On a cold morning in late winter I’m driving home to the farm after a Friday breakfast date in town with Kathy. The Muslim students are returning to kill six lambs. This is Islam’s highest holy day, the Festival of Sacrifice, and will be a big feast night after a long day of fasting.
Eid-al-Adha commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son to Allah. At the last moment, Allah allows the substitution of a ram. Traditionally, in a symbolic reenactment of Abraham’s obedience, a Muslim family slaughters a large animal. The family consumes a third of the meat, gives a third to friends, and shares a third with the poor.
I know that Muslims believe Allah has given them dominance over animals and allows them to eat animal flesh, but only if they say His name in gratitude at the solemn instant of taking life. I lack rituals for this and am aware of none in my culture. There’s the saying of grace at meals, of course, but nothing for the moment of fatal harvest. After Cream’s death [in January they’d killed a ewe with a genetic birthing defect] I read that Christians once observed a ritual when they killed animals, and the book of Leviticus prescribes killing unblemished, sacrificial sheep and goats on an altar “northward before the Lord.” The killing has since been outsourced. A loss, it seems to me, a lessening of our connection to other creatures, to our sustenance, and to our own mortality. Yet I’ve worried about this day, about the men killing six lambs at once. They’d wanted to kill many more, to bring vanloads of students from the university to slaughter twenty or more, but I feel I can’t handle such a bloodbath.
It’s February 2002. Returning from breakfast, I listen to the news on my truck’s radio about the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who’d been kidnapped in Pakistan. Warm and well fed, I imagine how cold and hungry and terrified he must have been. Sorrow stabs at me; the world seems unbearably full of tears. I hope he was able to prepare himself. How hard that must be, though, to surrender hope and make yourself ready somehow for death. How can someone be praying to live, to be spared like Abraham’s son, but ready to die? For Daniel Pearl, life’s hardest spiritual task must have been compressed into hours.
The radio announcer doesn’t say how he died but implies it was horrible, gruesome. So not a bullet. Then I realize. They cut his throat—that’s how Muslim extremists would kill a hostage. Such a death also would have maximum horror for Americans. I wish I couldn’t imagine it, but I can, after Cream’s death. Suddenly I’m nervous—soon I’ll be surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. This embarrasses me, this fear, but I’ve just pictured the journalist’s murder. And I’m reminded that, only five months ago, Muslim terrorists attacked America. I try to push my fear beneath the surface as I park at our house. They’ll be here soon. I go inside and make a pot of coffee, a comforting ritual, something against the cold. My knees are sore and my spine feels achy for its entire length—common enough, now—and I remind myself to be careful handling strong animals.
Two vehicles come up our driveway and stop at the barn. I recognize Jamal’s boxy blue van. Doors open, and Jamal and four other students spill into the farmyard. Are any extremists? I doubt it. I’d liked Jamal and the young men he’d brought in January. We gather and shake hands. Two of the men are from Qatar and three are from Saudi Arabia. I think about mentioning the troubles in the news, then decide not to—and then do. “Has there been any backlash?” I ask. Jamal shrugs and says, “Nothing serious.”
“Religious extremists in all countries bring pain,” I offer.
Jamal nods. “People are people,” he says. “Life is short. There is enough sadness in the world. Why bring more?”
They produce an assortment of cleavers and small knives they’ve gotten from the Odd Lots store in Athens. I help them sharpen their cutlery and again loan Jamal my sheath knife. They select lambs from the pen in the barn. For them it’s a festive occasion. Their ritual of fasting is nearing its end. They laugh and joke, a mix of Arabic and English. Again, I feel I’m betraying my sheep. I catch the first lamb and halter him, wrestle him outside across the frozen gravel. I yield as he jerks against the rope, then take up slack, like I’m playing a fish; he thinks he’s fighting the rope, not me.
The killing goes fast. Two men hold down the lamb, with his nose pointing northeast, at the curve in Marshfield Road just before Ernie’s house; one man cuts the lamb’s throat while speaking softly his prayers. I’m mute, offering no prayer of my own, and feel impoverished by comparison. I own no words to help me with my emotions. Yet the slaughter isn’t as hard for me as I’ve feared, not as traumatic as when Cream died. Is this because I’ve prepared myself or because the killing is becoming routine? Probably both, I decide, and catch the next lamb.
The men are a likable bunch and work hard in the cold, still morning. It’s quiet in the farmyard; the winter sky, milky blue, is streaked with clouds ripped in long mares’ tails. I have room for them to cut apart both lambs at once. They hoist the carcasses using ropes I’ve thrown over the front support beams of the dilapidated shed nearest the barn. They skin and disembowel the lambs, rinsing their knife blades in buckets of chilly water I haul from the barn’s hydrant. To warm them I start a fire in our burn pit, leftover bricks from house reconstruction arranged in a low-walled circle on the concrete slab where one of Fred’s grain silos had stood. After they kill two more lambs, I walk over to the fire and see they’ve made a grill from a scrap of tin and are roasting small pieces of the first lamb. In the coals they’re charring the heads of two lambs, which surprises me, but I guess some people eat the heads. A man who speaks poor English but who exudes kindness offers some meat to me, and we eat together in the weak sunlight. This lamb was alive moments before, but I try to suppress such thoughts for this communion.
The man, who has large, expressive brown eyes says, “Thank you so much. I am so grateful.” They’ve agreed to pay me eighty dollars for each lamb—$480 for the six—so this is a business transaction for which I’ll be fairly compensated. Still, his gratitude touches me. Then he insists on giving me a cut of my choice from his lamb. I try to refuse, but it seems important to him. Maybe he appreciates being able to buy and harvest lamb this way, or appreciates my helping with the killing and cleanup. Or, in the Festival of Sacrifice’s spirit of gratitude and friendship, he’s sharing with the farmer. Perhaps, in his country, all farmers are poor.
“Jamal is famous,” the man volunteers. I turn to Jamal, a serious man whose smile sometimes breaks like a cresting wave through his black beard.
“I can tell you are a leader in your community,” I tell him. “I admire that.”
I know nothing about Jamal, but he does embody leadership, in the confident way he moves and in how he deals with me on behalf of the men he brings to the farm. He’s the one who has engaged with the outside world—with me, the farmer, the stranger.
As they leave, I return to our quiet house, carrying a leg of lamb in a white plastic sack, thinking about their resolve. They’ve come into the unfamiliar countryside to conduct the sacred taking of life for their women and children, for their small community far from home. I know professors who’re afraid to venture outside Athens’s city limits. And I can’t imagine Americans driving into the country alone in an Arab nation for food—certainly not after September 11, 2001.
Anyway, in America meat arrives in grocery stores as the final step of unseen and increasingly mysterious processes.