Green Prophet’s Daniella witnesses the Muslim holiday ritual slaughtering of a sheep, in Jaffa.
Last Friday I was determined to find a sheep slaughter. It was Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice. The story goes that Ibrahim was about to slaughter his son Ismail, when an angel came and redirected him to a lamb. In honor of that sacrifice, Muslims worldwide butcher sheep and goats on the holiday, and Jaffa, the Arab half of Tel Aviv, was no exception.
I got to Jaffa at 11 a.m. and began walking the streets looking for a family performing the ritual. Many families have stopped killing their own sheep in recent years; some don’t have the money, others don’t want the mess, some live in apartments without a yard, and others prefer celebrating the holiday in a vacation cabin in the north. At any rate, after calling about six families during the week, I still had no destination on Friday, and it was by chance that I saw a white sheep tied to the aluminum gate inside the Jaffaly family home in Shiveti Yisrael street in Jaffa. Two weeks earlier, Jaffar Jaffaly, 35, had paid 1,800 shekels (around $450) for it, and it was delivered the night before the holiday to his home.
The sheep seemed to know its fate. It nervously ate the potted plants in the courtyard. A few minutes after I got there, the butcher arrived: 65-year-old Mohammad, who has been slaughtering sheep since he was 15. His son-in-law (and my host) Jaffar held a blanket up while Mohammad sharpened his knives so the sheep wouldn’t get scared. It didn’t matter; it ran behind the house.
Once Mohammad was ready, he, Jaffar and two other men grabbed the sheep and wrestled it to the ground, next to a sewer whose cover they had removed. In a quick cut, Mohammad dispatched the sheep as about ten children watched. They were Jaffar’s kids, along with his nephews and neices.
Then the real work began. Mohammad and Jaffar took turns blowing air into a long plastic pipe wedged into the sheep’s leg; the animal blew up like a balloon as its skin separated from the muscle inside. Then they slid a butcher’s hook into a leg, and hoisted the sheep until the hook caught the doorframe. Now the sheep would make its transition from animal to dinner.
Mohammad expertly skinned the sheep in one piece, and slid it off the sheep like a sweater. He cut off the extremities, laying them in a plastic basin set on the ground. Jaffar threw the sheepskin in the dumpster across the street. Once, he said, his family would keep the skin and tan it with salt. But the process is labor intensive and stinks, and so they stopped.
The next step was removing the internal organs. As Mohammad pulled them out in one piece, Jaffar caught them in another plastic basin. The kids, who were still watching, asked Mohammad what each organ was. He blew up two glossy pink lungs and showed them the brown liver. Jaffar’s mother took the liver and heart to the kitchen and began making lunch.
Then Mohammad hacked the sheep into quarters, and worked each quarter down to manageable chunks. He did this all sitting at a miniscule picnic table in the front courtyard, and he handled his knife without much emotion. This was not a murder. It was a custom, as his father did before him. Mohammad preformed the whole operation with three knives, a pipe and a butcher’s hook, along with copious amounts of water.
I found it the most interesting to watch the kids’ responses. Before the slaughter, the women told their kids to say “Allahu Akbar” – God is Great – and explained that sheep don’t have souls like people do. Then the kids watched every part of the process, asking questions, poking the skin, touching the legs. Only one said he doesn’t eat red meat because of a previous slaughter. The rest had quietly learned through the years that meat comes from dead animals, and they ate it having made their peace.