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.



A Priest, a Muslim, and a Rabbi Walk Into a Room (An Interpretive Good Friday Reflection)

Only here’s the joke . . .

You’re the priest. The muslim is a Palestinian terror suspect. And the rabbi – yeah, you guessed right – it’s Jesus.

(BTW you’re probably not really a priest in the Catholic sense – I’m referring to the evangelical notion of the priesthood of all believers -in other words the priest is you if you are a modern evangelical leaning Christian. If you’re something else – then I guess you’re an independent observer – sit back in the corner and watch it unfold.)

The room is spartan. There’s a table, four folding chairs, a pitcher of water, and a bright light.

No one looks very happy to be here. The Muslim looks half-way between scared and defiant, you look a little confused, and Jesus – well he’s hard-to-read no matter what. The three of you sit down in silence. The Palestinian is scowling at the table. Jesus is looking you in the eye. You find something very interesting about the white spot on your right thumbnail. A moment passes and you wonder who the fourth seat is for. Jesus nods at you knowingly. The bright light is hot. You’re incredibly thirsty. You reach for the water pitcher but realize there are no glasses. You start sweating.

Jesus picks up a remote control that you hadn’t seen on the table and turns on a TV mounted to the wall behind him. It’s big. It’s bright. It’s plasma. You wonder if Jesus watches Sports Center but he clicks to a news channel. Report after depressing report stream across the screen as newsreaders drone on about this or that disaster, conflict, or economic woe. Reports from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza fill the stifling room with tension.

Jesus glances at the door a moment before it opens. It’s an Israeli. He bustles in apologizing under his breath for being late and sits down between you and Jesus. He doesn’t look any happier than you or the terror suspect to be here.

“You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here today.” You always wondered what Jesus’ voice would sound like. It wasn’t what you expected.

You’re all looking at him now. And he nods his head at the plasma TV without looking at it, “I think you know. It’s time we did something about this mess. I’ve prepared an agenda.”

You’re startled by a crisp white sheet of paper that you hadn’t noticed in front of you before. It’s smallish and looks rather like a prescription form. Across the top in bold red letters you read “WWJD.”

“I know people have been wondering for a long time what I would do about the global threat of terror and the endless string of conflicts that are tearing apart my homeland and the surrounding region. So, I just wanted to call all of you in to make it clear. You can just write down what I tell you today on those sheets of paper, I’ll sign off on it and everything will be ok.” Jesus isn’t smiling. You’re pretty sure he’s not joking and you’ve got this nasty knot in the pit of your stomach.

He turns to the Muslim and says, “Look, I’m the second most respected prophet in Islam, right?”

The Palestinian nods his head.

“So here’s what I want you to do. Go back to your country and stir up a rebellion. Use whatever means necessary to throw off your oppressors. My hometown of Bethlehem is surrounded by this hideous wall – knock it down. Shoot rockets at any town you can, blow yourself and other people up until you break free from the yoke of oppression.”

You and the Jewish guy are getting pretty upset at this point, but Jesus holds up his hand, “I know, I know – this contradicts my command to love your neighbor as yourself, but these are extreme circumstances and I am for freedom and against oppression. Besides that command never made it into the Qur’an and this guy never read the New Testament so how can I expect him to love his Israeli neighbors?”

Jesus scrawls his signature across the bottom of the Muslim’s slip of paper. The Palestinian quickly gets up and leaves the room. You catch yourself wondering what Jesus’ signature looks like.

Then Jesus turns to the Israeli. “Your people are my people and I’m deeply pained at all you’ve gone through in the past 100 years. You know what it says in the Torah – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You’ve got to do what it takes to stop that guy. I’d suggest airstrikes. Strike swiftly and powerfully. Even if you have to kill some kids in the process – that’s ok – do you think they would care about killing your kids? Of course not.”

You are speechless. Dumbfounded. You begin to protest, but Jesus holds up his hand, “I know, I know – this contradicts my command to love your enemies, and seems to run counter to what I said about letting the children come to me. But this guy is Jewish. He’s never read the New Testament so how could I expect him to do any differently?”

Jesus signs the Israeli’s slip of paper and the man quickly gets up and leaves the room. You catch yourself wondering how much Jesus’ signature would fetch on E-bay.

