Celebrating Muslim style

I love being in foreign countries when there is a festival on, and this year I was fortunate enough to be in Morocco at the same time as the biggest Muslim festival of the year – Eid el Kebir (“the big feast”), so named because of it’s huge significance to Muslims. Every family slaughters a sheep, all the children get new clothes, it’s a time to be with your family and eat lots of meat!  It also marks the end of the pilgrimage (“the hajj”) to Mecca and usually lasts around three days – although often people take leave from work at this time to remain with their families for a bit longer. As pretty much all festivals in the Muslim world are dictated by the moon, you never know (until a few days before) exactly what day the festival will fall on. On the day of the festival, we were in Marrakech.

Eid Al-Adha (the main name for this festival) means “Festival of Sacrifice” and commemorates Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to show his devotion to God. However God was so moved by his intention, he stopped Abraham and commanded that he sacrifice a sheep instead. Muslims across the world observe this day by each family slaughtering a sheep – a sheep can be replaced by a goat, cow or camel – according to humane Islamic guidelines (zabiha), and then offering what is left of the meat to charity.

In Morocco you pay around Euro300 for a sheep at the time of Eid, however if you buy it a couple of months before Eid you will only pay half this – but then you have to feed it for 2 months. There is a lot of pressure on poor families to buy a sheep and many poor families in Morocco borrow money to do so.  This is because the real significance of the day is not the slaughter itself, but that a Muslim follow Abraham’s example of faithful obedience to God.

A couple of days before Eid we were driving into Marrakech when it was market day in one of the outer lying towns. In true “sheep-buying frenzy”, the street was rammed with cars, people, carts, and men carrying sheep over their shoulders, holding their back legs and steering them down the road, jamming them into boots of cars or wheeling them away in carts – one word – “madness”! Marrakech itself was a frenzy of last-minute clothes-buying. Hawkers had their wares displayed on mats on the footpath, while throngs of people descended on the bargains.

On the day of Eid itself, the streets of Marrakech were strangely quiet. EVERYTHING was shut, there was no traffic, in fact Marrakech was just not the same without the usual hustle and bustle and hum of daily life. It was quite nice for a change! Out in the alleyways of the medina, adolescent boys were gathering wood from wherever they could – I saw some pinching wooden scaffolding off a building – in order to make bonfires on the street.  The  slaughter usually takes place around 10am after the congregational Eid prayers. Prior to the slaughter, they will enjoy a breakfast with such traditional fare as Herbel (Wheat and Milk Soup), msemen, harcha, beghrir and krachel. The slaughter is done by the oldest male member of the family in a halal way (if the oldest male is not able to do it, they will get a butcher in) – the families give the boys making the fires the heads and legs of the dead beast, and the boys grill them on the fire (and return them to the family for a small reimbursement as far as I could tell). I saw lots of gruesome fires full of heads and legs, tended by excited boys blackened with smoke, cut-off horns scattered around, and charred black legs and heads of various animals being grilled on old metal bed frames – or anything that would work as a grill.

As families strolled to each others houses it was a treat to see the kids so sparkling clean and proud in their new clothes, women in their best and most beautiful djellabas, and men in white or cream-coloured thoub (long robe), with traditional yellow babouche (slippers).

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Every Muslim country and culture has its own traditions that surround Eid Al-Adha.  In Morocco on the first day of the slaughter it is traditional to eat the liver and heart, and after that on subsequent days other meat dishes are served. Everything is eaten, and there are even special dishes which use the head, tail, intestines, and feet. The brains, fat and testicles don’t go to waste either!

Although I didn’t go to anyone’s house for the feast (and as a vegetarian, I can say that was a good thing!), it was fantastic to feel the atmosphere and the excitement of buying the sheep and clothes, witnessing everyone in their new clothes and seeing the fires on the streets. Oh, and see the city-that-never-sleeps – Marrakech  – grind to a halt for a day!

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