Words and photos by Tiara Darnell

Tiara Darnell, a Maryland native, is a freelance writer, podcaster, and videographer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Sprudge, Willamette Week, and Medium, among other publications. She is currently the host and producer of High, Good People a “potcast” about the burgeoning cannabis industry from the perspective of people of color. Tiara is a returned Peace Corps Morocco volunteer.

The road from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is known as “the gateway to the Sahara,” a moniker enchanting as it is deceptive. Old Berbers call it “tchka,” which means “tough road,” and their description is more accurate.

It was late afternoon when I left Marrakech. The olive and date trees bid bslaama! as the city went from enormous sprawling metropolis to a speck on the horizon. The elevation crept, then came the s-curves and switchbacks. Three hours and forty-five minutes of them climbing and descending through the Atlas Mountains, skinny roads with no room for guardrails, sometimes etched onto cliff-faced canyon walls. To keep motion sickness at bay, I focused on the awe-inspiring peaks and valleys, the hillsides dotted with content sheep, little streams where groups of women did laundry while laughing and gossiping with one another, and the cafés of sleepy one-road villages filled with Moroccan men drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Around sunset, the trees ceased, and desert hills blushed in the soft light. The Atlas Mountains ended, and the Sahara began. This is where Ouarzazate, “the city without noise,” is situated. It became my home for the next two years.

Some months later, early in my first-year volunteering with the U.S. Peace Corps, I hoped someone in the host community would invite me to their home for the Eid al-Kabir celebration, even though I wasn’t Muslim or Moroccan, and despite my shaky command of darija (Moroccan Arabic). Eid al-Kabir honors the prophet Ibrahim, who was set to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, to demonstrate his commitment to God. Convinced of Ibrahim’s devotion, God spared Ishmael and provided a ram to kill instead. Therefore, on this holiday, across the Muslim world, it is the tradition for families to slaughter a goat or sheep.

Serendipitously, I met a graduate of my alma mater who lived in Ouarzazate. His name was Khaled Al-Abbadi, a Yemeni-American Fulbright Scholar. When I mentioned I didn’t have plans for Eid al-Kabir, Khaled invited me as a guest to celebrate, Yemeni-style, with his wife Fatima and their infant daughter. This Ramadan was special, said Khaled. He planned to personally slaughter a sheep for the first time.

The Al-Abbadi family lived in one of the nicer residential areas of Oz. They shared a small, gated courtyard with a Moroccan family that lived in the apartment below. When I entered the courtyard on the afternoon of Eid, the first thing I saw was a large sheep tethered to a pole. “Aww, snap! This is happening,” I thought to myself as intrigue crept in. To the left on the stoop sat a set of knives, shining in the sun atop a clean white towel. The blades were polished and sharp. Behind the knives, thriving hibiscus and jasmine flowers grew steadily up the apartment building’s walls. But the odor of wet hay and fresh manure coming from the sheep dominated the scent of jasmine, reminding me of the animal’s imminent fate.

Fatima came out to greet me. She kissed me on both cheeks. Khaled followed. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries while touching our right hands to our hearts, a sign of respect in Muslim culture. Khaled was nervous about slaughtering the animal. He admitted the anxiety of it kept him up through most of the night. Dark circles lay under his eyes. He was worried about not efficiently ending the sheep. Fortunately, his downstairs neighbor, a butcher, was there to help guide him through the process.

The call sounded from nearby minarets, and Fatima and Khaled went to mid-day prayers. After they finished, they returned to the courtyard and Fatima lit incense. The perfumed smoke wafted all around us. It was silent as Khlaed and his neighbor prepared the sheep, bounding and pinning it against the mosaic tiles decorating the courtyard floor. Once secure, Khaled offered a prayer thanking God for the health and blessings of his family, and the food that the soon-to-be sacrificed sheep provided. Then, in what seemed like one fluid motion, he reached for the largest of the knives, positioned himself over the sheep, and slit its throat.

I expected to be shocked and to feel disgusted in that moment, but I wasn’t. I was lost in thought seeing where our meal would come from. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the bloody scene, but when I finally did my first glance was down at my right sleeve. I wore a white shirt because white symbolizes peace, but at that moment all I could think was, “Why the hell did I wear white to a sheep slaughter!?” Apparently, Khaled didn’t fully clear one of the main arteries, so blood spurted and sprayed instead of draining cleanly. The butcher, watching keenly from behind Khaled, muttered something I couldn’t understand, and Khaled reacted quickly to rectify the mistake. We all watched on in silence as the sheep’s hooves scraped the ground as it contorted under Khaled’s grip for a few moments. Its writhing slowed as it bled out, and soon the sheep was completely still.

It was then that the butcher stepped in, and with help from Khaled, strung the sheep up to finish draining. Afterward, he blew air through the sheep’s anus. I asked why he was doing that, and I understood that it helped to separate the skin from the flesh, so he could skin it properly. Khaled said he planned to preserve the sheep’s hide so he could use it as a prayer rug.

In addition to fasting, charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, and it extends to sharing the bounty of Eid al-Kabir with others. After the sheep was butchered, Khaled gifted a large portion to the neighbors. Fatima again lit incense and began to skewer chunks of meat and heart (a treasured delicacy) wrapped in what looked like oily, white netting. It was sheep fat and it sizzled seductively over the blistering grates of the small charcoal grill. I asked if she wanted help cooking, but Fatima refused, insisting I relax and be a guest in her home. It wasn’t hard to do but resisting the temptation to sneak a sample was. The meat smelled divine! My mouth watered listening to her list the other traditional Yemeni dishes she previously prepared upstairs as she turned the perfectly caramelized kabobs over the heat.

I was ravenous when Khaled said we were to spend time with the neighbors before our meal. They, too, were grilling meat from a sheep they slaughtered earlier. When the sun finally set, the fast ended. The neighbors served olives, salad with boiled eggs, orange Fanta, bread and oil, and more of the sheep heart wrapped in fat. I already stomached goat heart on one of my first nights in Morocco because I didn’t want to be rude to my hosts. And even though it smelled good, my American sensibilities wouldn’t let me get over how unappetizing it was to eat. But this was a special occasion though, so I stuffed one skewer’s worth of heart into a comically large piece of bread. I hoped just to get it over with, but also to get away with eating enough to make them believe I was full when I swore “shbet, shbet,” meaning “I’m satisfied, I’m satisfied.” Alhamdullah! It worked!

After the first meal at the neighbors, we all went upstairs. Everyone, including the neighbors. I regretted filling up on bread as soon as I laid eyes on the feast Fatima prepared. There were three different types of salads, more olives, two enormous platters holding spiced chicken and turmeric rice, and a homemade green chutney I still crave to this day. We sat on cushions around the platters of food and ate communally. Fatima’s homemade bread was our utensils. There was much rejoice ending the fast, but a new appreciation for the food and the warm company of new friends is what I took away from my first Eid Al-Kabir.

Rich Perin