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On Animals


The Festival of Sacrifice

By Elizabeth Futrell

It’s not that I hadn’t been warned. The seasoned, second-year Peace Corps volunteers had told and retold their stories of Eid el Kabir in graphic detail many times during our occasional weekend respites in Marrakech, just as children tell and retell the same ghost stories at every sleepover. And for weeks, I’d been watching the preparations unfold throughout Ouaouizeght, a small Berber village nestled in the mid-Atlas mountains of Morocco and my home for the next two years. My colleagues at the village youth center, three jovial, energetic Moroccan men who were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about my presence in town, insisted in January that I accompany them to the animal souk at 6:00 a.m. on opening morning. They appeared at my door before the first light of dawn, shoved a scalding glass of mint tea into my freezing hands, and surrounded me like three chain-smoking, tea-drinking bodyguards as we entered the fray.

There were goats, sheep, cows and men everywhere, making noise and kicking up dust and bumping into each other. On the periphery, svinjes, the Moroccan equivalent of donuts, danced and bubbled in large, scalding vats of oil. Blue butagas tanks fueled the brewing of endless pots of Moroccan mint tea, lending a sweet tinge to the organized chaos. After some intense bargaining, Mustapha, Sayid and Rashid purchased their animals, and by 7:00 a.m., we were calmly sipping cafˇ nes nes under the dusty awning of a cafˇ on the main road, a safe distance from the growing masses now swarming the animal souk.

Shortly thereafter, the weekly Wednesday souk, upon which the residents of Ouaouizeght and surrounding areas depended for produce, spices, flour, sugar, oil, clothing, shoes, and other home necessities, was transformed. Normally, it was a cross between a small local farmers market and an American thrift store. But in the weeks leading up to Eid el Kabir, the souk was a silver sea of sharp, gleaming knives. “The Berber Revolution is upon us!” a fellow Peace Corps volunteer joked as she walked through the market on her way to the post office one Wednesday afternoon. We laughed nervously.

“These knives are so sharp,” Rashid told me, “that the sheep don’t feel a thing!”

I wondered about that.

Eid el Kabir translates to “the Big Holiday” in English, and it is nicknamed as such due to its tremendous significance in Islamic culture. Also called Eid el Adha, “the Festival of Sacrifice”, the holiday honors Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s will by sacrificing his son. Muslims commemorate this occasion by slaughtering an animal—typically a sheep, goat or cow—in accordance with humane Islamic guidelines. This is often done on a rooftop or in a special room within the home with proper drainage and equipment. In some places, the streets literally run red with blood on the holiday. Much of the meat is offered to charity, and the rest is eaten by family and friends over several weeks. Certain delicacies, including the liver, heart and brains, are prepared on the first day of the slaughter. Over time, nearly every bit of the animal is consumed—head, tail, intestines, stomach, fat, testicles, feet and, finally, the parts that Americans typically consider meat.

My home-stay family, with whom I had lived for the first month of my time in Ouaouizeght, did not purchase a sheep or goat, as they planned to celebrate The Big Holiday in El Ksiba, the village where my host mother’s family lived. They pleaded and cajoled me to go with them to El Ksiba a week before the holiday, but I told them I had to work and would meet them in El Ksiba the day before Eid el Kabir. I knew I would need to mentally and physically prepare for the weeks-long holiday feast and was relieved to have an excuse to stay in my quiet apartment and eat spaghetti and soup and sleep in a bed for a little longer before diving into the extended family’s world, where 15 of us slept on a floor in the same room in a house with no running water or privacy.

