Turkish Culture: Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha) or How to Slaughter a Goat

*** WARNING. This post contains pictures of a dead goat. ***

Not being Muslim, I have little awareness of when major Muslim holidays fall, and so I was happily surprised when my friend Oznur in Istanbul invited me to spend “Kurban Bayram” with her family.

“They’re planning on sacrificing a goat,” she said.

What a chance! It’s not every day that somebody invites me to a goat sacrifice, so I gratefully accepted. Then I realized I didn’t actually know anything about the holiday, although I assumed it was religious. So I asked Oznur whether the idea of it was to give meat to the poor. She laughed.

“That might have been the original idea, but mostly these days I think people just put the meat in the freezer.”

It turns out that Kurban Bayram is the same holiday as Eid al-Adha, which I had heard about before. For the Christians and Jews out there, it is sort of like the Muslim equivalent of Easter or Passover and follows the basic theme of “a lamb is slaughtered in the place of a person.”

Not Christian or Jewish? Simply confused? Allow me put my bachelors degree in religion to use (for once!) and offer a very simplified explanation.

Early on in the Bible, God commands a guy named Abraham to slaughter his only son, Isaac. Abraham, being very obedient and devoted to God, begins to obey only to have God tell him that,while he’s actually pretty impressed with his devotion, he doesn’t actually have to slaughter his son. Instead, he can slaughter a ram that has conveniently appeared on scene.

But wait! There’s more!

After that, the Israelites become enslaved in Egypt and God tells them that if they slaughter a lamb and paint their door frames with its blood, they will be protected against the Angel of Death. People who do not do this, however, will find their first born son dead in the morning. After that, the Jewish people will be able to up and leave slavery and Egypt because the Egyptians aren’t going to be in any condition to chase them. The Egyptians, apparently, deserve this harsh punishment because of the stubbornness of their Pharaoh vis-à-vis the Israelites. Jewish people still commemorate this holiday as Pesach, or Passover.

Many years later, Jesus appears on the scene and, after spreading his message, he falls afoul of the authorities and is crucified. Subsequently, his followers lay the foundations for Christian theology, which maintains that Jesus was a. God’s only son (kind of like Isaac) and b. a sacrificial lamb of sorts who volunteered his life to save humankind. Jesus’s crucifixion is celebrated by Christians as Easter.

One more thing: In the Muslim account, it is not Isaac who Abraham is supposed to slaughter, but Abraham’s other son Ishmael. In the Judeo-Christian account, Ishmael kind of doesn’t count as Abraham’s son because he is his son via Hagar, a slave woman. I have never really understood why it was okay that Abraham accorded Isaac so much more value than Ishmael, but my theological botherations have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

So while Jews celebrate their version of the holiday be not eating leavening, and Christians by hiding chocolate eggs and waving palm leaves, Muslims, at least in Turkey celebrate it by actually slaughtering an animal.

Now if you thought that I might think that this is primitive and barbaric, you would be wrong. I understand that if I eat meat (which I do) it has to be slaughtered somehow, and while many a belief system has promoted things that I would consider objectionable, I honestly think a once-a-year goat slaughtrifice is neither here nor there.

That being said, however, the literalness of the interpretation of the holiday is very different from what I am used to.

The day before Bayram, we drove to Oznur’s family’s village in Eastern Turkey. On the way, we spied several markets selling sheep and goats for slaughter the next day. We also passed many a goat and/or sheep that had found itself being transported to its death in a variety of (sometimes very funny) ways.

My favourite was this goat riding in a motorcycle sidecar. His last rites may have been a bit perfunctory, but he sure got a good last ride.

This is a man. On a motorcycle. With a goat in the sidecar.

This is a man. On a motorcycle. With a goat in the sidecar. I only wish the picture quality were better.

That night, as we slept over in the village, the strangled cries of all the animals who would be slaughtered the next day filled the air. I don’t know how they knew they were going to die, but I have never heard a cow make a sound like that before, and I am sure that somehow it knew. This was the most disturbing part of the holiday for me.
The next morning a few people (not me) took pictures next to the goat, and then the family dug a hole in the ground for the blood to pool, pinned the goat down, and cut its throat.

This is the goat in question.

This is the goat in question.

They continued holding it down until it died about three minutes later. As near as I could tell, the whole thing was about as humane as possible. The goat couldn’t see the knife before it cut him.
Still, I didn’t take any pictures of the goat during the slaughter.

After the goat died, he was dragged over to the house to be skinned. To make separating the skin from the rest of the goat easier, they cut a hole in the goat’s leg, inserted a pipe and, I kid you not, blew that goat up like a balloon.

Seriously! He is blowing it up like a baloon!

Seriously! He is blowing it up like a balloon!

With a layer of air between the goat’s skin and its innards, it was time to hoist it up into a tree. This took a bit of effort because goats are heavy.

Q. How many Turkish people does it take to hoist a goat? A. Three, duh.

Q. How many Turkish people does it take to hoist a goat?
A. Three, duh.

After that, they skinned the goat, removed the organs, and threw the meat into pots to be prepared for lunch. While they were working, they told me that they actually did give a third of the meat to the poor. For some reason, I felt glad and a bit relieved.

This was the final result.

Those things that look like ribs in the centre are, in fact, ribs.

Those things that look like ribs in the centre are, in fact, ribs.

Thank you very much Oznur, Ozge, and family for the invitation and the hospitable welcome!

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