Jack Serle

Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice

In Kurdistan on November 12, 2011 at 7:22 AM

Be warned, this post contains graphic images which vegetarians may find disconcerting.

Piling into a Toyota Hilux at 7am, CU and I are off to bear witness to a religious ceremony well beyond the norms of his catholic and my protestant upbringing. With us is S. whose Uncle is accommodating us two European interlopers on this family occasion. Also present is M., the three year old son of Uncle. He is a little overawed by the two six footers who have appeared next to him on the back seat of his dad’s truck.

Stopping briefly to pick up the moustachioed butcher – a well set, stolid looking man – we make our way to the market. Out of town, among wrecked cars and breeze block shacks strewn across the scrub, sheep, goats and cows are milling or penned while whiskered Kurds haggle.

Brown scrub dotted with men and sheep at an animal market

The sharp smell of beasts and slurry pricks the nostrils. Cars and pick-ups in ranks under the morning sun wait to carry their woolly cargo back to the city. The languages spoken – Kurdish, Arabic and Turokman – are far from what you might hear in Herefordshire or Lancashire but the business is the same. Beasts are judged and bought; the huddled flocks thin as the most prized are taken.

*****

Uncle with a red hatted M in one arm assesses some sheep while a white ram looks dolefully at the camera

Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, is the public holiday when Islam celebrates Ishmael’s brush with death. God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. As Abraham raised the knife above his child and paused before striking God whisked away the threat to the urchin’s existence and presented a ram to take his place. The beast had its horns caught in a bush, what proved to be a fatal snag.

*****

Uncle and the Butcher have chosen two sheep with rapidity and the farmer’s sons are loading it up. Two large rams are tied to the bed of the truck and we make our way back to the city. The Butcher and Uncle discuss the finer points of life in Turkoman up front. M. sits happily at his father’s side.

“In general children of the middle east see things we are not supposed to see and it makes us different people,” says S. as we quiz him on the significance of the day’s coming events. “For you this is going to be special,” he continues. “For me this is just Eid.”

We arrive back at the house and the Butcher fetches his tools from a bag by his feet. The first sheep is unhitched from the Toyota and led into the yard. Its feet are bound and Uncle takes the sharp edged blade from the butcher. Praying under his breath he puts it to the throat and opens it onto the tiled floor.

Then came the sound of water being sucked from a plughole, the sound of water spraying from a pressure washer, the sound of gulping. Then silence.

S and the Butcher look at each other as they squat over the ram with its throat cut. Scarlet blood forms a meter wide pool on the beige tiles of the yard

The second sheep is led in and is quickly dispatched, going the same way as its fellow. The sacrifice is complete with speed and efficiency. No rush or panic but practiced, calm and methodical movements end the two lives with little fuss.

Two rams with their throats cut form a chevron on the beige tiles as scarlet blood pools away from them. M stands in the background looking up at his father

With the animals now carcasses the Butcher goes to work. With practiced skill he takes a narrow knife and opens the skin below the knee of the back left leg. Working it down he opens a cavity into which he puts a foot long length of hose. He blows, inflating the torso like a balloon. Taking a knife he splits the skin, puncturing the balloon but not the guts of the sheep. He pairs away the pelt from the fat of the belly, skinning the meat.

With the flesh free of fur he eviscerates the ram. Guts spilled the Butcher hoists the carcass on to the frame above the door and takes the meat off with ease. First the shoulder then ribs he butchers away, tossing the joints onto a tarpaulin. First one ram then the other are taken apart.

M and the Butcher stand either side of a ram's carcass that is strung up for butchering.

All the while Uncle’s family watch on. His daughters and son keep out of the way but look on calmly and happily. This is a holiday after all and they have been given fancy new clothes and shoes this year.

The dispassionate butcher pauses to light a cigarette and then sets up his blocks. On one he sits, on the other he sets each joint of meat to hack, dice and slice. The offal and meat is divided up further indoors into 1.5kg bags.

The grey haired butcher sits on a small stool smoking a cigarette with a machete in one hand cutting up the meat

All the bags are separated into three groups, one going to family, one to neighbours and the third to the poor. Every bit of the beast is used, from brain to tail. The Butcher keeps the pelts to sell as part of his payment.

The ram head  is dehorned by the butcher's hands

Watching two animals that had previously been alive if docile be killed in a spectacular fashion was less affecting than I had expected. The precise and calm process I witnessed is a world away from any gory ritual sacrifice from Hammer House of Horror.

The generosity of the Uncle and S. for bringing us to witness the spectacle is typical of the Kurdish character. Be at home, CU and I are told. Come and go as you please, if you want tea just ask.

As the Butcher completes his work and packs away his tools, shirt front and shoes stained with blood, CU and I make to leave. S. accompanies us down the road to a local kebab shop. It is now 10.30 and the brief breakfast three and half hours earlier has given way to a fierce hunger for a greasy brunch.

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