The day before Eid el Kabir, it was time to travel to El Ksiba. I wandered over to the grand taxi stand in the center of town and was quickly shoveled into one of the worn white 1970’s-era Renaults idling in the lot. “Grand” seems like a misnomer for these taxis, which had seen better days and often lacked working components I normally considered essential, such as speedometers, seatbelts and window controls. Their label came from the French word “grande”, because these taxis, which shuttled people from city to city, were larger than the petite taxis, usually Fiats or Peugeots, which operated within larger cities. I was momentarily glad to get a taxi so quickly (there were times I had to wait upwards of four hours), but my happiness was just as quickly squashed, as I was forced to squeeze myself into a backseat already occupied by three intimidating Moroccan men. Generally, grand taxi drivers sold six places in their taxi: two in the front seat and four in the back, so that the Renaults that were meant to seat four comfortably instead sat seven uncomfortably. Since all places must be sold before a taxi leaves for its destination, we waited and waited for our final passenger. I watched a man scurry over, his arms loaded down with bags, a goat trailing behind him. I couldn’t imagine where in the taxi his belongings would fit, and I figured he would have to wait for the next one. Shrugging my shoulders, I nestled back into my little sliver of the backseat. Suddenly, though, a commotion broke out directly behind me, and looking back, I could not believe what I was seeing: the driver and the sixth passenger were stuffing the goat into the trunk.

I had a hard time keeping my cool. I could not imagine how the poor goat would fit on top of all of our baggage; it had to be terrified. And then I thought about my backpack, in the trunk, with the goat. I cursed under my breath, remembering my 2nd grade field trip to Brookfield Zoo, and how I had been wandering around the petting zoo carrying a brown bag lunch and patting the chicks happily, when suddenly I felt a tug and turned around to find a goat chowing down my entire lunch, brown bag and all. I wondered nervously if the goat would eat my backpack. Then I felt a pang of guilt for being more concerned about my bag than the goat and resolved to let go of all my worries about Eid el Kabir. My bag, and everything else, would be fine, Insha’allah

I tried to relax and took a deep breath—an action I immediately regretted. There was no missing the fact that my fellow passengers had not visited the hamaam, the local bathhouse, in quite some time, and that soap, deodorant and toothpaste were considered luxuries, not necessities, by this crowd, as they were by many inhabitants of my village. Luckily, the air was cool and someone had even managed to open one of the windows before the taxi stand attendant shoved the doors closed, sealing all seven of us in the well-worn Renault like sardines. We squealed out a lot, clouds of dust rising behind us.

As we rambled down the mountain, I had just begun to lose myself in the gorgeous mountain scenery, when the driver popped in a tape of wild, wailing Berber music, cranking it up to full volume and jolting me out of my dreamy reverie. Not surprisingly, the tape player wasn’t working correctly, so the already high-pitched squeals of the Berber singers were strangely rushed and elevated to chipmunk heights…momentarily. Then the tape player reversed course and sloooowed everything dowwwn. The slow, deep music sounded downright creepy, but no one else seemed to mind.

By the time we rolled out of the mountains and into Beni Mellal, the city where I would change taxis for the final leg of my journey to El Ksiba, everyone badly needed to stretch—none so badly as the poor goat who had spent the last hour-and-a-half nestled among 6 peoples’ holiday luggage in the trunk of the old Renault. The goat’s proud owner rushed around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and lifted out a goat that was now soaking wet. Oh no. Please, no.

I timidly peered into the trunk, and my fear was confirmed. My bright yellow bag was now dark yellow and sopping wet, as were all of my belongings inside. I couldn’t blame the poor goat, and though I wanted to blame the goat’s owner, none of the other passengers seemed phased by this soggy turn of events, and so I took my bag, shook it out, and tried not to worry about the fact that I would be spending the next several days in a house with no running water and a change of clothes now drenched in goat urine.

Eventually I arrived in El Ksiba, the most ancient-feeling place I have ever been, and wandered the winding, narrow streets to the crumbling stone home of my home-stay mother’s parents. When I had arrived for past visits, I would find the whole family sitting downstairs, sipping sweet mint tea and visiting, but when I arrived the day before Eid el Kabir, there was no sign of the family. Within moments, my home-stay brother appeared and led me to a loft space on the second floor with sky blue walls and a large translucent window that, unfortunately, did not open. The smoke-filled room sent me into a coughing fit, and when I managed stop my coughing and stand up straight, I realized I stood inches away from a freshly skinned goat hanging upside down, with the fur still on the tail. This was not a good day for the goats of Morocco. I peered into a little alcove to my right, and there was the whole family, nibbling scary-looking delicacies off skewers as the fire flickered in the fireplace, which was less a fireplace and more a hole in the corner of the room with no apparent ventilation system. Choking back tears from the smoke that billowed into the loft, and trying to suppress the nervousness that within moments I would be eating strange goat organs, I kissed my family members hello and gratefully accepted a glass of tea. At least tea was familiar. I found the rest of the scene—the swirling smoke, the strange organs upon which my family feasted—unsettling.

