There are four major holidays in Azerbaijan. Two of them are religious and are the same holidays that Muslims all over the world celebrate. They are Ramazan (Ramadan in the states) and Gurban Bayram. The other two are New Year’s and Novruz, which is a spring equinox holiday that likely has its origins in Zoroastrianism. This past November 16th brought the Gurban Bayrama holiday to all of Azerbaijan. The story behind this holiday, like many traditions from Islam, comes from the Old Testament. This is the way the story was explained to me by Ilkane, my Azerbaijani host sister in Sumgayit. Abraham and Sarah were barren, Abraham made a covenant with God that if Sarah begot a male child he would sacrifice him when he reached a certain age. God fulfilled Abraham’s request, gave him and Sarah a male child. They called him Ismail. Abraham waited for a message from God as to when he should sacrifice Ismail. When he received the message, Abraham brought Ismail to the sacrificial altar. Before the machete was about to fall upon Ismael’s throat God stopped Abraham, praised him for keeping his commitment to Him, and told Abraham that it was not necessary for him to sacrifice his son and provided a ram for him to sacrifice instead. For those of you who are familiar with the story of Abraham from the Old Testament this story is told differently and it could be that this is one interpretation among many in Azerbaijan.
The celebration of this holiday was possibly one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in Azerbaijan since I’ve been here. Interesting because none of our holidays or traditions even closely resemble what they do here in the Land of Fire. On this holiday, most Azaris sacrifice a four-legged animal, usually a sheep, but not always. The family is allowed to keep a third of the meat for themselves, give a third of the meat to relatives and friends, and give the final third to the poor. Ironically, it’s a celebration of life, human life anyways. The cost for animals varies based on the kind of animal it is. For instance, a sheep may cost anywhere from 100-200 manat and a cow anywhere from 600-1000 manat depending on its size and if you sacrifice it yourself or have the Imam do it. My family, the Hasanovas, purchased a cow with two other families. Their cost was 1000 manat split three ways. They must have bought a big cow and they did not sacrifice it themselves. Participating in the sacrifice as a distributor of meat is not only a sacrifice to the animal, but also a sacrifice to the participants’ purse.
Unfortunately, on the day of the holiday trainees had to attend language class. My cluster had their class in the morning, and I thought for sure this would mean that I’d miss out on all the excitement. To my grateful surprise and the contrary, I was able to witness so much more than I ever expected I would see. On my way home from school, I noticed sheep decorated with red ribbons around their necks and hooves, and some had blood painted on their white wool. In the center of the neighborhood I live in there is a very large courtyard. It’s kind of like a park except there’s absolutely nothing green growing in it. Well, there are trees, but they’re not green, they’re brown. In this courtyard there were several groups of men standing in circles around other men whose sleeves were rolled up above their elbows because their hands were busy carving the hide away from the animal they just sacrificed. I walked up to the building I live in and right in front of it was one of these groups of men who were standing around an animal that was still standing on all fours. We acknowledged each other by the nods of our heads and I motioned with the index finger of my right hand sliding across my neck like a knife intending the question, “Are you getting ready to sacrifice this animal?” Without hesitation the group of men said, “Hə,” which is yes in AZ, and I asked if they would wait a few minutes so I could run up to my apartment and grab my camera. They agreed and I took off running.
I made it back down in the nick of time as the men had the sheep lying on its side and they were ready to start the sacrifice. I know I discussed this with the killing of the chicken in the hamam, but It’s truly amazing to me how docile animals in this very compromising position are. There was no bleating, no bucking, and no squirming of any kind. One man was holding the front legs of the sheep and another was holding the back legs, but there was no resistance from the animal at all. In a matter of moments the man with the rolled up sleeves began to slice through the layers of the sheep’s neck while mumbling a prayer to God. It wasn’t until the he finished cutting all the way through the animal’s neck, and the blood began to drain onto the soil of the earth that the sheep began to convulse as its spirit left its body.
After a few minutes when the blood had completely drained, the men broke the hind legs of the animal, skinned it just above the point of the first joint, cut through the bone right below the same joint, stuck the cut bone through the bone above the joint creating a T and hung the animal from a tree to skin and gut it. Skinning an animal is a skill. Skinning an animal so that it’s skin stays in tact is an art. The man who skinned this animal was an artist. The knife he used was probably from his kitchen drawer. It was nothing special, in fact the blade barely looked sharp, but somehow this man managed to work his way around some particularly sensitive areas (men you know what I’m talking about) without a glitch, and he was as expert in removing the internal organs as he was in removing the external one.
When the sacrifice was over I thanked the men for letting me document the entire thing. I took nearly 140 pictures. Hasan came down to let me know that Minaya had finished preparing lunch, which was organs from the animal they had slaughtered for the holiday. I sat down at the table, contemplating what I had just witnessed and what I was eating and I really felt OK about it. I mean, just moments before I watched an animal being killed, drained of its life force and skinned. We are so removed from where our food comes from in the States. Many of us never consider the sacrifice that is made so that we may have food in our bellies. We take life so that we can sustain life, and witnessing that sacrifice really helped me to appreciate this fact.