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Sacrifice and Hope on Eid al-Adha

In a divided Turkey, Eid is about charity, family — and a shared national meal

When I was 9 years old, I witnessed my first sacrifice. My family was visiting my grandparents in the small village where my parents grew up, about an hour drive from the city of Kayseri in central Turkey. We arrived to find a tiny goat tied up in the front yard. My grandfather had picked it out from a neighboring farmer to welcome us, and a few hours later, he unhooked it from the tree, then took his blade all around the goat’s neck.

A sea of blood quietly gushed from the ragged hole, and its headless body still kicked its bound legs. In the midst of my horror, my grandfather handed me the bloody knife, smiling. His smile is my favorite. It starts at his mouth and cascades through the rest of his face, folding his thin cheeks to waves and lighting his eyes. It’s really hard not to smile back. Reflexively, I took the knife and smiled too.

Later, as we dined on the goat, I began to understand what it meant to kill what you eat. Assuming sole responsibility for ending your hunger, pushing past the farmer, the butcher, the grocery store, and the delivery service, raising and slaughtering the animal yourself — it’s arduous and intimidating. But it’s also a little aspirational. I still boast about the sacrifice, as if to say not just this is what I come from, but also this is what I could be.

I do not boast about the nightmares. For days afterward, I dreamed about watching my grandmother be decapitated. She would hold her head in her hand, drawing closer, as if she were offering her head to me, repeating the same phrase over and over: “sana kurban olurum,” which translates as, “I’ll sacrifice myself for you.” It’s a flippant, endearing phrase, said often to loved ones, though it sounds heavy-duty translated to English. In real life, “sana kurban olurum” slips out of my grandmother’s mouth as often as she tightens her headscarf. But even when spoken lightly, a heavy-duty truth underlies it: Sacrifice is threaded through the Turkish national psyche.

An animal can be sacrificed any time something good happens, as a way of giving thanks to God, but nothing embodies the central role of sacrifice in Turkey more than Eid al-Adha. The holiday, observed across the Muslim world, celebrates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son upon God’s command; Ibrahim’s obedience is rewarded when his son is left unharmed, and a ram is taken instead. It signifies a readiness to give your all to God, and God’s mercy in return. In commemoration, an animal is bought and sacrificed — these days, a butcher typically handles the actual sacrifice — and money is given to those who need mercy, often to fund sacrifices for families who cannot pay for it themselves, so that they may participate in the holiday. (Traditionally, the sacrificed animal is divided into thirds, one of which goes to the poor, but there is flexibility with the amount, and sometimes money replaces the meat offering.) Eid’s annual occurrence is determined by the lunar calendar, so the date is pushed back about 11 days each year. This year, it begins on September 1; last year, it began on September 12.

Until then, I had never been to Turkey during Eid; I had always watched from my couch in London as the sensationalist Turkish news manufactured a day of hysteria. In Turkey, the celebration revolves around meat and lasts about four days: Animals are sacrificed en masse, and the fruits of the farmers’ labor are feasted upon in every home, no matter the economic class. Livestock auctions rise to a frenzy, goats make a run for it, and doctors pointlessly wag fingers about eating fresh meat in the morning. Politicians prepare a solid day of PR, staging their bodies in mosques to appeal to the populace, while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadcasts his annual Eid message on state television like the Queen of England on Christmas Day.

In fact, it had been seven years since I’d been back to Turkey at all. As a kid, I used to go every summer to spend time with my grandparents. With their children long grown and spread across the world, they spend three out of four seasons there alone in total self-sufficiency. My grandfather keeps bees and tends to his small garden, bringing in vegetables and fruit, while my grandmother makes her own jams, cheese, yogurt, butter, and clotted cream. Of course, I hated trips to Turkey for all the reasons any kid raised in the West would: It smelled, there was no internet, the toilets were holes in the ground. As I grew older, my parents continued to spend their summers in Kayseri, making the four-day car trip across Europe without fail, while I stayed in London.

Last summer though, my cousin’s wedding and my grandparents’ mortality finally nudged me to buy some plane tickets. In the months leading up to the trip, Turkey’s failed military coup graced the world’s screens. As my parents and I watched, we sat unfazed. My parents had been through a successful military coup before, and this didn’t look anything like it: High-ranking elected officials weren’t arrested, state television wasn’t taken over by the military, the streets weren’t empty. We felt the same as always — they were relentlessly disappointed and hopeful for their homeland, while all I registered was resentment and disdain. The thought of cancelling the trip was fleeting. We changed the channel.

