Following this tradition, the head of each Muslim household hopes to sacrifice one or more sheep or ram according to his financial standing in the community on the morning of the first day of the holiday period. A lavish meal is made from the meat; friends and family are invited to feast; and the excess meat and the hide are donated to charity.
Since this holiday is observed according to the Islamic calendar and not the internationally accepted civil calendar, the holiday comes during different months of each year. Every year, I receive notices from my friends in Turkey reminding me of the dates of the upcoming holiday. This always brings back sad memories of my very first Sacrifice Holiday in Turkey. It was during the summer of 1960 and we had just moved from our apartment in the City to a large house in the suburbs. The two-story stone house was surrounded by a high wall and a large yard which was filled with various fruit trees. My sister and I were picking sour cherries one beautiful sunny morning when a pickup truck pulled up to the front gate and an elderly man struggled for a while to unload two large rams. The rams were covered with brownish wool fur which had two or three patches of pinkish dye on each side indicating they were sold to be sacrificed. He never said a word to us but walked past us back to the apple tree. He tied the rams to the trunk of the tree with a couple of long ropes he brought with him. After the man left, my sister and I cautiously approached the two rams, both anxious and excited at the same time. I still remember their big, brown sad eyes and wet snouts. We thought they were staring at us nervously as well, wondering who we were andwhy they were tied to our apple tree. We both knew why the rams were there; we had heard of the tradition of sacrifice, but having lived in an apartment in the City, we had neither seen any rams nor watched them being sacrificed for the holiday. I remember my sister running into the house and raiding the refrigerator for any green vegetables she could find. A large pot was “borrowed” from the kitchen and filled with water for the rams to drink. Our gardener “Old Man Suleiman” who knew about everything that a proper gardener from northern Turkey should know, advised us to pour some salt in our palms and let the rams lick it off. It was so exciting to see them stick their long, fat brown tongues out and lick the salt from our palms and drink large amounts of water from the kitchen pot. We were trying not to think about the most certain outcome that awaited these two poor rams in a few days. They were treated as our new pets; we were feeding them, talking to them, petting them and watching them from our second-story bedroom window every night after we were sent off to bed and the lights were turned off.
Sadly enough, the first day of the holiday arrived very quickly. My sister and I were told to stay in our rooms and not to go back to the back yard. Curious as any children our age, we were not to be denied. We immediately ran up to our bedroom on the second floor and started to watch the proceedings from behind the green wooden shutters which were closed to hide the ceremony from us. We saw my dad talking to a young man dressed in the traditional clothing of a village butcher and shaking his hand as if to close a business deal. The man walked back to the apple tree and started to dig a small ditch near where the rams were tied for the past three days. Then he slowly approached the rams and one by one tied the hoofs of each ram together, immobilizing them. He then blindfolded the rams with a small white sheet of cloth my mother handed over to him; laid them down on their sides and “sacrificed” them while softly whispering what soundedlike prayers to us. None of this made any sense; how could he be killing our “pets” and praying at the same time? Did the rams know that he was praying? The small ditch filled with the blood of the rams as a part of this gory sacrifice ceremony. We could not take any more of this; my sister and I were sobbing uncontrollably at the sight of this slaughter which was taking place in our backyard, under our apple tree. Hearing our sobs and cries, my mother came into the room and tried to explain the rationale behind the sacrifice to us; but we were too distraught to understand or even hear what she was saying. She gently held our hands and slowly walked us to the backyard where the two now headless rams were hanging on metal hangers from a branch of the apple tree. My mother told us that the butcher was now “field dressing” the rams and the meat would be distributed to the poor families around the neighborhood as a part of the Muslim tradition. I guess she wanted us to feel good about the whole process; but it was of no use. We were forever traumatized by what we saw them do to our “pets.”
The horror of that day did not leave us for a very long time. My sister and I never went near the apple tree again and we both had nightmares for many, many months to come. Understanding our feelings, my father, who was not a very religious man anyway, decided never to have rams sacrificed in our backyard ever again. We were relieved, of course, but always thought of the thousands upon thousands of other rams and sheep being sacrificed every year on the first day of the “Sacrifice Holiday.” That was the first and the last time my sister and I witnessed the “sacrifice” ceremony.
Lately, I have been hearing from my friends that many people are now contributing cash to certain charities which help the poor instead of sacrificing rams or sheep in their backyards. This year the Sacrifice Holiday will be observed in Turkey on or around November 15. I will almost surely have a nightmare or two, remembering the sad-eyed rams which my sister and I had as our backyard pets for three wonderful days in the summer of 1960.