Sunday, January 23, 2005

Pakistan: Goat – The Other Dark Meat

Eid-al-Adha is a Muslim holiday that commemorates the Quranic story in which God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.  Abraham is on the verge of doing it, and when God sees his level of obedience and commitment, He is satisfied and pulls the plug on the whole operation.  Overjoyed, Abraham spies a goat caught nearby in a thicket and sacrifices it instead.  And so all across Pakistan – and other parts of the Muslim world – every family that can afford to do so slaughters a goat to mark this occasion.  A goat is the most popular choice anyway; people also sacrifice sheep, cows, water buffalo, and even camels.  Particularly with the larger animals, several families may go in together on a slaughter (have shares in a cow, for example).  As I understand it, once the animal is slaughtered, the family is supposed to keep a third of the meat and then give a third to their friends and neighbors and a third to charity.

People sometimes try to tie the Eid slaughter to the American Thanksgiving turkey massacre.  Obviously, a big difference is the size of the animal.

For this year’s Eid holiday, we got a long weekend – I can’t recall exactly, but it was either 4 or 5 days.  It would have been the perfect opportunity to make a trip somewhere, but all the flights out of Islamabad were booked well in advance by people trying to get to Saudi Arabia for hajj.  So, I ended up stuck in Islamabad.

So as not to waste away the entire weekend, in all its rainy glory, I called up my good friend Julie and asked her if she would be interested in Eid touring with me.  Keen for an adventure herself, she agreed.

I called Julie on the eve of Eid, so it was a good time for us to go check out goats for sale.  So, Julie picked me up, and we went trolling for goat.  She recalled seeing some goats at one of the intersections on a main road in the north of town.  When she took me there, I recalled an even better supply of goats further up the road, at the Saidpur goat market.  I had been there previously on a little excursion.

Julie was game, and she started driving down the road toward the market.  Being the day before Eid, the market was doing a booming business with last-minute goat shoppers, and it had the traffic congestion one would anticipate.

The road to Saidpur is narrow to begin with, making it just wide enough for two cars to pass.  On this day, there were people parked along the road, obstructing traffic and making it one-way for much of the distance.  Whenever the road would bottleneck down to one lane, the decision of which direction of traffic would get to go was based on the age-old rule of courteous driving: intimidation.  At first, Julie was getting walked all over.  All the oncoming traffic was barreling through with nary a hesitation, and we were sitting there like suckers, waiting and stacking up cars behind us.

Then Julie snapped out of it.  She said something to this effect: “What am I doing?  I grew up chewing up and spitting out drivers like this on the California freeways!”  (Indeed…  If you didn’t grow up in California, but have driven there, you will no doubt understand the special style of driving Julie had within her.)

At the same time, Julie also remembered that she didn’t care if anything happened to her car.  I think it was a rental.

Anyhow, Julie was henceforth a totally different driver as she plowed through the traffic.  All she had to do to get a little respect was to convince the other drivers that she was crazier than they were, and she did a fine job of it.

When we got close to the market, there were some vendors who brought their animals right up to the road.  More than one guy held a goat up to our car and bared its teeth for us.

We were not interested in drive-thru service, so we found a parking spot and Julie expertly docked us.

I had my beard at the time, and with my leather jacket, I was looking semi-Pakistani.  Julie, who normally dresses totally local, decided to dress for the weather instead.  She had on some black Western clothes, hiking boots, and a scarf on her head.  She was not looking even semi-Pakistani.  This didn’t really matter, though, since by just being at the goat market and being a woman in any clothing, she stuck out.  Buying and selling goats seemed to be men’s work, and Julie was one of very few women in the area.

A cow painted and decorated to entice buyers.

Once we had parked, we got out and went over to see the animals.  There were goats, sheep, and some different types of cattle, and all around there were men and boys engrossed in the art of the deal.  The animals were decorated with ribbons, jewelry, and paint (most commonly neon pink and neon orange) to entice buyers.  In the goat herds, there was much hanky-panky going on, with goats mounting other goats right and left.  This was causing considerable embarrassment to the vendors, and they spent a good deal of time beating amorous goats with sticks.

