Sunday, January 2, 2011

Holiday Celebrations

(This is the full story from Kurban Ait this year. The first part was already posted a few days ago. If you already read that part, then you can skip down to that section. Ait occurred in mid-November.)

I killed a sheep. Well, sort of. Actually, I paid to have a sheep sacrificed at the local mosque in order to give the meat away to the poor. Here's the story.


Kurbain Ait is a big holiday for Muslims. It celebrates the day that Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, but at the last minute, God told him to stop. Abraham had shown his faith in God, and he was rewarded for it. In his son's place, he sacrificed a sheep instead. Muslims all around the world still continue this tradition by sacrificing sheep on this day. From my understanding, any Muslim who can financially afford it should sacrifice a sheep on this day. This meat should then be used for a feast and given away to poor families. While we don't make a lot in Peace Corps, I figured that if we all pooled our money together we could afford to buy a sheep, have it butchered, and then donate the meat to the poor.


Two years ago, Kurban Ait was pretty traditional. At the time, I was living in the village of Dihan that had about 1000 people. I didn't actually see my host family kill a sheep, but we did go gosti a lot to other people's houses. Last year, I did nothing at all related to Ait, and it felt pretty sad. I did see some people slaughtering sheep around my apartment complex (a practice which was outlawed this year in Astana), but I didn't do anything. No gosting, no sheep. Nothing. Living in the city is a lot different than living in the village. Culture and tradition are around you, but they aren't always as apparent and easily accessible.


This year, I have decided to throw myself into all celebrations with gung ho enthusiasm. This is my last year (finally) in Kazakhstan; I have to live it as well as I can. So my first idea for Kurban Ait was to kill a sheep and donate the meat to the poor. The obvious question is, how? First, how do we find a sheep and have it butchered, and second, how do we find the poor to give the meat to. I asked a lot of people, and no one seemed to have a solid answer. It didn't help that the weekend before Ait (it was on a Tuesday), I was traveling and couldn't visit the bazaar to ask around for sheep. Monday the bazaar is closed (like a barbershop), so we (by then Mark was in on this idea as well) had no real places to seek advice.


The second question, assuming we were able to slaugher a sheep, was to whom do we give the meat. We had heard you should give the meat away, but we didn't know where to find suitable families. I've read that many Muslims in America donate some of the meat to food pantries, but there are no food pantries here. In Taraz at least, there is no one that is dedicated to working with poor families. Everyone I asked didn't really give the meat away to the poor. They just cooked a lot of it for a celebration and invited all of their friends and neighbors. Some of these people were likely to be less well-off financially, and therefore they are giving away the meat as charity. That didn't seem to be in the spirit of what I read on wikipedia (a great source, right?) that 1/3 of the meat should be for your family, 1/3 for your relatives and friends, and 1/3 for the poor. We wanted to give our meat away to people who could really benefit from it.  Our best solution was to give the meat to the mosque, thinking they would know whom to give it to.


Well, it was the day before Ait, and we still had no clear idea of what we should do. Then my co-worker Akmaral, had a great idea. We should go to the mosque and talk to an imam about it. If anyone knows, they should know. Mark and I met up that evening and went to the mosque near his house. It seemed busy with activity, as people were preparing for Ait the next day. One young man saw us, and asked if we needed any help. I told him that we heard tomorrow was a holiday and that we wanted to "rezat" (cut, but also means sacrifice) a sheep. He told us that we should come back the next day after 9:00. He didn't fully explain what we should be expecting or planning on doing at 9:00 the next day, but Mark and I were happy. Even if our plan was now show up at the mosque at 9:00 and see what happens, we at least had a plan.



Being Americans, we decided to actually show up at 8:45 in case we were supposed to get there right at 9:00. We showed up early, but it was well worth it to see the site. The courtyard of the mosque was PACKED with men praying together. And if the courtyard was that full, we knew inside was just as full. [Side note. In America, there is a public debate about the secularization of holidays (Santa versus Jesus, the Easter Bunny versus Jesus, etc.). And even though the locals don't seem to care if many holidays have lost touch with their religious roots, it bothers me to see. Therefore, I was really excited to see so many people actually gathering for prayer on the religious holiday. ] Prayer ended at about 9:00 and people filed out of the gates for 10 minutes. There were that many people. More and more people just kept leaving the mosque.


