Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Today, then, was the big day. Mostly, today was (finally) the kind of holiday that I had anticipated: a day of special customs and traditions – a day where ordinary life had clearly been suspended both at home and on the street. Yet there was no formality to it, no etiquette, no special dress, no decorations – but I guess this makes sense, given that most of this holiday’s special customs involve getting your hands (and feet, legs, clothes…) dirty with dead sheep.

The processing of dead sheep was, indeed, all this seemed (seems) to be about. After the actual moment of sacrifice, my family spent the entire day either dealing with parts of the dead animal, or eating it. Ilyas had mentioned to me that the most important element of ‘eid is family togetherness – as I had indeed expected – but I didn’t sense much of this in my surroundings. Of course, everything in Morocco is family oriented, and my daily life here in Rabat is dominated by a family much larger and extended than our general western conceptions, and much less private. The same kind of togetherness prevailed today. Still, I had expected a heightened sense of communalism today – I had wondered if other children of Khadija and Lahcen’s might come back to the family house – Amma’s father, for instance, or the sister who lives in Marrakech. I had even wondered if Si Mahmoud’s own family – who live in Salé – might join us. There was a whole sheep to be eaten, after all. But no such thing. We spent this holiday with even less individuals than make up the daily family circle – Amma wasn’t there. I am sensing a pattern: I think she spends most major holidays with her mother’s family in Kenitra. Ilyas had also mentioned that ‘eid is a time to solve family conflicts, but Manal and Alma carried on their usual politics of silence and made sure to be contributing to the overall sheep-handling process in separate rooms.

Before the big day I had asked my host family to point of exhaustion what was going to be happening and what we were going to be doing. In part because I was curious, and in part because I wanted to prepare. As I have mentioned earlier, most of the planning in this family takes place entirely without my inclusion, which makes everything feel very last minute and un-premeditated to me. It also feels frustrating, because when my host family finally informs me we’re doing something – by saying “yalla, noudi, ghanimshiu” (‘come on, we’re going’) – I am left with no time to get appropriately dressed and packed. Unfortunately, all my asking about ‘eid this time around did not help. I got little in the way of answers, and if they did tell me something, it was usually conveyed in a tone of voice that implies “you know, the way it always happens.” All I knew by the morning of ‘eid was that we had bought our sheep this weekend, that it was in Salé, and that around 10 AM it was to be slaughtered.

Not knowing much else, I got up early this morning and followed my family around so as not to miss anything. The day started as any other; apart from the fact that there was clearly more preparatory work going on in the kitchen than for an ordinary lunch, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I gathered with my host sisters, Khadija and Yunus (who had slept over in Amma’s bed, next to mine) in the sitting room for tea and rghayef – my favorite breakfast: a kind of pita bread but softer, that you dip in a mixture of melted honey and butter.* We sat around watching the pan-Arab version of the Today Show – “Sbah l-kheir ya ‘arab” (‘good morning, Arab’, broadcast from Dubai by the London-based-but-Arab channel MBC). I had deliberately not yet changed, because I wanted to wait and see what the others were putting on. Caftans, or butcher’s aprons? What kind of day was this going to be? But I soon regretted this decision to wait: at 10 o’clock – which Alma had mentioned would be the sheep’s last hour – she told me to yalla, noudi, ghanimshiu; and five minutes after I had gotten upstairs I was called because the car was waiting. Where we were going, I had no idea. Were we picking up the sheep? Was the sheep going to be slaughtered somewhere else and then brought here? In either case, what should I bring? With my last ten seconds I threw my camera and wallet in my bag and with un-brushed hair and half-finished makeup, was pushed out the door to Manal’s car.

