Yesterday and today we joined our host family in celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday remembrance of God’s mercy on Ishmael when the Prophet Ibrahim took him to be sacrificed. You may remember the Christian version of this story – where Abraham is supposed to sacrifice Isaac, which is not celebrated as a holiday. In the Muslim world, this part of religious history comes to life annually with sheep sacrifice and the hajj (religious pilgrimage) of millions of Muslims to Mecca.
Our celebration of the Sacrifice Feast began yesterday evening around 5pm, when 8 sheep were marched off of a truck, down the stairs to our apartment, and penned into our patio together. We watched them immediately take over the space and eat literally anything in reach (including my host mom’s poor 10-dinar tree). My host brother, who loves animals, was immediately fascinated and wanted to play with and ride the sheep. They stayed out there pretty quietly for the rest of the night. The 8 sheep were not all for us – 2 for our family, 2 each for both of the uncles’ families, and 2 to give to the poor and needy.
A few hours later, our host family served a huge, delicious meal of kufta to break their day-long fast. Unfortunately, I was unable to participate in the fast since I hadn’t been feeling well and needed to stay hydrated.
The sheep slept on the patio, but our host sisters told us that they knew what was waiting for them in the morning, which was very ominous. To me, they seemed too dumb to realize their fate, which is more comforting. Our host brother proclaimed to Ester and I, “You’re the sheep!” which is deeply true on another level.
(Warning: graphic – may disgust). Last night my host sisters had told me that the sacrificing was going to happen around 8 or 9am, so I set an alarm for 7:45am. It went off, and then the sound of something being hit came into focus. I got up and saw Ester already at the window watching our host dad, his brother, and two professional butchers sacrifice the first sheep. I had missed the actually killing of this sheep, but I watched them expertly skin the sheep by first inflating it by blowing air through a long tube down its leg into its midbody, then cutting it open and beginning to cut the skin away from the muscle. Once the skin was mostly detached, they would break the legs and then sever them to the joint, then hang the carcass up and pull the skin all the way off. From there, they would extract the innards into bags, and cut off the usable meat. The gaunt skeleton left was then abandoned. See pictures in the gallery post….if you have a strong stomach.
It was really a sight to see, and I’m glad that we stayed to witness it. The butcher was totally nonchalant about the entire process – of course he would surely do it many times that day. While butchering one of the sheep, I watched him slice the sheep with one hand and take a phone call with the other, all the while smoking a cigarette. Our host father would hold back the sheep’s pelt while the butchers sliced into the skin and muscle.
(Graphic.) At first, it was really disturbing to watch, since after the initial throat-slicing the sheep would shake and kick in post-mortem shock, which was really gross to see. At one point, one sheep was kicking particularly strongly, and another sheep started to walk over to it curiously. It was really strange to see all the other sheep just standing and shivering and waiting for the inevitable. The last one was the only one who tried to escape: when the next-to-last was taken from next to it, it jumped up into the garden and tried to get away. But it was too slow – and its meat will feed a hungry family.
(Graphic.) After a little while, I got a little more desensitized to the process, but what continued to bother me most was all the blood (there was a lot of blood), the disgusting and disturbing stump of where the head had been, and most of all, the terrible, sickening smell – which I continue to get a whiff of here and there around the neighborhood as the wind wafts it. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled anything like that before and I hope I am not extensively exposed to it many more times in my life. Ester described it as very “game-y.” Luckily, our host family was just as keen on getting all that nastiness cleaned up, and by 11am it was like the sheep had never even been there!
Once all eight sheep had been appropriately sacrificed, the meat divided among family members and charity contacts, and the patio scrubbed thoroughly with bleach, our host family began preparing the lamb for the feast. They cooked some part of it (we think either the liver or the heart – not sure) along with what we think were parts of its brain, along with onions, spices, and lime juice. Ester and I both tried it. Ester immediately felt disgusted by the texture of the meat. Personally, I thought it was fairly tasty, but the texture was weird. The hardest thing for me to get by was the persistent thought that what was literally in my mouth had been living and looking at me just two hours earlier. I’m not used to that kind of “fresh meat” and it was a little too disturbing for me to eat too much of it.
After lunch, other family members visited and spent time at home, and then we all went our separate ways for other activities – homework, the mall, the movies.
All in all, we were very glad that we stayed to witness the way Muslim families in Jordan celebrate Eid al-Adha. I doubt I will ever see such an event again in my life, or taste it first hand. It was shocking, but culturally important and very fascinating.