Sacrifices made on behalf of Turkey haven’t always been made with the best intentions. The Ottomans, who ruled Turkey for more than 600 years, regularly murdered family to protect their power, peaking with Sultan Mehmed III assassinating 19 of his brothers to eliminate the possibility of a civil war. In 1922, the Ottoman Empire was overthrown, and the Republic of Turkey was formed a year later by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In order to jump-start modernization, Turkey shed its Ottoman past and aligned itself with the West; Atatürk changed the alphabet from Arabic to Roman, secularized the state, prohibited the headscarf in state buildings, closed all religious schools, lifted the ban on alcohol, and switched the calendar from Islamic to Gregorian. As a result of that transformation, even today, Atatürk retains a deity-like status in Turkey.

The new and shiny Turkish Republic came at the expense of devout Muslims and Kurds. The multiethnic, multireligious Turkish population that Atatürk championed prior to his eventual rule became a burden in the face of modernity and those that didn’t fit were ignored and shunned. That forceful social engineering produced the weak foundation that the country has been wobbling on ever since. No matter who has power, the refrain is the same: You’re either with us or you’re against us, and if you’re against us, you will be punished. In my parents’ time, during the 1970s and ’80s, the power struggle was between the right-wing nationalists and the left-wing anti-establishment protesters. Now it’s between those that seek liberal secularity and those who want an Islamic state.

One of the great joys of Eid al-Adha is that it’s one of the least politically fraught holidays in Turkey. One of the country’s most famous contemporary theologians, Yaşar Nuri Öztürk, wrote that the holiday — and sacrifice in general — is not so much a religious practice as it is a form of social charity: Your generosity can either be completely given to the poor and needy, or divided up to be shared with family, neighbors, and the community. Traditionally, everyone attempts to engage in charity relative to their economic status, with the most aid going to the poor.

Those not wishing to sacrifice an animal tend to give money to a charity. Kizilay — Turkish Red Crescent — is the charity of choice. Started partly as a response to the needs of the Crimean War, it joined with the International Red Cross Movement soon after, and currently offers humanitarian aid to most of the Muslim world. (Much of its aid is currently dedicated to Syrian refugees, who have poured into Turkey in recent years.) Due to its independence from any government body, Kizilay is seen as rising above religious and political ideology, allowing Turks to donate and lean in to the idea of being a strong, compassionate nation.

Eid al-Adha is a mirage in the middle of the harsh desert of the Turkish spirit, a vision of the unified Turkey that we all wish existed.

A couple of months after the coup that wasn’t, I put my exasperation with Turkey aside and boarded two planes, eventually arriving in Adana Airport. My parents picked me up and we drove to my uncle’s house in Mersin. The palm trees that flanked the roads swayed softly, and the restaurants that lined the oceanfront were dark. Different politicians had taken it upon themselves to blanket Mersin in billboards, and their well wishes for a healthy and happy Eid — “BAYRAMINIZ MUBAREK OLSUN,” set against the staple Turkish red crescent and star, next to their headshots — towered over the city. There was a Stepford quality to these Eid greetings, as if Turkish politicians, who spend most of their time yelling gaudy insults at each other if they’re not throwing literal punches in Parliament, had decided to call a truce and talk to The People instead.

On the morning of Arife, the day before Eid, I went to speak to some of the livestock farmers who had come to town. My younger uncle joined me, and before we set out, he told me it was a good idea to not mention that I write for an American media outlet. I asked why, though I already knew his response: “Some people think America is behind the failed military coup.” Turkey is the land of conspiracy theories, and this was the theory du jour.

Three days before Eid, farmers from all around the country head into the cities, set up tents, unload their animals, and wait in a designated area they’re not allowed to leave until the holiday is over; most of the trucks have makeshift beds, with pillows cramped up by steering wheels. Enduring all this hassle is worth it, though: Eid is by far the most profitable time of the year. According to the quarterly numbers provided by the Turkish Statistical Institute, 12 to 13 percent of all red meat produced in the country is sold during the four days of Eid.

As we made our way toward the encampment on the outskirts of central Mersin, the powerful smell of cattle seeped into the car. The lot was one of the few empty spaces not yet occupied by condos, and open pens the size of basketball courts, jammed with cattle, spread out from either side of the road. There was also a smaller, concrete space with a roof for the sacrifice and subsequent butchering, to prevent contamination. Buyers are welcome to take cattle home alive to sacrifice and butcher it themselves, but it’s generally recommended that it happens in the lot, for sanitary reasons.

When we arrived, a butcher had just finished carving up an animal; he smiled at me as I took a photo of him posing next to a decapitated skull. Farmers stood or sat on plastic stools in front of their cattle. Some were from the eastern region of the country, indicated by their black shalwar trousers, black-and-white keffiyeh, and flat black hats resting on their tanned, wrinkled faces. Others were younger, from central Anatolia, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, having newly inherited the business from their fathers and grandfathers. While some passed the time playing cards in energetic groups full of laughter, others waited for customers with looks of exasperation.

Ali Altuoğlu had travelled 400 miles from Sivas, a small city in central Anatolia, a region caught between the modernity of the west and the more rural, traditional east. A younger cattle farmer in his early 30s, Altuoğlu complained about customers taking advantage of the last day of Eid, when the farmers hold a fire sale to rid themselves of as much cattle as possible before making the long journey home. “People wait until the last day and try and suffocate you, so no profit is made,” he said in Turkish. “The customer will use the government-set price guidelines to bargain with me to the point where it doesn’t even cover the cost of the butcher.”

Outside of Eid al-Adha, these farmers’ problems are far from the minds of urban residents , who now make up about 74 percent of the population. As younger generations seek jobs and better living conditions, the Turkish countryside is emptying out, and the urban population continues to expand. City dwellers have begun to wash their hands of the köylü — the rural villagers — so much so that the term can also mean “backwards” or “hillbilly.” Eid, which has long served as a rare moment of class unity, is beginning to lose its power to unite as the interaction between the two worlds are reduced. In its place is an ever-expanding cultural fascination with the yawning gap between the industrialized rich and rural poor: The booming Turkish TV industry now makes most of its money off of star-crossed family plotlines, which always result in the poorer character assimilating into the upper class.

The canyon between modernity and tradition, rich and poor, urban and rural, is most thoroughly embodied by the hypermarket, a grocery store concept that combines all retail needs under a single boundless roof, and that has spread across Turkey over the last 20 years with an efficacy that even American retail robber barons would appreciate. Carrefour is one of the most successful hypermarket chains in the world, and in a joint venture with the Turkish conglomerate Sabancı Holding, it has transformed a religious holiday into a reliably profitable venture as it widens the gap between the uneducated village farmer and the educated urban middle class. In the Carrefour parking lot in Mersin, we found the sanitized sacrificial area that is built each year for Eid. The omnipresent cattle stink was nowhere to be found, just a faint whiff of nature that I might have imagined. The cattle were shielded from the sun by metal roofs, and the sacrificial area was out of sight, encircled by industrial PVC canvas. Rows of plastic chairs provided comfort for waiting customers, and huge supermarket-style welcome messages hung up against the pens. Instead of bargaining, there were glossy price lists, eliminating the need to converse. There was not a farmer in sight.

Ten to 15 butchers, covered in blood and sweat, worked the sacrifice zone, trying to get the orders right. One calf panicked as it felt a rope try to lift it by its hind legs, while another next to it was completely gutted. A calf already skinned was sectioned into kilograms. It was like a Shake Shack line, but instead of a buzzer and a burger, you have a butcher yelling your number for kilos of fresh meat. I’ve been an unapologetic carnivore all my life, but there was something soulless, something haraam, about this unrelenting efficiency.

The appeal of formalizing the sacrificial process is understandable for both farmer and customer: There is clarity, ease, convenience. My younger uncle and I could’ve easily walked out with the meat and skipped the hassle of bargaining with farmers, but we still did things the traditional, more humanistic way. Days like Eid may unify the nation, but when you come across the scene at a Carrefour, it symbolizes a reality that’s almost laughably on the nose: Turkey, in all of its modernist efforts, is just covering up the smell of its own shit.

Last year, the first day of Eid al-Adha fell on September 12; on that same day in 1980, the Turkish military seized the government and dissolved all political parties. The 1970s saw the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union mirrored in Turkey, producing tension between nationalists and left-wing, Communist-affiliated groups. The conflict escalated to the point that the Turkish military intervened to restore order, and in the months that followed the coup, those that were accused of creating unrest in Turkey were arrested, tortured, and tried in military courts.