Finally, the crowd of people had dissipated, and Mark and I cautiously entered the courtyard. Most importantly, I didn't want to insult anyone or show disrespect for their holiday. We aren't Muslims, but we were interested in learning more and participating to the degree possible for non-Muslims. Muslim faith around the world varies a lot on its acceptance of non-believers, and I wasn't sure where the followers in Kazakhstan fall on that spectrum. I felt a little nervous walking into the courtyard. Remember, we had no plan. Just show up and see what happened. We were standing there, probably looking lost and awkward when a man started yelling at us.


It took a second for us to realize what he was saying, or maybe he started off barking orders at us in Kazakh. However, we noticed he was saying, Go help. Go help. He was pointing a finger at a pile of carpets rolled up against the wall. One other young guy was gathering up the carpets and carrying them to a different part of the courtyard. Okay, so we'll go help move some carpets. Mark and I went over to the pile and picked up some rugs. It only took about five minutes to move all the carpets to their new spot, but it felt good to help out. Assisting at the local mosque on Kurban Ait, that's something I never expected to do in my lifetime.


Once we were done with that though, we were once again lost for what we should do next. By now the hundreds of people that had been there were thoroughly gone. In the center of the courtyard, there wans't anyone around. However, off to the left side there was a stable. And in the stable there were about two dozen sheep. And next to the stable with the two dozen sheep, there was an imam blessing sheep before they were butchered. Jackpot.


So Mark and I go from awkwardly standing around the courtyard to awkwardly standing around the stable area. We were so close, but I still felt nervous. Were the sheep for sale, or were they already donated to the mosque? How much did they cost? If we walked up and naively asked, would we get ripped off by the people there? We did watch a couple sheep get blessed and then sacrificed. And then… we left.


Too nervous. Too scared. We came close. We did a lot. Visited a mosque, saw a sheep sacrifice. That was good enough, right? Man up. Man up. Do it. We went back in. Luckily, this time someone started talking to us. What do you guys want. We then explained, we want to buy a sheep, have it killed, then give its meat away to the poor. The guy said that we could do all that there if we wanted. We could buy some sheep. We could have it butchered, but the meat giving away we'd have to do on our own. He suggested we find some beggars in the bazaar and give the meat to them.


So we picked our sheep. A fairly thin-sized guy that we most definitely overpaid for. Then they tied him up, and brought him out of the stable. They killed it as humanely as they could (the sheep don't struggle much). While we were waiting for it to be butchered, they told me I should go get some plastic bags for all the meat. Then they skinned it, and divided the meat into pieces. While all this was happening, we began talking with some of the other guys that were there. Overall, they were pretty receptive to what our idea was. No one seemed to take offense that we were there. It seemed pretty novel that Americans had shown up to do this. Once all the meat was divided up in five plastic bags, they asked if we wanted the coat. I did, but I had no idea if it needed to be treated so as not to smell.


So we left the mosque with our five bags wondering how we would give out the meat. We had decided that we'd give most of it away, but we wanted to save some to give to friends here. That didn't quite work out though, because we were bombarded by people as soon as we left the courtyard. To women there who had been begging asked for some meat, as well as two guys. One of the guys we had talked to for a while inside the mosque; the other guy we had never seen before. Before we knew it, Mark and I had given away all of the meat except for the head and the four hooves. The one mystery guy ended up putting the meat on a cart full of food, so I wasn't sure if he really needed it. But how can a person really know? And the idea is about giving and charity. If he thought he needed it, then I don't mind giving it away.


We threw the hooves to some dogs on the way home, and we saved the head for a while. We even decided to name our belated sheep, Kizbolson, which means wish for a girl in Kazakh. (It's a play on the actual Kazakh name of Ulbolson, which some girls are called. Ulbolson means wish you were a boy. Yes, some girls must live their entire lives with the name, we wish you were a boy. We think this was the first time the name Kizbolson was ever even thought of in Kazakhstan's history.)


Overall, our goal was successful. We felt very integrated, going to the mosque and having a sheep sacrificed. Later, we gostied three houses to continue in the holiday spirit. Although, I didn't host anyone, so that was one part of the holiday I missed. I have more commentary on how those gostings went, but I may write about those later.


The next major holiday I plan on throwing myself into with full enthusiasm as New Year's. This year I'm going to be buying some fireworks. (Where some = lots!)


Anonymous said...

i always enjoy it when you immerse yourself. you always get the max out of your stays in foreign countries by respecting and participating in their traditional and daily activities. lv dad

keineisteinek said...

Cheers. Great name for a sheep. He must be happy to have it for such a short time. But what have you done with the head after all?
OK, waiting for fireworks story.