Eid reflections: When ritual and family are a source of comfort and anxiety

Editors note: We asked five writers to reflect on ritual and tradition over Eid al-Adha. What power does tradition have in bringing happiness amid political or economic uncertainty, if any? The responses we got were mixed, with recurring themes of nostalgia, tinged with familiar questions about how we represent ourselves around family, what we choose to reveal of our lives and to conceal, and the alternative families that we choose.

During the days of the January 2011 revolution, comments were widely shared on Facebook noting that, while protesters were able to front off against the police and Interior Ministry, they couldn’t face their mothers, referring to a situation in which an activist received a phone call from his mother telling him to come home, and he lied and told her he was in a café with friends and would return home directly.

Many of us have complicated relationships with our families. Sometimes it’s easier to face an unknown enemy than a personal attack. The feast days and holidays in general are an opportunity for many of us to return to our homes, but navigating the dynamics that come with them are not always easy.

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What are we sacrificing?

Amro Ali

I have grown accustomed to gradually seeing religious festivities being disemboweled of their meaning, whether it’s the entertainment-saturated Ramadan, or the hyper-commercialized Christmas. But the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) stands out starkly, as it has been built on an all-encompassing annual spectacle, with the blood of sheep and cattle running through the veins of Egyptian cities. To live in a part of Alexandria surrounded by butchers, as I do, is to be unfortunately placed at one of the city’s aorta.

Eid al-Adha, which celebrates the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice, is rich in meaning and symbolism, from the perseverance of the human condition to the traditional binding of families and community, as well as allowing, at the very least, a metaphorical reaching out to Jews and Christians who can relate to the tribulations of Abraham. More so, given that many poor Egyptians are “vegetarian” by default, as they can rarely afford meat, Eid is an opportunity to put meat on their tables. This is not to mention the money and other charitable gifts that are given out generously on this festive occasion.

When it comes to charity, Eid Al-Adha is an exemplar. When it comes to the actual sacrifice, it has become frighteningly lacking.

Egyptian society over the years has developed an unhealthy obsession with ostentatious displays of piety. Eid al-Adha has regressed to the point where public piety meets peak voyeurism, leading to the collapse of any semblance of a public sphere. The origins of this problem came with urbanization that saw the ritual move from farms and slaughterhouses to the streets. And for a long time, the practice was undertaken in the building’s manwar (interior) by a few families. Now, driven by the flaunting of wealth, it has reached an industrial scale, with minimal supervision, regulation or consensus. The authorities, despite being against it and issuing fines here and there, would rather react swiftly to one innocent protester holding a sign than the instigators of thousands of liters of blood clogging the fragile drainage system, overwhelming the minimal sanitation standards and releasing the smell of dead animals into the air.

The withering of Islamic ethics regarding the practice of slaughter is obvious when basic questions are not even asked as to why animals are kept in dire conditions in the lead-up to their fate, why they are forced to witness others being slaughtered and why are children watching this bloodbath. What is halal anymore?

Moreover, the implication is that the animal is the centerpiece of the festivity, obscuring the underlying message and normalizing our problematic addiction to meat.

Meat consumption was extremely limited in the early days of Islam. The Prophet and his companions were semi-vegetarians. One, in fact, was an outright vegetarian. The sources consistently showed the Prophet’s favorite foods to be dates, barley, figs, grapes, honey and milk, among other non-meat foods. The Prophet never ate beef, going as far as saying, “The meat of a cow produces sickness, but its milk is a cure.” The Caliph Omar warned to, “Beware of meat, because it is addictive like wine.” Historically, it was only rich Muslims who could afford meat, and it would only be eaten on Fridays, while the poor had to wait for Eid to eat meat.

These historical factors ought to be considered in light of the need to reframe Eid Al-Adha away from the morass it has been dragged into. Perhaps meat can be treated as that rare luxury that is eaten infrequently across the social strata. I’m no vegetarian, but the excessive quantity of meat produced and consumed, the social signifiers that accompany it, the deep inequalities that it sharpens and the troubling medical problems that it exacerbates, not to mention the additional pressure meat production places on the planet, means that there is an urgent need to diversify cuisines and elevate non-meat options.

Whatever is happening, it is no longer about the story of Abraham, it is something that you just do because you did it last year and you will do it next year as well.

More and more, each year, we experience a nihilist Eid on the streets. The butchers don’t know why they are slaughtering, the donors don’t know why they are paying for it, the public doesn’t know why they are witnessing it, and the sermons have hit a tone-deaf level. The only ones who seem to have some awareness that something is not quite right are the sheep, goats and cattle.

