A blood-filled feast to celebrate God's kindness

Imagine a city where, in a single day, 100,000 cattle are slaughtered on the streets. Jeremy Seabroo

Eid-ul-Azha is one of the most important festivals in the Islamic year. A three-day celebration, it commemorates the sacrifice by Ibrahim of his son Ismail, as proof of his devotion to Allah; however, Allah, satisfied with an obedience that will forfeit a beloved son for the faith, intervenes and substitutes the sacrifice of a cow or goat instead. Every year the festival symbolically re-enacts the moral evolution of a society that has forsworn human sacrifice.

In the week preceding Eid, I had been in Rangamati, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The road down to Chittagong was crowded with men, women and children, some leading a single animal, others herding half a dozen or more, controlling them with thin twigs from a wayside tree. Children constantly fed the travelling animals - fodder, leaves, dry grass - for the worst thing that could happen on their long journey to market would be a loss of weight and, hence, of value.

There were cattle markets in every town and village, animated groups of people examining each tethered cow and goat, assessing the likely quality of the meat. Chittagong itself had become one huge market. The main thoroughfares were closed. Buses, trucks, three-wheel taxis stagnated in their own fumes for many hours, and business was concluded late in the night.

In Dhaka, too, informal animal markets had sprung up all over the city in the days leading up to the festival: goats with shiny black pelts, horns painted celebratory blue or green, changed hands at between 2,000 and 3,000 taka (about £38). Cows, some lean, the corrugation of the ribcage clearly visible through the brown and white fur, others sturdy humped creatures, sold for 6,000-20,000 taka (£76-£250). The cows were garlanded with marigolds and purple and silver tinsel; some had hats of gold and silver paper, horns painted, yellow wreaths around their humped backs.

On the night before Eid, the streets are crowded with men and boys leading the creatures to their homes, where they are tied up in courtyards or attached by chains to gateposts, fed with leaves, grass and flowers - a pre-slaughter taste of paradise. I am invited to make the acquaintance of the cow that the family with whom I am to spend the day have bought. It is 2am when they return home from the market.

On the day itself, people rise early to take a bath before namaz, but no breakfast. Then comes the time for the ritual slaughter. There is no space in Dhaka for this to be done privately. As a result, the streets become scenes of a vast and distressing carnage. The imam, dressed in white cotton, says the blessing Bismillahi, Allahu Akbar, and the hujur plunges a knife into the animal's throat. The windpipe is severed, the blood gushes on to the pavement and seeps into the dust at the edge of the road. The animal's eyes glaze over, a film of blue. There is no sound but the rasp of knife on skin.

Some animals are bound before they are killed: hind legs tied together, then front legs, then front and back together, so that the beast can easily be felled. Two or three men sit on the struggling animal and the hujur probes the neck with his fingers, so that the end will be swift and noiseless. Many people believe that the animals are aware of their sacrificial status; on the night before they are killed, they weep, it is said. Thick, glassy tears roll down their sad faces.

The spectacle is continuously enacted at the edge of every street, for not everyone performs the karbani (sacrifice) at the same time. A man, barefoot beneath a blue-check lungi, takes a bucket of water to swill away the blood; he kicks the sluggish mixture into the drain, and his crimson feet seem to dance in the liquid. The white clothes of the imams, who go from house to house to pronounce the blessing, become more bloodstained, especially at the hem.

The compound of the house I am visiting is shaded by palm trees, the red flaking bark of jackfruit, mango trees in bloom, a lemon tree with two ripe fruits, the dark shiny leaves of guavas. They have hired some labourers - itinerant butchers - to help dismantle the carcass. The two men work beside the elder son and his cousin, while the father supervises. They have bought new bamboo mats, on which the work of demolition is carried out; the soft yellow chetai is coloured fresh vermilion, but this soon congeals into dark maroon.

