Goat and howlie.
"Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect." -Margaret Mitchell
It was the morning of Eid al Adha, and I was staring at a goat and a howlie (sheep) huddled in the corner of my terrace. It was Eid, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, the Muslim holiday that celebrates the story of Abraham’s faith: basically God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and just as Abraham was about to do it God stopped him and said Abraham’s faith had been proven and that he should sacrifice a ram instead. Today, that story is commemorated by re-enacting the sacrifice of the sheep. Hence the livestock hanging out on the roof of our medina house.
To be honest, the sheep and goat did not look particularly happy. I tried to pet them, but they sort of shied away with a pointed look. They knew that whatever was coming next wasn’t going to be in their favor.
I knew I wanted to watch the sacrifice, both for cultural purposes and honestly due to a little morbid curiosity. When else would I be able to watch a goat be sacrificed? Plus, the point of Eid is that the sacrifice is done in a very purposeful and painless way. A quick slice through a main artery in the throat and it is over. I could handle that, I thought. Right?
The moment arrived around 10 a.m. and I stood on the roof with my host mother, sister and father. The goat was first. My sister held the goat’s squirming legs, and my host father rolled up his sleeves. After a quick prayer, my host father quickly sliced the knife down through flesh and it was over. Silently, a pool of deep red blood seeped from the wound, and the goat baahed and thrashed around for a bit longer. What I didn’t expect was the smell. I grew up in the metro area, so most of my experience with animals was at Gibbs Farm or on the rare occasion I peeked into the hog barn at my aunt and uncles’ farm in Iowa. Needless to say, I haven’t been around animal slaughter, ever. The stench that accompanied the end of this goat’s life wasn’t holy, or sacred. It smelled like death. Pure, muscular, animalistic death.
My host sister quickly began squeegee-ing the blood toward the drain, and my host mother got buckets and rags ready. She paused next to me, my hands locked across my body, my eyes not able to look away from the slain goat.
“Safi?” she said, asking in Arabic if I had enough.
“Safi,” I concurred, and headed downstairs.
Back in the living room, I sat with my other, similarly squeamish, host sister. We watched cartoons as we heard the sacrifice of the sheep.
About an hour later (during which time most of my family came into the living room to ask me a polite mezzien?--good?--before heading back upstairs, the blood stains on their clothes growing with each visit) I decided to rejoin the process. By this time, the goat and sheep had morphed into the usual carcass I see hanging from butcher shops in the medina, with the organs neatly separated into buckets. I was set to the task of chopping up a heart and lungs, and braiding the intestines, both to be put on skewers and grilled. As I sat there with my giant butcher knife, realizing this is the closest I have ever felt to being Hannibal Lector, I had an even stranger feeling: comfort. They had fired up a small charcoal grill and there was a familiar barbecue smell, the fall sun shined onto the terrace warming the crisp air, my family was talking and laughing as they prepared food. It sort of felt like Thanksgiving.
The rest of the day (and week) was a literal meat fest. I choked down liver and stomach and intestines (a minute of misery for my tastebuds), but enjoyed the small seasoned hamburger patties we stuffed inside khobz (bread), to create a gyro-esque sandwich. We ate goat and howlie for every meal for the next week. I thought by Friday there couldn’t be a single ounce of meat left. Then I noticed whatever was in the middle of our cous cous had teeth and eye sockets.
Though a cultural experience, Eid stuck with me in a personal way. The second I felt a sick feeling in my stomach when I saw the goat die I realized: this is how I get the meat I eat—though most of the animals I eat are killed in a much less humane and purposeful way. It was a good reminder that if I am going to eat meat, I need to remember that for my sustenance another living thing is dying against its will. Is that worth it? I haven’t quite been swayed to vegetarianism yet, but it definitely got my mental wheels turning about the subject.
In addition, it was interesting to think about why this religious tradition stuck and others did not. Our program director, Badr, pointed out that selling sheep and goats (anywhere from 1000 dh/$125 to 5000 dh+) boosts the economy. In the modern age, it has even started to become commercial: in the weeks leading up to Eid I saw billboards and TV commercials advertising loans specifically for buying a sheep. Though Badr pointed out that the Koran only stipulates Eid if you have the monetary means to do so. So if you are poor you don’t have to do it. In fact, people who do sacrifice their sheep are supposed to give part of the meat to the poor. Instead, people are going into debt to celebrate Eid.
Overall, it was a strange but interesting dip into the traditions and stories in Muslim culture.