Then Jesus turns to you. He hands you a gun, a rough piece of cloth, and a briefcase. You look confused. “Look, those two guys are going to mess this whole thing up. You’ve got to act and act fast. There is a ton of money in the briefcase. As much as you need. You’re going to have to start throwing a lot of money at this thing if you are ever going to resolve it. The gun? Oh there’s a lot more where that came from – and you’ll need every single one of them. By the way, you’ll probably need to share them with both sides, just to be fair. But make sure you give a few more to the Israelis – they are my people after all. ”

You hold up the cloth with a quizzical look.

“Oh right – that.” He pushes the pitcher of water towards you. “That goes with this. If you ever catch that first guy you can use those to waterboard him for important information.”

You open you’re mouth to reply but no sound comes out.

“Oh, right. You don’t know how to waterboard. That’s ok, I’ll show you how before you go. Any other questions?”

“But . . .”

“I know, I know – this all seems to contradict what I commanded about loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemies, putting others before yourself, and pretty much most of the New Testament – even the stuff that Paul wrote. But these are extenuating circumstances. And those nice things you read in the Bible don’t really apply to government activity or military action, you know – separation of church and state and all. Besides haven’t you read the Old Testament? There’s a lot of war in that one. And Revelation? When I come back it’s with a sword dude. Chip-chop. Off with you now – you’ve got a lot of guns and money to throw at that mess in the Middle East. I expect some progress before our next meeting.”

Jesus signs off on your slip of paper. His signature doesn’t look anything like what you expected. You wonder if anyone on E-bay would even believe it’s his.

**********

Doesn’t exactly sound like the Jesus you know? Yeah, me neither.

Try the following scene as an alternative.

**********

The room is spartan. There’s a table, four folding chairs, a pitcher of water, and a bright light.

You’re sitting there between a Palestinian and an Israeli. Neither looks like they want to be there. Jesus is sitting across from you and a big plasma screen TV is behind him blaring news of conflict in the Middle East.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you here today.” You always wondered what Jesus’ voice would sound like. It wasn’t what you expected.

You’re all looking at him now. And he nods his head at the plasma TV without looking at it, “I think you know. It’s time we did something about this mess. I’ve prepared an agenda.”

Immediately the Israeli and Palestinian start arguing with each other. They’re debating who’s to blame for the latest wave of violence. They both start pointing to you and reluctantly you jump into the fray, arguing for America’s support of Israel, military presence in the Middle East, and stance against terror. For an hour the three of you argue and bicker about whose version of history and interpretation of current events is correct. Your blood is about to boil over and you’re about to call for a timeout when you realize that Jesus has been strangely quiet. He’s the one who called the meeting. What does he have to say? Didn’t he have some sort of agenda put together?

You look over at him and your breath catches in your throat. His head is sagging to his chest and his hands are limp on the table. He’s bruised and covered in blood.

The Israeli jumps up and feels his wrist, “No pulse, and he’s not breathing!”

The Palestinian points out a note clenched in Jesus’ right hand. It’s crumpled and bloodstained.

Shaking, you open it up and read it aloud, “I died so you and your peoples don’t have to. Get with the program. See you in three days.”

**********

For those of us who call ourselves Christians on this Good Friday, we should remember the following from the book of 1st Corinthians:

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (in context here)

Has Jesus called us to be agents of death or agents of life? WWJD in the today’s Middle East? No easy answers to that one – but I wonder if we’re asking the right questions. Or if we are recreating Jesus in our own convenient image?

Sifting the Sands of Protest in Gaza

Protesters in Gaza (from al-Jazeera.net/Reuters)

Please Note: This post is about the protests held in Gaza in Feb 2008.  For thoughts on what is happening in Gaza in early 2009 check this post (here) and keep checking back on my main page (here). It is interesting/disturbing to note how in a year things went from bad to worse.

Organizers in Gaza called for a massive non-violent protest today (Monday, Feb 25th, 2008), hoping for 1 person/yard from Erez Crossing in the north to Rafah in the south. Over this stretch of about 25 miles that would amount to aproximately 40,000 people. News reports from Reuters, the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and Ha’aretz (Ha’aretz 1, Ha’aretz 2) put the actual number of protesters closer to 5,000. I link to 5 different articles here from prominent American, Arab, Israeli, and British news sources because I’ve learned over time that each one will have a piece of the story, and it’s almost always necessary to read a few articles to get a broader perspective.

