Context & Culture

Guts, Prettily Coiled: A guide to Eid sacrifices


Today is Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important religious holiday in the Afghan calendar. In millions of yards across the country, Afghans will slit the throats of cows or sheep in remembrance of the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail in submission to God’s command and of the lamb which God provided as a substitute sacrifice. Poor Afghans will be given meat by their wealthier compatriots. Last year, AAN’s Christine Roehrs also decided to slaughter a sheep. Here she explains why and how, with advice on how to go about it for anyone who would like to share in the day.

For a visual tutorial on ‘how to slaughter Afghan style’, also see her photo slideshow in the middle of the text (between Step 7 and 8; CR found the process surprisingly un-stinky and un-messy, but be aware that some of the pictures are not entirely bloodless).

Living in Kabul city during Eid means to hear the doorbell ring a lot. It is not only friends and colleagues dropping by for a hug, a chat and some snacks. It is also the neighbourhood’s poor collecting meat. There would be a man with a little boy or girl by the hand, in ragged clothes and with dirt smudges on their cheeks, pointing towards the child’s tummy. Hungry! Or a woman with four children in tow begging you to help feed her kids at least during these holy days and prove some humanity. After the fifth of these encounters within one morning you might finally decide to do some slaughtering yourself the following year. I did. It felt like a neighbourly gesture and a way of honouring my host country’s most treasured Eid tradition (albeit with some qualms because of my German animal rights-focused upbringing). I paid far too much for my sheep and the butcher services because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but was glad of the whole experience. To help anyone feeling inclined to follow suit, do consult this ten-point guide.

Step 1: Take a taxi and roam the streets, looking for your victim

In Kabul, you will find large year-round livestock markets like the one in Kampani in the outskirts of the city, towards Paghman. Your cow or sheep might be cheaper there. Easier to reach are the naqash (spontaneous livestock markets) that pop up in urban neighbourhoods a week or two before Eid, this year for example in Shohadah on the road to Logar, towards Kot-e Sangin near Silo in Taimani at the second roundabout or in Khairkhana nearby Golai. These are no fancy markets. Don’t expect ‘atmosphere’. They are basically free dirt spaces in between wedding halls, shops or along roads. Groups of men stand in between groups of sheep many of which have been painted in bright colours or adorned with pink spots, orange stripes or blue hearts (this has no other reason than painted sheep looking more festive and enabling owners to spot their own easier among all the livestock on display). You might also decide to buy from one of the nomad or Hazara families (sometimes coming all the way down from Bamyan to achieve better prices in the capital) driving their herds through town before the holidays.

Step 2: Spot the tricksters

Best take someone along who actually has a clue what a healthy animal should look like. Rule of thumb: a cow should at least be two years old, a sheep at least six months. Their ears and horns should be fine. Their teeth, too (let the seller do the checking if you are keen on keeping all fingers). Honest sellers will check together with you all orifices. Be prepared to have him lift tails and finger sheep or cow butts. I haven’t really understood what you are supposed to see there (or rather shouldn’t), but asking for these demonstrations might help you gain a grain of respect and lighten the bargaining, because, as one of my Afghan colleagues put it: “These people are known to use all tricks to finish a deal.” ‘Agents’ of sellers are roaming the markets, assuming different roles and pushing clients. They might be the old man who approaches you with a friendly smile, saying, “come, Sahib, you are too young to know much about sheep, let me help you choose a good one”. They might pose as competing buyer, driving up the price over an allegedly particularly precious specimen.

Step 3: Decide – cow or sheep? (No chicken!)

Buying a cow is a little like driving a car with a lot of horse-power. Cow-power, too, helps you to show off a little. It sends a message, “I am successful and wealthy, I can afford to buy a whole cow.” Cows are expensive (see Step 4, know your prices). Cows are good, though, if you want to feed a large family. Or three or four families. Sheep are more reasonably priced (again, see Step 4) and easier to transport (see Step 5).

Going for chicken is not an option. It is too small and doesn’t have religious value. The historical model was a lamb.

Here, as a translation of a passage from the Quran, is the story of Ibrahim and Ismail and their willingness to give their lives to God:

“Oh my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!” So We gave him the good news of a boy, possessing forbearance. And when (his son) was old enough to walk and work with him, (Ibrahim) said: O my dear son, I see in vision that I offer you in sacrifice: Now see what is your view!” (The son) said: “O my father! Do what you are commanded; if Allah wills, you will find me one practising patience and steadfastness!” So when they both submitted and he threw him down upon his forehead, We called out to him saying: O Ibrahim! You have indeed fulfilled the vision; surely thus do We reward those who do good. Most surely this was a manifest trial. And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And We perpetuated (praise) to him among the later generations. “Peace and salutation to Ibrahim!” Thus indeed do We reward those who do right. Surely he was one of Our believing servants.  (37:100-111) (see for both English and Arabic for example also here)

Step 4: Know your prices

Best buy on Arafat, the day before Eid. Livestock prices are in general going up outrageously before Eid (see for example this article claiming that prices haven risen about 40 per cent). But with only one day left to the feast, sellers will be eager to get rid of their remaining stock, so prices are going down already. (Another advantage is that you won’t have the animal in your yard for long. International friends of mine who bought a sheep ten days before Eid, ended up naming it, petting it until it would follow them everywhere and, when Eid finally came up, of course not slaughtering it but keeping it on, to the disadvantage of their formerly impeccable garden). A cow costs from 20,000 to 60,000 (400 to 1200 dollars). The upper end of the price range should net you a huge beast. A sheep starts from 8000 Afghani (160 dollars) and can cost as much as 20,000 (400 dollars).

