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Rites of sacrifice
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 03 - 2001


By Fatemah Farag
This year, as every year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims converged on Mecca in fulfillment of the fifth pillar of Islam -- the Hajj. And perhaps the most important ritual within the six day annual pilgrimage is the stay at Arafat on the ninth day of the Islamic month Dhul Hijja, when it is believed the gates of heaven are open to the prayers of the pious.
It is on the next morning that the festivities of Eid Al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) begin. And so, early Monday morning in Egypt repeated chants of God is great/There is none worthy of worship except God/All praise belongs to God, rang out through the haze of dawn.
Across the nation the call was answered by the pious, who congregated at 1,094 open spaces designated by the Ministry of Religious Endowments for the special Eid prayer. The prayer is immediately followed by the slaughtering of either sheep, cows or camels -- a sacrifice symbolising the readiness of the devout to lay down everything before God. Only a part of the sacrificed animal should be kept by the owner for personal consumption. The rest is to be distributed to the poor and needy.
The Federation of Chambers of Commerce estimates that this year Egyptians will have spent LE405 million on meat for the Eid. During the holiday consumption of red meat increases three-fold, 39 per cent of the total being spent on sheep, 38 per cent on water buffalo, 21 per cent on cows and just 1.6 per cent on camel meat.
These days, though, the sacrifice has, if anything, excited a little more controversy than is usual. Forget the usual bias of the Western media, which portray the whole event as just one more indication that Muslims are backward and barbaric; forget, too, the minority of locals horrified at the sight of the mass slaughter that seems to be taking place on every street and doorstep come Eid morning. The difference this year is that even the most pious meat-eaters have started to express concern that with the sacrifice could come disease. And considering the publicity given to mad cow disease, and the devastating out break of foot-and-mouth in northern Europe, their concern is easily understood.
Fears prevailed despite repeated assurances by senior officials at the Ministry of Agriculture that all local and imported red meat was free of mad cow disease. Some even thought of substituting chickens, a strategy on which Sheikh Abdel-Aziz bin Abdallah Al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's mufti, poured cold water on the eve of the sacrifice. Chickens, he was reported saying, are no replacement for cows, sheep or camels.
But if controversy raged in the pages of the press, it passed a great many people by, not least those who cannot afford to buy meat for the Eid, let alone at other times.
"It is a good time because the people distribute meat and it is the only time I can provide meat for my children for whom I usually cook chicken claws when I want to serve them protein," said Sayeda, a widow and mother of five children, standing outside a mosque in an affluent section of the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, waiting for meat to be distributed. Asked whether she worried that the meat might be contaminated with mad cow disease, Sayeda laughed. "We can eat anything. Crazy or not, if it's meat there is no way I'm going to pass it up."
Meat out of the way, and it is time to digest and indulge in out door pursuits. It was estimated that on the first day of the holiday 100,000 descended on Cairo's public gardens while another 150,000 opted for the Zoo.
Schools and businesses enjoyed the longest Eid holiday for years, ranging from five to seven days. The numbers using public transport in Cairo increased by almost 25 per cent, while underground services were extended until past 1am. The city's airport, too, was on red alert, anticipating the arrival of the 500,000 Gulf Arab tourists expected during the holiday.
But even at this most festive of times, the effects of the liquidity crisis and a two year recession could be felt. The impact was felt most keenly by the owners of clothing stores. In more prosperous times, new clothes for the first day of the Eid are as de rigeur as a carnivorous diet. Yet shop owners have reported that sales of clothing have plunged.
"This is a meat holiday and meat is expensive. So we will buy the meat and go easy on the clothes," explained Abdel-Fatah, a father of three children out window shopping before the Eid.
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