Here’s what I’ve put together by way of summary:

  • The protest was in reaction to the Israeli blockade of Gaza (preventing all but basic humanitarian aid to be let in – and even that was cut off for a few days prior to the Egyptian border incident).
  • The nonviolent protest was called by an organization that backs the elected Hamas government.
  • The Israeli government said they would not rule out the use of deadly force if protesters were to storm the border as they did at the Egyptian border last month, further stating that Hamas would be responsible for anyone hurt by Israel defending its borders.
  • Gaza Map (from BBC)The nonviolent protest was actually two protests – about 3,000 in Beit Hanoun, a village in northern Gaza (aprox 6 km from the Erez border) and a group of 2,000 who marched towards Erez. This second group was turned back by the Hamas police before reaching Erez.
  • After the major protest ended a smaller group (~50 people) of Palestinians threw rocks at the Erez border crossing and a number of them were arrested
  • During the the protest a non-related group fired a couple of Qassam rockets into Israel injuring 3, including two children.
  • This weekend strikes by the Israeli Air Force were responsible for 3 deaths Beit Hanoun (the same village where Monday’s nonviolent protest took place). Gazans say the dead were civilians but the Israeli military says they were men preparing to make a rocket attack.
  • 2 other Gazans were killed in an IDF incursion into the Shajiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City. (nb – I have friends who live in that neighborhood and spent many times visiting them)

That’s the summary as best I can put it together. Now for some analysis:

Nonviolent Protest in a Powder Keg

The Gaza Strip is a powder keg waiting to explode. For the past half century it’s inhabitants have been subject to the whims of those who would seek to control the region (Europe, the UN, Arab nations, Israel, etc.). As a result they have been powerless to determine the course of their own futures. All entry and exit from the territory is controlled by Israel. Since 2000, travel outside of the territory by Palestinians has been severely restricted. All trade with Gaza must go through Israeli ports and are subject to Israeli tariffs and restrictions. Early this year Israel completely blockaded the territory not allowing any goods in or out, including fuel or basic humanitarian aid.

So I ask, what would you do? What did our American forefathers do when faced with what they considered to be oppressive British taxation standards with no say in the process. I believe that it is only poverty and the overwhelming military mismatch between Palestine and Israel that has kept Palestinians from a full-fledged military revolt. I also believe that nonviolent protest is a very good answer to the dilemmas that face the Palestinian people. The world listens when the oppressed put down their weapons and hold up their open hands in protest. Think Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelseon Mandela, the Burmese priests, etc. I wonder how the world would react if 40,000 protesters had shown up in the streets of Gaza today?

Trading justifications with casualty statistics

The violence on both sides of the divide is deplorable and largely avoidable. There is no excuse for Palestine to be firing Qassam rockets into Israel. There is no excuse for the Israeli Air Force making air strikes in Palestinian neighborhoods. Ostensibly chasing down Palestinian militants, the amount of innocent bystanders who have been killed in such actions is well documented and unacceptable. In this morbid trading of casualty statistics as a mean of justifications for further violence there are no winners. However, I bristle when news or government reports link things like the rocket attacks with the nonviolent protests occurring at the same time. Its like condemning Martin Luther King for Black Panther violence. And if one really wants to examine the stats they do not look good for the Israelis. The New York Times article linked above noted that the Qassam rocket attacks have resulted in 13 Israeli deaths since 2001. On the other hand Israel has killed 290 Palestinians in 2007 alone. 96 of those deaths were civilians. In one year they’ve killed 7x as many as Palestinian rockets have in seven years. I’d rather condemn all violence, but if we must engage in this morbid numbers game who seems to be more in need of a secure border?

What do we expect?

When violence flairs up in Gaza or when they protest, what do we expect?

If you or I were Palestinians what would we do? What would we do when an Israeli helicopter or jet flies over firing missiles into our neighbors houses? What would we do when IDF actions happen under cover of night in our streets? What would we do when our borders are closed and we cannot receive vital goods and services? What would we do when we seem to be the pawn of inaccessible governments on both sides?

Try to blow ourselves up? Shoot inaccurate and ineffective missiles? Throw stones in frustration? Sign a petition and attend a sit-in?

As Americans what would we do if we were faced with these conditions? Call our congressperson? Lobby Capital Hill for our freedoms? Start a revolution?

I applaud the Palestinians for their nonviolent protest today and am hopeful for more (larger) protests in the future. But realistically, I expect this situation is far more likely to explode into a violent confrontation. I’m not sure where history will place the finger of blame, but I have a sickening feeling in my gut that it will not point only at Palestinians or Israelis.