Eid Al-Adha takes place on Monday, July 19, 2021.
The past is buried deep within the ground in Rabat, although the ancient walls in the old city are still standing, painted in electrifying variations of royal blue that make the winding roads look like streamlets or shallow ocean water.
~ Raquel Cepeda
Even without Islam, Moroccan culture would revere sheep. I saw examples of this every day as I made my way through the streets and markets and public squares in Rabat.
Like the American buffalo, their flesh and their wool provided sustenance and shelter. And sheep came into their own on the feast day of Eid Al-Adha, held seventy days after the end of Ramadan. commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to please God.
Over the years, many writers have attempted to capture the essence of the mass sacrifice of sheep.
In colonialism-toned language, Edith Wharton penned one of the more graphic stories of sheep sacrifice in In Morocco, where she described how she and the wife of the Resident Commissioner General of the French Republic in Morocco―Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey―attended a 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 about 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.
Since not everyone raises a sheep for Eid Al-Adha, on the day before the feast the scramble begins to either find a sheep or to transport a previously chosen one home from the market or farm. Because the sheep must obviously be 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.
People are out in great numbers, due in part to the marvelous cool morning, and because Eid Al-Adha takes place the next day. Every family, regardless of their financial constraints, strives to procure a sheep for the sacrifice, and for the feast 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 pool resources with family or friends.
Thus, I saw sheep everywhere, carried home to be someone’s dinner via every mode of transportation possible.
In a country where private cars were beyond most people’s means, conveying a live sheep home demanded a great deal of inventiveness:
- slung around one’s shoulders like a fur stole,
- pushed in a small flat cart with or without sides, the sheep tied down with rough ropes,
- 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 Fez medina with their hind legs serving as the handles of the “wheelbarrow” and gripped by the purchaser,
- carted in cars 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 an outsider never sees.
It was on the second night of Eid Al-Adha that I first ate mechoui, or roasted lamb.
One of Mike’s Moroccan colleagues invited us to his house for a feast of lamb mechoui, whole roasted lamb served with cumin and salt. Two maids dressed in white carried it out on a large brass tray, setting it down on a low-lying table. We, five or six of us, edged closer to the meat, all seated on ornate, tooled leather ottomans, strong mint tea sloshing in etched glasses, glimmering in the light of small brass lanterns hanging from the ceiling on long chains.
I was the only woman at the table.
Watching the others, careful not to commit a faux pas, I tore off pieces of butter-soft meat, dipping small pieces in first ground cumin, then in salt. Silence ensued as everyone ate, left hands resting on their laps.
It was the only time we ever enjoyed such an invitation, an intimate meal in a private home. And it happened not because of any thought of friendship.
Our host wanted Mike to recommend him for a new position … .
5 pounds lamb shoulder, deboned and slit in spots with a sharp knife
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon crushed saffron threads
¼ teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and ground cumin for dipping cooked meat
Mix the butter, spices, and oil. Rub the butter over the meat, pressing some into the slits. Heat oven to 250°F and place meat in greased roasting pan. Cover tightly with heavy-duty foil. Cook meat for up to 9 hours. Once meat is tender, remove foil and increase heat to 475°F. Let meat brown in the hot oven for about 30 minutes. Baste with cooking juices to speed browning. Remove meat to a platter. Serve with cumin and salt in little bowls for each guest. Traditionally served with various salads and bread.
(This is a sample chapter from my upcoming book, Stoves & Suitcases: Searching for Home in the World’s Kitchens, due out in fall 2021.)