Celebrating the Sacrifice, and its Contradictions

Sunday, December 14, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Fatima and her two sons hold up the sheep's hindquarters as Abdelrahim makes the first incisions.
On Tuesday morning, Ryan, Jacqueline and I walked to the home of our former landlords, Abdelrahim and Fatima, who joined their neighbor Younes's family in sacrificing a sheep in honor of 'Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى). We arrived to see the two families circled together around the flailing sheep, its throat slit just seconds earlier.

The disassembly began as soon as the sheep ceased twitching. With a large knife and much tugging and grunting, Abdelrahim and Younes removed the sheep's head, then set to work on the body.

Using a kebab skewer, Abdelrahim poked a hole in the skin of a hind leg, put his lips to the hole, and began blowing into it, inflating the sheep's body to loosen the hide from the insides. Next, he and his sons Ahmed and Othman strung the body from an awning, and began slowly cutting away at the hide. After a half hour of careful slicing, they had worked nearly all the skin loose.

Until this point, we had been largely silent observers to this well rehearsed slaughtering process, but now Younes grabbed me with a bloody hand and ushered me to the carcass to help slice and tug the final portion of the hide from the neck.

With the inverted hide now reduced to a glistening blob on the ground, Younes and Abdelrahim slit open the animal's belly from top to bottom, and set about carefully removing its internal organs. Abdelrahim, ever the professor, explained as he worked: "You see? This is the stomach, this one. And behind, the spleen. ... Ah! And here is the liver—look! ... You know what is this one? Kidneys!"

Ahmed spent a few minutes unspooling the intestines as his mother and father cleaned blood, partially digested food, and other waste from the organs.

Within an hour and a half of the sacrifice, the hollowed-out sheep was hanging in the courtyard while Fatima processed its innards in the kitchen upstairs. She arranged the sheep's liver and fileted heart above a small grill—the family's 'Eid dinner. In the coming days, they would work through the meat by grilling kebabs and cooking tajines.

For lunch, however, we shared a special 'Eid delicacy, tentatively dipping our bread into a communal plate of diced lungs (like meat, but with crunchy tubes inside), esophagus (mostly cartilage), and stomach (chewy, rough, and pungent), which Fatima had stewed in a mix of herbs and spices. It was her favorite dish of the 'Eid, she told us, beaming.

In the past, her food has been delicious without exception, so I am sure that her preparation of these organs was also above par. Nonetheless, some bites were difficult to swallow. Ryan and I made a good show of enjoying our meal though, and Fatima seemed pleased.

After our lunch, we heaped thanks upon the family for their generosity and excused ourselves to allow them to enjoy the rest of their holiday in peace.

Outside, smoke and the acrid smell of singed hair filled the medina's streets. Gangs of young guys stood around piles of burning wood topped with mattress springs. They used these makeshift grills to char the hair off of sheep feet and heads (for those families who didn't want the smell in their homes). Blood ran in the gutter beside us as we walked home. The sky was overcast, the atmosphere profoundly carnal.

In the days since the holiday, I've found it difficult to decide whether the streets' medieval scenes and scents are really the 'Eid's defining characteristic, or whether the holiday is more about the warm (but still violent) family scenes taking place behind closed doors.

* * *

Such contradictions sparked heated debate a few days after the 'Eid, when our friend Imelda O'Reilly offered a public screening of her film Bricks, Beds & Sheep's Heads, which she shot during last year's 'Eid. After the film, fans extolled the film's honest portrayal of the 'Eid rituals while its detractors expressed concern over its potentially negative impact on Western audiences' views of Islamic culture.

In Morocco as in America, there's nothing like the holidays for getting people riled up.

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