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‘Tis the season to be jolly..?

I’m not sure exactly when I witnessed my first sacrificial slaughter as a little kid, but I remember the horror and fascination. A group of men and boys, an animal tied up and made to lie on the floor, a butcher and his knife…ready for action.

We watched from where we stood high up in our balcony, me peeking over the ledge with eyes half averted, listening to running commentary by one of my more macabre sisters.

I also can’t recall when the desire to watch the entire spectacle started to fade and began to be replaced by something else, but for a few years now I’ve been trying to pretend there is no such thing as Eid ul Azha.

That’s kind of hard to do when the city is overrun with goats, sheep, cows and camels, every street corner populated with stalls selling cattle food, and banners strung all over the place advertising organizations who will gladly take your animal hides off your hands.

Qurbani, or the ritual of sacrifice is encumbent upon every Muslim who can afford to do so, thereby earning brownie points. We need every bit we can get after all, so engrossed are we in committing sins left and right.

Isn’t it just great of religion to give us these outlets?

So this time of the year makes me squirm for many reasons which not many people around me can understand.

I hate everyone for devoutly fulfilling their religious obligations, yet admire them in equal measure for not having any namby pamby hangups about keeping an animal their children can pet and feed and love….and then eat. People on farms do that all the time, right?

We are a meat-eating nation (and I am not exempt from that classification) and we should be aware of where that meat comes from and Eid ul Azha is a great reminder of that fact. Which is exactly the reason why I hate it, because it is as in-your-face as it gets.

Yes, it is an opportune time to give away meat to poor people who can hardly afford to buy it themselves, and I can’t argue with the inherent goodness in doing this.

But I fell in love with a beautiful cow the other day. It turned its head and watched me from where it was tied to a pole near my sisters house and as I got into my car, our gazes locked. I swear it was a true animal-human moment.

I drove away with a heavy mournful feeling in my chest to think of that cow’s days being numbered. It was so alive, and making eye contact with me, and I couldn’t picture that beautiful big head lying next to its body, being skinned and then cut up into pieces and cooked into haleem and nihari and biryani and paaye.

But that’s how it goes.

The big day finally arrived, and though Huz and I have yet to do our own qurbani (much to Zahooran’s annual disappointment) we went over to my brother in law’s place for lunch, having avoided all the blood and gore in their garden. They had done a cow this year, because doing six goats was turning out to be a little too much. Inflation, I tell you.

My mother in law spoke about the smallness of the cow and how pretty it was, and how nice and pink its meat was, just like mutton. My sister in law wondered aloud why we were cautioned against eating red meat if slaughtering a bigger animal earns more blessings. I dipped my piece of naan in the nihari she had made for lunch and tried to think of the meat I was eating as just meat, not a pretty cow. I also wondered how I could do this.

How could I possibly eat this beef biryani? But I did. I ate it. My stomach didn’t turn, even as I watched a plate of deliciously cooked cow brain disappear.

So despite all my anger, and resentment and skepticism and denial, I am forced to admit no matter how civilized we get, we will still eat animals.

And as my macabre sister rebelliously pronounced yesterday, ‘if I have the guts to eat a piece of meat, I have the courage to look the supplier in the eye.’

Well said Sax, well said. Perhaps this is why you could watch Sweeney Todd and I couldn’t stomach it.

But yes I appreciate the concept of Eid ul Azha, yes I do, though why must it be celebrated with quite so much gusto? I swear, if I have to respond to one more ‘Eid mubarak!’, I’ll just…..kill a goat or something!

In the meantime, I’ll just continue to feel weird and awkward as I acknowledge the fact that we didn’t offer any sacrifices….yet again. Clearly, we’re either too poor, or not pious enough.

And as I sit here dashing off this post, I can hear the plaintive cries of a lonely little goat that has been separated from its family, and my downstairs neighbours are setting up tables and chairs and grills for a big barbecue tonight.


(Check the link below for a photographic journey through the rituals of Haj and Eid ul Azha)

33 thoughts on “‘Tis the season to be jolly..?

  1. This post is sheer brilliance, Munira. It makes me weep. It makes me think. It makes me question. It makes me marvel at our human potential for cruelty, as well as our ability to connect deeply with other living creatures on our planet. Your description of locking eyes with the cow and your inclusion of the crying goat at the end are so poignant.

    If there was ever a post that should be Freshly Pressed, it’s this one! I am deeply touched and love you for writing something so stunning about our capacity for cruelty. The ability to make art out of it tells the other side of the story–the human potential for beauty.


    1. Alas, we are organisms in a food chain after all is said and done.
      Thank you for your comment Kathy! There is so much more I can say, so many things to describe….it is not very nice at all to have your apartment building turn into an abattoir, for example.
      I started writing this to denounce the practice in some way…yet, I found myself wondering how wrong is it to come face to face with the reality of it all?
      Very complicated issue, this. Throws me every year without fail.

  2. My first week at my site as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, my co-workers had a sheep slaughtered. I don’t remember the event. Two men came over with a ewe. They tied her up and put her on her side on the picnic table in the yard of the office (which was in an old house), and jabbed a sharp stick into her neck, piercing an artery. They let the blood drain into a bowl. The blood was later mixed with lemon juice and cilantro and I am getting queasy just thinking about it.