My family, a religious minority in Turkey — Alevism is a sect of Islam whose followers typically don’t fast during Ramadan, nor do they step inside of a mosque — fell into the left-wing category; my older uncle was arrested in 1980, and my father was arrested a year later. “They would beat us with batons, rifles, asking us where the guns were,” my father told me. “They would bring in young girls and we would hear their screams, telling us, ‘look at what we’re doing to your revolutionary sisters.’” The prison was once a hospital, a setting which the army used to terrorize those imprisoned. “Once, they made us look at a girl,” my father said. “She was beaten, her eyes, hands and feet were tied, and she was naked lying on top of the concrete slab where you wash the dead bodies. They told us that would happen to us.” My father was freed after a few months, completed his military service in 1984, and married my mother in 1988. Still haunted by these memories years later, my parents moved thousands of miles away 20 days after I was born to a country where they didn’t speak the language.

Stories of political unrest and revolution tend to be about the men, but the resilience of the women in my family helped everyone survive. When my uncle was in prison, my grandmother woke up at the crack of dawn every morning to prepare packages of food. “I would take him rice with chicken on top, honey, clotted cream, fresh butter, halvah, pastries,” she said. Nourishing his beaten, bruised, and starved body was the only thing she could do, but after a few months, it became apparent even that was useless; the other inmates stole the food and left him with nothing to eat.

During Eid, my grandmother would go for three days and nights without eating, and sleep on the concrete floor. “I said to myself, ‘If he sleeps like that, then I will too,’” she told me. That’s the thing about Eid — if you can’t give to those who need it, like your imprisoned son, and if you can’t be thankful, because your child isn’t at the dinner table, then there’s no point in celebrating.

The Eid celebration last year coincided with the engagement of my cousin, so my older uncle bought and sacrificed a goat to celebrate. As the women prepared the salads in the small hut in the garden, my father and uncle turned the freshly butchered meat on the grill. My uncle’s pride was infectious as he cooked the sacrifice in his garden, a small plot of land where he grew vegetables and raised chickens. Outside in the warm Turkish night, we sipped beer and chewed the tough meat, accompanied by a smoked eggplant salad. After we ate, we all said the customary phrase, “Allah dualarini kabul etsin” — may God accept your prayers — to my uncle, who had purchased the sacrifice. Despite his politically turbulent youth, and his poor Alevi family, my uncle was now living the Turkish dream: He was a wealthy man, and his son, a doctor, was marrying into another educated, wealthy family.

I thought about the farmers herding their cattle for the road, back to their families who sat at the Eid table without their husbands or fathers. Everyone in Turkey understands the concept of sacrifice that goes beyond a knife to a throat. There are sacrifices made every day in the hopes that a better Turkey will come out of them. My family sacrificed their liberty in the hopes of a freer motherland; my parents sacrificed everything they knew to raise me in a country that hadn’t forsaken them. It’s all in the hope of a better Turkey, even if no one can agree on the Turkey they envision. Cursed by the prototype set out by its founder, the Turkish Republic is still dealing with the ghosts of those it sacrificed.

In early October, as I boarded my flight back to London, I asked myself if I would ever come back. Heavy fear gripped me as I realized that I would probably only return when my grandparents died. They would be buried in the same village they spent most of their lives in, near their extended family. I realized what I saw when my grandfather handed me that bloody knife: It was a joy in providing for his children the only way he knew how; with his hands, on his land, with the animal he’d raised and killed himself. I have a small batch of his honey with me in my kitchen in New York, and wonder what will happen when we eat the last of it. It will probably stick in our throats, impossible to swallow, same as his loss.

Sacrifice isn’t just inherently part of Turkey, it’s embedded in my family. I grew up watching my mother say tearful goodbyes to her parents, year after year, to return to a country with gray skies and tasteless food. The dried fruit, nuts, and peppers, the jam and honey stuffed into my parents’ eight-seater are more than mementos from Kayseri. My own family might be steeped into London, but when we eat the dried fruit with brewed çay (tea), we’re the sons and daughters of Ayşe and Halil, made both closer to them and painfully aware of our distance.

Sacrifice, no matter how painful, must be endured for true love — whether it’s the prophet Ibrahim for Allah, my uncle and father for their country, or my mother for me. The gift of Eid is its aspirational simplicity. It tries to cut through complexity — of politics, of hopefulness, of disappointment. Once a year, we gather around a table, eat grilled meat, and for a few hours, sacrifice can be just a freshly cooked meal.

Pelin Keskin is a producer for Eater.
Saffa Khan is an illustrator and print maker based in Manchester, UK.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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