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food / travel

Family Sacrifice: How I Found My Colombian Grandmother At Eid In Morocco

The writer, a Bogota native, was in Tangier for the recent celebration of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. She had been warned about how shocking the ceremony could be, but an impromptu invitation from a local family brought her back to her own.

Eid al-Adha festivities in Tangier, northern Morocco

Getting ready for Eid al-Adha festivities in Tangier, northern Morocco

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

TANGIER — Four years ago I went to Rabat, Morocco as an exchange student from my native Colombia, arriving in early August just after the Eid al-Adha celebrations, the festival of sacrifice that was so important for the worldwide Muslim community.


Two months later, the school informed us that we would have some days off from classes for another holiday, to celebrate Prophet Mohammad's birthday. When I asked how long the break would last, I was told that it all depended on the sighting of the moon.

Sacrifice in the air

Fascinated by the celestial connections of the Islamic calendar, I wondered what the moons might hold for my future travels, and my introduction to a religion and culture I was curious to know more about.

Four years later, now graduated from university and looking for my place in the world, I came back to Morocco. This time the moon was in perfect position, and with a legitimate sighting, I had arrived earlier this summer just in time for Eid al-Adha.

The central souk appeared empty and almost apocalyptic.

This celebration commemorates the completion of the annual Hajj pilgrimage and the devotion to Allah of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham in the old testament), as he was ready to sacrifice his son, Ismail — who was ultimately replaced with a ram to be slaughtered. I was both excited and anxious for this celebration. I knew my biases: I had been warned it could be "hard to watch," or even "barbaric" — a term I find extremely colonial.

For this year’s celebration, I was in Tangier, a buzzing city in northern Morocco, with a strong influence of the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonizations, blended with an old town medina center of white, narrow streets of Islamic-Arabic Andalus architecture. The central souk (market) appeared empty and almost apocalyptic — with nearly everyone at their family homes — and just a few people carrying what looked like parts of sheep or goats. Yes, sacrifice was in the air, and I was starting to feel uneasy so far from home.

Meat

Food sharing is at the heart of Eid al Adha celebrations.

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

Sancocho memories

When I thought I was getting to the edge of the old town, with views of the ocean and the outline of the Spanish coast in the distance, I saw a family getting their celebration started. Rather suddenly, the faraway surroundings didn’t feel so foreign. The adult members of the family were busy with preparations, as the children played and teenagers tried to help out.

This neighborhood Eid gathering took me straight back to my home country, and my granny’s house in the Meta region of Colombia that borders Venezuela, where I would play with my cousins, while my parents, aunts, and uncles cooked a Sancocho, the traditional dish made of soup, rice, vegetables and different types of meat. It too was a meal for special occasions.

I used my very basic Arabic to ask “ana shuf?” which must translate something like, “I watch?” I was waved over with a wide smile. A 13-year-old girl was particularly eager to welcome me. Her grandma and aunt were cleaning the insides of one of the goats, and hanging it from the porch of the house where another goat, already skinned, was already hanging. Other families sacrifice lambs, cows, bulls or in certain Saharan areas, even camels, which must be in good health and over a certain age to be considered fo sacrifice in a halal-appropriate way for the precepts of Islam. Here, it was goats.

Full hands and Google Translate

Everyone, except for the youngest boy, who observed with silent attention, had full hands, cleaning, cutting, rinsing, and sweeping. Everyone was so busy, in tasks that many times required more than two pairs of hands. This extended family’s warmth and effort to talk to me through Google translate, made me feel part of something that was simultaneously foreign and familiar. What I had imagined would be such a mysterious and distant cultural rite was suddenly making me remember learning how to peel potatoes or competing with my mother to see who was the fastest at plucking the feathers from the chickens.

The music switched between Gnawa with its Sufi, West African and Islamic roots and some reggaeton-like, Moroccan pop music sprinkled with a few Spanish terms. Just as I was feeling almost completely at ease, out from the house one of the men brought out a third goat — very much alive.

Despite not being a religious person I offered my silent gratitude for the life of that goat.

I realized I was about to see a sacrifice. With some swift words in Arabic pronounced as a prayer, a fast blade went through the neck of a copper-colored goat and the blood started to pour out for what was probably around a minute. The goat’s involuntary movements stopped quickly, to my surprise. According to Islamic tradition, the sacrifice must cause the least pain or distress to the animal as possible, thus they shouldn’t be sacrificed in front of each other, or with dull knives.

It all happened so fast. Despite not being a religious person I offered my silent gratitude for the life of that goat. Death is never easy, and seeing another living being give its life for the joy and communion of a family reminded me of our link to nature, the origin of our food. It made me feel closer to some of my happiest memories from my family back in Colombia, which I now realized was also around sacrifice, community and joy.

Young boy sweeping

Everyone takes part in the preparations, like this young boy sweeping the cobbles.

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

Crack of the neck

I thought about the time I decided to help my grandma kill a chicken for a special meal. On the floor, with a rapid crack of the neck with a broom, very fast to reduce the suffering. Then we proceeded to remove the feathers, softened by the boiling water. The sweetish smell of hot feathers, goats' intestines and blood, were mixing in my mind. Very different smells, yes, but the same feeling of togetherness, where joy blends with a sense of absolute solemnity.

While I helped to clean the blood from the gray floor of the central Medina, the men removed the skin of the animal as fast as possible, and as Islam requires, nothing should go to waste. Muslims are obliged to divide the sacred animal into three, a portion to be shared in family, another for relatives and friends, and the third for the disadvantaged. The family insisted I joined them for the meal, and I gratefully (and hungrily) accepted.

It reminded me of our link to nature, the origin of our food.

What I didn’t know was that on the first day of this holiday, in Morocco, you start by eating the lungs, heart, intestines and liver since the meat is not ready for consumption until the second day. Grilled on a barbecue and accompanied by a stew of fragrant spices and bread, these were the kinds of dishes I had avoided my whole life, since my mother stopped forcing me to eat liver. But at that time I could not run or hide. I had to give a chance to food made with such love.

I felt ashamed just by the thought of refusing their food, and quickly started to eat. They stared at me in expectation, and I tasted the strong flavors of the smoky meat. I must say that the slippery texture and juicy filling of the intestines are still not for me. With that said, the next time I’m at my grandma’s house I promised myself that I will taste the heart of the chicken cooked with such love. Thousands of kilometers away from Colombia, Eid connected me in a whole new way to the heritage my granny has left me.

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