The alarm went off of 5:00 am and we dressed quickly as the first rays of light filtered through our window. It was the first day of Eid Al-Adha and we had decided to watch the morning prayers and following festivities at the Amr Ibn Al-As Mosque, famous as the first mosque built in Egypt.
The metro was filled with people of all ages from small sleepy children to old men and women walking with the assistance of family members. As foreigners, we did not fit in with the crowd and attracted a number of stares which seemed to say, “what are you doing up this early?” We just smiled and acted like we always get up to ride the subway at 5:30 in the morning.
We followed the masses to the mosque itself and sat down at a café to watch the morning prayers. The scene was oddly reminiscent of a picnic. The long street in front of the mosque was covered with large green carpets spread out like grass with families milling about and men winding their way through the crowds selling balloons from floating towers and what looked to be metallic space blankets, whose use we could not quite discern. The balloon men were joined by teen girls dressed in blue uniforms and carrying large wooden boxes marked for zakat, donations to the poor and charities.
The prayers began just as the sun peaked over the walls of the mosque. The thousands of gathered people prayed in unison, raising their hands, bowing and touching their heads to the ground in movements directed by the calls of the Imam, magnified over loud speakers. Although it was beautiful to see the collective prayer and supplication, the enormous political banners draped across the street, advertising candidates for the upcoming elections, distracted me from the spiritual atmosphere.
When the prayers finished, we decided to continue walking in hopes of witnessing one of the more famous sides of Eid Al-Adha, the mass sacrifice of sheep, goats and cows. Eid Al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismael (Isaac in the Judeo-Christian tradition) as a demonstration of obedience to God, after which God provided a ram to be sacrificed in Ismael’s place. The meat is then divided into thirds, with the family taking one third, relatives, friends and neighbors given another share and the last third given to the poor and needy.
The weeks leading up to the Eid held ominous signs of the coming slaughter, with the streets being increasingly filled with goats and sheep (at times even cows) who lived in makeshift pens, seemingly unaware of their impending end. The sacrifice itself is done in local butchers shops, which I imagine must do 25% of their year’s work in the three days that make up the Eid.
As a lifelong vegetarian, I was not going to watch the sacrifices because I wanted to see them but more because I felt that I should see them. Not only because it is a significant part of Islamic culture but also because there is such a gap in the US between the food that we eat and its source (meat seems to come from clean plastic packages and not animals) and I wanted to rectify that view, if only for myself.
My ignorance was quickly dispatched as we joined a crowd that had gathered around a local butchers shop. As we were not your standard onlookers, one of the children watching took it upon himself to describe the process in dramatic motions, slowly drawing his hand across his neck multiple times, as if we could not see the sheep behind him writhing on the floor of the butchers shop.
Although I appreciated the cultural and religious significance of the process, after ten or fifteen minutes, we decided to head home, walking through the crowds of balloon-and-mysterious-space-blanket-carrying families. It is an event that everyone should see once, but next time I think I might sleep in and try hard not to think about counting sheep.