    Then they cut a little hole in the skin by the ankle and blew into it, separating the skin from the flesh. They removed the skin, butchered the carcass, and hung the meat on the hand rail next to the stairs in the office. Where it remained for two days. Raw meat hanging in my office.

    Welcome to another culture!

    1. Wow, that sounds very familiar class factotum, barring the method of slaughter. Muslims believe that their method of slaughtering is quicker, hence more humane, and the animal feels little pain.
      I sure hope so.
      Thanks for sharing your story. Here, it is always a member of the family that administers that first fatal cut. Youngsters are encouraged to participate and watch as the qurbani takes place, and of course, there is the matter of making sure the butcher does a proper job of draining the blood from the carcass and cutting up the meat. It is all cloaked in holiness and spirituality, so that makes it all okay, and in fact it is all rather festive and everyone really enjoys all aspects of it. Except of course, people like me.

  3. We are quite schizophrenic, aren’t we? We want meat, we don’t want to see how it gets to our plate.

    I once cooked duck for a boyfriend. I went to a Polish butcher and asked for duck. He took me to the duck pen. I told him I didn’t want to see the ducks, I just wanted one, and I went back to the front counter.

    He came back with the duck, dead. Feathers, head and feet intact. I told him it needed to not have those things. He brought it back plucked. Finally I asked him to make it look as if I’d bought it at a grocery store. He did – and I drove home the warm package and cooked a fine meal. And I never cooked, or ate, duck again.

    I just think most of us have the benefit of ignorance about our food and its origins. One of my close friends had parents who raised cattle. When we had dinner at her house, she’d always ask WHO they were having for dinner that night… knowing all the cows as friends.

    A wonderful, thought-provoking piece, Munira!

    1. Schizophrenic, that’s the word. You said it all Patty. Thanks for sharing the duck story, that is exactly how I feel about any kind of meat. I eat so much chicken, without giving a thought to the chicken itself, and it’s so much easier to cook when it’s all nicely cleaned and packaged into little bags. We also buy ‘fresh’ chicken, from chicken coops, only specifying to the butcher how much it should approximately weigh, depending on what kind of meal we want to make out of it….Huz makes a phone call, and picks up a warm bag of chicken pieces in 20 minutes.
      But cows are so much bigger than chickens and take so much longer to die. Your friend must have been extremely stoic!
      Wish I could just be a vegetarian.

      1. An unclean heavy conscience in exchange for succulent protein filled deliciousness, Not a difficult choice I would say.

        1. Sadly, you’re right Ashar, well said. In fact, I’m beginning to think that an unclean heavy conscience might just be the Divine intention….
          Either that, or Eid is a great way of keeping world cattle populations in check!
          And yes, qurbani meat, if cooked for the right amount of time, with the right kind of spices, IS rather edible :p

  4. This is such good writing, Munira. It’s so full of emotion!
    Why didn’t you offer any sacrifices? Maybe you’re too sensitive for anything like that. The thought of the killing of animals brings about some similar emotions in me. Like you, I cannot say that I never eat meat. To me however it shouldn’t taste like meat! Adding a lot of different spices and cooking the meat a certain way makes it possible for me to eat just a little bit of it. The same goes for fish!

    1. Wish I was a bit more emotionless Aunty Uta!
      Why didn’t I sacrifice an animal? Well, I think there are other ways of being a (more or less) good human being. Though really, being human encompasses both good and bad and I have a niggling feeling we can’t help the bad.

  5. Good lord. It’s a testament to how much I respect you and like your writing style that I made it past the first paragraph. At thirteen, I saw the blood oozing out of chicken my mother was frying up in a pan, and I realized I would never knowingly eat an animal again. Some people have tried to fool me, and that’s very upsetting considering how I feel, but that’s another story.

    I respect your opinions, and I understand the power of tradition. Especially religious tradition. I felt sadness as I read this post, but I read every word. Something inside me wants to say so much more, but I know it’s not my place.

    I’m off to look for something interesting on TV to try to get the mental image of — you know — out of my mind.

    1. It’s a horrible time of year for me Sparks, though I try to appear blase. Yet, I am NOT vegetarian, and I do see the innate hypocrisy of my own feelings.
      The other day I cracked a few eggs into a bowl for an omelette, and (here I go being disgusting again) one of the eggs was full of blood. I nearly jumped out of my skin with revulsion! But then I threw away everything in that bowl and proceeded to crack a few more, albeit with more trepidation this time around.
      I wish you would say whatever you’re thinking, but I appreciate your respect and understanding. Your opinion would never offend me though, rest assured.
      So sorry to inflict this post on your vegetarian sensibilities! The fact that you hung around to read till the very end is a testament to your grit!

  6. Hi Munira,

    This could be me you are writing about. I’ve gotten better over the years or perhaps the animals don’t eat organic enough and I don’t smell the grassy-ness in the meat. Or then like most I’ve just accepted it though I have never been able to perform or view the sacrifice. You are right if cooked well enough it tastes just fine.

