This year, Eid l-Kbir falls on December 8 – this coming Monday. Eid l-kbir, as the name suggests (“kbir” means big), is arguably the biggest of Islamic holidays – or, at least, the holiday involving the maximum of preparation and special customs. It commemorates God’s request to Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son as a sign of his faith and obedience. For Muslims, by the way, the son in question is Ismail (the son Abraham had by Hagar), not Isaac (his son with Sarah) – and it is from Ismail, Muslims believe, that Arabs descend (while Jews descend from Isaac). Eid l-kbir is in some sense also importantly linked to the hajj (pronounced ‘hah-zj’), the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that is (ideally) expected of every Muslim. It is believed that Ibrahim built a temple on the spot where he nearly sacrificed his son; this, today, is known as the Ka’aba, the huge black box that stands at the center of the world’s largest mosque in Mecca and around which Muslims circumambulate 7 times when there for hajj – it is the highlight of pilgrimage.*
Because at the very last minute, god spared Ibrahim from the ultimate sacrifice and replaced Ismail with a lamb, Muslims today commemorate this almost-sacrifice by slaughtering a sheep. Every family who can afford it buys a sheep of their own, keeps it on their roof terrace or courtyard for a few days, and then kills it on the big day. This can be done by a member of the family, or a hired butcher – anyone skilled in the laws of halal butchering.** Like Judaism, Islam has specific rules about preparing and eating meat. Most people know that Muslims do not eat pork; on top of that, all animals must be slaughtered by means of a swift cut across the throat with a sharp knife. This way the jugular veins are slashed, which means the animal bleeds to death within a matter of seconds and with a minimum amount of suffering. This type of slaughtering must, moreover, be carried out by someone who is Muslim and who is pure; that is, someone who has carried out the ritual ablutions that must precede most important Islamic acts (most importantly prayer; but technically, even touching the Qur’an must be preceded by ritual washing).
These days the streets bear signs of heavy preparation for Eid. About a block away from Fatima and Si Mahmoud’s house in Salé, for instance, is a large sheep market that draws thousands of people every day. I think that buying a sheep is a little like buying a Christmas tree. That is, sheep come in all shapes and sizes and vary greatly in price – they range anywhere from 800 to 9000 Dirhams (about $90 to $800), depending on the quality one is looking for. And of course, prices go up the later you buy – those last minute customers who frantically try to procure an animal on the eve of eid will have to fork over a small fortune for the last bony sheep in the flock… It’s a trade-off, I guess, between paying an early-bird price for a good animal but having to keep it in the house for a few days (and feed it, too), or waiting until the last minute but limiting one’s options. My family has bought its sheep, but it has not yet arrived at the house - and I am very curious to see when it will. The time is approaching, clearly; a few times a day now I am almost run over by carts bearing heavily resistant sheep – often with men running alongside the vehicle, holding the animals down by their horns…
Our neighbors, clearly, are more on top of their game; I have been hearing their sacrificial animal bleating on the roof for three days and nights now. It is a haunting bleat and I keep thinking I hear despair in it – as though the animal knows what’s coming. But that’s probably just me.
Apparently the price of sheep is exorbitant this year. In part this is due to the rain from last month – most of the north flooded dramatically, and a lot of herds perished. Also, it is due to the global economic crisis. This I think is hilarious: slaughtering sheep at home seems to belong to a time period way before globalization and free markets – and here we are, with even this very traditional tradition being affected by the pinnacle of 21st century globalization.
These days, the medina shops offer every necessity for the DIY sheep slaughterer. Where normally one might find stands with counterfeit dvd’s (“le piratage”) or, more recently, warm woolen leggings (a bargain at 40Dh – about $5) and warm-water bottles, vendors now offer huge knives, cutting boards, grills, lighter fluid, axes, other barbeque utensils – and hay. A sort of last meal for the animals, I guess…
My host family keeps telling me I should stay away at the moment supreme. “You’re going to cry,” they warn. Last night in the car, Si Mahmoud elaborated: apparently my host family had two American host students staying with them during one ‘eid, and these girls were fairly vocal about their disapproval of this tradition. Si Mahmoud found this a bit hypocritical: these girls happily ate meat every day, but felt wronged by the actual act of killing. I have to say that I agree. I still think I might turn my head at the actual moment of slashing (though the anthropologist in me should really stick with it…), but none of this is any crueler than what the meat industry does on a daily basis. And at least, every last bit of this sheep will be eaten with relish.***
* And so, while the hajj is performed in imitation of the Prophet Muhammed, in whose time this tradition already existed (before the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a site of pilgrimage for pagan traditions; Mohammed reinterpreted this custom in a monotheistic light), it is a pilgrimage not to the monuments of his life, but instead to those of Ibrahim, Ismail, and Hagar. All rituals that make up the full hajj recall events in the lives of these three characters.
** ‘Halal’ means ‘permitted’ in a religious sense, and it is applied to anything that is allowed within Islam. It is opposed to ‘haram’, which refers to everything that is outlawed.
*** I am afraid this means I will be served things like organs and other non-conventional parts of an animal body. But I’m going to be adventurous: I’m going to try it all at least once. Who knows, maybe I’ll really like sheep brains…