Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 18 January 2006
Issue No. 777
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The knives are out

A taste for meat during the festive season gives butchers a real bonanza, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
Rams and lambs on the eve of Eid Al-Adha

Whenever I contemplate the peculiarities of animals, I am led to speculate upon the larger themes of life and death. The spectacle of the butcher skulking about the animals sharpening his knives, his apron drenched in blood, also prompts me to ponder the meaning of life. It is an image that holds a perverse fascination for many children, especially boys, who are traditionally required to observe the ritual slaughter of animals during the Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice -- the most solemn festival in the Muslim calendar. It is, for all intents and purposes, an invaluable tool in itself for deepening an understanding of the way things are.

At the crack of dawn, men reach out to the nearest mosque to perform the special Eid prayers. Soon after their return from the mosque the ritual slaughter commences. The moment of truth has arrived.

It is a familiar scene, year in, year out -- children darting forward and back excitedly, jumping up and down. Their blood is up, their adrenaline soaring.

The women busy themselves in the kitchen selecting the pots and pans in which the Eid repast is prepared. Their world is indoors, as the men's is outdoors. They too, wait for the kill.

The butcher goes about his business with cool-headed professionalism: he cuts with precision. His experience lends him an admirable dexterity. He works deftly and swiftly, for he has a good knowledge of the animal's anatomy. He skins the beast and cuts up the various parts and then neatly packs them in plastic bags for distribution to the owner, his family and among the poor. They all gather for their annual sustenance of meat.

"So was the slaughter cruel or courageous?" That is a question that I have long been obsessed about. There is always a sense of relief when the ritual slaughter is over. The butcher is paid his due and if he slaughters a sheep, he walks away with the hide which makes a good thick rug.

The belief that a butcher's business is a sure sign of manliness has persisted over the years. Today, it is almost like a vain attempt by men to reassert their dwindling authority at home. It is, after all, perhaps the most manly of professions. Women are barred from the trade by tradition.

Phew, that is the bad bit out of the way. And, now to the nice -- when the believers gorge themselves on the meat. At the Friday prayer, the preacher reminds his listeners that many Egyptians only get to taste meat once a month, perhaps, or on special occasions like the Eid. Food for thought. I looked around me and thought to myself, yes many people in the congregation who had assembled for Friday prayer look like they had not tasted meat since Ramadan. Small wonder then, that the consumption of meat assumes such symbolic significance during Eid Al-Adha. For the well-fed, it is an excuse to embark on a glutinous binge on meat; for the poor it is a rare chance to eat their fill of flesh.

In the end, as the rawest student of philosophy will tell you, death makes no distinction between the weak and the strong, man and beast. Still, it is not so much the death as the manner of dying. It's not as if they were running down a cow or a sheep. Its throat is slit; the look of absolute terror in the eye of the beast is hard to miss. One can tell from the nervous restlessness that the defenseless animals sense danger. The darting eyes and incessant bleating are tell-tale signs. There is a kind of primeval prowess -- something of the dominion God gave man over beast and every living thing as the Bible so aptly puts it and the Quran extrapolates.

The ritual slaughter is not an everyday occurrence. The scent of blood is invariably overwhelming on the first day of Eid Al-Adha. One can literally sniff the blood in the air. It is pungent with a hint of salt and bitterness. Some streets are awash with blood, a rather unpleasant sight for the squeamish.

In spite of the wealth of detail that the slaughter of a sheep or an ox affords, I could never keep my mind off the deeper meaning of the sacrifice. God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son Ismail, and the dejected prophet prepares to comply with his Maker's command. The son willingly consents to give up his life for God. However, just as Abraham is about to take his own son's life, God stays his hand and orders the patriarch to slaughter a sheep instead. The spiritual import is unmistakable.

The lessons drawn from the Eid Al-Adha are myriad. For starters, the festival commemorates an event that took place not during the life of Prophet Mohamed but in antiquity, at the time of Abraham the Hebraic Patriarch. It is a festival that brings together all monotheistic faiths, that binds Muslims to the People of the Book -- Jews and Christians.

This year, the two feasts, the Coptic Christmas and Muslim Eid Al-Adha are only a few days apart, a rare coincidence. It is as if the Muslim lunar and Christian solar calendars conspired to produce such a happy accordance. Muslims and Christians feasting together. This is much cause for celebration and also accounts for the dizzying price hikes of late of beef, veal, mutton and lamb. The consumption of meat plays a central role in the respective Muslim and Christian festivals.

At the stroke of midnight, on 6 January, the Coptic Christians break their 43-day fast with a light broth and perhaps a tasty morsel of veal broiled over charcoal. Avian flu keeps chicken prices down, as demand for the suspect birds plummet and demand for beef, mutton, veal and lamb soar.

Even as aviaries shut down, meat is imported in ever-increasing numbers. Indeed, vast amounts of Ethiopian and Australian livestock and packaged meat were recently imported.

Grass-fed Ethiopian beef has emerged as an all-time favourite among Cairene diners. Some 3,000 head of Ethiopian livestock was imported for the Eid Al-Adha festivities. People, rich and poor alike, anticipate a mouth-watering meaty meal at Eid. And the purely organic variety is a most palatable way to celebrate.

The much publicised arrival of the first consignment of Ethiopian organically-fed beef led to a great surge of demand for the competitively-priced delicacy. Ethiopian cattle are not given growth-enhancing hormones or animal bi-products. Neither are Ethiopian cattle fed on anti-biotics and hormonal implants. The pastures in Ethiopia where animals graze usually have no artificial fertiliser, pesticides or chemical spray.

People are far more suspicious of the Australian-imported Merino sheep. For one, they do not have the much-prized fatty tail traditionally used for cooking rich feast dishes. And, they are simply not as tasty as the local sheep. Some 26,000 head of Australian sheep were imported for this year's Eid Al-Adha, but even though they are sold at the competitively-priced LE13 a kilo, demand is somewhat sluggish. The local mutton at LE16 a kilo is far more popular than the inexpensive Australian Merino.

Be that as it may, the price of mutton generally has gone down this year. During last year's Eid Al-Adha festivities, local mutton was sold at LE18 a kilo. This is a time of the year when people get down to basics.

Meat is an important source of protein, but many low-income Egyptian families go without it. "Adults, both men and women, need about 60 grammes of protein a day," nutritionist Sherifa Abul-Fetouh told Al-Ahram Weekly. "While meat is a rich source of protein, legumes, especially when mixed with grains, are an excellent alternative protein source."

The popular belief is that animal protein is all important -- indeed it is often mistakenly considered to be the only source of protein. On the contrary, according to Abul-Fetouh, it appears that non-animal protein can be equally nutritious and is by far cheaper and readily available to the low-income segment of society. She said that the popular dish kushari -- a potpourri of rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, onions and tomatoes -- is a rich albeit inexpensive source of protein.

That may well be the case, but believers can ill-afford to be bereft of their beloved meat on Eid Al-Adha. Indeed, the common thread in the current festivities, both Muslim and Christian, is that meat matters.

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