Food of the gods

Observations on miracles

"I don't really understand what all these old men and women are talking about," protested the dishdashed civil servant as he brought the picture up on his computer. "It's only a fish."

It had been a tough week for Faisal, who runs the Shindagha fish market in Dubai. I was the fifth journalist to call in that day, and that was on top of the 3,000 pilgrims who had come to witness the genuine miracle to which he is host: a Safi, or rabbit fish, pulled with the word "Allah" inscribed on its belly in Arabic.

Rab Navas, the Pakistani fisherman who plucked the fish from the obscurity of Omani waters, was rather more excited. "I'm overjoyed at being the one to find this miracle in praise of Allah," he informed the local press.

Both men may be missing out, though, because elsewhere in the world finding a deity or holy message embossed on your breakfast isn't just an addition to the workload or a cause for pride: it is big business.

When Diane Duyser, a Florida resident, sold her ten-year-old cheese sandwich that just happened to bear a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary on eBay 18 months ago, she created a market in religious likeness memorabilia. The buyer was, a casino with a reputation for spending large wads of cash on seemingly worthless items, such as the $25,000 it paid for William Shatner's kidney stone, or the hundreds of dollars it spent on a chicken breast that, as its student owner said, looked a bit like Pope John Paul II.

Hundreds of items, most of them Christian, and including a Jesus pancake, a Jesus and Mary pretzel and a Jesus oyster, have since appeared on eBay. Hopeful owners are looking to cash in.

Meanwhile, as if in competition, Allah fish have been throwing themselves out of the sea across the world. Fish with Arabic script have been found in Liverpool (they read "Muhammad" on one side and "Allah" on the other), southern India, Senegal and now Dubai.

And while the phenomenon of faces on, say, pieces of toast can be explained by pareidolia, the psychological theory which states that human beings are hard-wired to recognise faces in even the most random objects, the appearance of Arabic script is harder to rationalise.

Either way, this seems to show a need among some religious people for proof that divine intervention can take place, no matter how banal the context. Dubai's Allah fish will never be sold on eBay, however. It has been commandeered by the Dubai government and, after a visit to a taxidermist in Abu Dhabi, will be accorded a place of honour in a museum.

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