Your animal should be male. A Dari proverb says gosfand-e nar baroye qurbani ast – the male sheep is for sacrifice (a saying that was bitterly used also in Afghan wars when youngsters where sent into battles as cannon fodder). Male animals’ meat is also allegedly more tasty.

You can find butchers to hire at the markets, too. They will address you and offer their services when they see a deal has been done. A butcher should not charge more than 3000 for a cow and 1000 for a sheep. I paid much more. Good negotiators won’t pay any cash but give the skin, head and legs of the animal as payment. I did that on top of my cash payment. Ask around if your local mullah is keen on having the skin (mullahs often ask for these donations); if so, it is a good-neighbourly gesture to bring it over. He will sell it. There is quite some money in it. A skin trader, Dur Mohammad, who positions himself everyday on Kucha-ye Qasabi, the butcher street in Shahr-e Naw, gathers the skins from the butchers in his motor-rickshaw and sells them to a wholesale trader for 320 Afghani per sheep skin (a little more than six dollars) or 1200 to 1500 Afghani per cow hide (24 to 30 dollars). The skins go to Pakistani leather factories.

PS: if you’d rather go for the ‘supermarket-version’ of your Eid-meat, with no unwanted references to the dish in front of you having been a living, breathing, maybe even cute animal just hours before, you can always go to Butcher Street and get your meat in ‘anonymous’ portions. One kg cow meat costs 350 Afghani (seven dollars), one kg sheep meat 300 Afghani (six dollars). But careful: ready-made meat from the butcher is per se not yet a proper qurbani – it does need the prayer spoken over it during the slaughtering (see Step 6) and the ‘right’ intention. If you talk to the butcher a few days in advance, he can always buy a special animal for you and have it slaughtered the proper way.

Mind: on the first day of Eid, the shops on Butcher Street are open, but only until noon.

Step 5: Transport

As said, take a taxi. You will need a ride (preferably not your own if you cherish clean seats) to transport a) animal, b) butcher and butcher’s assistant, c) their tools and bags, often already filled with skins and heads and legs of previous slaughterings. The animal, if not a cow, goes in the trunk. Sheep lie down quite willingly and look out of the window. For a cow: find other means of transport.

Step 6: Dig a hole in your yard

It should be the size of a melon. The butcher will put the sheep’s head over the hole and, while saying a loud prayer, cut the throat. It really does look painless and quick. The blood flows down into the hole and is actually not much. The hole is being closed again right away, “burying” the blood. It fulfils two purposes: for one, your yard won’t be sullied with blood, attracting insects and smelling badly. The other reason is that this way of sacrificing an animal is perceived as a holy act, thus rendering the blood of the sacrificed animal holy. It shouldn’t be spilled on dirty floors where people carelessly tread on it.

The Islamic Research Foundation (see here) says this about the prayer:

Allah has given us power over animals and allowed us to eat meat, but only if we pronounce His name at the solemn act of taking life. Muslims slaughter animals in the same way throughout the year. By saying the name of Allah at the time of slaughter, we are reminded that life is sacred. 

It is very important to understand that the sacrifice itself, as practiced by Muslims, has nothing to do with atoning for our sins or using the blood to wash ourselves from sin. This is a misunderstanding by those of previous generations: “It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah; it is your piety that reaches Him.” (Qur’an 22:37)

Step 7: Cut the head off

Well, not you, but be prepared for the butcher doing it.

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Step 8: Make a slit in one leg

The butcher will put his mouth over the little hole and blow. The air will pump the sheep up. It goes between the skin and the meat, separating them and helping to skin the sheep later on. The butcher’s assistant will hit the carcass with a fist in order to help distribute the air until the body is all puffed up, with the legs standing in all directions.

Step 9: Coil guts and more

Hoist the carcass up on a trellis or any other point from where it can hang freely. Start the skinning. Clean the skin from the inside roughly with a knife. Open the sheep’s belly and take out the sack of intestines. Start pulling (at an unknown end – the butcher knows what to do). You can now prettily coil the guts up over your elbow like rope. Don’t throw away anything. All is usable. Feet for example or the head are good for soups and more. Cow legs are a delicacy and “make people strong” as all butchers on Butcher Street assured me (they sell one leg for 250 Afghani, five dollars). Try for example these recipes: a cow heel soup, an Afghan lamb palao with leg meat or a Moroccan beef hocks-lamb-feet dish.

Step 10: Distribute meat

Hack the meat in small pieces and start packing plastic bags. Each bag usually contains about half a kilo of meat and some of the fatty tail (if you bought a fat-tailed sheep – which you should, it tastes better than any other kind of sheep). Put the bags in a carton behind the gate and hand out one or two bags each time poor people ring and ask for some meat to enrich their feast. Also: bring some over to neighbours as it is the custom. Mine had been jokingly asking for their share in my home-slaughtering for years until I finally did it. It was fun to visit them (and being stuffed to bursting with home-made Eid delicacies).

The Islamic Research Foundation also explains the reasons for giving part of the bounty away; I leave the last words to them, except for saying: have a happy and peaceful Eid!

The meat from the sacrifice of Eid al-Adha is mostly given away to others. One third is eaten by immediate family and relatives, one third is given away to friends, and one third is donated to the poor. The act symbolizes our willingness to give up things that are of benefit to us or close to our hearts, in order to follow Allah’s commands. It also symbolizes our willingness to give up some of our own bounties, in order to strengthen ties of friendship and help those who are in need. We recognize that all blessings come from Allah, and we should open our hearts and share with others.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture