Cutting Corners

Eid al-Adha isn’t what it used to be as fewer and fewer Israeli Muslims perform the traditional slaughter.

sheep (photo credit: daniella cheslow)
(photo credit: daniella cheslow)
MUSLIMS TRADITIONALLY slaughter a sheep on Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice). But this year, Suha, a 36-year-old Arabic teacher from Jerusalem, spent her holiday on a vegetarian moshav in northern Israel. Suha, who asked that her full name not be given, grew up watching her parents slaughter a sheep each year for the feast in the northern village of Arrabe, but relied on store-bought meat once she started her own family.
This year, her vacation destination took precedence over the meat.
“I’m not a vegetarian,” says Suha, a tall, stylish woman with straight black hair and loud heels. “But it’s not pleasant. Watching the slaughter is like watching a circumcision.”
Eid al-Adha celebrates the Koranic story in which God commands Ibrahim to slaughter his son, and at the last minute allows him to sacrifice a ram instead. The holiday falls on the tenth day of Du Hijre, which is the last month of the lunar Muslim calendar, according to Sheikh Khere Askandar, an imam at al-Huda Mosque in Baka al-Gharbiye. Worldwide, Muslims commemorate the day by slaughtering sheep, goats, cows and camels, and Israel’s 1.3 million Muslims are no exception.
“First, we are fulfilling the commandment of the prophet Muhammad, which is the mitzva that Ibrahim our father, peace be upon him, performed,” Askandar tells The Jerusalem Report. “And second, we give the meat to poor families who have nothing to eat on the holiday, so we let them celebrate as if they were like every rich person.”
But while in the past people would kill their own animals, a growing number of Israeli Muslims outsource the slaughter to a butcher or professional slaughterer. When Israel was founded, the Arab population was overwhelmingly agricultural; today, even those who live in villages rarely live off farming alone. Urbanization means less space, a decreasing desire for the messy process of animal slaughter – and fewer people who actually know how to do it. The changing holiday ritual points to conflicting trends within Israel’s Muslim minority – an ongoing Westernization alongside a strong core of Arab citizens who see the slaughter as a vital connection with what they regard as a simpler past.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, between 50,000 and 100,000 animals, mostly sheep, were killed this year for the holiday. Samir Kaadan, director of sheep and goat farming at the ministry, says that while many of Israel’s Muslims still buy a whole animal, they rarely kill it themselves.
“Some people live in the cities or in apartments; it’s hard for them to do the slaughter at home,” he says. “So they bring it either to the slaughterhouses or the butcher, but they are usually there for the time of slaughter. Thirty years ago, there were more people who knew how to [slaughter]. Today, very few people actually slaughter for themselves.”
Others hire professionals. They use pulleys to string the carcass high up, then work with saws and large cutting boards to break down the meat into manageable pieces within a half hour.
That’s a quarter of the time it takes a home slaughterer, who relies on simple knives and improvised butcher hooks.
Naiem Atoun, from the neighborhood of Sur Baher in southeast Jerusalem, says it is illegal to kill an animal in the capital without a permit. He buys his sheep and takes it to the butcher.
“Until around 1970, we used to slaughter at home,” he says. “Now it has changed because the city is stricter and because of the closure of the West Bank. You can’t bring in sheep from the West Bank anymore.” While Atoun’s father knew how to slaughter and carve an animal, Atoun, who runs a meat processing factory, says he has never tried. “You can’t just do it,” he says. “You need a special knife and skills.”
Ahmed Abu Rabia, a barista in Jerusalem’s Coffee Bean café, said the prospect of buying a sheep was prohibitively expensive. For the last three years, he has bought a few kilograms of meat from his local butcher in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, even though his father used to kill a sheep himself. “The first time I didn’t buy a sheep, I felt something was missing,” he says.
Besides the money, Abu Rabia says he worries about the consequences of slaughtering at home. “My neighbors are settlers, so I can’t do anything because there are cameras everywhere,” he says.
THE ACTUAL SLAUGHTER IS a primordial reminder of the moral weight of eating meat.
