Last year at my talk in Amherst, I met August Siena Thomas. She had submitted an entry to my writing contest and it was thoughtful, interesting, and contemplative.
Sometime later, she reached out to me and mentioned she was studying in Turkey on a Fulbright. I invited her to submit a missive from her experiences abroad and she was kind enough to submit this dispatch.
Tea and Hooves
In Istanbul at this time of year, Neoprene Santas flap in the Bosphorus breeze, and the vendors in an alley near the Spice Bazaar are hawking sparkly “New Year trees” and candy canes behind the Rüstem Pasha mosque.
It’s festive, but flimsy. Everyone knows the real holiday season came back in October, when the country closed down for Kurban Bayramı, which translates literally as “Sacrifice Holiday.”
Very literally, as I recall.
It was a sunny late October afternoon when I arrived at my friendŞengül’s apartment building for Sacrifice Holiday, the first I’d ever seen.Şengül’s family wasn’t able to sacrifice last year, but tomorrow morning they would do it in style: not a mere ram, but a young bull. It’s a sentimental ritual as well as a religious one, freighted with memories of childhood Sacrifice Holidays.
Our bull was white with black spots, like the doe-eyed inhabitants of the Three County Fair 4-H Tent. Except he wasn’t getting a blue ribbon. There had been a hullabaloo when he was delivered the previous night – 12 hours early – because there was nowhere safe to keep him. “Safe?” I asked blankly. “Do you think he’ll get cold?”
“A bull is expensive,” saidŞengül. “It’s like 6,000 liras standing down there overnight. Someone could steal it.”
I stared at her. “Who steals a bull?”
He spent the night in the shed at one end of the narrow, concrete-paved front yard, safe from roving bull thieves.
The morning of the sacrifice arrived.Şengül’s 3-year-old niece Defne was perched on the bed, watching Old MacDonald Had A Farm on YouTube. I pulled aside the third-story bedroom curtain. The mosque across the street wasn’t big enough to hold the worshippers; hundreds of them were prostrated on plastic prayer mats outside. Even the usually unobservant come to mosque to pray on Sacrifice Holiday, honoring Abraham’s willingness to give his own son as a sacrifice to God.
Prayer was over, we’d eaten breakfast, and tiny Defne had become addicted to the American candy corn I brought as a hostess gift.
The men–representatives of the seven families who have bought shares in the bull–led him out into the light.
I ran downstairs to see this huge and beautiful animal at eye-level, strong and alive. One of the little kids was scared of him. I told her, “Don’t be,” and felt a weight settle on my heart. I eat meat, and know where it comes from. Yet I caught myself wishing desperately for a miraculous Escape from Bullcatraz. What would happen if I tried to free him, made a run for it, and –
“Time to go back upstairs, children. They’re going to cut him now…”
The 10-year-old boys lingered to watch.
I had decided beforehand that I was not going to watch the actual cutting. Yet I followed the other women onto to the balcony. I’ll look away, I thought, I’ll look away in time…
Tiny Defne was fascinated. “Show me!” she commanded. I hoisted her up. She wouldn’t be allowed to watch the actual moment of cutting.Şengül told me she once saw a tear roll down the victim’s face.
The men blindfolded the bull. I thought, He will never see anything again. Watching from two stories up made it look like an Ottoman miniature, tidily enclosed by the concrete wall of the yard. They tied the bull’s legs and toppled him onto his side. He was frightened; his horn scraped against the wall. They chanted a prayer, to make the meat halal. They gave his neck a few gentle pets. And then they slit his throat.
This was months ago. I still feel physically sick as I write this. A red liquid wave flooded the concrete. It clotted so fast it would have to be scraped up later with a plastic dustpan, and hosed down. The bull was still snuffling. The knife went deep, impossibly deep into his neck. The bull’s legs kicked and trembled. How could he still be alive? There was no saving him now, and I wished for his suffering to be over. But still he moved and kicked and quivered.
Not every Turkish family can afford to sacrifice, or chooses to. Many of my Turkish friends have never seen a sacrifice, and are shocked that I have. Istanbul banned the doorstep sacrifices that used to make the streets stink with blood; you are technically supposed to use official sacrifice areas. Many outsource the messy sacrifice to professionals, or sidestep it entirely, donating to charities the money that would have paid for a cow or a sheep.
It took over four hours, an axe and many knives to butcher the bull’s beheaded carcass. Nobody wore gloves;Şengül’s sister’s wedding ring was caked in blood. The hide became a kind of natural tarp to catch the blood. Inside, I drew bunny rabbits for little Defne and her sister. I fought the impulse to draw cows. I looked out and saw a beggar approach with a huge plastic trick-or-treat bag of dead animal bits.Şengül’s family thought she was a faker, and gave her the freshly-skinned bull’s testicles. She took them.
The men weighed meat and bones, dividing them fairly between the seven families. A third of each family’s share, they tell me, would go to the poor, who might not otherwise be able to afford meat all year. Another third would go to neighbors and relatives; only a third would be kept. The valuable hide would be sold to raise money for the mosque.I began to understand the raw power of this important ritual.
It was 1 p.m. by now, and I was getting light-headed.Şengül’s mother appeared with meat sandwiches.
I gulped. “Is this…?”
“Yes,” saidŞengül. “It’s very good, the best kind of meat. Just don’t think about it.”
I stared at the sandwich. I was ravenous.I picked it up and ate.
August Siena Thomas is a 21-year-old writer from western Massachusetts. She is currently a Fulbright Fellow and grad student in Istanbul, Turkey. She also chronicles her Turkish adventures in illustrations.