Air is pumped into the skin so that it can be dexterously separated from the body. The pelts are given to the mosque, which sells them to the foul-smelling tanneries of Islambagh for 500-800 taka (£6-10), according to quality. The work proceeds silently and swiftly: the dark red meat and yellow fat are soon transformed into a more reassuring picture of the butcher's shop, rather than the slaughterhouse. The cavernous vault of the creature from which the entrails have been removed is cut with an axe that cleaves the bones cleanly. Only the red stains on the road give a clue to the massacre that has occurred - at least 100,000 cattle have been killed today in Dhaka alone.

After this begins the task of dividing the meat, according to Islamic custom, into three equal parts - one-third for the consumption of the household, one-third for neighbours, and, following the tradition of zakat, one-third for the poor. Stomach and intestines have been set apart, a pale, swollen semi-opaque ball of half-digested food and the gobar, which will be extruded and find its way on to the rubbish dumps of the city.

Meanwhile, outside the metal gate, the poor have begun to gather, claiming their portion of meat. Mostly women and children, carrying black plastic bags, some of which hold the charitable offerings of other houses in the neighbourhood. The poor are often given the offal - yellow piping, lungs, hooves, jawbones.

Children peer beneath the gate to see if the meat is ready for distribution.

They pour into the courtyard, leaving bare footprints of blood; eager, excited, hands outstretched so that they look like a hungry revolutionary crowd, although revolution is far from their minds. The verandah of the two-storey building is protected by a grille. Noorani from Barisal, where the land is eroded by the river, is the mother of seven young children and works as a maidservant in a nearby house; Seema, pregnant, with one baby in her arms and a toddler by her side, is the wife of a rickshaw driver; Shilpi, abandoned by her husband in Comilla, has three young children. "They go from house to house," my friends explain. "Some of them may finish up with more meat than we do."

The mother of the family takes a big aluminium vessel, which she rests on her hip, and plucks out random handfuls of meat to place into the skinny hands that reach through the grille. Some are luckier than others. When the bowl is empty, the people do not disperse. More meat appears. Then, when that, too, has gone, she shows the empty bowl, indicating that there is no more. The people are then told to go, in the unceremonious way that the middle classes dismiss the poor. They will keep coming late into the night.

The leader of the keshai, the butchers and labourers, comes to collect his money. There is an altercation, because he had promised three workers and only two turned up. He expects to be paid for three. A compromise is reached. He goes away, angry, bloodstained as a murderer's hireling. By now it is late afternoon. The women of the house have been working for days to provide the Eid meal. But first come the sweets - shemai, vermicelli in milk with sultanas and nuts; payesh, which is similar but richer, made with ghee, fruit and custard; caramel (which they call "pudding"); coconut water; Fanta and Coca-Cola. Then the meal itself. I feel guilty, a spectre at the feast, since, to add to my list of exotic characteristics (the principal one being that I am without family, and therefore not a full human being), they accept that I don't eat meat, and have, forbearingly if uncomprehendingly, provided a separate vegetarian meal.

As it grows dark, the people who live in the slums and on the streets take their bulging and dripping plastic bags to where they live. On the sidewalk, blackened aluminium pots are simmering on improvised stoves of bricks; dead leaves, wood and plastic are used for fuel, creating eddies of smoke and scarlet flame in the dusk; an unaccustomed savoury smell rises from these little bonfires of celebration. Children speak to the fire, urging it to burn faster.

Jehanara, one of six children of a migrant family from Mymensingh, seven years old and run over by a taxi, lies on a piece of blue polythene up to her hips in plaster, patiently waiting for her share, after the men and boys have eaten. Her mother is a maidservant who earns 400 taka a month (£5.07); her father a construction worker. They live on the pavement outside the 12-storey block of flats where he works. While he builds apartments for the privileged, his own family remains on the street, where they eat, wash, sleep and shit without privacy, without shelter.

Next day, there is a smell of blood in the air and decaying scraps of meat litter the roads. Blue-black crows pick at a bare jawbone; dogs snarl over some remains. Teeth grin out of a drain; some ears have been abandoned in the dust; hairy hooves, leftovers, the contents of a stomach. The children of the poor dive in and out of overflowing yellow metal skips which still bear the announcement that these were part of some distant World Bank project to clean up the city, scavenging for the last vestiges of the feast.

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