Outside the car, a sea of Muslims gathers on the street. String lights line balconies of flats and homes and lampposts. Neighbors and passersby greet one another. “Eid Mubarak,” they say—blessed festival. My uncle points to the butcher shops, the animals hanging outside on hooks, still dripping from the slaughter.
Usually, residents and festivalgoers will pick up their meat after the butcher has done the deed, but my uncle believes there’s something extraordinary about watching the slaughter, so today we are going to witness it in person. But it’s not just the slaughter we’re going for, he reassures me—it’s what follows.
“It’s a beautiful and kind thing,” he explains, speeding toward a small shantytown outside of Alexandria. “You’ll see.”
The summer sun is golden and harsh. It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve felt sun like this. I didn’t live in Egypt for very long before moving to America, unlike my mom, who has spent the majority of her life here, or my brother, who visits every summer. Until now, Egypt has been a series of childhood dreams. Picking mulberries in the piazza in front of our Cairo flat. Walking down the boardwalk along the beach in Alexandria, stopping for cotton candy and shawarma. My grandma holding me by one hand, my brother by the other.
The Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice, emerged as an Islamic tradition from the Quranic story of Ibrahim and Ishmael. As the story goes, God commanded Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael as a show of obedience. In the Quran, Ibrahim obeys God, but upon raising his blade, God replaces Ishmael with a ram, for Ibrahim had already demonstrated his willingness to obey God unconditionally, even if it meant sacrificing the one he held most dear. The tradition of Eid al-Adha honors the piety of Ibrahim by requiring the sacrifice of an animal. Most of the meat is then donated to the poor, and the rest is given to family and friends as a symbol of friendship and reunification. When my uncle reminds me of this story during our drive, I wonder how it must have felt for Ibrahim to be willing to sacrifice his own child for God. I wonder why this has always been my father’s favorite holiday, one of the only times he truly comes alive. I wonder what this says about my family—a death of an animal in exchange for a present father.
After we moved to America in 2001 and my parents divorced a few years later, communication with my father became sporadic. He rarely called and when he did, he didn’t know how to connect with me.
One of those phone calls was in response to me denouncing our religion soon after I graduated high school. My mom confronted me one evening about my lack of faith and practice. She called my father in an effort for him to persuade me to return to God. I remember the beige walls of my room feeling more threatening than usual. When I answered he sounded like he had been crying.
“Nada, why don’t you believe?” he said. “You know if you refuse to be Muslim, we’ll have to disown you. You can’t use our last name—it’s a Muslim last name, and you can’t use it.” He said this all frantically, in one breath without pausing. He said it as though our very existence hinged on my belief of Islam. It seemed odd for an estranged father to disown his daughter, as if estrangement didn’t already imply a sort of disownment.
My uncle drives thirty minutes outside of the city and pulls onto an unpaved road, the wheels catching and releasing dust into the air. When we park, my brother reaches for my hand. “Don’t worry,” he says. “The animals don’t feel pain. There’s a specific artery that immediately kills them when they cut into it.”
I know animals are slaughtered by the millions, but there’s still something unsettling about watching them spill their guts for me. As a meat eater, I understand the hypocrisy of it, thinking that I’m incapable of watching an animal die—an animal that’s going to feed me and many others—as though its blood is not my responsibility.
My uncle steps out of the car and hurries to the butcher shop. My brother, mom, and I follow him until we reach an open area filled with children and families sitting on the ledges bordering some of the shanties. My eyes sweep over the crumbling concrete and broken seafoam-green shutters. Some children are holding balloons, and I smile at the way they play with them, never mind the dried blood on the ground.
“I can go get you a balloon if it makes you feel better,” my uncle chuckles after he returns from his negotiations with the butcher.
I roll my eyes at the comment but let out a smile. My mom squeezes my cheek.
“It’s going to be good,” she says.
I push her hand away. She was the one who dragged me here. Something about needing to be in touch with my faith, or at least understand it. Yes, Mom, I want to tell her. Watching a man gut an animal is going to get me straight with Allah.
My brother and I keep our distance from the slaughter. “I think it’ll be good if you see it,” he says, “but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I can keep standing here with you.”
Flies and mosquitoes start to gather around what’s left of the previously butchered animals. I swat some away with my hand and kill a mosquito that lands on my arm.
