This is my long overdue post on the Eid al-Adha (Greater Eid) festival, a week-long Muslim celebration that takes place in October. Eid honours the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, his first-born son, upon God’s command. God then intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. Therefore, a goat or a lamb is sacrificed every Eid. Families either butcher the animal themselves or hire someone to do it for them. This is a time to remember the less fortunate of the population, and the meat is shared with the poor. The build-up to Eid was enjoyable; people were in high spirits, and the streets were crammed with herds of sheep and goats awaiting their bloody fate. As I walked by, observing this scene with curiosity, the shepherds would call out prices to me and I politely declined.
1st Day of Eid
Caroline and I were invited to spend first day of Eid at my boss, Dr. Gamar’s house, where we had our first taste of Sudanese hospitality in the Airport district, a well-to-do area of Khartoum where many of the ministers live. Unlike many others who had travelled outside of the city to spend the holiday with relatives in their hometowns, Gamar had chosen to celebrate with his immediate family only. Thus, he confirmed that there would be surplus meat to go round. Determined to overcome my Western squeamishness and see first-hand where my food comes from, I had requested to be present for the sacrifice. Disappointingly, Gamar told us that it had already been performed early in the morning, so we had missed it.
As he welcomed us into his home, he initially offered us a bed and asked us if we wished to sleep. Slightly confused, I was soon to realize that it is commonplace in Sudanese homes to make such an offer to your guests, and, particularly during Eid, it is expected for people to take a lot of rest. We declined and sat down in his living room, where we began a long and tedious wait for the food. I was eager to partake in the proceedings in the kitchen, but Gamar refused our help, probably due to the fact that we weren’t relations. Unfortunately, this resulted in more sitting around. By this time, we were seriously lacking in entertainment. Gamar again suggested that we took a bed each and again we declined. After his wife had cut up the lamb meat, we were summoned into the garden to watch her barbeque it in a shaya, which is a simple Sudanese grill shaped like a large colander with holes drilled into it to drain the fat.
Usually a vegetarian, Caroline had agreed to make an exception so that she would not miss out on this cultural experience. I saw her eyes widen in horror as meat was piled upon her plate. We ate inside with Gamar and, strangely, separate from the rest of his family. At this point, I was wondering if this was how Eid was celebrated in other houses. It all seemed uncomfortably formal. We tried assida, porridge moulded into a shape and served with a bread sauce, whose texture was a bit too slimy for my liking. We were served fried meat from the shaya as well as more tender pieces, which I understood had been slow-cooked in liquid in the oven. An incredibly spicy green chili (shota) and peanut sauce was served as a traditional accompaniment to the lamb. Us two slight European girls hardly made a dent on the amount of food on the table, and were ushered to refill our plates more than once. We ate as much as we could to be polite, but I still felt guilty about all the food leftover. The meal was concluded with obasha, a baffling mixture of 7up and yoghurt, which we had encountered once before. Gamar insisted that we should drink up and would sleep well afterwards and surely enough, once we retired to the sofa I nodded off immediately. After being revived with a cup of tea, we cautiously mentioned that we might like to visit another friend’s house in the afternoon. I tried to hide my horror as Gamar suggested that we spent the rest of the day at his house, as I felt I could not endure the stiff atmosphere any longer.
Luckily, he agreed to give us a lift south of the city to our friend Abubakr’s house. Here, I instantly felt more relaxed. The house was full of life and his family members laughing, joking and making preparations for their meal. Finally, I thought, this must be what Eid is all about. The lamb had been sacrificed only recently, and the butchering was still in process. We found our friend busy cleaning out the sheep’s intestines, one of the more unpopular jobs. The animal’s fell and head lay peacefully on a pile, and I was assured that the slaughtering had been a quick and painless procedure. Abubakr’s cousin, whose jovial mood was contagious, posed proudly with the sheep’s head.
Inside the house, the women and children of the family sat segregated in one room and the men in another. We were introduced to Abubakr’s female cousins, who were made up and dressed in fine clothes for the occasion. Suddenly, I felt underdressed. This time we ate sitting on the floor in a circle and eating from the spread of different dishes placed before us. Sharing food in a sociable setup like this is typically how the Sudanese like to eat together. Somehow the food it tasted far better this time, especially without the pressures of being observed so intently as we ate. We ended the night with a glass of sherbot, a local beer made from dates and brewed under the ground. I had heard a lot of mention of this drink during the build up to Eid, always followed by excessive giggling. Apparently, the longer it is left to ferment, the more alcoholic it gets, and the process can be sped up by adding baking soda. The Ethanol vapour can be filtered off during the brewing process to make aragi, a powerful liquor. Consequently, a lot of Sudanese people get drunk around Eid. When questioned about how this behaviour is justified, a Sudanese friend told me that Sudanese traditions often outweigh Muslim values.
2nd Day of Eid
On the second day of Eid, I visited my friend Tom’s house. Again, I had requested to witness the sacrifice, and again, it had already been performed early in the morning. Clearly it was not meant to be! I watched the butchering of the animal; this time, a goat. Tom then directed me into the kitchen where his mother was busy preparing food, and asked if I could assist her. She nodded and pointed at a bag of limes, which I was to chop up and squeeze the juice from. I worked at my normal pace and with my usual technique, which was immediately frowned upon; although I could not understand her words, her tone was clearly scolding. Instead of squeezing the lime halves with my whole hand as I had been doing, she showed me how to squeeze them with just my fingertips, to procure more juice. I had not been trusted with cutting the meat, however a French-Malian friend of Tom’s who had joined us took hold of the knife and began professionally chopping. Tom’s mother appeared satisfied with her work; phew!
Once we had finished our work in the kitchen, we lay down to wait for the food to be ready. This was time for gossip and girl talk! Afterwards, we ate from a platter of dishes which were a variation on those I had eaten the day before, however with time with succulent goat meat. We ended the meal with a round of sherbot, lay back down to digest and all of us slept like logs.
It was an excellent Eid and I hope to experience one again in the future! Unfortunately I have heard that Eid is not comparable in Europe; in France, for instance, it is illegal to sacrifice animals on the street and people end up wither doing this in secret or simply buying halal meat from the butchers. Unless you are in an Arabic country, you’d also miss the atmosphere of the whole population celebrating simultaneously. Thus, I feel this was a very special experience for me.