Neither Julie nor I had ever shopped for goats before, so we took a moment or two to get the drill down.  Whenever we’d show an interest in an animal, the owner would drag it over and force its mouth open.  We would dutifully look in and nod approval or whatever.  I later learned that the sacrificed goat is not supposed to have any broken bones or teeth, which is why the goat vendors would open the mouths for us to inspect.  We also had a few other moves to make it look like we knew what we were doing.  We would feel the ribs, squeeze the haunches, and generally size up the animal.

A seller presenting the goat's teeth for inspection.

Unlike Julie who grew up on a ranch, I am not overly comfortable with animals.  She took the lead in the goat appraising, but we both realized that I, as the man, was expected to show goat expertise.  In short, if we wanted any credibility, which we did, then I had to evaluate the animals myself.  I gradually got into the swing of things, and by the end, I was manhandling goats with the best of them.

Once I had inspected an animal, I’d ask in Urdu how much it cost.  For goats, I was quoted about US$30-$50 each, and cows were starting at $120.  I don’t know livestock prices, so I’m not sure if I was getting a good deal or if I was getting the foreigner special mark-up.  I didn’t get into bargaining since I didn’t plan to purchase, but some vendors would self-bargain (dropping the price) when they saw I wasn’t instantly jumping at the deal.  I didn’t have a lot of Urdu to pull out, so once I got the price I’d inspect the animal once more, with a lot of hmmm’s sprinkled in, to look as though I was mulling the price over.  Of course, we always ended up walking away to “think about it”.

As we were cruising the animal lots, I was openly snapping photos.  I totally looked like a tourist, yet all the vendors still seemed to think I would buy from them.  I guess they thought we were legit.  Whatever the vendors were thinking, most all of them enthusiastically posed for pictures.

Mid-goat shopping, we stopped at a tiny nearby shop for cookies and juice boxes.  Rather, I did; Julie wasn’t hungry.  Then we continued with the animals.

Toward the end of our visit, Julie answered a call on her cell phone, and I whiled the time away goat shopping.  At one stop, I checked the teeth, felt the goat up, and discussed the price with the vendor.  Unfortunately, what with Julie on the phone and all, I spent too much time with this vendor, and I was really looking like I wanted the goat.  Finally, Julie finished her call, so I muttered to her that I needed her to do something to end my affiliation with the vendor.

Being a master of diversion, Julie pointed to a goat that she wanted to see that was way across the lot, and set out in that direction.  I was then able to shrug to the goat man with a gesture that told him that the missus didn’t like his goat and that we were going to look elsewhere.  Buying into my false state of being whipped, the goat guy posed for a photo and excused me.

Before we left, we checked out a dumba.  A dumba is a special breed of sheep that has a huge, fat butt, and it turned out to be the most expensive animal of the lot.  Asking price was US$300.

Dusk was falling as we left.  On the way to the car, I was stopped by some boys who were making a buck selling bundles of grass to be used as animal feed.  They wanted a photo, and I was happy to oblige.  Along with the enthusiastic grass vendors who wanted the picture, a gloomy-looking friend of theirs inserted himself into the photo, arms crossed, pout on face.  You’d think I had forced him into the shot.  Of course I hadn’t, and I would have preferred for him to leave.

A man leaving the market, happy with his purchase.

Leaving Saidpur, we joined the throng of vehicles pouring out to the main drag – most bearing an animal.  Of course, there were trucks with sheep, goats, and/or cows in the back.  The more amusing ones, however, were the small cars with goats inside.  Even the miniature Pakistani taxis were loaded up with 4-legged passengers.  Heck, there were even two young men on a motorbike, and squeezed between them, a couple of goats.  The scene reminded me of one of the funnier things (or awful things depending on your persuasion) I had seen in Pakistan during my tour: a sedan going down the road with a pony in the back seat.  I kid you not.