I couldn’t stand summers in Abu Hummus, the small village where we used to spend time with my paternal grandmother when I was a child. Often the smell from the nearby pond made my stomach turn. There were weeds and grass and mosquitoes and flies, and if I could have, I would have swatted them all to hell. My parents didn’t know it then, but I was allergic to the proteins and enzymes the mosquitoes inject to numb the site where they draw blood. The problem with this village was that it was full of these bloodsucking bilbos, and they feasted on my blood at night. My dad told me I often cried out from the pain of the sting, my body imprinted with large welts the size of quarters. One night he came pushing into my room.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“The mosquitoes are pulling my socks and it really hurts,” I responded, my child eyes full of tears.
He ran from the room and grabbed the vacuum and pulled the telescopic handle out.
“Where are they?” he yelled. “I’ll get them, I’ll get those bastards.”
We ran around the living room laughing, the two of us chasing those monsters into the night.
You’re not getting my blood as long as my dad is around.
While my uncle talks to the butcher about how to divide up the meat from the kill, I decide to take a walk, and drift from the crowd. In the heat I tire quickly. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a child riding a small dirt bike with three more children behind him, their arms clinging around the tiny driver. A hijabed woman seated in front of her dwelling notices me approaching and eyes me carefully. I lean back against the concrete wall of a partially torn-down house, my stomach aching from the stench of blood in the heat. Why did I return to Egypt? I wonder. I think of my mom and my uncle and their desperate need for me to conform to their religious beliefs and traditions. Perhaps they want me to know that they are good people. And by they, I mean Muslims. Or maybe they think that if I know the reason behind the traditions, I will come to once again love the religion that built me. My mom’s worst fear is that I’ll become an atheist. What will become of your soul once your curiosity for writing and science is old and tired? she worries. Why live in an extraordinary world if you can’t let yourself believe in its impossibility?
Perhaps what my mom cannot understand is that I moved to America too young, and my identity as an Egyptian or a Muslim or an American as I know it is a bit shattered, something like what an actor must feel when toggling between the fiction of acting and the reality of being. I wonder if they think a two-week stay in Egypt can undo everything that America has done in me over the years. I wonder if they think two weeks is enough to make me Egyptian again.
The hijabed woman stands and gestures for me to come to her.
“Would you like to sit?” she says. “Please sit. I’ll be back with some water.”
I try to stop her to tell her it’s fine, but she’s gone before I’m able to. I look around and see that she only has the one chair. I count five or six children running in and out of the house. I can’t help but notice the dirt floor, as if the inside is no different than the outside. I sit and wait for her and inside me something hurts, an ache brought on by this small act of kindness.
One time I asked my mom if I’d ever died or almost died. I’m not sure why I asked this, but I knew my father would come up.
“You were only an infant,” she said. “You wouldn’t stop crying. I needed time to rest. I asked your father to watch you.”
She was in the bedroom, she told me, my loud shrieks a reminder that I was still alive. Somehow she fell asleep. When she awoke, she noticed the silence, and fear gripped her—she had no faith that my dad could coddle me into silence. She found him in the living room. He was standing there, panicking at the sight of my blue body against the brown patterned couch. He’d thrown me against it, my mom told me, in an effort to keep me quiet.
“I just wanted her to stop crying,” he told her.
I had stopped breathing, a pale thing strewn against harsh fabric. My mom gave me CPR and revived me as my dad watched, crying. Finding out about that night sparked something in me, a sort of buried agony over someone broken.
The men assisting the butcher place a blindfold around her eyes first. I stand close to her and wonder why they do this. The cow writhes on the ground, pebbles scratching her skin. Two other men stand on either side of the animal, pushing her down as best they can. A crowd gathers in anticipation. The butcher tries to quiet them. “It’s time,” he says, raising his blade to the sky. He then forces the neck of the girl up, pushing his blade into the major artery. “Allah Akbar,” he yells. He pushes his knife into her with a precision, an exactness akin to a surgeon. The girl squeals and writhes, but the butcher keeps her steady. Blood spills from the carcass, a warm red pooling underneath her body. The blood drains, seeping into the hot desert. It pools and pools, the body convulsing, until all is still.
Afterward, my uncle and the butcher load a tuk tuk with the individual packages of meat—simple packages really, plastic grocery bags tied into knots.
