Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Kurban Bayram -- The Feast of the Sacrifice

Once upon a time, God, back in the bad-ass days when punishments such as instant-transformation-into-salt-statue were meted out on a regular basis, thought that a great way to test Abraham's obedience would be to command him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic scripture). Abraham (naturally) wept at the prospect, but was nonetheless loyal to his god and set about preparations for the sacrifice. I can't help thinking how in modern days this man would have been branded a psychopath (hearing voices? from God? telling you to kill your child? All righty then....) and summarily put away in a safe place for life. Luckily for Abraham and Isaac, and for that other, theoretical modern-day Abraham vis-a-vis the law, God intervened at precisely the critical moment and provided a sheep for Abraham to cut in place of his son. And thus was born the tradition of the Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha in Arabic), the feast of the sacrifice, commemorating Abraham's absolute obedience to God.

These days, people are not called upon to sacrifice their sons and daughters. A sheep, a goat, or a camel will suffice. A prayer is said over the animal, and then it is slaughtered with a quick and deadly (and hopefully painless) slice to the throat. One leg is left untied so that the animal may kick as its life force ebbs away. The blood must be allowed to run free, as congealed blood taints the meat (so it is believed). The meat of the slaughtered animal is divided into parts -- one for family, friends and neighbors, one for the less fortunate in the community, and one for oneself. The idea is that no one, no matter how poor, will go hungry on at least one day of the year.

In Islam, this method of slaughtering animals is the only accepted way to do it -- holy day or not. A prayer is said, God's name is invoked -- it is a reminder that life is sacred, that our power over animals and the bounty we receive from them is a gift from God. As squirmy as it makes me feel to contemplate direct aquaintance with the animal I plan to eat, it actually seems the only truly right way. When I think of the millions of animals that are anonymously machine-slaughtered on an assembly line in American abattoirs, coming to us only after they have been neatly processed and wrapped in celophane, it seems inherently wrong.

I am getting my first taste of personal acquaintance with the victim today. On this crystal-clear, sublimely blue-skied morning, a flock of sheep wait anxiously in the entrance courtyard to the highrise building across the street. It is yet another of the endless, fascinating juxtapositions of ancient and modern that one constantly enounters in this country. My neighborhood is the most luxurious and modern in this most-Western Turkish city. The streets and sidewalks are carefully paved with bricks, high-end restaurants abound, new jogging and bicycle paths are being installed, some of the buildings are modern high-rises...and yet, there are the sheep. And as I type this from my perch on my fourth-floor balcony, I watch the men who stand around the sheep, assessing the merits of haunches and shoulders, the glossiness of the animal's eye and the perkiness of its disposition. Much discussion ensues. Finally an animal is selected, and it is pulled, kicking and protesting every step of the way, away from the rest of the flock. It looks about it panic, attempts to flee, but two men are holding it, wrestling it onto its back. For a moment it lies still, and even from this far-flung vantage point I can see its belly heaving in fright and exhaustion. Then a kind of calm comes over the animal, and I see one of the men pray over it. I do not see the knife, but I can, even from 50 meters away, visibly observe the life ebb out of the animal, the tension dissolve. Miraculously, this living will- and instinct-endowed creature becomes in an instant merely a carcass, food for the masses. The men are busy now, washing and processing it (I can't make out exactly what they are doing), but finally they hang the carcass on a nearby tree, and the business is concluded, for now.

It has been a long time since I have lived in California, but I still remember the growing organic consciousness, the idea that one's food ought to be natural and chemical free, and the rapid spread of vegetarianism, due to (among other things) the awareness of the horror of American feed lots and 'animal processing' techniques. Vegetarianism -- choosing not to participate in fear and death -- is how many Californians responded. I probably would have joined their numbers had it not been for my fondness for meat (particularly lamb chops). It is interesting, and oddly life-affirming, to be here in Turkey and see another approach. There is no horrifying wholesale mechanized slaughter, and neither are there many vegetarians. Animals roam relatively freely with their shepherds, living naturally off the land. There is a sacred relationship between them and their humans; from the human side, a deep respect for life, but also a belief that these creatures are a gift to us, provided for our nourishment. It is the cycle of life as it should be, all things fulfilling their purpose, and in return, great respect accorded to the gift.


At 2:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i saw this when i was in Izmir 72 to 74. it wasnt gross, it was kindasurreal tho. i lived on Cumhuriyet and 1392 sokak. i would loke to hear from you from time to time.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger 日月神教-向左使 said...

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