The next day was Eid.  Again, Julie and I hit the road – this time to witness the carnage.  It was raining again, but slaughtering was in full force.  All around, but more so the farther we got from the city center, there were people slaughtering animals or butchering them in their yards.  We passed many red-stained driveways.

Julie tried to goad me into approaching a family pre-kill, but I did not want to intrude.  I have no doubt, though, that I would have been welcomed.  The only actual kill I witnessed was that of a bull, which I saw from the car as we drove by.  The bull was pushed on its side and several men were laying on it to hold it down.  Then, one of the men slit the animal’s throat, and blood poured out with gusto.  It was different than I thought it would be.  The blood was like cherry Kool-Aid.  I had always assumed it would be darker red and thicker.  I also thought the kill would have been more ritualized, but it seemed to be pretty nitty-gritty.  Of course, to be fair, I was not in a position to hear what was being said or to see any minute gestures the group may have included before or during the slaughter.

I don’t know how animals register fear, but as we drove, we passed groups of two or three goats that were clearly disturbed.  They seemed rigid and nervous.  Then down the road a little ways, we’d pass another group of goats, and these would be standing feet from an ongoing slaughter totally oblivious to the whole thing.  They’d just be living their carefree goat lives like nothing much was happening.  When we saw the nervous goats, Julie and I each had to crack a few jokes.  Some opportunities require a smart remark.

We drove on in the drizzle, past animals pre- and post-mortem.  As we were driving, we passed an old man walking along the road.  He had a great beard that was long and henna’d orange.  He was kind enough to pose for a photo.

As we continued, we came to a field where several men were actively butchering some goats and cows.  They were sitting in the grass, working on the carcasses – removing the skin and organs, as well as cuts of meat.

We were unsure how they would react to guests, but Julie and I parked and walked up for a closer look.  The men were actually pleased to have us watch them and more than pleased to be photographed.

Those photos were excellent.  The men, in typical Pakistani fashion, would get a hard look on their faces for the photos.  To state the obvious, not everyone prefers smiling for the camera.

The butchering.

The next step in our exploration of Eid slaughtering traditions would have been to partake in the feasting.  Neither of us had accepted any invitations from our Pakistani friends, however, so we skipped this step.  Furthermore, Julie is vegetarian, so eating goat wasn’t an option for her anyway.

Once all the feasting was over, Julie and I again set out – this time to witness the aftermath of Eid.  In the city, there wasn’t much evidence of the event.  Sure, there were the blood-stained driveways and the occasional pile of goat parts (hide, bones, and whatnot) by the road.  Further from the city center, however, the evidence was unmistakable.  We saw whole goats and cows, not just entrails, being dumped by the side of the road.  At one spot, we saw a man with a whole cow in a wheelbarrow, and he dumped it in a spot where three whole animals had already been discarded.  A pack of wild dogs took over from there.  Everywhere we looked, there were dogs and cats either actively eating on carcasses or else walking around with body parts in their mouths.  There were huge birds of prey – hawks and vultures – eating on the carcasses or, more commonly, watching from the air or trees, waiting to dig in.  It was a bumper day for all manner of meat-eater.

I mentioned the waste we had seen to a few of my Pakistani colleagues and got a mixture of responses.  Some acknowledged that, yes, large amounts of meat went to waste since people could not consume it all and had no means to store the abundant leftovers.  Others flatly denied that anything went to waste.  They told me that I had probably only seen entrails being discarded, and if they were actually whole animals, they were probably being discarded because they were discovered to have been diseased once they had been slaughtered.  This explanation sounded to me like a clear case of exaggerated defense of one’s culture, which was unnecessary.  I wasn’t criticizing, and even if I was, what leg would I have to stand on?  After all, I am a member of the most wasteful society in history.

All said, it shaped up to be a pretty fun weekend, and I didn’t even have to fight my way through the airport.

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