In Morocco, It’s a Sheep’s Life

Sheep 3Even without Islam, Moroccan culture would revere sheep — like the American buffalo, their flesh and their wool provide sustenance and shelter for people. And sheep come into their own around the feast day of Aïd el-Kebir, held seventy days after the end of Ramadan, which — in 2009 — falls on November 27.**

Travelers to Morocco, or to anywhere for that matter, perceive a certain reality based on their cultural underpinnings.

In what we now identify as colonial-toned  language, Edith Wharton told the story in her book,  In Morocco, of how she and General Lyautey’s wife attended the ceremony of the sacrifice of the sheep:

A sense of the impending solemnity ran through the crowd. The mysterious rumour which is the Voice of the Bazaar rose abut like the wind in a palm-oasis; the Black Guard fired a salute from an adjoining hillock; the clouds of red dust flung up by wheeling horsemen thickened and then parted, and a white-robed rider sprang out from the tent of the Sacrifice with something red and dripping across his saddle-bow, and galloped away to Rabat through the shouting. A little shiver ran over the group of Occidental spectators, who knew that the dripping red thing was a sheep with its throat so skillfully slit that, if the omen were favorable, it would live on through the long race to Rabat and gasp out its agonized life on the tiles of the Mosque.

Sheep 2Since not everyone raises sheep for Aïd el-Kebir, on the day before the feast, the scramble is on to find sheep or to transport previously chosen sheep home from the market or farm. Because the sheep must be obviously alive (the original concept of sacrifice demands that state of being), buyers devise any number of ingenious ways  to get the sheep where they need to be for the feast.

Of my first brush with Aïd el-Kebir and the matter of transporting live sheep, I observed:

People were out in great numbers, due in part to the marvelous cool morning and because Aïd el-Kebir took place the next day, one of the biggest festivals of the Muslim year, the day commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Issac in order to please God. Every family, regardless of their financial constraints, strives to procure a sheep for the sacrifice (and for the feasting following the sacrifice!). An obligation for all believers, the sacrifice of a sheep places an undue burden on the poor most of the time, unless they can join with family or friends. We saw sheep all over, carried home to be someone’s dinner via every mode of transportation possible. In a country where a private car is beyond most people’s means, conveying a live sheep home demanded a great deal of inventiveness: slung around one’s shoulder’s like a fur stole, pushed in a small flat cart (with or without sides, the sheep tied down), thrown over a donkey and tied to the donkey’s back, tethered on a rope and running pell-mell through a crowd with the purchaser’s feet flying in a vain attempt to halt the fleeing animal, numerous sheep strapped to the roof of a bus and roasting prematurely in the merciless North African sun, wheel-barrowed through the Fes medina with their hind legs serving as the handles of the “wheelbarrow” and held by the purchaser, carted in car trunks  with the trunk  door propped open just enough to refresh the sheep but at the same time preventing its escape, tied to iron rods on the sides of large camions or trucks, strung over the back “seat” (or front) of a moped, and probably many other ways in places that a foreigner never sees.

Sheep 4

**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


3 Comments Add yours

  1. cbertel says:

    I guess not!


  2. Sonia says:

    Shouldn’t the sheep have a helmet, too!


  3. Karen says:

    Love that sheep-on-bicycle photo! :)


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