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A meaty matter
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 03 - 11 - 2011

With the Eid right around the corner, the cost of sheep is increasing. Nesmahar Sayed sees how merchants and customers are getting along
Sitting in an alley in Ard Al-Lewaa, a very high density district in Giza governorate, Gaafar Farag, 43, a butcher and a sheep merchant, is surrounded by camels, goats, sheep and buffaloes. This is Eid time, the high season for selling sheep. As Eid Al-Adha is celebrated with the sacrifice of the sheep, many families are getting ready to find an animal that caters to their needs and budget. Some others choose to buy meat and distribute it to the poor instead of going through the process of buying the sheep.
A few weeks before the Eid and many sheep merchants are waiting for customers. Working in the field since the age of 13, Farag has known no other profession but feeding, watering and in general taking care of sheep. "It is the profession of prophets and good people during all times and it should remain like this. A profession of honesty and truth, but few in the business do it that way," Farag told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Farag stresses the honesty and integrity factor, since the price of sheep has increased dramatically, making it difficult for some families to continue this long-time ritual. Farag admits that there is no reason behind the increase in the cost except "human greed".
"I still remember the price of a sheep weighing 60 kilos at LE600 in 1990. Today that same sheep costs LE2,000," Farag said.
While Farag admits that sheep are now expensive, families, on the other hand, find it rather frustrating. Awatef Abbas, a housewife and a volunteer at many NGOs, went for the option of buying meat. "Last week I bought 12 kilos of lamb meat for me and my son. But I also bought meat to distribute among the poor I know and who I used to give to every year," Abbas said. Although Abbas categorised herself as living a comfy life she admits she cannot afford buying two sheep, which some people do, for LE4,000.
"Two years ago I bought a sheep for LE1,250 but this year it could reach LE2,000. Now if I buy one that weighs almost 50 kilos it will only end up with a net of 30 kilos of meat (after it is chopped up into little pieces ad its unedables thrown away) and may be less," Abbas added.
Another man who preferred anonymity said that as a tourist guide, after the revolution things never returned the same and that his income had dropped markedly in the last few months. So he decided not to sacrifice this year.
For another, a father of five boys and daughters who are all married, "I can never stop buying for sacrifice especially in Eid Al-Adha. But now all I can do is buy a very small one, trying not to exceed LE1,000, just to revive the Prophet Ibrahim's sunna [teachings],"Abdel-Moneim Ibrahim said.
At the sheep market, Farag and others are ready for customers. "Fiha Salat Al-Nabi, Fiha, Fiha Salat Al-Nabi", (In praise of the Prophet) is what the merchants chant while they weigh the sheep for customers. A fear of envy and the evil eye looms in the background, as the high season means big bucks for the merchants.
Farag is keen to choose the people who work with him in this season, although they work for him only 18 to 20 days before and after the feast. "They come from different villages around Egypt and I insist that they have a good reputation because this affects my reputation, too," Farag said. A worker's daily wage ranges from LE30 to LE50, in addition to the tips customers give them.
The alley is covered from its top, just beneath the balconies in the crowded neigbourhood because Farag fears one of his workers might bother the ladies who sit in the balconies. Farag is originally from Assiut, one of the conservative governorates of Upper Egypt.
For Farag, selling sheep and butchering is a career that he enjoys but his children going to school is a must. "I used to go to school and I was very smart but our family's financial situation and my father's sickness forced me to leave school and work. However, this is not going to happen to my children. I apply for them in schools and the one who shows determination to study hard is the one who will get the certificate at last," says Farag.
Farag remembers the old days, in the 1970s, when his monthly salary was LE10, then LE30 in 1985 while he had to pay LE20 for the room rent. The last salary he received from the merchants who taught him the business was LE300. According to him, he learned to be patient, too. He visited the Kaaba (in Saudi Arabia) where he asked God to start his own business. "In 1990, my capital was my good relationships with the people, and this was the real treasure that opened all the doors for me," Farag remembers.
In many markets the power of the word is greater than anything else. "In our business no papers or checks are signed. The word uttered by a man is more trustworthy than any signature," Farag said proudly.
Sheep retail merchants buy sheep from brokers who buy them from markets in the villages and take LE5 for each one. The price is the same in all the governorates.
But why doesn't he breed sheep and sell them? Farag replied, "No". This will increase prices more, according to him. "Because the minimum for feeding a sheep is LE10 daily, LE360 monthly, LE3,600 a year."
The retail merchants start the process of buying sheep three months before Eid.
The main characteristic for a merchant according to Farag is patience because things are not always good. "The year before we lost a lot and the trade was not profitable, which means that the 25 January Revolution was not the main reason affecting the market this year," Farag said. He believes that the revolution did not affect those who have money and savings.
This means that financial abilities are the main concern of those who buy sheep for sacrifice each year.
This year, according to Antar Hussein, who ventures annually from Assiut to help his brother in the high season, the smallest lamb weighs 28 kilos and the big one 100. "One kilo of a big camel costs LE20 while the kilo of a small one costs LE18. The price of the goats ranges from LE250 to LE1,200 for each".
By time Farag has learnt who wants to buy sheep to sacrifice for God's sake and who is showy -- and he can deal with both. "I leave the showy one to choose for themselves, but I help the others to buy the best according to their budget," Farag said.
The intent is the main motivation in this sunna. Many people can afford paying lots of money but insist on reviving the sunna and sacrifice a sheep. Farag said that many people prefer these days to share in sacrificing a buffalo or cow because the share for each person will be LE1,200 which is better for some than buying one sheep for LE1,200.
Farag remembers in 2009 when he shared in the expenses with a customer buying a buffalo because he felt that the man had real intent and desire to sacrifice for God's sake. "I was so happy to do this although I prefer to sacrifice a sheep."


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