I have become rather passive of late. The practice of my deen has been confined pretty much to the performance of the five prayers; I don’t think I am in a very good place spiritually and my relationship with my Lord is strained by the sins I willfully pile upon others. All those passions that once burned in the pursuit of the truth just smoulder now. I hold fast to my prayers for they are the refuge of the believer, but that feverish sprint of old has been replaced by half-hearted resignation, suffocation under the weight of my sins.
The days of the Hajj crept up on me therefore. In the battle between my emboldened nafs it seemed the ten days might just pass me by as I succumbed to yet another fruitless conspiracy from within. I managed to fast one day, but had aspired momentarily for more, until the usual petitions from within made them but intentions. I had planned to fast on the day of Arafat, for I longed to eradicate my sins of the past year and the year to come, but lost track of the lunar calendar as I prepared to travel to Turkey once more. I believe it was Saturday, when I flew from Istanbul to neighbouring Georgia. I wish I had made more effort, but I was preoccupied by my journey and failed to rise for sahoor in the morning. Alas it was another fast ignored.
And all of a sudden it was Eid — or Bayram as they call it here. I was reunited with my family for the first time in three months, which itself was a great blessing. The children had grown a lot in the intervening weeks, but they had not forgotten me. The Eid prayer is always a strange affair, whether here or at home. Back home it is a cross between an Urdu cultural event and an Annual General Meeting, with the mosque finances described in intricate detail — commendable transparency, but hardly the source of spiritual uplift. Here — well clearly I am a visitor, a stranger looking in on a Turkish version of the same event. The small village mosque is packed full, the more religious types downstairs listening keenly to the imam, the embarrassed Muslims and atheists upstairs, talking and sniggering to one another throughout. It used to bother me that confirmed atheists attend the Eid prayer — perhaps because I had been on the receiving end of their wrath on many a preceding evening — but now I find myself playing the part of the humble stranger who knows his place: this is their tradition, their culture. Let this religious puritan desist in these arrogant thoughts. So now I sit upstairs too because I arrive too late to find room downstairs and try to tune in to the correct voice.
After the prayer there are the Eid greetings with the old men who knew my late father-in-law, projecting onto me his piety as they commend my return. The youthful Muslim from England is a novelty that never seems to grow stale, although my familiarity with my true state causes pangs of regret. We exchange salams, ‘Bayrum mubarek olsun,’ and then I return to the house. The morning is then spent receiving drop-in guests, who stop by to exchange Eid greetings, drink tea, eat cake and move on. It is a joyous occasion; back home, our Eids are generally modest affairs, spent alone or in the company of friends.
In truth, this Eid is a mundane affair back home. I have always given money to one charity or another to have my Qurbani dispensed on my behalf for poor people somewhere, elsewhere, over there. While I would justify this to myself by recalling that there are many in the world who rarely have access to meat, I suspect that my intentions are mixed. Many of us — though happy to consume meat — are squeamish when it comes to making a connection between grazing animals and the food on our plates. And the spectre of a day of slaughter — though such slaughter occurs daily in abattoirs worldwide — brings that connection too clearly to the fore.
A number of years ago I went with a Turkish friend in the UK to an abattoir, where he intended to perform his Qurbani. What I saw there was so far removed from my idea of what halal means that it pretty much put me off eating meat altogether. All those ideas of not letting an animal see another animal being killed, of slaughtering with care, of calming the animal down, were wholly ignored on the mechanised production line operated there. Sheep were unloaded from a lorry outside, pushed onto a conveyor belt to be turned into carcases in quick succession, all in view of other living creatures clearly desperate to escape their fate. If people see this and think halal, no wonder they protest — even as they munch on their Big Mac.
I have not thought about animals at Eid in the UK since. My money goes somewhere thousands of miles away, to buy an animal I will never see — like the animals that feed me throughout the year — which will then be slaughtered, its meat distributed to feed the poor. It provides a comfortable narrative that requires minimal personal engagement. Little thought is given either to the animal or the poor. This year would be different.
We hoped that by the time I returned to Turkey, our little house on the hill would be complete, ready for us to live in for a little while before our ultimate return home. Alas I may have arrived a few weeks too early and so we would have to find accommodation elsewhere. We had already resolved, however, to offer a Qurbani at the house and continued to plan to do so. I had in mind feelings of worry and sadness — given my past encounters, this was my great sacrifice — but as I have already mentioned, I have been rather passive of late. I was not wildly animated by the thought of what was to come, no sickly feeling of dread arose in my stomach — and all the time I was reminding myself of my remorseful hypocrisy, for I will gladly eat meat all year around. The only difference now was that I was required to make a real connection between food and its source.
That connection was a living creature in the barn at the back of the house — a sheep with a short fleece, perhaps advanced in years. It is not exactly grazing country around here — most of the land is given over to tea cultivation — so my wife and I had to walk up the village to beg a bag of hay from a family that keeps cows for milk. They kindly obliged and we returned some time later to feed the animal in the barn. It was clearly a creature of the herd and unused to one-to-one interactions with humans, but with some persuasion it took to taking some hay from my hands. What a strange feeling: to show an animal kind benevolence, knowing that tomorrow you will take away its life.
On the second day of Eid, we travelled up to our land with the sheep in the back of the pickup. The children laughed whenever it spoke and even stroked it and talked to it when we arrived — before I sent them off to collect fruit with their aunt so they wouldn’t witness the event. What amazed me — and what was so far removed from what I witnessed at the abattoir — was how calm the animal was as it lay down on the ground; it was not in a panic like those other animals I had seen. When it was finally slaughtered, it was as if the moment before its death and the moment afterwards were the same. Perhaps having watched too many gruesome films in my life, I didn’t expect it to die as quickly as that and with so little resistance.
As I helped the slaughter man prepare the carcass afterwards, first removing the sheepskin, many thoughts went through my mind. The major thread centred on the way we — the urban consumer — disassociate ourselves from the difficult matters of our existence. Food, and especially meat production, is the great plank of it — we delegate the messy business of the slaughter of cows, sheep, chickens and all sorts to unseen men and women in unseen factory units out of town. Ideally, our meat should come prepacked in a nice hygienic plastic tray with a plastic film cover, labeled in colourful ink with cooking instructions included. But we delegate a lot of other messy stuff too. Our wars are fought by young professional soldiers brought up on propaganda we intelligent folk would never fall for. We outsource all kinds of killing because we’re far too squeamish to deal with the realities of our existence — our over-reliance on oil, water, natural gas and coltan. Perhaps if we were more actively engaged in the activities that feed our way of life we might begin to change it a little.
Other thoughts came later, after the meat had been prepared. The donation of money for an overseas Qurbani always centres on the poor, yet I’m not sure how much I have really thought about the recipients. The generic poor have a generic life story, which laments their poverty and hardship, while consigning them to a different category of humanity. To meet a real individual with a real family with particularly needs, wants, desires, pain and suffering tells a different story about the value of Qurbani. To witness their happiness at receiving their first taste of meat in perhaps months or a year. To listen to their duas, to see their tears. To realise how fortunate you are and how blessed you were.
All in all, the non-passive Qurbani provided many lessons for me, some of which I am still pondering. We ate our share of the meat yesterday afternoon, barbecued over the glowing logs in the wood burning stove. It was tasty — but even as I ate it, I remembered the animal in our barn that we had fed borrowed hay the day before. What strange connections we must negotiate throughout the years of our lives.