The Chosen Sheep
“It’s right, I think, to have death be a part of life; it’s the way it should be.”
“Are you going to be okay with seeing the sheep killed?” asks my friend.
Of course I am. It’s just a sheep. Besides, I saw a sheep die once. I was trying to feed it medicine while my friend picked maggots off its bum and then I realized it wasn’t swallowing because it was dead. I was fine about it.
Just because I’m English doesn’t mean I can’t handle death and things like that.
Still, they wrap the knives in cardboard so I can’t see the blades. I’m both touched and offended.
It’s Eid al-Adha in a tiny Moroccan village near Ourrzazate. Here dry mountains fold into an oasis, springing date palms and peppers and vines in sudden green embroidery. To get to the nearest road you have to cross the river on a split log. The houses are made of clay; there’s no internet, and no sitting toilet. I feel very intrepid. But also a little out of my depth. “Cooli! Cooli!” my friend’s mother says to me as we sit round the second tajine of the day, her bony hands pushing over the choicest pieces: Eat! Eat! More strident Arabic. My friend translates: “What’s wrong, are you worried you’ll get fat?”
I don’t yet feel comfortable enough to explain that there’s just no room; due to difficulties with the squatting position, I haven’t taken a shit in four days.
She’s so weathered, Ma Sayyida. Small, but strong enough to heft huge bales of grass for the sheep. They have what they need, growing richly by the riverside, each family with their own plot, and although you only sell your own produce you can eat from anyone’s fruit tree. My friend knows where the best dates grow, the fat pale ones that melt in your mouth, and he climbs up and throws them down to me in handfuls. Ma Sayyida’s teeth protrude from biting open so many pomegranates.
Of her six children, only one lives here still. Everyone else has left to earn money. My friend—Ahmed—is studying English, so we’re of mutual curiosity. He’d seen me sketching in Taghazout, the dusty surf town where I’d lived for five days, had followed me, found and lost me five times before he finally asked me to draw him (with the sea in the background, please). While I drew he stood long-necked and uncertain, stammered a little. We tried to find common ground. “Do you like movies?” he asked. “Have you . . . voir . . . Fast and Furious?” He kept mixing French words in. “Donc . . .” he’d say, thinking, pulling a face.
I was charmed by his curled eyelashes as he looked intently at the drawing. It was very bad.
We ate grilled sardines. Ahmed peeled off the skin, deft, peeled off the spine, passed me clean fish.
Let me do it myself! I said.
But there was something compelling about taking the soft pieces from his fingers.
I met him three times before he invited me to spend Eid with his family. I wanted to see the clay houses, so I said yes. We traveled by bus, then rickety taxi, and finally his uncle Omar’s motorbike. Dark, through quiet villages, sliver of moon, intense stars—the bike illuminated the walls around me and they really were clay and I thought THIS IS IT, it is how I imagined! When the bike couldn’t go any further we walked through bushes. It smelled of figs. Ahmed knew it in the night even; his voice ahead went, “Jump,” “Cross,” “Turn.” He told me how I should greet his parents, with a kiss for his mother and a handshake for his father, Salaam Alaikum in the dark.
So here we are. Red earth walls, flat roof, ceilings made of intricately crossed bamboo. It’s immaculate. Each room opens onto this lovely square, the smooth swept courtyard, with its olive tree in the middle, and laundry lines, and sheepskins to sit on. A private and perfect outside interior. It’s peaceful. There’s no clock, and the time on Ma Sayyida’s cell phone is five hours wrong. “She doesn’t need the time,” says Ahmed. Now the whole family is here, brothers sisters nieces nephews, all staying in this marvelous house, and nobody but Ahmed speaks any English at all. Sometimes I stand awkwardly in the courtyard, smiling, until Ma Sayyida calls “Ah-MED!” and he runs and tells me we’re having tea, come, don’t be shy. Tea happens five times a day. “Moroccan whisky,” they call it. I become hooked on the sugar rush.
“Last time a European family came to this village for Eid, they left right after the killing, they left the whole country.”
I laugh derisively. Europeans. I don’t know what has given me the impression that I’m tough, in control of my emotions, but I have it anyway, and hold onto it firmly. Well, I waver a little in the morning. I’m quietly angry because the cow is killed on the mountain with just the men, and I notice how often Ahmed uses this phrase, and how proud he is. I want to see the cow! Then the dress I’m wearing is apparently not decorative enough. It’s long, and a lovely gold color, and I like it because it’s like wearing a tent and I can move about however I want; this is lost on my friend, who brings me his sister Fatima’s beaded gown. Clingy polyester, with luxurious mauve roses. I put it on. He sees my face. “You don’t like it?”
I just want to wear my own clothes.
“Wear your own clothes then. Nobody minds.”
For some reason I’m almost crying.