Khalil Alamour has long forsaken many of the traditions of his ancestors, who lived in a goat-hair tent and made their living from herding goats and sheep. He sometimes serves his guests microwaved pizza. But the schoolteacher and father of seven returns to his roots each Eid al-Adha, when he and his family slaughter a sheep in their front yard.
Alamour lives in Al-Serra, a community of 400 Beduin living in cinderblock and corrugated metal houses east of Beersheba. At 8 a.m. on the third Tuesday in November, Alamour returns to his village after praying at a mosque in a neighboring town. While still in his collared shirt and black pants, he advises his son, Mustafa, 20, on how to skin the two sheep that his uncle Zayed has dispatched. The family buys their sheep from nearby Kseife. Then, Mustafa and his uncle lead a third white sheep up the steps to Alamour’s front yard, where they wrestle it to the ground and slit its throat. Alamour changes into a T-shirt and sweatpants, and he, Mustafa and another son, Ahmed, string the dead sheep to a beam over the balcony, skin it and carve it, and hand the pieces to Alamour’s daughters, who prepare the meat for a barbecue. In addition to kebabs, the barbecue includes homemade bread and French fries alongside store-bought pickles, humus, olives and ketchup.
At Alamour’s house, his children Muhammad, 2, and Huda, 10, walk around the porch during the slaughter, watching the various stages the sheep goes through until it’s finally served as dinner. Mustafa hacks apart the carcass with a cleaver, and his brother Ahmed helps him wrestle the hide off the body. The process takes two hours and involves everyone in the family.
By the time the meal is over, Alamour is receiving visitors and well-wishers on his balcony. Most, like him, wear T-shirts spattered with blood.
“When I was five, I was scared [to watch the slaughter]. But afterward, I got used to it,” says Alamour’s eldest daughter, Iman, 23, a student at Ben-Gurion University. She walks in and out of her home during the slaughter, fetching trays, oil and spices and bringing them to the front porch, where she strings the meat on skewers.
“Ibrahim [in the Koran] didn’t buy his meat,” she adds. “People should see the slaughter at least once to know what meat is made of.”
YET EVEN AMONG THE BEDOUIN, the most conservative of Israel’s Muslims, the traditional slaughter has been transformed. Alamour’s neighbor complains that today sheep are fed on grain, making them less tasty than their grass-fed forebears. At the end of the slaughter, wild cats circle around the sheep skin and internal organs that are bound for the trash. Alamour says his mother used to make carpets or butter churners out of the skins and sausage casings from the intestines.
“My mother would make something out of everything, not the way we waste things now,” Alamour says. “There has been a change in the culture, and some of it was forced upon us. There are no grazing areas and no big herds... It’s sad for me that my culture is being erased.” Kaadan, from the Agriculture Ministry, says Muslims stopped using all parts of the animals over the last two decades. Abattoirs send their hides to factories, but home slaughterers often dispose of theirs in the regular trash dumpsters.
“It’s a shame – you could collect the skins and send them to a factory,” he says. “This young generation is not going to eat the internal organs, to clean them and make them acceptable. It takes a lot of time and it smells terrible, and today’s women don’t want to do it.”
Sociologist Liora Gvion, who lectures at Tel Aviv’s Kibbutzim College and at the Hebrew University, interviewed 100 Arab-Israeli women across the country for a book on their cooking in the early 2000s. She found that they had modified a long list of traditional cooking techniques, using, for example, store-bought couscous rather than rolling it by hand, substituting commercial phyllo dough for the timeintensive home-made version, or cooking with margarine rather than olive oil.
“These women didn’t make sausages,” Gvion says. “It’s poor food. So it’s a relief not to use all the parts. Yes, it’s knowledge that’s going, but it’s also accepting modernity. It takes a long time to clean and sterilize and fill a sausage… They kept saying, ‘I cook the way my mom used to cook but it takes me a quarter of the time.’”
“Many changes have happened and it changes my character too,” Alamour says. “But even the most extreme reformists will tell you that there are things we want to preserve.”