In a previous post I explained some of the details and beliefs behind the Muslim holiday, 3id kbir (as it’s called in Morocco). If you need a reminder, read this. Ok, but what did it mean for our actual lives? What happened, what did we do? Here’s our little story…
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we were asked often (by shopkeepers, vegetable sellers, and the people we know around town) if we had yet bought our houli. Houli means ram. When I say we were asked often I mean that at least once, more likely two or three times, every day we ran into this question. I soon began responding (in my terribly broken darija) that there’s only Michelle and I, and a whole houli would be far too much for us (leaving out the greater point that one of us is vegetarian). Therefore, I would explain, I was looking to buy a half of a houli split head to tail like in a cartoon, but no one at the market could accommodate my request.
My response made no sense, especially considering that the market consists of a large field where various men might have anywhere from 3 to 20 live houli tied up for sale. All too often, Moroccans don’t get my sense of humor (this is true for Americans also…) On one occasion, the man I was speaking with corrected me, and patiently explained to me that I would buy the whole animal, take it home, butcher it for the holiday, and THEN I could cut it in half. My response was that I just wanted to buy half to begin with. The man paused, stared at me for 2 seconds, then burst out laughing. Finally someone had laughed at one of my confusing jokes.
About a week before the actual holiday, one of our students/counterparts invited Michelle and I to celebrate with her family. We graciously accepted and were looking forward to learning more about, well… Everything. Then we were told that we would come over to the family’s house the day before the holiday, spend the night, and then spend all of the next day with them as well. Imagine being invited to someone’s house for thanksgiving in America and being told to come over the day before and spend the night. Hospitality in Morocco is a little different than American customs.
With still a few days left before the holiday we encountered rams and sheep all over town. While walking down the street we saw people walking their sheep home from market and encountered many knife sharpening stands that hadn’t been there the previous week.
From our home we could hear them baaaa-ing from our neighbors’ roofs. In case you haven’t figured it out already, once a family buys their ram or sheep they take it home and keep it on the roof. Or if they don’t have a roof to use, the animal might be living in an empty spare room, tied up right in front of the house or in the “yard” (yards as they exist in America don’t really happen here).
Finally it was time for us to go to our student’s family’s house. Michelle had baked an oat dessert cake (kind of like a strawberry jam bar) to share with the family, and with that loaded up (as well as a change of clothes and toothbrush, etc) we hopped on our bikes and headed over. We received an enthusiastic greeting when we arrived and spent time with the family before it got late and people started heading off to go to sleep. A spare room of ponjs (a ponj is the Moroccan equivalent of a couch) witch a couple extra blankets accommodated Michelle and I, and off to sleep we went, as well.
The next morning, when we awoke, the men were out at prayer (there is a special prayer on the morning of 3id kbir) but they returned as breakfast was being set out on the table. Michelle’s strawberry oat deliciousness was added along with all of the Moroccan dishes. I had been very curious to see what type of response her cooking got from our Moroccan hosts; Moroccans don’t always appreciate American cooking. I watched as one family member and then another took a piece. Then I watched as the father took a second serving… Success!!
Almost immediately after breakfast, Mohammed, one of the brothers of our student, grabbed me and I managed to understand that I was supposed to go with him to visit the neighbors. We visited 2 or 3 houses and at each of them we were warmly greeted before joining the occupants on the roof as they slaughtered their ram (or finished slaughtering, or skinned, or cleaned blood off the roof). After visiting the neighbors we headed back to the family’s house where I was handed an old pair of pants and a shirt. It appeared that I was about to get more involved in the slaughtering. Michelle had been given a special outfit to wear for the holiday, also.
Once changed, we left to go the home immediately adjacent. As I stood in the small yard area an older couple dragged a sheep out and put down the plastic sheet on which they were going to slaughter it. The wife turned and looked at me, said something I didn’t understand, then laughed as my hands were grabbed and forcibly placed around the legs of the sheep to help hold it. As soon as my hands were on the sheep the wife laughed again, told me I was doing it wrong, moved my hands to a different position. She gave me a disapproving look and then told me to move off to one side as she took my place. Then she grabbed me a tiny wooden stool to sit on while I watched. It turns out that these particular Moroccans didn’t find my help in slaughtering an animal very helpful (but they did laugh with and at me a lot!)
Once we finished, we headed back to the house and it was time to begin our own slaughtering. Step one: take the ram and the sheep to the roof, up three flights of stairs. Check.
At this point we actually began the process of slaughtering the animals on the roof. The following pictures show that. If you do not want to see blood or guts, you might want to consider skipping to the end.
The process for slaughtering an animal actually turned out to be interesting. If there are multiple animals one must not be allowed to watch the other’s death. There is also a prayer offered over the animal immediately before it is slaughtered. The actual slaughter is done with a (very) sharp knife to the throat as the animal is held down. After a decent amount of blood and some post death twitching, the butchering of the carcass begins.
- The animal is hung by the back legs.
- It is skinned.
- The internal organs are removed and cleaned – we had a nice big tray full of lungs and stomach and heart and liver (and probably a few other parts I didn’t recognize).
- The delicate sheet of fat is hung up like drying laundry.
- The grill is lit.
In the case of the family we were with, there was a carcass cleaning contest. Brother versus brother. Well, technically it was brother and his wife vs other brother and his wife. Everyone was really into it and each couple worked hard to clean their carcass as fast as possible (all while the rest of the family cheered them on). It seemed like something from reality television, but it’s just a holiday in Morocco!
The first thing on the grill was the liver wrapped in pieces of the sheet of fat. I know what you’re thinking… It probably doesn’t sound good to most of you. I wasn’t sure of it either, but it was actually pretty good! I won’t go in to details, as most of you probably will not appreciate them, but I would (and probably will) eat it again.
After the meal (it was around 2 pm by now) we started heading downstairs; the neighbor (a butcher) had just arrived, and there was still a live cow in the yard. It was explained to me that while a sheep or ram is not too difficult to slaughter and clean, the size of the young cow required a butcher. This particular butcher had traveled to a larger neighboring town for the morning to butcher (he could make more money than staying in our town) and had just returned.
With the help of 5 of us the cow was held down, slaughtered, tied up and hoisted for the butchering process. After it had been hoisted, various family members and neighbors posed for pictures with the carcass, one of the wives cooked the hair off of the hooves, and the children played (and watched the hooves cooking).
No more pictures of animal slaughter left, welcome back to those of you who skipped to the end.
By now it was after 5 pm and Michelle and I were exhausted and looking forward to collapsing in our own home. First we had to politely decline the family’s invitation to spend another night with them. The manner in which it was said made it clear that it was expected. After many thanks, we headed out and a short bike ride brought us back to our home. As we climbed the stairs to our door, the smoky grill smell (that pervaded the whole town) got stronger and stronger. Our neighbor/landlady had her grill out (in the stairwell) and was grilling meat.
She invited us in and showed us the carcass, still hanging in a room inside the house. (Imagine Thanksgiving in America and picture someone with a whole turkey carcass hanging in the hall just outside their living room). We sat down and she insisted we eat cookies while she brought me a plate of meat just off the grill. We finally left, crossed the stairwell to our own door and dropped our stuff on the floor. And there was a knock at the door. It was the landlady with a plate of meat for me. Getting cookies from your neighbors is great, but a plate of grilled meat pretty close to beats everything!