According to Wikipedia, India exports water buffalo meat; not so holy.

  • 22 May 2020 at 4:16pm
    j mccormick says:
    Certainly a jog to my occidental point of view and a welcome one at that. Reading this what come to my mind is how one feels when one sees a dead cat in the road that has been hit by a car. It's really hard to stomach looking at death in the face. Here we never think about the conditions that our livestock our raised in ; we have to brush it aside if we want to continue consuming flesh. Like chicken so contaminated with bacterial pathogens you're guaranteed to get food borne illness if you consume it under cooked. Chinese practices no better or worse than our own; just different. We just 'prefer' not look at our own practices in the face. Thanks for the post.

    • 23 May 2020 at 12:25pm
      neddy says: @ j mccormick
      And thank you for your comment.

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