As it turned out, we were going to Salé. As it turned out, our sheep had been staying in Si Mahmoud and Fatima’s front yard since Saturday. As it turned out, my family had not just one, but three sheep. And as it turned out, we arrived just moments after the moment suprème. Manal, Yunus, Khadija and I entered the front yard to see a dead sheep bleeding its last drops on the ground, the two others already strung up and in the process of being skinned. I was so relieved to be spared the choice of watching-or-not, that any kind of anticipatory queasiness I had melted away entirely and I began, a little over-confidently and perhaps a bit morbidly, taking pictures of the dead animals hanging in the front yard, of their abandoned heads stacked up in a corner, of steaming hot sheep guts being cut away from the carcass. Unexpectedly, I did get a sight of an actual throat-slashing later on: none other than the king himself, who sacrificed two animals on live television. Seeing that on TV, I think I’m glad I did not witness that in reality… a little too much blood for my taste.

The butchers who had slaughtered the sheep cut out its main organs – guts, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, peritoneum. These were transported inside to the kitchen, which had already been prepared: it was filled from wall to wall with a myriad of plastic bowls, containers, buckets, colanders, and so on. The women spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon washing, cutting, and otherwise handling these entrails, while the men brought the carcasses inside, laid them out on a table cloth spread out on the living room floor, and left (after a glass of tea, served by Fatima). I kept offering my assistance – I guessed that three sheep was going to be a lot of work… – but other than drying loads of dishes, I couldn’t be of much help; with Manal, Khadija and Fatima at work in the kitchen, all of them clearly experts at the routine of cleaning out internal organs, I would have only been in the way. So, not having thought to bring anything to do, I spent most of the day in the sitting room with Mustafa, watching cartoons and playing around with my camera (he has discovered the video setting, and now asks me to make recordings of him dancing and singing, which he insists I title “Mustafa le fou” – Mustafa the crazy).

Just as I had decided I was going to keep myself busy by going outside for a little walk, I was told there wasn’t time: we were going back to Rabat for lunch. We gathered all necessities: plastic buckets of organs, the bucket in which the three sheep’s heads had been collected, the barbeque equipment. Everything except for the three carcasses, which we left on their table cloth in the living room. All of this was loaded into the cars – the women’s purses placed right next to the sheep-matter without issue – and off we went, to unload it all in the Rabat medina. My assistance is always gladly requested whenever anything has to be transported, and so I soon found myself walking through the streets of our neighborhood with a tile full of sheep testicles in my hand…

Back in Rabat, Alma (who had stayed behind) had prepared a small grill in the courtyard, on which we barbequed our lunch: pieces of liver, wrapped in slivers of the sheep’s peritoneum, strung onto big skewers. Once done, we put the pieces into a small round pita bun and added some ketchup, mayonnaise, or “harr” (Moroccan hot sauce – very good). We ate these sandwiches along with the bowls of “shlada” that are always served with lunch – dips made from carrots, a kind of Moroccan spinach, finely cut tomatoes.

I am not a fan of liver, and having seen where that peritoneum came from, I was not eager to taste this. But I have to say that, once I made myself forget what I was eating, it wasn’t bad at all. Maybe because it was so fresh, or maybe because everything grilled kind of tastes the same, it did not taste like liver at all.

It became clear that not much was going to happen after lunch – as usual, the women seemed to retreat for a siesta, while Si Mahmoud retreated with his paper, cigarette, and coffee. A little restless these days, I decided to keep myself busy by looking for an internet café – but in vain. In fact, I have never seen the medina as desolate as it was this afternoon, except maybe at 1 AM. All storefronts were boarded up, and absolutely nothing was open – even on Ramadan mornings I do not remember it being this extremely deserted. Even the streetlights seemed to be taking a hiatus, and it was dark and rainy. There were people outside, though: about every 50 meters, groups of men stood around self-made street fires, built of coal and drift wood from the looks of it, on which they were grilling sheep’s heads. The streets were a mess of burnt material – old pieces of wood, coal, a sheep’s horn here and there, twigs. In combination with the pouring rain and the general desolation, it made for a very strange, almost apocalyptic, atmosphere.

Now it is 10 PM. At the end of day one, having eaten only the sheeps’ liver, I am left with this question: how on earth are we, this small family of eight, going to eat three entire sheep?

* rghayef are round slices of dough that you cook in a skillet. On the stove, they blow up like balloons, creating a perfect little pre-sliced bun. I am so intrigued by how this happens.

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