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Rituals we don’t tire of

Eman Abdel Reheem

I didn’t recognize the value of celebrating Eid holidays with my family — my mom and siblings — until I spent the first Eid with my husband in our new home. I didn’t expect to feel loss and emptiness after leaving my vibrant and always loud family home, and moving to a quiet house, where I reside with some cats and my often-silent husband.

That first night of Eid in my new home I wept, and told my husband about the usual rituals we would perform in my family every year on waqfa (the day ahead of Eid); my mom’s hysterical screaming — which was always in the background — about the carpets that hadn’t yet been cleaned and hence may not be dry and ready before the guests would arrive the next day; the sound of the radio playing Eid songs accompanying my mom’s shouting, and everyone else busy with their household tasks.

I always enjoyed making fun of my younger brother, who had to clean the carpets, or else he wouldn’t receive his edeya (money traditionally given by family members on the occasion of Eid), which he waited for from one Eid to the next, while we girls shared the task of cleaning of the rest of the house — the rooms, bathroom and kitchen. My youngest thug brother would ‘supervise’ and mock us.

When mom would disappear for an hour or more from home, to either buy adahi (the meat of the sacrificed animal), or distribute zakat al-fitr (charity associated with Eid al-Fitr that follows fasting in Ramadan), we would instantly abandon our tasks and begin our own humorous side celebrations. Then the doorbell would ring, my mother would return, and with her a familiar Eid symphony that would last until the first hours of the first day of the holiday: “I will turn your Eid into a black day,” she would threaten.

By the dawn call to prayer, everybody would have almost completed their tasks, then there would be a queue for the shower, us in our new waqfa pajamas, while the sound of mom screaming about one thing or another would continue in the background. We would collect our edeya from her, and the first thing my middle and younger sisters and I would spend our money on, ritualistically every Eid, was ordering from Pizza Hut or McDonald’s, the only two restaurants with 24-hour delivery.

My other middle sister would perform the first day prayers in the mosque every Eid, and my younger brother, the one who cleaned the carpets, would disappear for the whole day with his edeya, and only return on the second day. My mom and my thug brother would watch the Eid prayers live on TV.

The rest of Eid we would spend together at home, performing the remaining rituals that might seem mundane and boring, but which we never grew tired or bored of repeating. We would watch the film Taataa and Rika and Kazem Beh, for example, after which my youngest sister and I would watch the kids in the street play with Eid firecrackers in front of our building, maybe play on the PlayStation and then, most importantly, welcome our relatives and spend time with them, until they would give us our edeya, and we would instantly disappear. That is, until they outsmarted us and would only give us the money as they left.

Eid with my family was never boring. What is boring is Eid without them.

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A copy of each book for the family

Ahmed al-Fakharany

I originally left my family’s home in Alexandria to escape a vague sense that the family and the city might one day reduce my mind to something smaller than the eye of a needle, or that I may become frozen in time — as happened to several of my older relatives and other writers in Alexandria, with a few exceptions. I am, however, still neither able to understand nor am I capable of spending Eid away from Alexandria.

I have made friends and family in Cairo, but despite this, a sense of alienation still surfaces during Eid holidays. This is bizarre, as I no longer consider myself Alexandrian, I even often say that I have adopted Cairene cultures.

I avoid family conversations, unless they are with my brothers. What I do in Cairo is not hidden from my parents, but I still prefer not to discuss any details with them. I always reduce conversations to general statements, and never speak of any troubles I face, or any predicaments I experience. Everything else passes, but a family’s concern lasts.

I don’t worry about my father. We have become accustomed to spending hours together in silence, or speaking rarely, and this has become a convenient habit for both of us. Words are dangerous; they can turn into worry, reproach or anger.

This allusiveness is what makes what I write or do, no matter how vague, understandable. At least, they understand that it matters to me. Moreover, I make sure to bring along with me, on every visit, a copy of a book I have authored. I never ever ask them about their opinions. It is merely a smoke signal to the family sky: I am fine. What I planned for my life is going well, even if it does not look like my father’s plan for me.

Through these visits and the signals I convey that I am, at least, happy, and some sort of reconciliation has taken place which may not have occurred had I spent my life in Alexandria. But with relatives, it is difficult. What I expect to happen always comes to pass. I am not saying my life is better away from home, but families are scary and their lives are confined to toxic rituals. I never ever tell them what I do, and I don’t seek to prove anything. To them, I am a man who disobeyed his father by denying him his plan for my life, and a man who will be punished with a curse or a labyrinth. My father no longer sees things this way. All he cares about is making sure that I am well.

