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Eid Al-Adha 2010, Amman Jordan

Today is Eid Al-Adha in Amman, Jordan.  (And most of the rest of the Muslim world for that matter).  On this Eid (festival/holiday/ holy day) Muslims around the world sacrifice a goat or sheep (or if truly wealthy, maybe even a cow or camel) and have a feast with their family.  They also give 1/3 of the meat from the sacrifice to their extended family and 1/3 of the meat to the poor.  Early in the morning people go to the mosque for prayers and a sermon.  After this they go to one of several places of sacrifice scattered around the city.  Here the young and the old, the men and the women gather to perform this annual tradition and collect the fresh meat for eating later that day. Throughout the day there will be many visits made to both close and distant relatives and gifts of clothes and money will be given.

If they are able, parents typically give children new clothes on this Eid as well as Eid al-Fitr.  People are always dressed in their best around the time of the Eids.  Uncles are particularly generous in giving money to their neices and nephews at this time of year and it is expected that brothers (especially older ones) will give money to their sisters.  Adult nephews also give monetary gifts to their older aunts, especially if they are widowed.    At some point in the day the family comes together for a meal centering on the meat that was sacrificed in the morning.  In many ways it is a time of connecting with family and remembering God, not unlike the American observance of Thanksgiving.

Of course, the origins of this festival are in the story of Abraham ascending the mountain to sacrifice his son.   At the last minute God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead.  Muslims remember this story, shared by all three monotheistic faiths,  as they celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha.

This morning I went out early and snapped a few pics, particularly for those who might be reading from the States and never have the opportunity to witness something like this.  Hover your mouse over the bottom of the slideshow window for controls to pause the show or move forwards or back.

(Please note: if the sight of animals being butchered is offensive or difficult for you then you may not want to watch the show.  I have tried my best to make sure there is nothing terribly bloody or shocking, but I know everyone has different tolerance levels for these sort of things).

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Grateful Generosity: Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Remix

Note this post is my outsider’s reflection on observing the sacrifice of the the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival this year in Amman Jordan.  For my outsider’s summary on the broader details of Eid al-Adha, check out last year’s post here.  I’m not sure why but as of Nov 2009 it’s the most viewed page on the site (2600+ views).

Turkey, Stuffing, and Mashed Potatoes, yes - even here in Jordan

This year (2009) brought an interesting convergence of cultures and holidays as the American Thanksgiving celebration coincided with the beginning of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Fesitval of the Sacrifice).  In American culture the last Thursday of November is always Thanksgiving Day and people typically spend it with family and friends.  It is usually a day of feasting featuring a huge meal with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.  Some also take the time to serve the less fortunate.  Churches and other organizations often put on Thanksgiving dinners or deliver Thanksgiving meals to those who can’t afford to celebrate on their own.  Here in Amman we were able to celebrate with a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, and Jordanians.

Haggling over the price of a sheep of Eid al-Adha in Amman, Jordan 2009

By way of contrast Eid al-Adha falls on a different day each year as Muslims follow a lunar calendar.  This year the Thursday of Thanksgiving corresponded with the preparation day before the actual beginning of the festival.  The 5-day government holiday begins on preparation  day.  The streets were crowded yesterday with people making their last minute purchases for the holiday.  I was caught in a couple of traffic jams.  The interesting contrast with Thanksgiving is that many Muslims fast on preparation day.  Feasting and Fasting.  Traditionally in America early Thanksgiving Days were accompanied by a day (or even days) of fasting as people expressed their gratitude to God for his blessings.  But it seems we Americans have lost that tradition over the years, preferring the feast to the fast

Best Buy got flak for wishing people a "Happy Eid al-Adha" in this Black Friday flyer.

Today (Friday), was the actual beginning of the Eid.  I awoke this morning at 5 AM with the extended call to prayer that is typical on the mornings of the Greater Eids.  Of course waking up early on the day after Thanksgiving is not unusual in the States, as many rise at the crack of dawn to line up at stores in anticipation of getting some of the best shopping deals of the year.  Black Friday has almost become a religious experience for some.  Actually, electronics retailer Best Buy got in trouble with some this year for mixing too much religion with Black Friday.  They printed an ad that advertised their Black Friday deals and wished Muslims a Happy Eid al-Adha.  From my perspective this seems like a culturally savvy move recognizing that the Eid actually fell on Black Friday.  Apparently 10 pages of complaints were lodged on the Best Buy website – how petty, culturally arrogant, and just plain backwards.  Have people forgotten that with freedom of religion comes recognition of other religions in the society as a whole.  Those who were offended shouldn’t worry –  it’ll take aproximately 33 years for Eid al-Adha to fall exactly on Black Friday again.

In Amman Jordan today, early risers weren’t off to the mall or the department stores to find the best bargain.  (Although curiously I found that at 6 AM plenty barbers and bakeries were open).  Rather, many people were up early to pray at the mosques.  The call to prayer sounded for a good couple of hours this morning and people went early to begin the festival with prayer and a sermon.

