Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rams, ritual sacrifice and the jolly imam

Today is the first day of the four-day Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, known as Kurban Bayramı in Turkish and Feast of the Sacrifice in English. Yesterday, Evren and I took off for Kaynarca, a village a couple hours from Istanbul on the way to Edirne. We normally spend our bayrams in this village at his grandmother's house with his mom and other family -- this year cousin Musa and Aunt Şukran. I was especially looking forward to this bayram because Ev was going to sacrifice his first ram, at least I thought he was. I had only witnessed a few other sacrifices before today, and those were in The Gambia with my Peace Corps host family a few years ago.

Kaynarca was soooo much colder than Istanbul. Yesterday, Istanbul was hovering around 1 degree Celsius while Kaynarca felt as if it were -10 C or less. When we got to the house we quickly gravitated toward the wood-burning stove in the center of the living room. I got so toasty the metal of my jeans button was burning my belly. That evening we sat around and chatted, ate yummy börek, garlic that Ev's mom had pickled and fresh bread she had made. I was in carbolicious heaven.

The village imam showed up at the house, a jolly little man with big glasses and rosy cheeks. I guess I've always viewed imams as solemn men who pray a lot and read the Quran. This one, however, was constantly cracking jokes and seemed to have the energy of a cheerleader. It turned out that his sacrificing schedule was pretty booked up for the morning. However, since he had known Ev's family for a long time and since Ev's mom is a highly persuasive person, we soon had him convinced to come sacrifice our ram right after performing 8:30 prayers at the mosque and to bail on some other unsuspecting family that lived outside the village (sorry guys!).

After a night of little sleep due to an over-firm mattress and cold because Ev had unknowingly knocked the thickest comforter to the floor at some point in the night, I woke in the darkness to several gun shots. My half conscious brain thought, "Could shooting actually be another approved form of sacrifice?" I dismissed the idea and tried to fall back asleep. (Later finding out that shooting guns in the air is just another Turkish bayram tradition) A little while later I woke to Ev's snoring and then his mom came in to tell him the imam would be by soon.

I had planned to photograph the whole event but then Ev forgot my camera at his office so I was left to a camera phone. The ram seemed to know his end was near when the Imam approached him and made a few leaps to the rear of the garden in a desperate move to escape. There he was cornered by the imam and Ev, and they led him on his final walk to a center slab in the garden. Ev held him down while the imam tied a blindfold over the animal's eyes. The imam said prayers over the animal, something to the effect of thanks and praise to the creator of all creatures. And then with a very swift motion he slid the knife across the animal's neck. Blood immediately spurted toward the wall in a high arc, the sheep kicked, the blood continued in a steady stream, and then after several moments the ram was still. Everything was still. I glanced at Şukran Teyze, who had been looking in the opposite direction the entire time. We said nothing.

Despite the reason or circumstances, when the life of any creature is taken or lost before my eyes several notions of mortality hit me, but this one looms largest of all -- a life can be snuffed out so easily and in the blink of an eye.

I wonder what the imam thinks about when he is killing these animals. We can be fairly certain it's not always something pious. Does having death so frequently before him numb him to the process? Does it strike him as strange that directly after offering up a prayer of thanks to the creator of all things, he immediately ends the life of one of these creations?

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