A Hike in Sheep Country, As 'Eid Nears

Monday, December 8, 2008 | Azrou, Morocco (map)

A shepherd leads his flock past a small cemetery outside of Azrou's town center.
Yesterday Jacqueline and I traveled south to the little Berber town of Azrou, our base for a day hike in the Middle Atlas Mountains.

A few inches of snow had fallen in the mountains just days earlier, making the picturesque drive through the Atlas that much more scenic. We reached Azrou around mid-day, and immediately set off for hills which hug the town's southern and western outskirts. Packed lunch in tow, we located a muddy track leading off into the scrubby forest, and started walking.

The trail followed (and sometimes overlapped with) the course of a small stream meandering down from the hills above town. Along our hike, we stepped aside several times to allow teams of woodcutters and donkeys laden with branches to pass.

More than anything, my goal on our hike was to escape Fes, where the constant noise, hassling, and
general sodden dinginess have started to wear on me. On top of that, however, we were also hoping to spot a glimpse of the rare Barbary Apes that inhabit the cedar forests south and east of Azrou. There were no ape sightings on this trip, but the fresh, tranquil atmosphere of the forest made it well worth the effort. (Just get me out of the Fes medina!)

And while the town of Azrou itself doesn't offer much in the way of charm, its proximity to a number of forest streams will make it an ideal base for trout fishing trips during the spring snowmelt.

* * *

In the immediate vicinity of Azrou, locals have clear-cut the summits of the hills to make meadows for grazing sheep. The friendly shepherds stay in small encampments on the mountaintops, tending their flocks.

At this time of year, those flocks are dropping drastically in number. Tomorrow is the year's biggest holiday, 'Eid al-Adha (literally, the Feast of the Slaughter), also known as 'Eid al-Kebir (the Great Feast). As its name implies, slaughtering animals is the ordre du jour. In remembrance of Abraham's sacrifice, Muslims in Morocco (and across the Islamic world, too) slaughter a sheep in their homes and gorge themselves on the meat and organs.

In general, the Fes medina is more zoo-like than most cities are. (Even disregarding its normal share of donkeys, horses, chickens, cats, dogs, and birds, the place is a sort of zoo of humanity.) But in recent weeks, the medina has become a real barnyard, as local families have bought their sheep in order to fatten them up in advance. On my way to school each morning, I have had to skirt around carts full of ewes, or bunches of angry rams being dragged through the medina's streets. Hundreds if not thousands of the animals have been stationed atop roofs and in the courtyards of houses, living out their last days like royalty. Besides eating in order to gain weight, their only responsibility has been to make sheep noises, thereby stoking their families' excitement for the coming 'Eid.

Particularly this year, the price of a sheep is enough to bankrupt poorer families, and many are forced to borrow heavily to purchase for the 'Eid. The importance of the holiday and the shame of not participating, however, are such that even the poorest will perform the sacrifice. As a result, official estimates indicate that throughout Morocco about 5 million animals (mostly sheep, but a few goats, too) have just eaten their last supper.

As I ponder these figures and the massacre that will take place tomorrow, the public health implications are weighing heavily on my mind. In Spider's House, Paul Bowles' vivid novel set in 1950s Fes, he describes the streets running with blood on the day of the 'Eid, and the flies choking the air. Hopefully this year's cold weather and rains will beat back those putrid side effects. Either way, tomorrow will not be a good day to be a sheep in Morocco.

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