We all rush to the sheep pen. It’s a house just like theirs but smaller and older. In fact, it is their own smaller older house from when they had fewer children, now for hay and mutton. In one dark room, three sheep glare. Ahmed goes in and grabs the horns of the chosen sheep. He wrestles it, bucking, until he can lift it over the gate to his brother. I’ve never seen a sheep be so active. Down the earth track we go, a whole crowd of us, little nieces and cousins swelled with excitement and significance, following Ahmed and his brother with the sheep skittering between them. “Mouton! Mouton!” yells the most precocious grandchild, tall for twelve, who likes to tell me Good morning, madame. Even Ma Sayyida’s mother, the mother of them all, to whom everyone in the village is connected—she’s here, hunched in yellow robes, heavy cheeks, heavy smile. Dangling eye pouches. She has a sort of leathery power about her.
The place is deep in the garden, under a gangly fig tree. Four men straddle the sheep. Ahmed’s father kneels at its head. Oh, I stand as close as I can!
You know when you’re queueing up to go on a roller coaster and it’s all exciting, you get in the car and it’s all exciting, the car starts to climb up the rails and it’s all so incredibly exciting. Then you get to the top, you look down, and suddenly you think, wait, I change my mind. I didn’t realize there would be THIS part. I didn’t think about THIS part. So it is when Da Abdullah pulls back the head and holds a long blade over the exposed white sheepy throat. I don’t remember the actual incision because I was overcome by unexpected and all-encompassing horror, but I remember how it looked afterwards. Let me describe it to you, in case you think that you, also, would be fine with seeing a sheep killed.
So the throat is open. Head by a thread. Esophagus pale-rimmed amidst red; white stump of spine. Blood pouring freely, so loosely, out of squirmy tubes. But it’s not yet dead! The legs are still scrabbling! It’s clambering towards me! Blood gushes everywhere, little hooves take its lumbering headless body in my direction—and still the chest heaves, taking in air through its ragged hole.
This was probably when my eyes began to roll back, because all I remember after that is the sound of those gargled, rasping breaths. The most terrible sound I have ever heard. The reduction of life-sound to pure mechanical operation, plus gurgling throatblood. The way zombies sound in horror films is probably quite true to life.
But I would not be the weak girl! As my face was blanching and my legs were trembling, and the family was gathering round, I was still saying, I’m fine! I’m fine!
Except tears were accidentally coming down my face so Ahmed led me to the river. “So you’re all right with eating meat, but not seeing it die?”
I bristled at his knowing smile. Ma Sayyida laid her hand on my belly to calm me, smiling her toothy smile. Fatima came too, and she started yelling sharp Arabic at Ahmed.
“She’s saying I shouldn’t have brought you—why did I bring you if you weren’t going to be okay with seeing a sheep killed?”
I stay for the next nine killings. Every family needs their mutton. I sit in the shade of the trees with the ladies, and try to make my grey face festive. I watch as they inflate each sheep with a little straw and skin it; hang it upside down from a tree and cut it open; pull out the intestines and flush them clean. They eat every part, and are squeamless. I’m sure that the baby beside me is imitating the sound of the sheep’s last bloody gasps. It’s right, I think, to have death be a part of life; it’s the way it should be. But I politely refuse cake.
Only once I’m back at the house do I sidle discreetly to my room and have a good cry. I want to go home. Or at least call my mum. I have that hollow feeling of evening in an unfamiliar place, and I long for childhood dreamcomfort.
My favorite place here is the kitchen: warm women’s haven, womb-room. There’s always tea brewing or kebabs spitting or couscous being gently massaged. Now it has two rosy carcasses dangling from the ceiling, but I sit here anyway. Fatima is preparing the special ceremonial dinner: sheep’s head. Of course. Delicious. Yes, I can’t wait to try it. And the trotters. Fatima is studying to be a lawyer and has some English, I discover once she loses her shyness. She holds the head towards me with a sad face. “My favorite part is brain. But it lost.”
The thing is, after this I was sort of part of the family. My almost-fainting was the story of the week. I’d see someone rolling back their eyes like a damsel in distress and Ahmed would say, “They’re talking about you again.” I hadn’t laughed like that since I arrived. I made bread with Ma Sayyida and helped Fatima with the housework and all the children let me draw them. They drew me, too, always with their own improvement: my long yellow dress covered in wishful roses. We still couldn’t speak, but I mispronounced my five Arabic phrases enthusiastically, and at mealtimes I’d sit and watch. Ten of us crosslegged on cushions, little Leila, the oldest granddaughter, padding round with the pink watering can to wash couscous off our hands; the old towel thrown from person to person; tea poured meticulously; everyone leaning back against the walls of the long narrow room, dark through the open door. Ma Sayyida squatting on her haunches, loose blue pajamas and checkered apron, elbow resting loose on her knee while she roughly shells a pomegranate, tossing handfuls in her craggy mouth, chewing and laughing and spitting seeds. And sometimes amongst the hubbub came a complicit little smile from Fatima that I can’t put into words. It’s a funny thing to watch people talk in a language you don’t understand. I could hear only the humor and kindness and affection behind the words, and I’d just sit there with this actual glow spreading through me, which could have been genial post-tea sugarwarmth but could also have been falling for every single person, knowing I’d never see them again.