Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Kulle Sana Wintu Tayyibiin

I have been off from work this week; the university is closed for the Eid el Adha. In terms of the academic year, it comes at a peculiar if somewhat fortuitous time this year. Next week when we return, there will be only 2 days of classes scheduled. Most of that time will be exams, preparations, oral presentations, course evaluations, and the like. Not a lot of “teaching” going on. This week gives me a chance to catch my breath, catch up on reading and grading, and catch up on blogging (I hope). It works out for the students as a sort of end-of-semester reading week, enabling them to prepare for their final exams or write their papers.

The holiday itself is three days long, so there is still some time for the students to work after all of their feasting. The Eid el Adha observes when God tested Abraham (yes, that Abraham) by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham agreed, but then God, once convinced of Abraham’s faith, spared his son and replaced him with a lamb. This Eid is then a day when Muslims sacrifice an animal to demonstrate their faith. It also marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

It is completely ridiculous and presumptuous that I am writing about a religion that I understand so superficially, but there you have it.

I can comment with only slightly more authority on what happens here in Cairo. Last week, people started bringing animals into town for the sacrifice. Mostly sheep and goats, though there are cows in the mix too. Driving along the road, I saw impromptu sheep markets. People could hear animals in downtown neighborhoods. Since this is a ritual sacrifice, they take place publicly, often in the street or in a yard following the halal way of butchering—bleeding from the neck. The blood, then, is used to bless the home of those making the sacrifice. The meat is divided into three portions—one is kept by the family making the offering, a second is distributed to friends, neighbors, and family, and a third is distributed as charity to the poor.

In many neighborhoods throughout Cairo, the sacrifices take place on the public streets. In Maadi, where we live, that is less common. Here, many people are relatively well-to-do and may hire a butcher to come to their yard and make the sacrifice while the appropriate prayers are said. I did not see much myself. I saw a few butchers in blood-stained coats walking down the road holding some very large, bloody knives. I saw a couple of piles of bones and one carcass off to the side of the road. From a friend’s home where I was last night, I was able to watch some folks cutting up a very large piece of meat in their yard. Whenever I went out yesterday, I brought my camera but didn’t have a chance to use it.

This practice understandably freaks out lots of foreigners who are not used to seeing animals die. Though I am not particularly squeamish, I am sure such a sight would have affected me (and maybe even made me a temporary vegetarian). At the same time, I like what this celebration suggests about public spaces. I do like the visibility and openness it implies. The truth of where our food comes from can be a bit messy, but I don’t resent being confronted with it. For people celebrating the Eid, this holiday also allows them to honor, from a slightly different perspective, the source of their food—God. I eat the meat and eggs and milk of animals who, I am sure, suffer terribly, but I buy it in the supermarket where I don’t have to see the blood.

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