Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Baaad Day for Sheep

Last month was L3id Kbid, so I’m posting this article very late and without any pictures. I wrote this the day of, and edited slightly afterwards. Again, for unobvious reasons I delayed its publication. Enjoy.
This week was L3id Kbir, the Islamic holiday that takes place about two months after the end of Ramadan. Here in Morocco, as with most Islamic countries and cultures, the holiday is celebrated by each man of each household (man is qualified any man that has a wife here) sacrificing a goat of sheep in the name of Allah. I was invited to partake in this ceremony by my friend and Arabic tutor, Said.
Waking up before 8 in the morning was strange, to be honest. I hadn’t awoken before 8 in some time as my work has not required me to get up so early. This said, I was blown away as to the beauty of the sun rays piercing Debdou over the eastern cliffs in early November. I walked up one side of the box canyon that is my town, towards the south and perpendicular the sun, at about 8 in the morning. I arrived at his house early enough to a eat breakfast of tea and xoringo (a type of oily, porous pancake), and proceeded to the roof where Said’s father and unmarried brother (unmarried=no goat) were preparing to kill the first goat. This goat had impeccably impressive horns. Whether or not he knew his fate was unclear, but regardless he did not seem to enjoy being manhandled and pinned to the ground. He fought, and bleated, but to no avail. Kudos to him for never giving up, but alas he had no chance of reprisal or pardon. Said’s father held a large knife to the goat’s throat and without pause drew it across the neck, severing the jugular veins and esophagus. The goat, aware now of its present predicament, began thrashing and kicking, but the blood was already pouring out, spurting out in thick columns and saturating the white fur around its neck and the ground surrounding. It tried to moan, it tried to gasp for air. It farted profusely, but all it accomplished was in producing horrid sucking sounds from its flailing esophagus.
Being a brisk November morning, the heat of the escaping blood caused its fluids to immediately begin steaming. I had been expecting the animal to give in quickly, but to my amazement it kept struggling for minutes afterwards. The violent kicking subsided after a while, but its body continued to twitch and spasm for quite some time. The pool of blood grew, and after a while the general heat of the heap dismayed and evaporated.
This was the first animal I had ever seen to be slaughtered. I found no fault with its struggle, and believed that he had fought admirably, although, realistically, who was I to decide on the judgment of God’s creatures? Surely God above had better things to be doing, like protecting other sheep….
The second beast to be slain, a sheep, died much like the first. Its neck was sliced and it bled out quickly. Still kicking and reaching for ground, it inadvertently landed its feet violently on the head of its companion. By the lack of any reaction by the first goat I could finally affirm that the he was dead. Blood escaped the wide and deep gash in the sheep’s neck, covering more of the ground bright red, mixing and pooling with the blood of the first. Some had splashed on my boots, but not having done the killing I can safely say I was not the most affected. Said’s hands and those of his father were drenched in blood, as were their sandals and the cuffs of their pants. They barely seemed to notice.
Said then made a deep cut into one of the sheep’s rear legs with a long incisor. He inserted a deep straw, placed his lips upon the hole and began inflating the corpse with his breath, as to separate the skin from the flesh underneath [I had no idea this was possible]. It blew up like a party balloon, and Said would test its inflation by banging on its stomach. When it had expanded to nearly twice its normal size, Said began skinning it. I helped.
The skinning process was exhausting, from what I could tell by Said’s exasperation. After decapitating it and removing the feet, he cut through the fur to reach the flesh and began peeling back the skin. He cut tough spots with his knife, but mostly he performed this task by soaking his hand in water and knuckling the gap between the carcass and the fat layer on the interior of the hide. It was awkward and took fucking forever. He and his mother had been propping it up, but when they needed another hand I complied. I took hold of one of the sheep’s hind legs with one hand and its tail with the other, pulling the fur taut away from the body. This left me in the fortuitous position to be staring directly into the dead beast’s anus. As Said worked away at the hide, the flesh around the sheep’s rear became relaxed, allowing for its asshole to slowly expand, upon which the cold air penetrated and began emitting thick steam from the dropping pellets nestled calmly inside. It was, in a word, foul.
Having removed about half of the pelt, Said strung and hung the carcass up, securing its hind knees to an overhanging beam with rope. He continued knuckling the skin away while I held onto its warm and bare legs for stabilization. It was not fast. On the contrary, it probably took another twenty minutes or so before Said placed his bare foot on the skin bridges between its front legs and its neck and pressed down to finally free the pelt from its body.
The evisceration was gross. Removing the organs was fine; I had no issues with that. Removing the contents of its intestines, however, was horrible. Every inch of its digestive track was filled with green shit of varying concentrations and consistencies. The guts were rinsed thoroughly in a bucket, and another bucket collected all of what would have eventually become excrement, had the sheep not died on that roof. I watched for what must have been half an hour in silence, transfixed on the woman, bent over a bucket, squeezing green goat shit out of intestines like they were yo-gurt.
My walk home was pleasant; on this grand holiday people are dressed well and everyone is friendly. Said’s house is uphill from mine, so in walking down the main road, I observed the slow accumulation of the goat and sheep blood that had been washed off the roofs and butchering areas of every other household between his and mine. The streets literally ran red with the blood of sacrificial goats and sheep. By the time I reached my house, I had had to cross the river of blood numerous times as it zig-zagged across the road. Not one house in my town is without a dead goat right now, save mine, so visualizing the amount of blood in the streets may be difficult. Just imagine what it would look like if, say, great iron veins lined every street of your town and they all oxidized and began leeching out at once.
Throughout this morning I cannot help but compare this holiday with the seminal Christian holidays in America, specifically Christmas and Easter. While L3id Kbir could be seen as horrific, barbaric, or what have you, it strikes me as much more of a genuine, practical, and non-nonsensical pledge of religious devotion. First of all, everyone’s gotta eat. Many people in America, me included, have never really seen or asked where their food comes from. Given the task of observing, let alone performing an animal slaughter in the name of mere sustenance, Americans may become disgusted or ill. Here, the whole family is involved. Death and sacrifice are a necessary element of eating well for everybody on the planet (excluding vegetarians, who by this point probably won’t still be reading this anyway). A society that embraces this fact may very well be much more adjusted than one where people have no idea whence their meat comes. Second, the religious aspect of it is very true-to-form. It’s a simple procedure; killing a goat in the name of God, so that He may continue to bless your family with health and fortune [As most of you know I’m not religious but I can see how others would find this appealing]. Plus, you get to keep the goat! Win-win! There’s no commercialization of it, there aren’t millions of dollars spent frivolously, nor nerves racked nor emotions and expectations crushed. There are so many ways to fuck up Christmas [at this point I began writing a lot about my issues with Christmas, but I’ll spare you].
What I’m trying to say is, even on one of the grandest holidays of the Muslim calendar, the celebrations are simple and meaningful. I ate with Said’s family for lunch: grilled goat liver (mafuf), goat tajine, and cooked goat head. I wouldn’t recommend the head.