My home-stay brother Karim handed me a skewer. I don't know what was on that first skewer, didn't ask. Luckily, my brother Fouad handed me a piece of bread, which in Morocco was often used to handle food in place of silverware. I folded the thick Moroccan bread around whatever was on the skewer, which made it a bit more palatable, but they kept coming. There seemed to be endless skewers of organ meat, served with bottomless pots of tea. The contents of some skewers were a total mystery, while others were all too obvious. Brains, liver, stomach, testicles—the feast went on and on. I tried to conjure nice images, like kissing or ice cream or the beautiful lake outside of Ouaouizeght, while I swallowed the meat. It was overwhelming, but I managed to keep what I hope was a smile on my face. I knew that as the guest of honor, I was being given the choicest bits, the generosity and gastronomical challenge of which both made me want to cry. After all, this was not even Eid el Kabir—only Eid el Kabir eve.

After our afternoon feast, my mother and grandmother decorated my hands and feet and then their own in beautiful, intricate henna. Then came bread and music and the visiting of neighbors, followed by sleep, in which came disturbing dreams of slaughtering of the sweet, beautiful sheep, whom I had made the mistake of visiting on the roof that day. I awakened the next morning half hoping I had slept through The Big Holiday, but alas, I had woken just in time. My five brothers led me up to the roof where the huge sheep stood innocently in his pen. They dragged it downstairs to the loft and I stood there, eyes welling up with tears. “You've never seen this before?” asked my host mom. “Well, how do you get your meat in America?”

Great question. I felt like a hypocrite for getting upset over this slaughter, but this was no time to get contemplative. My home-stay father, dressed in a protective blue jumpsuit, grabbed the shiny silver cleaver, and expertly made one swift slice. Blood everywhere, body struggling. Then came the skinning and the extraction of organs. My stomach turned with the knowledge that in a few hours these organs would land on a plate in front of me. Seeking respite, I turned away from the sheep body, but my eyes fell directly on my little old Berber granny, who was sitting in the alcove next to the fire, grinning her toothless grin as she roasted the already blackened sheep's head.

Eating organs is challenging enough for most Americans, but those upon which we feasted were wrapped in layers upon layers of fat. The skewered bites came in all textures, shapes and sizes. I tried to be polite and tell my family how delicious it all was, as they were all so excited for me to experience the Eid with them, but at one point, I couldn’t help but gag on a piece of salted brain. Later that night, we all retired downstairs to the living room. I was so full that I thought I would never be able to eat again, when out of the kitchen strode my mother, skillfully balancing an enormous platter of head parts, including the esophagus, which everyone immediately tore to pieces and devoured.

The celebration of the Eid went on for weeks. When I returned to Ouaouizeght, I feasted daily and nightly with neighboring families, students and friends. Even in my sleep, Moroccan voices followed me through my dreams, urging, “kooli, kooli, kooli!” (“eat, eat, eat!”). For me, the relentless feasting for Eid el Kabir was more physically and mentally challenging than fasting for Ramadan had been. But I recognized even then the beauty and rarity of such unrelenting kindness and generosity, and that helped. So did Pepto Bismol.

During the initial days of Eid el Kabir celebration, I felt at times that I related to the poor, unsuspecting goats of Morocco, who had been stuffed into cluttered trunks of grand taxis or crowded into luggage compartments of strained buses, who arrived at their destination only to be slaughtered and consumed. In the uncomfortable moments, when my inadequate knowledge of the language and culture made simple things complicated and left me constantly wondering what came next, and when I longed for the privacy and autonomy of my American life, I felt a common kinship with these poor goats, who had no way of knowing what they were in for, and had no choice but to go along. But I was wrong. I was nothing like the goats.

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