Thursday, January 12, 2006

Festival of the Sheep

It's the last day of our visit to Morocco. Our flight leaves at 9.00 this evening. Today is the Festival of the Sheep, which celebrates God's provision of a ram to Abraham when he was about to obediently sacrifice Isaac. Three million sheep will have their throats cut all over Morocco and everyone is at home.

On the previous day, with the help of the staff at the Hotel Gallia, we had booked a Berber driver to take us into the hills near Marrakech and show us some villages. Even though it's an important festival, our guide Mohammed shows up. I feel bad that he's not spending time with his family and say we are willing to go to his village to watch the sacrifice. He generously invites us to his mother's house where they will be killing a ram at 11.00am.

Mohammed drives us through a deserted Marrakech and out onto the plain. He explains that he is a Valley Berber and that his village is about 45 minutes drive outside Marrakech. The village is constructed of bricks and the red earth found all over this part of Morocco. Mohammed's mother's house is built around a courtyard with a small courtyard garden in the middle. There is an entryway, an enclosure for farm animals (including a small, domed, two-person hammam with a cat on top), a dining room, a kitchen and bedroom. In a doorway off the courtyard is a hand pump to bring water from the well. Electricity was only installed three years ago.

Mohammed's sister greets us with a basket of cookies, some are shaped like stars and some shaped like Christmas trees. We sit in the sunny courtyard at a plastic table and Mohammed's young wife serves us sweet sage tea, the preferred winter drink. Her hands are decorated with a complicated henna design. She is wearing a bathrobe as a coat because although it's sunny, it's a cool day. Or maybe because she wasn't expecting a couple of tourists to show up.

Presently the butcher arrives along with Mohammed's brother and they drag a ram from the animal enclosure out of the house to a patch of waste ground. The butcher faces east and says a prayer. Then as Mohammed and his brother hold the ram down, he cuts its throat. It takes the ram a good few minutes to die, the last minute spent scrabbling in the dust, desperately fighting death. The blood is startlingly vivid. I have been eating meat all my life, but this is the first time I have seen an animal slaughtered. I think of Abraham and Isaac and all the other sacrifices in the Bible. I think of Passover and Easter.

Finally the ram dies. The butcher makes a small cut in the skin of one of the ram's upper hind legs and blows into this, inflating the ram like a balloon. This makes it easier for him to skin the ram, which he expertly does in about ten minutes. About halfway through the skinning process Mohammed and his brother help carry the ram to the entryway of the house. The ram is strung up from a beam so that all the blood will drain away. Richard and I watch the butcher gut the sheep. We are ready to go. 'Wouldn't you like to stay and eat with us?' says Mohammed. 'We make kebabs of the heart and kidneys. And tomorrow we will eat his head with couscous.' We politely decline and he cheerfully says goodbye to his family and drives us through a valley called Ourika and up into the mountains.

It is cold here and as the road brings us higher we see snow on the ground. The Ourika river runs down cold and fast from the Atlas mountains. Sometimes there are houses on the other side, with hanging wooden bridges spanning the river. Presently we stop at a house beside the river. A family of mountain Berbers live here and although they show this place to tourists it is life as usual for them. We see a skinned sheep and also a skinned goat hanging from a beech tree between their house and the river.

One of the Berbers speaks excellent English. He shows us an ancient but working flour mill powered by the river. He also shows us their dining room and larder and we pass some members of his extended family preparing the sheep's heart and kidneys. We drive further up into the mountains and see women washing their clothes in the river. It must be freezing. Mohammed gets out to smoke a cigarette and greet the Berber men, mostly dressed in their hooded djellabas. The road ends here so we drive back down and stop at an impressive-looking restaurant with stunning views of the Atlas mountains. This is obviously a place for coachloads of tourists and the food does not match up to the building or the setting.

It's nearly 3.00pm now and we don't need to be at the airport for another four hours, but when Mohammed asks us if we want him to drive him back to Marrakech or to the airport we both say 'The airport, please!'

We are ready to go home.

[This trip was to research Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis.]

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