Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Yesterday's Kurban Bayram celebration was wonderful, strange, bloody, and tiring. We went first to the garage next to our studios, where our friend, Ali, had told us neighbors would be killing and butchering sheep for the holiday. If you missed yesterday's entry, Bayram celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, and every family who can afford to do so kills and butchers a ram or bull. When we first heard about this, and the estimations of the millions of animals killed across the Muslim world on this single day, we were feeling like we were in truly foreign, and rather grisly, territory. But then we asked ourselves, is this really so different from the mass slaughter of turkeys for Thanksgiving next week? The overall annual meat consumption here is less than half of that in the US, and it is very unusual to have a meal centered around a big piece of meat. That in itself seems to make the Bayram feast a real celebration. 

As we watched the very skillful butchering of the sheep, we started thinking it was less strange, if you are a meat eater, to butcher your own meat, than to be as clueless as we were about the whole process. The biggest surprise (at least to Julia, who had never seen this before, while Shane had seen the butchering of deer as a kid) was that the body of the animal, inside and out, was so beautiful. The process also seemed very clean.

Part of the Bayram tradition is that some of the meat is given to neighbors, friends, and the poor. Early in the process of butchering the sheep, a woman came and ask for the gift of some of the organs. At the end, the man who owned the sheep gave us, the odd foreigners who had been sitting off to the side taking pictures, a prime cut. We are having friends over tonight to roast it.

We headed home with our hunk of roast only to be surprised to find that we had just missed another killing, this time a bull, and it happened right beside our house. Our friend Sarah saw the bull's last moments and reports that our kind neighbors sang to the bull and petted him before he was killed. The blood ran down a sheet of plastic into the sewer, helped along with water and brooms. Several men then began to butcher the bull. Without the use of a hoist to hang the carcass, we wondered how this was going to go. But the meat was cut apart right on top of the hide, never touching the ground, and the sections were laid on a plastic sheet for distribution. We watched the whole event from our kitchen windows. This was a real community effort, with cuts of meat going to dozens of families in the neighborhood. We received more gifts, this time the most amazing homemade baklava we've ever tasted, a savory onion and herb pastry,  and wonderful stuffed grape leaves. 

The atmosphere was so gentle and warm. Everyone is dressed up. The extremely sweet boy that lives across the street (the one from the language video) was dressed in the greatest little pin-striped suit. The old grandmas on our street had lots of visitors and were given many gifts of food. We gave our neighbors boxes of special holiday cookies from the local bakery, which included these luscious mini tart shells that are filled with chocolate ganache and topped with pieces of nut toffee. 

After the butchering of the bull was over, we felt tired. Never having seen anything quite like it before, the experience was intense and somewhat demanding. The lingering smell of the animal made us want to get out for some fresh air. We went our separate ways for the rest of the afternoon, Shane to the studio, Julia and Sarah for a long hike through the city.

All in all, our experience of Bayram was that of community, generosity, and a connection to the animals that we omnivores consume. We continue to be delighted by the welcome that we have here, and the warmth in general of Turkish people. We know that many of the photos below will be too graphic for some. Apologies. But, if you, like us, find yourself oddly interested in the deconstruction of farm animals, we are working on Bayaum, the movie, for next Monday. İyi Bayramlar, or Happy Bayrum.

A neighborhood grandma receiving a gift.

At the garage next to our studios.

Many turks hire a skilled butcher, rather than tackle the job themselves.

Rack of lamb. Some cuts, at least, we could recognize. 

Sheep's head is on the menu in lots of restaurants here. We ordered it once, by accident, and it was rather strong... 

The wool rolled up. 

Gifts from our neighbors: fabulous homemade baklava, lamb roast, stuffed grape leaves and borek (a type of savory pastry here, this one stuffed with onions and herbs) 

Bull's last moments of life. 

Washing away the blood. 

The view from our kitchen windows on Bayram. 

The green house on the right is our home. 

One of the sweet grandmas that live next door. 

The huge, multi-chambered stomach exposed. 

The meat was distributed among many families living on our street.

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