Displaying Jordanian pride at the sheep/goat pens

After some time at the mosque many go to one of areas in the city reserved for the selling and sacrifice of animals for the festival.  For many days now people have been buying animals for this purpose.  Many purchase a lamb or goat (around 150-200 dinars), but some purchase cows or even camels (5000 dinar).  As an outsider it’s somewhat surprising and amusing to see ordinary looking people struggling to put a live sheep or goat in the trunk of their ordinary looking car.  I even saw one family putting theirs into the trunk of a taxi.  This made me laugh out loud, but perhaps it was the taxi driver and his family.  Those who buy and take their sheep may be planning to do the sacrifice at their home, or have another butcher do the deed

Jordanians gather for the sacrifice after attending morning prayers at the mosque

However, many show up at the sheep pens early on Friday morning to have their animal sacrificed, skinned, and butchered while they wait.  And, it’s a real family outing.  I saw men, women, and tons of kids all watching this fascinating ritual take place.  No one seemed to bat an eye at the animals being sacrificed right in front of them – the women, the little kids, even the girls in pink coats and cute winter hats took it all in stride.  I was really struck by the family nature of the event.  I kinda figured I would just see a bunch of men at the place of sacrifice but that was definitely not the case.

The whole experience was fascinating and if you are ever in a Muslim country during Eid al-Adha you should find out where the sacrifices will be taking place and go check it out.  However, be warned: it’s not for those with a weak stomach, don’t like the sight of blood, or have trouble seeing animals killed.  I didn’t understand everything that was going on this morning, but heres a thumbnail sketch.

The first thing that struck me this morning was the smell.  My son and I had stopped by to take a look at the animal pens earlier in the week and in his own charming way he had summed up the smell at that time, “Ewwww, it smells like sheep poop.  Or maybe camel poop!”  Anyone who has grown up near a farm knows the smell.  This morning was different.  It was distinctly the smell of freshly butchered lamb.  The air was permeated with it.  You might not recognize the smell if you live back in the States, but after a year of walking past sides of lamb hanging in the open air in the market you begin to identify the odor.

Basically the area was divided up into a bunch of different pens for the different sellers.  People would come and buy an animal, or often bring a slip showing that they had previously bought an animal.  Some of the animals had numbers spray painted on them – I imagine this is something like a customer number, but I could be wrong.  Most of the pens had their own sacrifice/butchering area as well.  The animals would be led to the place of sacrifice – sometimes led backwards by one leg.  I guess this is to help shield them from what is about to happen.  Then the animal is sacrificed by one stroke of a sharp knife across its neck.  This is done over a sort of makeshift trough or drain that runs to a large metal barrel or tank that has been sunken below ground for the purpose of collecting blood.  The dead sheep are lined up in a row on the ground so the blood will drain out.  On the other end of this line there is a man who skins and disembowels the sheep.  The carcass is then hung on a meat hook.  A butcher chops it into sections on the hook and then takes it to a nearby block for further breaking down.  One butcher I saw was using a  large tree stump as his block.  The pieces of meat are then given to the customer who is usually holding some sort of heavy duty plastic bag waiting to receive the fresh meat.

It was chilly this morning and the sides of lamb steamed as they hung in the cool air.  I overheard one guy commenting positively on how the air was like a refrigerator.  I couldn’t imagine the whole process taking place in the hot summer months!

Each family then takes the meat and distributes it according to Islamic tradition.  The combination I’ve heard most often is some for the immediate family, some for the poor, and some for the extended family.  Over the next few days there will be big family get-togethers and feasts not unlike Thanksgiving.  (Ok, the menu is dramatically different.)  The most important part, however, is giving to the poor.  Like folks back home who help the poor on Thanksgiving, acting on behalf of the less fortunate is a major part of observing Eid al-Adha.  Even if a family isn’t going to have an animal sacrificed they can donate  money so food will be given to the poor.

The differences and similarities between the two celebrations have been swirling around in my mind this morning.  Setting aside a day to be thankful, or be obedient to God, or to help the poor are good things.  But there’s this tension for me because, really, we should be doing those things everyday.  Our gratitude to God shouldn’t just be relegated to one day out of many, nor should our obedience or generosity.  However,there’s something in human nature, that despite our best intentions we wander and stray from time to time.  Perhaps the level of gratitude or obedience or generosity that we observe and practice on special days like Thanksgiving or Eid al-Adha isn’t humanly sustainable every day of the year.  But in a way shouldn’t our lives over-pour in generosity due to the gratitude we have for the blessings that have come our way.  Shouldn’t these special holiday observances should be powerful reminders to bring our lifestyles more in line with the desires of God and live each day with grateful hearts, obedient wills, and generous spirits?

Ok, time to get off the soap box.  Wherever you are and whatever holiday you are observing I wish you the very best. Happy Thanksgiving!  Eid Mubarak!  Peace to all!

Note: Even though I left out the most graphic ones,some of the pictures below are a bit bloody – if the sight of animals being sacrificed or butchered bothers you – don’t look.  If you are interested remember that clicking on a thumbnail below will bring up a full-sized pic.

