Being exposed to religious traditions abroad can be an alarming, yet insightful, experience
It was meant to be a one-year project, a short EFL teaching contract in one of the world’s greatest cities, Istanbul. It was certainly not my first working experience abroad but it did feel more challenging, more exotic, more dangerous, even though the year was 1997 and there had been a ‘soft’ military coup in Turkey. What was more to the point, Turkey was 99 per cent Muslim which, despite it being a secular republic since 1923, was clearly going to mean close-up exposure to a ‘fanatical’, ‘aggressive’ religion. Islamophobia was just beginning to surface in the global media, although it was nothing compared to what it was to become as events unfolded post 9/11.
Fourteen years later and I have finally returned to the UK after the longest, most exciting, demanding and rewarding period in my entire life. Among the many educational experiences were the Islamic holy days such as the fasting month of Ramadan and its Şeker Bayramı, Holiday of Sweets, that follows as recompense. Households give gifts of sweets and chocolates, and a bowl of sweets is also kept by the front door as children come knocking for treats. And of course there is Kurban Bayramı, the Feast of The Sacrifice, when Muslims commemorate the story of God’s challenge to Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son and how God stopped him and gave him a lamb to sacrifice instead. This is also known as Eid-ul-Adha on the Islamic calendar. This one would surely be the most culturally – and religiously – daunting Islamic tradition to endure.
So it was that many years ago, I was walking up the hill from the main road that led to my school, when I heard the sounds of farm animals and remembered that it was, indeed, the first day of Kurban Bayramı. The street was unusually lively as trucks were busy unloading sheep and, for the wealthier families, cattle. There was a lot of activity and the whole neighbourhood seemed to be out en masse to participate in the operation. A cow was being goaded, prodded, pulled and pushed through the front door of my apartment block. Suffice to say, the frightened animal was sacrificed according to Islamic tradition and butchered in order to provide meat for numerous people. And the same thing was going on elsewhere, even in the street. The stench of flowing blood and eviscerated internal organs commingled with the odours of the preparations for cooking. It made me feel sick.
Nationalists in Britain, who oppose immigration and in particular new arrivals from the Muslim world, constantly brandish the spectacle of Muslims slaughtering sheep and goats in the gutters of Britain’s cities. The apotheosis of their argument was expressed years ago by Enoch Powell in his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech (April 20, 1968). This prophecy has not, thank God, been fulfilled, and as far as religious sacrifice is concerned, it takes place these days in registered premises and under strict veterinary control. The same is generally true in Turkey today, at least in the cities, even if in rural areas such practices do persist.
Regardless of our personal feelings and reactions, it is important to understand what Kurban Bayramı is about. Of the three world religions, Islam is the last to retain this ancient Abrahamic rite. Many would argue that the tradition of sacrifice in Islam reminds us of our need for repentance and forgiveness, as well as our duty to care for the poor and underprivileged in our societies. Many “westernised” and wealthy Muslims prefer to donate money or food rather than directly participate in sacrifices.
Once, during the festival, I passed stalls of sacrificial animals on sale on the site of a suburban hypermarket. I immediately caught the pungent aroma of animal urine, excrement and straw. In large sheds set up along the entrance road to the shopping centre, cows and sheep were mooing and bleating as they stood in the stalls vaguely aware that something was going on. The smell of fear mingled with that of ammonia. Smart women heading for the shopping mall wrinkled their noses in disgust and stepped up the pace to get into the air-conditioned retail heaven. Meanwhile, fathers herded their city-raised children to the sheds to let them get what was probably their only glimpse of real live farm animals that year.
As a foreigner and a non-Muslim, the major Islamic religious festivals were at first unusual to me, not having had much exposure to Muslims in the UK before. It can be an unnerving experience. This is not because the country itself is aggressive in the pursuit and practice of its religion – quite the contrary – but because many of us are ignorant and unaccustomed to living in such a society. Fortunately for westerners, the tradition of Sunni Islam spiced with Sufism, preferred in Turkey, allows us to obtain exposure and experience of a more tolerant form of Islam than may be encountered in more extreme Islamic states such as Iran.
Indeed, I was quite astonished during the Festival to respond to a knock at my door only to be offered a piece of meat from a family’s sacrifice in my block. So much for “death to the infidel”!
It is now with warmth that I reminisce about that event on the Islamic calendar and about my years spent among my Turkish Muslim brothers and sisters. That our Turkish fellows faithfully maintain these ancient traditions in a fast-changing and morally decadent world is actually quite refreshing. At times like this it is possible for us to see above the foray of fundamentalism so relentlessly marketed by the media, and observe how people of peace and goodwill can co-exist regardless of race or religion.
The slaughter of innocent animals in cold blood (whether in ‘sacrifice’ or for sale as halal meat) seems barbaric and, for some, a violation of the animals’ rights. It is certainly not for the squeamish.
Nevertheless, just as the iftar meal during Ramadan is such a joyful, shared experience following a whole day’s fasting from dawn til dusk, so too is the community and family feasting upon the butchered meat of the sacrificed animals. Foreign observers – and, especially, Christians among them – can find some spiritual education and enlightenment from this sacrificial feast and learn something from Muslims’ faithful dedication to their God. I, on the other hand, will keep my ritual slaying confined to rabbits and chickens!
Images from: http://newshopper.sulekha.com/romania-turkey-eid-al-adha_photo_2048925.htm // http://photos.thenews.com.pk/e_image_detail.asp?picId=29056&catId=2&date=11/2/2011&dd=1&albumId=0 // http://navedz.com/2010/11/27/picture-perfect-hajj-the-journey-of-a-lifetime/as-part-of-the-hajj-pilgrims-must-sacrifice-or-pay-someone-to-sacrifice-an-animal/
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