March 28, 1999
This is the first day of the Kurban Bayram (Holiday of the Sacrifice)
and Istanbul's streets are full of folks in their holiday best.
For days cows, lambs, goats, rams, and other big animals, have been
being brought to Istanbul from the countryside. (I read that in Cairo
you could see people bringing their animals in by cab.) Tent cites
(consisting of rickety structures of unlumbered wood and huge plastic
tarps) full of these doomed animals have sprung up under bridges, in
garbage filled lots and along the highways. The city's normal perfume
of car exhaust and coal fumes is now mixed with the heavy smells of the
And, today, the slaughter began.
Pools of blood and rain spotted the pavement in front of my building,
evidence of a recent butchering. On a muddy hillside in one of the
older neighborhoods south of the Halic (Golden Horn) in Eski (Old)
Istanbul, I saw several women, all smiling, surrounding a man vigorously
chopping away at the rib cage of a cow with an ax. The cow's recently
skinned hide was spread out neatly beside them, the rest of the animal
in a heap nearby. I passed three men loading sagging plastic sacks, no
doubt full of the spoils of a recent kill, into the trunk of a car.
(Sorry, but my weak imagination couldn't help but conjure up to images
from Scorcese's "Goodfellas".) By a mosque, three was a lone Ram's head
under a tree. Its snout was pointing upwards, as if thinking about
stretching a neck that was no longer there to the leaves just above it.
On the sidewalk in front of a butcher shop a man, hacking off the skin
of a decapitated lamb, rolled the body back and forth like a water
balloon. A few meters away, a pen full of sheep ate their feed
contentedly from a trough. I looked closely at them, was surprised to
see that they seemed oblivious to the significance of what was going on
right next to them. Mounds of entrails lay in the gutter of one street.
I walked bye the opening of a narrow alley, from which I was assaulted
by a draft bloated with the now unpleasant order of fresh meat. Later,
I watched, with absolutely no idea what it meant, a young man put his
fingers into the blood runoff of one butchering then walk to his car and
wipe it on the license plate.
The Kurban Bayram is an extremely important holiday for Moslems, second
only Ramadon ("Ramazon" in Turkish). It's the time for the hajj ("hac"
in Turkish), or pilgrimage, to Mecca, which all Moslems of any means are
to make at least once in their lifetimes. Here, in Turkey, most folks
get at least two days off work, some the entire week. During the
holiday, throughout the Moslem world, many families buy an entire animal
for sacrifice, using only a part of it themselves, giving the bulk of it
to others, including most importantly the poor. Some play amateur
butcher, but I have been told the vast majority of them have an "expert"
do it. Indeed, the Koran demands that the sacrifice be as quick and
painless as possible.
The holiday itself celebrates the Old Testament story in which Ibrahim
(Abraham to non-Moslems) was ordered by God to sacrifice his son.
Abraham reluctantly agreed, but was given a last minute reprieve and was
allowed to sacrifice a ram instead. It is a powerful story about belief
and faith (and must give animal rightists a few textual problems). I
can see why Moslems have picked the story out as paramount. It
certainly provides an interesting contrast to the New Testament story of
God's sacrifice of his son.
As I walked around Istanbul today I overwhelmed. The city was a
slaughterhouse, full of, for me, somewhat gruesome contrasts. Young
girls in flowered dresses and boys in tiny three-piece suits ran around
the streets laughing and playing games, with blood on their shoes. I
passed a curious boy kicking at some unfortunate creature's stomach,
which had been left on a pile of garbage. I saw a little girl holding
her mother's hand, smiling at me shyly, as her mom picked through a pile
of discarded intestines.
April 5, 1999
My discontent at the sights of the Kurban, I concluded later, was a bit
sanctimonious. Americans eat considerable more meat than Turks, it's
only that in the United States the dismemberment is done quite a bit
more discretely. But why should it be? Isn't it a better, or at least
a lot more honest, to understand what the animal part, and animal,
you're eating looked like when it was still alive (including rippling
muscles, forlorn gaze, and all)? I thought of my canoe trips to Canada,
and how much more meaningful my fish dinner was because I had caught and
cleaned the unlucky critter myself. A sharpening of reality, I think,
is always a good thing (especially in this time when so much of our
"knowledge" and "experience" comes secondhand through the media,
including, I have to reluctantly admit, my beloved books). If our
rituals, often the most powerful means of creating reality-blindness,
can be infused with as much truth as possible, all the better I'd say.
(Then, perhaps, when those flimsy dreams we try to kid ourselves with
disintegrate like pieces of wet toilet paper....)
Today is the five-month anniversary of my arrival here in Istanbul.
It's an amazing thing I've done for myself, I think. I am as close to
totally engaged in my life, and the world around me, as I have ever
been. It will be hard to live any other way again, I imagine.
In the last week and a half, three terrorists here in Turkey succeeded
only in blowing themselves up, much, I suppose, to their martyred soul's
chagrin. I've got to hope that these crazy acts are evidence of the PKK
(or whomever) being on its last legs. There are important elections,
national and local, coming up on April 18th, so we'll probably get a
chance to see just how long those legs are.
Hope all is well. Drop me a line.
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