Tuesday, November 08, 2011

What..! Sacrifice ..?

For most people in Turkey this is a long weekend off work and the time to visit family. I decided to take advantage of a few days without classes to get into the sunshine and take pleasure in the wonders of nature and the mingling of the holiday crowds. As it was yet another beautiful day with temperatures still hovering in the low 20s (bottom end of the 70s Fahrenheit) I hopped in the car and drove along the coast to enjoy lunch in a seaside town, take a wander around the traditional markets, shop for some warmer clothes in ancticipation of the cooler season approaching and pay my respects to a few friends.I had planned a busy day.

This week is an important occasion that marks the 72 day period between Ramazan, with its carnival atmosphere at the end of the daily fasting during the holy month, and the commemoration of the Kurban. Turkish people call this holiday a Bayram, as they do with most national or religious events that embrace celebratory activities and time off work. Bayram translates literally as ‘festival’. Muslims in other parts of the world generally call it Eid.

With most people free from employment obligations for at least four days and many off work for the week the usual tourist areas swell for one last big occasion before winter closes the seasonal activity.

Grabbing this opportunity the local businesses put on sales and special entertainment to entice potential consumers, and it offered me the chance to revel in the culture and customs as well as the sensations of the bazaar. So, after my usual breakfast of fruit-laden cereals and bread dripping with fresh honey, I set off on a mini-adventure (yes, like this Blog it seems some things never change; I’m happy to say I might not either).

The souk in the old town consists of hundreds of stalls with their many handcrafted goods and delicious and unique foodstuffs, ancient shops built into the old city walls selling magnificent hand-woven carpets and skilled art works and dozens of tiny teahouses bustling with the commotion of customers and older men, obviously the regulars, playing backgammon at low tables. I made a couple purchases, including a fresh from the docks balik ve ekmek (fish sandwich) with salad and chips, and then spent time chatting to a couple locals as young men brought teas on silver trays.

Naturally, there is more to the festivities than simply eating and drinking and everyone is aware that at this time the sheep are slaughtered and meat donated to the poor by those who can afford to purchase an animal and put it to the knife. Several years ago the government outlawed the public practice of this massacre, calming the outrage of some sensitive souls who eat meat but don't want to see the action involved in getting it to their table - but it was still happening everywhere when I first visited Turkey nearly twenty years ago. Although nowadays most people either conduct the ritual on their own land or have the gruesome deed performed by a licensed butcher and collect the meat packaged supermarket style, back then it happened in the middle of the street in practically every town.

I was driving with my two companions from the same coastal area where I now live to Istanbul, and after travelling all night we arrived in Yalova, across the Sea of Marmara from the majestic city. We shared breakfast and after a boost of strong coffee headed into the early summer morning sun for the final leg of the journey (in retrospect we should have taken the ferry but the way we entered the city is a memory I’m sure none of us will ever forget). Suddenly, as the clock struck eight, the air was filled with the cries of fear and the terror of anticipation as the smell of blood hit the nostrils of every sheep and cow within miles of the town centre. As we stood outside the hotel where we had eaten a basic meal of eggs, cheeses and bread, hundreds of sheep were being flipped onto their backs and having their throats slit. The dark red blood ran into the cobbles of the road as if tracing its way around a maze toward the gutters, which quickly overflowed with the life of so many dying animals.

This weekend I was invited to come to a friend’s farm to witness the affair, but after some thought I declined, as my conscience wouldn’t allow me to go through that again. Instead, I’ve enjoyed the peace and quiet of the town I live in now that the overseas visitors have all but disappeared for the year, watched some football with the ex-pats who live nearby, and toured the nearby countryside to watch the last of the cotton being harvested and gathered before shipped off to the mills.

Some people it seems don’t get time off, and the temporary labourers and farmers work from daybreak till after dark to ensure the cotton is collected at the right time. Soon these buds will be turned into fabric and the cloth sewn into the clothes we wear. Many of the items will be available in local shops and everyone in the chain of growth, production and sales will receive a small portion of the receipts, however throughout the world many people are working in less comfortable situations to supply shops in Britain, the USA and other nations who exploit the poorest to maximise profits for 'brand name' merchandise.

Last Friday I was teaching an evening lesson and thought it would be a good idea to discuss Kurban Bayram and explain the origins of the festival to those who only experience it from within the sanctuary of experience of family and cultural tradition, intending to stimulate conversation about this ancient holiday. Tracing the roots of the events that have culminated in the mass killing of sheep we touched on the culture of food, the distinctive practices of various regions and the evolution of religion through the shared history of Islam and Judaism as well as drawing comparisons with other celebrations throughout the world and of course, speaking in English.

It all led to the eventual discovery by the students that the festival was a commemoration of the moment God (Allah/Yahweh) demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son (in Judaism Isaac, in Islam Ishmael) as proof of his devotion. At the last minute God tells Abraham he has passed the test of faith and tells him to sacrifice a sheep instead, and so to this day a sheep is offered in the morning. At temples, mosques and synagogues around the world sacrifices are made in the name of God, and surreptitiously to feed the less fortunate, though not everyone recognises the underlying resons for these shared events. Although several of the students were aware of the purpose of the Bayram, they were surprised to learn that Kurban actually means ‘sacrifice’.

Looking out over the harbour at one of my favourite castles as the sun set and the cruise ships departed, carrying their wealthy foreign guests to the next destination on the itinerary, I sipped a last coffee before heading back along the sea road to relax for another day, and of course put together lesson plans for my classes returning later in the week.

I’ve sacrificed the warm blood of meat for many years, although not putting mammal flesh into my personal temple of this body hasn’t felt like giving something up, but rather as lifting myself toward a higher passion. It’s been another gorgeous weekend in this wondrous land, but every day in the sunshine is another day of life to delight in; if living with the curious culture of a diverse people means I wake to the light of the sun in my eyes, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to accept.

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