About a week ago on the train to Jaisalmer, we were told about Eid al-Adha: the Muslim festival commemorating the story in which Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice his son Issac to prove his love for Allah, and at the last minute, Allah stopped him and provided him with a sheep instead. For the Western (Christian, Jewish…) equivalent, simply change Ibrahim with the obvious Abraham, and Allah to God, and you’ll find the same story in those their associated texts. Anyway, this day is celebrated by the slaughter of a goat and accompanying feast of the animal. Rajasthan, having one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in India, we we’re hoping during the days leading up to this holiday to be temporarily adopted by a Muslim family. As I mentioned in the previous post, Johar, the owner of our little guesthouse is an amazingly friendly guy. When we inquire about the festival, he mentions that he himself is Muslim, but will unfortunately be out of town with his family. Although as luck would have it, his very close friend, an artist who lives down the road, is planning on hosting the event in his place for his extended family. Johar, being the gracious host he is, said he would be more than happy to ask if Kylee and myself would be able to partake in the celebration. As of yesterday evening, we are officially invited to watch the ceremonial slaughter of the goats in the morning, and today at 10am, we made our way to the rooftop of our place, and look down into the courtyard of theirs.
Before I continue, I don’t plan on leaving out many details, as I have much respect for what took place this morning. If you have a weak stomach, consider this a heads up.
The host family had some money, so they were able to afford two goats for the occasion. Both animals were wandering around freely in the yard, and the kids were playing with them in a very friendly manor… it was a cheerful scene. Soon, one goat was taken away to another part of the home, as to not witness what was to come. The other goat was then held down, to keep it from moving, and a holy man said a prayer. The animal’s head was then turned west so it would be facing Mecca, and it’s throat was slit open. A surprising amount of blood sprayed against the wall and poured over the floor the instant it happened, along with a strange sound of the lungs exhausting themselves through the open wound. Then it was over. While clearly not painless, it was very fast, and the pain was short lived. As uncomfortable as the moment was, I purposely did not turn my eyes away for a second. Seven years of my life were spent making a career out of cutting up, preparing, and cooking meat, that came to me already dead and conveniently packaged. I felt it was a responsibility to not ignore the fact that all that shrink wrapped meat came from a once living creature, and to witness first hand what is required to take place for us to consume what so many take for granted. What surprised me the most though, was how quickly my view of the animal changed. One minute I saw ‘animal’, and in less than a minute, although it was still covered with hair, my mind recognized it no longer as such, but now as ‘meat’.
The second one was very similar, though it did suffer a little, though not much, more. Blood still pouring from the goat’s neck, the head of the household call us down to join them, and we head over. Once we make our way down into their courtyard, the first goat has already been skinned and mostly butchered, while the second is now hanging by its legs from a rope, and the skinning has begun. One of the men hands me the knife and asks me to join in. Though I’ve cut apart many animal carcasses in my life, I’ve never skinned one. And though the process was quite simple, it was not the most pleasant. Having been alive only minutes earlier, it was still very warm, and the muscles twitched now and then. As well, certain movements caused the stomach to empty its half digested contents out of the open neck, splashing onto our bare feet and arms.
After the skinning, it too was butchered, and taken into one of the kitchens, where an amazing orange-red stew of spices and onions was simmering. We spent the next couple of hours visiting with the many in-laws, sisters, brothers, children, mothers, and fathers that came for the day. The women in another kitchen made chapatis, a tortilla-like flatbread, which Kylee helped make. Soon after, a small snack of a few mutton bits, mostly pieces of fat stewed in spices, was served as an appetizer, followed shortly by a stack of chapatis and the mutton stew. One minute we see children playing with a happy goat in a yard, and within three hours, see it slaughtered, assist in skinning it, and then be eating it… just another one of the many surreal experiences of the trip. Talking with the family, many of them doctors and artists with almost perfect English; we learn some great things about their traditions. One of the main aspects of this day is that they only actually eat a small portion of the goats slaughtered, the rest is cut up, and later in the afternoon the remaining meat is taken around the neighborhood and given to the families who cannot afford a goat of their own, allowing everyone to cook and celebrate the occasion.
This family graciously took us into their home today and shared an incredible religious experience with us, without at all trying to push religion on us, but simply out of kindness; which as we’ve found in recent days is one of the key points of the Islamic faith. Acts like this are what the western world should focus on regarding their views of Muslims: an absolutely kind, generous and hospitable people…and focus less on the very few who tarnish the religion in the ways typically shown in the media.
This morning, leading up to the event, I was mildly concerned. I’ve always had a love for meat – both before becoming a professionally trained cook – and even more after. Would my naivety of where it comes from die along with the animal? Could this be powerful enough to cause me to consider vegeterianism? Quite simply: No. This experience hasn’t turned me into something I’m not, although it has absolutely given me a new appreciation for meat. I’ve always tried my best to use every part available, and waste as little as possible, but it’s so easy to be lazy. This, I am confident, has changed. It was the sound of the escaping air from the lungs: It was not simply a dying reflex; it was a scream, that wasn’t able to make it to the vocal chords. All meat was at one point a living animal, and we should all do our part to respect that animal to our best abilities. I will do my best, and I hope everyone who reads this will do the same, to try and buy from smaller farms, and through local butchers, who let the animals live happily during their lives, wandering ‘free range’ and eating what they want. While I will continue to eat meat, I hope at least that the animal lived a pleasant and happy life, and died in a humane – ironic as it sounds – way.
“Vegetarianism is a first world luxury.”Anthony Bourdain