These last few days have been glorious here in Turkey. Why is that, you ask? Well, quite simply, because I’ve been able to sit on my ass and do nothing, of course! :)
Actually, this 4 day holiday, known as Eid al-Adha, or Kurban Bayram in Turkey, is the most important Islamic religious festival of the year.
Now one of the things I love about my job here is that I get to teach several conversation lessons a week. Some of these lessons are with people my age, and their level of English is excellent – so we get to talk about all sorts of interesting things.
Last week, my students warned me about Kurban Bayram. I, of course, not being a Muslim and not having lived in a Muslim country before, had absolutely no idea whether this was the name of an elephant, a recent space odyssey, or some type of byzantine architecture. It could be the Turkish word for the wax you sometimes find in your ears, for all I knew. Literally, no idea. This is how they enlightened me:
First of all, they told me I should be careful of where I look. Or, more specifically, to be wary of where my eyes wander. Huh?
Secondly, they told me to be aware of blood, and decapitated heads. I’m sorry? Wasn’t Halloween last week?
Thirdly, they told me to sleep with earplugs, because the gunshots might wake me up in the early hours of the morning. Pardon me?
They then hastened to tell me the story of the “Festival of Sacrifice “, and the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Ishmael, which had my arms running with goosebumps. For those of you who are as ill-informed as I was, let me share with you the basic story as I understand it (clearly there could be things here that I misunderstood from my students, so please correct me if I’m wrong, or consult the Qu’ran if you’re confused!). ;)
Basically, way back in the day, there was this dude, Abraham. He was a prophet of Islam and was instrumental in cleansing the world of idolatry. Also, he really wanted a kid. More specifically, as always seems to be the case, he wanted a son, which he eventually acquired and named Ishmael. Now, when Ishmael reached the age of young youth, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him. How awful, right! This was obviously a tremendous trial for the guy as his only son was being asked to be offered to God. When Abraham, however, told his son about this revelation, his son readily accepted his father’s order. Wow, so he’s a better person than I’ll ever be. Anyway, this showed to Abraham that his son was as devoted to God as he was, and he lay him down to kill him. As he lifted his knife, and pressed it against the neck of his son, the knife wouldn’t cut. So Abraham took the knife and tested its sharpness on a rock, which immediately split in two. Apparently Abraham had successfully passed the test of God, and was rewarded with a momentous sacrifice – a ram that could be sacrificed in place of his son.
So there you have it. Abraham was prepared to kill his own kid , but God stayed his hand. And now Muslims everywhere commemorate this, the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son to God, by sacrificing their best domestic animals (sheep, rams, cows, camels, goats – anything but pigs, really), once a year at Kurban Bayram. (This tradition accounts for more than 100 million slaughterings of animals in only 2 days of Eid. Oh, but if you don’t make enough money, can’t afford a home, etc., etc., you aren’t expected to make a sacrifice.)
Now, maybe it’s because I still hold a lingering grudge that I wasn’t able to celebrate Halloween last week. Maybe it’s because I’m more deeply disturbed than I like to admit. Whatever the reason, I went ahead and listened to absolutely nothing of what my students told me. I didn’t sleep with earplugs, I let my eyes wander everywhere, and I actually went searching for blood.
It started with gunshots, instead of the village rooster, waking me up from my slumber. When I stepped outside to have my morning coffee on the patio, the air was full of… stink. More gunshots. And this hot, pungent air that filled my nostrils and made me want to cry out for my mama.
So after breakfast, I did what any normal, rational person who had been warned against leaving the house on this day would do. I left the house. Yes, I put on my best walking shoes and I went exploring.
The first thing I noticed were the truckloads of cattle being carried away from Yalova, past my street, and towards the country. A cow here, a sheep there, several goats over yonder. Apparently it’s against the law to kill animals on the village streets now. How strictly this law is enforced is up for debate. More on that later.
I then wandered off the main road and up into the hills on the other side of the valley. I saw lots of women and men, dressed in their finest burqas or in richly decorated robes and scarves, walking to the mosques. I saw children, running from home to home, kissing the hands of elders and receiving candy in return (this is more like Halloween than I thought!).
Half-way up the hill, I happened upon three young kids playing in a pile of dirt. When they saw me approach, they stopped what they were doing, picked up their bag of meat from the ground, and smiled at me as I walked past. Check out the little dude’s face, haha.
When I got to the top of the hill, the smell was so overwhelming that I nearly keeled over. I quickly discovered the source of this pungent stench: hot blood, of course. Hanging from the trees, gasping on the grass, dripping from a metal contraption, being chopped into tiny pieces – there were dead and dying animals everywhere.
I saw the beauty in it, though. I find religion fascinating and these people are peaceful, they’re doing what is right for them, and even though I so clearly don’t belong here, they were smiling at me on the road, grinning from under their ceremonial scarves, and generally making me feel very welcome in an environment I would normally flee from.
At the top of the hill, at the base of a magnificent mosque and with views stretching for miles from the Sea of Marmara to the hills in the east, was a family of about 20 Muslims gathered around a large green tarp that had been spread out on the grass. I stopped to admire what they were doing, when one woman about my age, wearing a beautiful, white-lace head covering under her burqa, saw me standing there and motioned for me to come over.
Stunned, I smiled and walked over to join them. She pulled a chair up for me, and motioned for me to sit down. I watched as the family distributed the meat into three piles.
“The meat from the sacrificed animal is divided into three parts. The family retains one third of the share; another third is given to relatives, friends and neighbors; and the other third is given to the poor and needy. The regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid al-Adha by concerted efforts to see that no impoverished person is left without an opportunity to partake in the sacrificial meal during these days.”
I sat and watched for the better part of 10 minutes, smiling and communicating through charades and broken language. An older woman, middle-aged and a little heavier, came up to me and made a motion as if she were holding something in her right hand and bringing it to her mouth. “Ate?” she says to me, “ate?”.
I could only assume that she meant “eat”, and when else do I get to see my meat chopped up before my very eyes? Smiling, I nodded yes.
Beaming, the woman returns to the piles, finds a plastic bag, and with her bare hands lifts raw meat from one of the piles on the tarp. The younger woman, the one who first greeted me, takes the bag from the older lady and, using both her hands, places it in mine. I’m grinning, ear to ear. The meat is still warm!
The entire family turns to smile and wave at me as I walk away with my bag of spiritual sacrifice. I’m smiling, I’m bowing, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing but I’m so grateful and feeling incredibly blessed to have had this experience (not to mention the extra iron in my diet).
Let’s, for just a moment, pretend that they didn’t view me as a poor, impoverished and needy human being. ;)
I went home to prepare my meal (with a bottle of Rakı, of course!). You know the best thing about having no smoke alarm? Me, being able to cook. ;)
Happy Bayram, everyone! Who knew spiritual sacrifice could be so tasty? :)