For weeks, the kids in my compound had been interrogating me about whether I was going to buy a sheep or not and graphically slashing their fingers across their necks and bulging out their eyes just to make sure I got the message. They were preparing for Eid Al Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice) or Eid Al Kabir (The Great Feast) – the big holiday celebration for Muslims which celebrates the story of Abraham. Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a proof of faith. He obeyed and was just about to slit his son’s throat when God substituted a ram instead. This year I was spending the holiday at home in Imlil in the Atlas Mountains.
Every family gets a sheep or a goat for Eid if they can afford it and it can be hectic in Marrakech in the last few days. There are sheep everywhere and even the supermarket, Marjane, sets up a temporary sheepfold where you can go to buy. The animals are then got home by whatever means possible and I have seen goats riding pillion on motorbikes or balanced precariously on a bicycle’s handlebars. When I lived in Marrakech, my heart would be wrung by the sounds of them bleating on their last night, from the rooftops around me where they were being housed before the big day. In the mountains, it is a lot calmer. The animals are kept in their usual homes, where the family have been fattening them up for months.
Day to day, people eat very little meat as it is expensive. I think a person here would eat as much meat in a week as a westerner would eat at one meal. So, Eid is a time of abundance when everyone can eat as much as they want.
Six thirty am and for the first time ever (they are not early birds), my neighbours were up before me and I woke up to the sound of laughing and chattering. All dressed in their new clothes they walked down to the village to the mosque. The girls in pretty kaftans and headscarves and the men in white or striped jellabas with yellow leather babouches (slippers).Women are not encouraged to go to the mosque here, as in the points system of Islam it is believed that men get more points if they pray in a mosque and women do if they pray at home. But Eid seems to be one of the exceptions.
My douar (compound) is made up of three family houses owned by two brothers and an uncle and their wives and children, my little house, and then a downstairs for the cow and the chickens. In the middle, there is a communal yard where the kids play. It is enclosed with a big double door at the end which is locked at night and it is very traditional. I am the only woman who leaves the compound without wearing a full veil and if a man who is not immediate family comes in, the women all retreat into their house. Hafida’s house is the big one and that is where we all went for breakfast. When I say all, I mean the women and children as the men ate in a separate room. “It is for respect, Alice” the women told me. “So, that we can all be comfortable.”
Breakfast was a feast of sugar goodies. Sweet, mint tea, home-baked biscuits that are like soft shortbread and almond-stuffed pastries jostled with pancakes, bread, msimin (a bit like a paratha but cooked with butter) honey, fresh butter and oil. There were about 20 of us and we all dug in and urged each other to eat more. The noise was deafening and the camera flashes blinding. I was reminded forcibly of Christmas with the family.
Then, it was time to go and watch the sheep being slaughtered (so if this will upset you please skip this paragraph). Our little compound had ten sheep in all. I had decided not to buy one as it seemed a bit crazy for just me and Squeaky the Cat but I think that was a mistake and next year I will. The women and children all trooped down to the clearing where the walnut trees grow below the house. There, the husbands and sons were all hard at work. The ritual is that the animal is blessed and prayed over and then killed with one swift cut to the throat. It dies in seconds and not in great distress. Then the men of the family skin it and butcher it. I eat meat but (hypocritically) I don’t like to think of the animal being killed. However, there are two things that I appreciate in this process. First of all, the sheep is not transported for miles and then kept in a slaughterhouse where it can smell and hear what is going on but is quickly killed in the place that it has lived freely and by people it knows, which I think minimises its fear. Secondly, it makes us humans appreciate the sacrifice and the fact that we are eating a real animal and not a package of meat from the supermarket. I still didn’t watch, though. Hafida didn’t like it either so we crept away early.
The next stage of the day is making the titliwin – the kebabs. Back in Hafida’s house in the big hallway, clay pots had been set up and filled with charcoal. The woman cut the giant livers into cubes and stretched out the belly fat. The liver was cooked first and then the belly fat wrapped around each cube and finished off over the hot coals.
We all sat around on little stools chatting and occasionally snaffling a piece of liver. The kids were running wild with excitement up and down the stairs and in and out of the house. Imran, who is a naughty imp of eight, had got hold of a head and was trying to scare us all. “Look at me, I’m the Bou Jouloud,” he yelled and took two of the little ones, Othman and Khadija, by the hand to show them where the hooves and other heads were being kept. It struck me how unsqueamish the children are. As the skewers came off the flames, we all munched away with warm bread as our forks. Plates were sent up to the men and everyone ate their fill. The kebabs tasted sweet and slightly nutty with a smoky flavour from the charcoal and were very juicy. I ate two but paced myself as the festivities in the mountains go on for a whole week.
The next day, I was snatching a few hours at the computer to write when I heard the sound of drums coming closer and men singing. Imran banged loudly on my door, “Come on, Alice, COME ON! It’s the Bou Jouloud. I went outside and our yard was filled with about thirty men dancing in a large circle. They were playing drums and singing and in the middle were a couple capering around dressed in fresh goat skins from head to foot. They were here to bless the good, chase the wicked and delight the children and they usually spend the week going from village to village and house to house. We were all out watching and clapping along and the boys ran to join the circle and squeal with fake fear and real joy if one of the goat men chased them. At the end, they recited the Muslim prayer twice and everyone joined in, getting louder and louder. Then it was biscuits and coke all round and one of the Bou Jouloud came to sit beside me. I reeled back. He smelled absolutely revolting, those goatskins really were fresh and the sweat was running down his face. It must have been torture in there but his humour was unimpaired. He roared with laughter when I told him that he looked fantastic but his perfume did not resemble that of a rose and put his arm round me for a selfie.
Later, Hafida brought me a plate of mutton with prunes and a loaf. I thankede her and after saying “Bismillah” in the name of God pulled off a big piece with my bread and bit into it. It tasted very good but the texture was a bit off, it was kind of crunchy.
It was at that moment that I realised that the filling in my front tooth had come out and that that was what I was crunching on. There I was – toothless or at least half toothless. A week of looking very disreputable and some hours in the dentist’s chair stretched ahead of me. Faintly in the distance, I could hear the sound of a flock of heavenly ewes laughing. Karma is definitely not a bitch……………but she just might be a sheep.
If you enjoyed this story, there are lots more in my books.