Reflections on Kurban Bayram (Eid ul-Adha)

I’ve celebrated Eid ul-Adha (called Kurban Bayram in Turkey – see here if you don’t know what this means) before. I’ve seen the ritual slaughter of animals. I’ve partaken in the fruits of that slaughter. And I thought I was totally down with it.

But my first Eid ul-Adha in Turkey (my last being disastrously derailed by being denied re-entry for a visa over-stay, just days before Eid. #Fail) showed me that I’ve still got a lot to learn.

In my past Eid experiences – all in Bangladesh – I was always an innocent bystander. On the first day of Eid, I’d be invited to eat meat at around a million houses (my record was 14 meaty meals in one day, btw), and at several, I’d be there early enough to catch the slaughter. But it was all taken care of. The animal was already trussed. The knives sharpened. The butcher on his way.

This year, everything was different. As one half of a newly married couple, I was actually responsible for making it happen this year. And I have to say, it was a completely new experience.

Here in Istanbul, random wafts of fresh dung coming at you in the strangest of places let you know that Eid ul-Adha is on its way. In green spaces across the city, temporary pens are set up as cows, goats and sheep are shipped in from the countryside. How it works is this: you go, you pick your beast and then pay a little something to the handy on-site butcher, who will not only make the sacrifice on your behalf but will also then chop the animal up into pieces and hand it back to you in handy plastic bags to take home.

There’s something a lot more involved, a lot more responsible, about Eid when you’re charge of picking your sheep out of a herd. Standing there on that overcast morning, trying to pick one black and white ram from a herd of identical black and white rams, all of which were straining to press themselves into the farthest corner of their pathetic little pen, away from our discerning eyes, I felt a bit like god, deciding on the poor animals’ ongoing life or imminent death.

Which leads me to the question of whether or not the animals know what’s about to happen to them. I don’t know. I had no patience for philosophy. But what I do know is this: if I, with my lame human nose, could smell the blood and shit and death smell of that place, how much stronger must it be for a sheep, which can smell predators from miles away? I think they definitely know what’s coming, and we shouldn’t try to absolve ourselves of responsibility by pretending that they don’t. But I digress.

The place we went to was a veritable killing ground. Random spots across the yard had obviously seen concentrated numbers of sacrifices over the weekend, marked out as they were by soil almost blackened with blood. In places, it had pooled and formed an oddly shiny, crimson skin that was both beautiful and amazingly creepy.

The little spot where our butcher was hard at work was like something from a nightmare. The ground was littered with heads, hooves and hides. When our poor sheep was dragged up there to await his fate, one of his mates was already hanging from a hoof being skinned in a nearby tree, another had recently been slaughtered and a third lay trussed up waiting his turn. Each sheep being slaughtered was taken and positioned with its neck on the edge of a purpose-dug bit, designed to catch the blood. It was also, conveniently, a perfect receptacle for all the non-edible organs, and so was piled high with faintly pink stomachs and writhing intestines, unceremoniously lobbed in (often in an explosion of half-formed faecal matter). Above us, the butchery trees dripped with overripe persimmons in a disconcerting echo of the horror-show below. Every time a sheep part was hacked off, a few fruits would drop to the ground with dull thuds, splitting in a splash of orange, another ghoulish echo.

To cut a long story shout, our poor sheep waited for what felt like hours before a wizened, exhausted-looking little man in red dunagrees muttered a prayer and slit its throat with a short, sharp knife. The poor little guy (the ram, that is) was terrified, which upset me more than I had expected. I tried to pretend I wasn’t crying, especially when two six year olds were crouched nearby discussing the blood, but I don’t think anybody was buying it. ? As futile as it may be, M and I did our best to calm our little sheep down – M deploying a tactic he’d read about somewhere which involved covering the sheep’s eyes with its ears, and was remarkably effective, given the circumstances. At several points, I just wanted to go and sit in the car and pretend it wasn’t happening.

But then I realised that that would defeat the whole point of the kurban. We expect animals to give their lives for us every single day, and on every other day we don’t give it a second thought. For me, the point is that it forces us to come face to face with the cost of our lifestyles. Of course, it’s on a micro scale and can’t possibly force us to confront the real horror of our industrial food system etc etc. But being confronted with the death of another living being – seeing the fear in its eyes, smelling it’s shit, watching as its shockingly red blood arcs through the air on that first incision – all so that you can eat it for dinner? It’s a necessary reminder that the meat we buy in tidy packets in the supermarket comes from somewhere real. And yes I do think children should see it too. They need to know where their dinner comes from just as much as we do.

Also, the fact that, despite the hype, animals killed in this way probably meet a better end than those electrocuted en masse in grim industrial slaughterhouses, is something that I think we would all do well to think over.

When it was all over and our poor little sheep was no more, we carried a clutch of still-hot plastic bags and arranged them carefully in the newspaper-lined boot of the car. I couldn’t quite believe that that poor little sheep that we’d held still and stroked and talked to was now in Migros plastic bags in the back of our car. Later, when I diced up our portion of the kurban for dividing between freezer bags, and put the bones in a pot for stock, I still struggled to get my head around it.

It hasn’t, unfortunately, stopped me from gleefully chowing down on the brilliant sac kavurma M made for dinner tonight, though, and that’s something I need to go away and think about.