The traditions around the sacrifice have changed over the years, my uncle explains. Many people, preferring not to witness the slaughter, have taken to picking up the butchered meat once the sacrifice is over. He tries to articulate why he still participates in the sacrifice, why it’s so important to him to hire the butcher and witness the death before distributing the food. One of the things he tells me is that, outside of traditions like this, it’s hard to help the poor in Egypt because people don’t know who is actually poor and who is pretending. There are stories of men who frequent the mosques, adding their names to a list of people who require assistance. These men don’t belong to one mosque, but to many. They take aid away from those who actually need it.
I imagine my father lining up at every mosque in the city. I was eighteen years old the last time I saw him, before he disappeared, but I never stopped hearing of his scams, his biggest con being his visa shop scams. My dad’s “business” models were built off one major truth—people wanted out of Egypt. It was simple, really: money in exchange for my dad’s connection to the United States. Money in, visa out. He built a clientele off his knowledge of the American immigration system. He preyed on those who would sacrifice anything to deliver their families “the American Dream.” He knew English, he’d lived in the United States, and he had connections with people there—he seemed more qualified and credible than anyone else who had set up shop. Of course, there was no visa.
A car takes us into another part of the village where a couple awaits us, a sheikh from a nearby mosque and his wife. They welcome me into an office while my uncle and brother unload the meat. The woman asks if I’d like something to drink and at first I refuse her, but upon her insistence, I relent and accept her offer. My mom sits across from me with a big smile on her freckled face, unfazed by the slaughter. My uncle and brother along with the sheikh and his wife gather outside the small office. They run us through the plan: each person will provide us with a ticket in exchange for a bag of meat. This ticketing system ensures everyone gets only one bag of meat, so as many people as possible can have the opportunity to eat. Meat is expensive, and many people in these villages cannot afford their most basic needs, let alone a chunk of meat for dinner.
People begin to line up. Soon the line extends around the building. I start the handoff, a bag of fresh meat for a ticket. “Tslam edaiky,” the people say to me one by one. “Bless your hands.” The sheikh’s wife stands next to me and sees my bewilderment. She has kind eyes and looks at me with the tenderness of a mother. She tells me I’m beautiful, says it’s the kind of beauty that exudes kindness, and when she says it, I can’t help but feel like a fraud.
The cow has turned into fifty separate plastic bags, each bag weighing approximately one kilo, or 2.2 pounds. If one kilo feeds about four people, two hundred people will be fed by us. Millions more throughout the Muslim world will be fed by others on Eid al-Adha.
My mom sat me down one night when I was a teenager to tell me about how I doomed us all. She steadied her voice and tried to remain calm, reaching her hand over to hold mine.
“The thing is, if you willingly convert out of Islam…” She paused to choke back tears. “In the Quran—if, as a family, we fail to keep you on the path to Allah, we fail as Muslims.” She kept her light brown eyes on mine. “And if we fail,” she told me, “we all burn.” She said this like she believed nothing else to be more true. It was a given, then, that in order to belong completely to my family, to belong to this culture, I’d have to pretend to believe in something I did not fully believe in. And pretending meant giving up a part of myself. It is our biggest battle, the fissure that divides my family from me, and it has lasted more than a decade. Returning to Egypt this summer feels like a last chance.
There’s still a small amount of meat from the slaughter remaining in the trunk for the second portion of Eid celebrations.
“Ready to meet the rest of your family?” my brother asks. “Dad will be happy to see you after all this time.”
“Yes, I am.” I say it with confidence, but the same ache from before returns. I wonder about the cow, if she knew her fate when she stood restless in the stalls of the slaughter site. I think back to something my brother said years before about our father. He is not a good man, but he is family.
On our drive back into the city, my brother reaches for my hand again. “Thank you for coming,” he says. “I’m proud of you.” I feel silly when he says this but thank him anyway. Looking outside the window, I see the shops are all gated and closed. I see a family, a mom and dad, swinging a little girl in a pink dress and tights between them, and though I can’t hear her laughing, I can see from the way she throws her hair back that she is filled with joy. I think back to the sacrifice—perhaps to a Westerner it’s barbaric or archaic or even evil. I wonder if it’s evil too, and if I’m a Westerner now too because I think so. Something tugs at me, though, pulling my thoughts to the idea of Middle Eastern traditions. There’s much tradition holds. Sometimes I think it locks us in place, fueling the same repetitive motions, our bodies and minds refusing to conform to anything outside of it. Sometimes, though, I think traditions are what keep us alive, and by alive, I mean living for something outside of ourselves. Something unifying.
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