    C’est la vie is the mantra and life goes on.


    1. *Sigh*, I wonder if I’ll ever get over the fact that when it comes down to it, almost every person is capable of taking a life…yes, an animal life counts. We do it indirectly every day, without understanding the nature of it.
      It bothers me that along with being a religious rite, it all feels more like a celebration of….meat. So many arguments for it, and one can’t really voice a lot of things for fear of being thought of as ‘blasphemous’…..dangerous in these intolerant times! Yet I wish we could all willingly let go of a few ‘traditions’!

  7. This is such a great post, Mun. Well written, informative and sometimes with a dash of humour hidden away, too. I alsoagree that this should have been front page news and maybe if a staffer is reading this eventually they’ll keep an eye on the stuff you right for the future.

    The series of pictures are amazing, too. Thanks for pointing the way to these. I think that the Grand Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. Alas, only on film. Someone told me that it is forbidden for non-Muslims to visit the Grand Mosque. Is this true,do you know? Because if it isn’t, it’s going on my travel list.

    1. I’m glad the tiny bit of humour came across! I’m afraid I haven’t been more descriptive or added pictures from around the city to give an idea of the scenario. Never had a camera with me as I drove around!
      As for the non-Muslim thing, here’s what I found:
      ‘Restricting access to Mecca and Madinah is intended to provide a place of peace and refuge for Muslim believers and preserve the sanctity of the holy cities. At this time, millions of Muslims visit the cities each year, and additional tourist traffic would simply add to the congestion and detract from the spirituality of the pilgrimage visit.’

      Makes sense I suppose 🙂

  8. Wonderful post Munira! I loved reading it! It reminded me of Bosnia and the time of (we call it Kurban) slaughters and how we kids watched and how I cried for goats and sheeps that had to die…

    1. Thanks for reading Sibella…..! I think it’s amazing that we have these memories in common, though you were in Bosnia and I’m in Pakistan.
      I guess I just have to remember to be thankful for the meat that we eat, and that the slaughter of animals is sanctioned by religion.

  9. Munira, qurbani is not offered only as a way to erase our sins, that’s only a part of it. There’s more to it than meets the eye (and our limited minds)! Each creature stands where it ought to, in the grand scheme of things. And it is not cruel, because the religion Islam would never pemit it if it were cruel. You may not know or understand the reason behind this auspicious ritual today, but the day you will learn or understand it fully, you will stop complaining, believe me!

    1. Yes, I do have an idea about the other reasons for it, but I have not mentioned it here because it may come across rather far-fetched to the non-religious mind.
      And I do not think it is cruel….just disturbing.
      I admit, you are perhaps more knowledgeable than I. But that does not take away from what I feel when I see animals being killed, higher purpose or no higher purpose…

      1. yes, the images may be ‘disturbing’ to any compassionate being. I myself am rather faint-hearted and can’t stand around to witness a sacrifice, but that doesn’t make me question or doubt the integrity of this ritual even for a second.
        We all are organisms in a food chain! Just because plants do not have characterstics of animals and humans; it doesn’t make them any less living!

  10. I really enjoyed reading this piece. As a Jew, I observe the laws of kashrut, and that means, if we want to eat meat, we have to jump through a lot of hoops and observe a complex set of laws. The ritual slaughterer, the shochet, must have a knife so sharp that when he cuts the animal’s jugular vein, the animal feels the least amount of pain.
    I remember one year at camp, the theme of the learning for the week were the laws of kashrut. The grand finale, the camp shochet slaughtered a chicken in front of all of us (we were already in high school).
    That night, we had chicken soup for dinner. Not many of us could eat our soup that night. I am not a vegetarian. Animals were put on earth for humans to eat, but we can’t eat whatever we want, that is why I respect any religious dietary law, you have to think about what you are eating and how it got to your plate. And the food you described here, beef and all, sounds delicious!

    1. Thanks for sharing that Stacy, it’s always great to get insight into different faiths, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy your posts.
      Religion or no religion, I don’t think I could ever perform a sacrifice, or watch one AND eat the meat. It can only be one or the other, and I guess I choose the latter 🙂

    1. love your wriitings!!my sentiments more or less…..what irks me more is that nobody thinks about the animals,giving them to their children to play as if they r toys and keeping the poor beasts awake well into the night!!!May Allah show them the right way!!.As i am getting older….i m so much more prone to tears……….and as my daughter a couple of hours ago was telling me that the poor bull which is to be sacrificed tomorrow on our accounts was so frightened that it couldn’t bear being touched by anybody,starts shivering,!,,,,i was so sad and wanted to cry but didn’t ’cause of the girls :(…..what consoles u is that u r going to cross the pul e sirat sitting on these animals!!hopefully,IA!not forgetting the meat also…..:)

  11. Yes… There is a raw quality of honesty that shines out of your writing. You keep us on the edge of acknowledging “all that is” rather than turning away in dismay or pain…even though we try to eat the meat without thinking of the cow, and then one day we don’t at all. That is a sad day for our planet when we lose that honesty with ourselves.

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