Thursday, December 1, 2011

Eid al-Adha // Feast of the Martyr in Rabat

As a New Englander, an odd feeling sets in when it becomes November and yet you are living in a new city where the leaves aren't falling, where you don't wake up to find a morning frost covering the blades of grass in your front yard, and where the complete absence of familiar holiday advertisements makes it difficult to come to grasps with the season. During the end of October and the beginning of November, I found myself in a state of happy ignorance, relishing the warm weather and acting as if time had just decided to slow down. However, in early November, I could feel something changing in the air. Everyone's moods started to improve, there was joking and smiling in the streets among old friends and strangers alike. Nothing was a big deal. Fender bender on the way home from work? Mashee mushkil.

This was how the week was leading up to the Muslim world's biggest holiday of the year: Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Martyr. This holiday is celebrated to commemorate a story that can be found in the Qur'an and the Bible alike: the story of Abraham who was instructed by God to sacrifice his only son on top of a mountain to prove his faith. Abraham, being a true believer in God, agrees to God's request and takes his son to the top of the mountain. Just as he is about to kill his son, God puts a sheep in his place and the sheep is slaughtered. In honor of this miracle, Muslims gather on this day to slaughter an animal and spend time with family and friends. On this year it fell on November 7th, but the date is not fixed. Instead, it depends on the phase of the moon. However, everyone knows when the day is approaching and a few days before the date is announced. Two days before the Eid it felt like Rabat became filled with sheep. Sheep with their front and back legs tied were carted up the streets and into apartment buildings and houses throughout the city. I also learned that not every Muslim country slaughters the same animal. For instance, a friend of mine in Cairo told me that her family slaughtered a cow, which took 5 butchers to take down. In Morocco however, most families choose a sheep. A sheep is a very special animal because for most of the year it would be far too expensive to purchase an entire sheep to feed your family. Often times neighbors or relatives pool money together to purchase one animal in order to afford it.

 The night before the Eid, I was incredibly restless. As a vegan, I have a hard time coming to terms with animal morality. Hearing the sheep bleating inside neighbors' apartments throughout the night and knowing that this was their last night with the living made it really difficult to fall asleep. I knew that starting very early the next morning all of these sheep would be slaughtered in the name of God. To be clear, emotions aside, I don't really have any qualms with the way this holiday is celebrated. The sheep is killed in accordance with Islamic tradition, which requires a swift death followed by draining the blood from the body and a thorough cleaning of the organs and cavity area so every part can be used. 

Around mid-day on the Eid, we took a walk from our apartment down to the medina to try and get into the local 'holiday spirit'. As I walked out of the apartment, the first thing that I noticed was how quiet the city felt. And yet, at that very moment, I turned my head and saw a girl that couldn't have been older than six years old, wearing a nice dress, giggling, and holding a bloody severed sheep's head by one of the horns. That juxtaposition of absolute tranquility and a tinge of barbarism was what shaped the rest of our excursion in hopes of getting a better feel for what the Eid al-Adha really means to Moroccans. Walking down Avenue Mohamed V, the most centrally-located boulevard in the entire city, felt like a post-apocalyptic zombie attack had just occurred. The streets were empty, cafés were deserted, and there was splattered blood all over the sidewalks. Down every side street there were kids who used box springs as huge grills and pulled together old thrown-out wooden crates, cardboard boxes as kindling to roast their sheeps' heads on. If it's anything like holidays I experienced growing up, I can imagine how this tradition got started: over-excited children bouncing around the house with too much energy, won't leave their parents alone to cook and sit with their guests, they give the child the sheep head to play with.Voilà.  On every corner, sheep skins were neatly cleaned and rolled up in a pile. In the medina we saw more of the same. The narrow streets were filled with children grilling sheep heads and playing games of soccer amongst the debris from the huge barbecues. As we walked past, we would smile and say, "Eid mubarak sayeed", which is how locals wish one another a happy Eid. Everytime we would say that their faces would light up and they would thank us. We stumbled upon one group of kids grilling sheep heads and and using hatchets and hammers to chop up the skulls.
They said they didn't mind if I took a video. Here it is:

 As a foreigner, there are two things that really made me appreciate Eid al-Adha. First, I appreciated how much Moroccans celebrated in accordance to the actual religious story that the holiday came from. In America, our Easters and Christmases have been so tainted by commercialism that it is hard to even rationalize the reason why we consider them religious holidays. Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem and therefore a man in a red suit rides once a year in a reindeer sleigh and delivers gifts to children? Then later that year Jesus is resurrected from the grave and that's why a huge rabbit comes and hides colored plastic eggs filled with chocolates in your living rooms and backyards to find on Easter morning? I think I made my point. Secondly, partially connected to my first point, is the lack of consumerism found on Eid al-Adha. Instead of people being stressed out and exhausted before the holiday worrying about what to get everyone on their list, all families have to worry about is being with one another. There are no Eid al-Adha cards, no TV specials, no special deals the day after at Macy's...And as a result, on the day of the Eid, amongst the sheep skulls, the raging outdoor fires, blood-splattered streets, and the sheep skins on every corner, the whole country falls into a state of tranquility. People eat well and spend time with those they love, no strings attached.