The mooing cow was already on its side, more or less securely fastened to a few stakes, its neck suspended over a deep hole. Behind it was another cow, still feisty and resistant, kicking at the men trying to restrain it.
My host grandfather approached the subdued cow with a knife and prayed before he bent down and cut its throat. Blood, startlingly red, thick, and plentiful, poured into the hole as the cow’s eyes filmed over with blue. Its body spasmed as it bled out.
I had not realized how close I was. I had not realized how intently I had watched the proceedings. I had not realized my hands were unsteady, holding my camera, trying to document this event I had just witnessed.
This was my first qurban, my first Eid al-Adha, my first Day of Sacrifice. This day, I would witness the sacrifice of four cows and a goat, which died with a terrifyingly human-like scream. At one point, some blood spray would hit my leg, and I would not notice until one of my new neighbors pointed it out.
“Where is everyone?” I asked my host sister as we lounged on the living room sofa. After the early morning’s Eid prayers at the masjid, guests had been steadily streaming into the house. Suddenly, they had all disappeared.
“Oh, they must be watching the cow-slaughtering ceremony,” she said.
I started. “Cow-slaughtering ceremony?” I said.
Quickly, I asked, “Can I watch?”
We made our way to the front yard of the next-door mini-mart, where the animals would be sacrificed.
Before this day, I was aware that Eid al-Adha would require a sacrifice in commemoration of Isaac’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, to Allah. I had read articles about the ritualistic slaughter of animals and how the meat would then be distributed in thirds to the family, relatives and friends, and then the poor. However, it hadn’t quite occurred to me that my host family would be one of the participants, not simply buying their meat from a halal butcher.
“Are you scared?” asked my ten-year-old host brother, since I watched everything with my camera out — the five sacrifices, the mass butchering taking place on enormous tarps.
I shook my head. I am by no means a rural girl, but after accidentally watching my grandfather prepare a freshly slaughtered goat for cooking with a blowtorch in my garage, I’m less squeamish than I might otherwise be.
The children and teenagers’ reactions, though, varied. Some of them were clearly squeamish, staying far away, many of them adolescent girls who spent most of the time taking selfies with each other. The younger children were more openly curious, squirting water at the live cows while some of the boys even played with the severed heads in the butchering section.
The adults, though, were all business. The slaughtering and butchering were done by the men. Efficiently, the animals were slaughtered and then skinned, gutted, and hacked into pieces. “Seven people per cow, Miss, or a goat per person,” a student would helpfully inform me later.
Large bowls of meat would then be carried to the kitchen, where the women were waiting to cook them in pots of soup. All day, food — rendang, vegetables, fruit, pempek, fried chicken, and the soup — appeared on the table, from which people took as they pleased. Eventually overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, heat, my full belly, and curious children (who finally figured out I was American and not some strange Indonesian with a limited vocabulary), I passed out for a long nap.
I write this fully aware of my outsider status, a Catholic and a Filipino-American witnessing a Muslim festival in Indonesia. I could talk about sanctified ritualized sacrifice; I could talk about how seeing this butchering made me realize how blind we Americans often are to the production of our own food; I could talk about my conflicted feelings about being so absorbed in the sacrifice of animals.
What struck me most, though, was how interconnected everything and everyone felt that day. The bright red blood spilled wasn’t for nothing; we were fed by the animals’ meat and so were other people in the community. My family and their neighbors had worked together to prepare this bounty in an awe-inspiring display of teamwork and community.
By participating in this incredibly bloody festival – even if I am still an outsider unable to access the imaginative universes of these people because of my upbringing – I felt, in a way, closer to my new family and neighbors. I may be the only one with my camera out the entire time and the only one to observe everything with the same level of intense curiosity. I may be the only one to not understand any of the prayers or why a specific amount of cows and goats were needed. I may only understand half of what anyone is saying to me at any moment in time, as various food items are shoved into my hands and I am dragged around by enthusiastic children.
Even so, by refusing to jump to hasty judgments, by keeping my mind open to these people, culture, and experiences, and by willingly eating the meat prepared by my adopted community, I feel like I can, perhaps, join with them and be one of them.
About the author: Anna Cabe is an English Teaching Assistant in Palembang, South Sumatra. Anna graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2013 with a degree in English Literature – Creative Writing.