Eid Al-Adha, the Hajj, and life in Amman

(Note on Dec 15th 2009: I wrote this post a year ago and it includes my outsider’s summary of what Eid al-Adha is all about and a few personal reflections on life here in Amman last year during the Eid.  For my 2009 account of visiting the place of sacrifice on Eid al-Adha with a gallery of pics, click here.)

Today is Sunday in Jordan.  But not just any Sunday – it’s the Sunday after the long break for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.  As Sunday is the first day of the work week here many people were back to their jobs and schools after some time off.  We had a break as well and I had plans all week to write something here about the Eid.   Oh well, better late than never!

For those who don’t know – here’s a thumbnail sketch of Eid al-Adha.  This is the second major holiday on the Islamic calendar.  (or maybe first – somebody can correct me if they know for sure)  The first is Eid al-Fitr which is the major feast at the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting).  Eid al-Adha also happens during a very important time on the Islamic calendar – al-Hajj.  This is the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca which many understand to be a commemoration of Muhammad’s flight (or emigration) from Mecca to Medina.

Pilgrims throng the Great Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca during the Hajj

Pilgrims throng the Great Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca during the Hajj

Although the entire hajj is important, one of the most important parts is the vigil held on the plains and mount of Arafat.  It is on this mountain that Muslims believe that Muhammad gave his farewell speech.  It is required for pilgrims to pray prayers of repentance in this spot on the Day of Arafat which is always 70 days following the start of the month of Ramadan and the 9th day of the month of the Hajj (note that the Islamic calenar follows a lunar year so the dates of these observances change each year on the Gregorian calendar).

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

It is said that failure to appear at the plain of Arafat invalidates a pilgrims Hajj.  It is also said that the erstwhile prayers offered hear can earn a faithful Muslims a clean slate from their sins.  Many pilgrims will maintain the vigil not only during the day but throughout the night until the following day.

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

The next day pilgrims make their way to the nearby city of Mina where they commemorate the other important aspect of the Hajj – remembering the life of the prophet Abraham.  Muslims believe that it is near this location that Abraham almost sacrificed his son.  Just like the story from the Torah, Allah provides a goat/sheep at the last moment, redeeming the life of Abraham’s son.  For Muslims who do not travel to Saudia Arabia this story is the centerpiece of Eid al-Adha – the holiday/holy days associated with the Hajj.

Here in Amman (just like the rest of the Islamic world) this means sacrificing a sheep/goat.  In the days leading up to Eid al-Adha I overheard a number of conversations about the best place to buy sheep, and engaged in a number of conversastions about the yearly sacrifice.

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Families who can afford to purchase a sheep at 200 Dinars ($284) or so, will use a portion of the sheep for a celebration with their family.  A portion is then reserved to give to the poor and perhaps a portion reserved to give to the extended family.  If a family is wealthy enough they will purchase one sheep for each category (immediate family, the poor, extended family).  I did speak to a lot of people who said they could not afford to make a sacrifice themselves this year, but Eid al-Adha is also an important time to visit family, and many expected to celebrate with those in their family who could afford to make the sacrifice.

Apparently some people make the sacrifice at their homes, but most take the sheep to a special place reserved for the sacrifice and have a trained individual perform the sacrifice and butchering of the sheep for distribution.  The sacrifice itself can be made anytime after the vigil of Arafat or after the morning prayers are made on the particular day.

Here in Amman I awoke to the extended version of the morning call to prayer, which included about 45 minutes to an hour of chanting “Allahu Akbaar, Akbaar Allah!  Akbaar Allah” (God is the Greatest!)  After that I wondered up the hill to check out the neighborhood mosque.  It was standing room only and took nearly 10 minutes for the place to empty out after the sermon.

In Saudia Arabia pilgrims make the sacrifice on the day following the Vigil at Arafat.  But first they must take part in the ritual stoning of the Jararat or three stone pillars representing Satan.

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

As you can see the pillars were quite small and it took a long time for millions of pilgrims to throw 7 stones each at 3 pillars.  There are stories of pilgrims being trampled, seriously injured,and sometimes passing away due to the press of the crowd.  A couple of years ago the Saudia government decided to replace the original pillars with large walls that would facilitate the flow of pilgrims through this stage of the hajj.

New walls representing Satan and awaiting stoning by pilgrims on Hajj near Mina

New walls representing Satan and awaiting stoning by pilgrims on Hajj near Mina

This may seem like an odd ritual, but it is important to the Islamic version of the story of Abraham sacrificing his son.  Muslims believe that it was Satan, rather than God, who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.  According to some interpretations of the Qur’an, Satan used a dream to trick Abraham into believing that God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Allah intervened at the last minute and provides an alternative sacrfice, which the Quran calls a great ransom or redemption.

I found that this was a great time of year to learn more about local beliefs and customs as many were very happy to respond to questions about the Eid and the sacrifice.  I hope next year to actually get over to the place of sacrifice.  And maybe I’ll understand more of the morning sermon next year too.  For now it is back to work and school for most (myself included).  Of course Eid celebrations this year have flowed into Christmas celebrations.  Christians are hanging lights and putting up trees.  And students are looking forward to their next break from school. Someone told me 2 days for Christian students and 1 for Muslim.  I’ll have to check and see if that’s true.