The brief visit with my family over Eid makes me feel serene, but if it lasts much longer, I feel a tremendous urge to return to Cairo again out of fear this serenity will wear off, whether it was real or an illusion.

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Holiday anxiety: Single woman edition

Dina Wahba

This is the first Eid I’ve spent in Egypt since I moved to Berlin almost two years ago. The holiday has always been a big deal for me, associated with many fond childhood memories. I usually had to work during Eid in Europe, and often felt lonely and isolated, with no one to say Eid Mubarak to. We never celebrated Christmas growing up. So, after one gloomy Eid in my office, I decided to celebrate every feast day abroad with my “alternative family” — the family I have chosen and that has chosen me. This is a common phenomenon in diaspora, when you are miles away from your own family and so you create one. They are friends, loved ones and comrades. They can be people you have known for years, or friends you have just met and clicked with. I am blessed to have such a circle of friends. Every Eid we gather, bring food and just come together, creating our own traditions.

This Eid I am excited to be at home. I feel less lonely and have enjoyed listening to the morning prayers and feeling like I am part of the festivities. But family gatherings also bring me a lot of anxiety. As a single woman in my 30s and living alone in Europe, it is not easy being around my moderately conservative family. I am often presented with many questions that I do not necessarily have the answers to, like, “When will you get married? Why are you still single? Why don’t you want a family right now?” as well as questions about my lifestyle in Berlin. My anxiety kicks in, I get flustered and I often mumble the weirdest answers. But what really gets to me are the looks of pity or the passive aggressive comments about my loneliness and my life choices. So, again, I feel isolated and lonely even when I am home, surrounded by family.

At moments like these, I miss my alternative family. The family I chose; the family who really knows and loves me for who I am. I find a corner to hide in until the day is over. I try not to hear any of the toxic comments about how I look and what I wear. I leave feeling worse than when I came, and I remember how my dad usually used to save me. He would sit me down and brag about me and provide answers to any questions anyone might have, and then it was done, I could enjoy the rest of the day. After he departed things got even more complicated. I love my family, I really do. I wish they would know that, and I wish they would know that I am happy with what I have become. Maybe one day I will add to the family, but I need to feel that until then, holiday gatherings shouldn’t be a burden on me, as they are for many single women my age.

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Animals have eyes

Amr Ezzat

I was staying with my family in the Ard al-Gameiyya area of Imbaba — a new neighborhood which is inhabited by second generation Imbaba residents, mostly professionals with university degrees and class aspirations. The previous generation, in contrast, lives in the older, more well-known part of Imbaba.

My father, my siblings and I visited our paternal grandmother over Eid in old Imbaba, and the plan was that we would stay there for the entire holiday.

Ard al-Gameiyya is almost deserted for much of Eid. Most of its residents, like us, go to old Imbaba, or return to their hometowns and villages outside Cairo.

Old Imbaba is an Eid playground, with a carnival for Waqfa (the day before Eid). Children wear new, colorful clothes. Some wear police and military costumes, others national costumes from the Gulf, and people bring their musical instruments, drums and flutes to play on the first night.

At a certain point, Eid was my chance to enjoy some independence at home. I visited my grandmother with my family on the first day, a visit that’s always very difficult to avoid, and I would spend the rest of Eid at our home in Ard al-Gameiyya, where I had the opportunity to read, write and watch movies. My siblings were young and so were in the custody of my grandmother for the duration of the holiday. I, on the other hand, was the eldest, and so this was my moment to try out living alone in the house for a while.

I loved the family gathering on the first day of Eid, and the main meal — invariably Fatta with meat. There was always an entertaining food program on television and for the rest of the day us kids would perform in a collective stand-up comedy show. But I didn’t want this to continue indefinitely, I always had other plans to read and meet friends.

Now, as I recount this, I am aware that I have some nostalgia for these days, a longing to gather at my family home again, and with this comes with the realization that family gatherings aren’t always bad. When I meet with my family now, we realize that we, the once-small children, have grown. In our 20s and 30s, we all have our own independent lives. Each time this surprises us, and the gathering becomes loud, merry and intimate, even though we seldom meet all together.

We have found solidarity in our similarities, those of us from the same generation, who are all pro-revolution and anti-Muslim Brotherhood and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in comparison to the older family members, who are mostly Sisi supporters.

I’m not a fan of the Eid slaughtering ritual. My grandmother and her brother bring a butcher with them to slaughter the animal, and the women of the family generally take charge of dividing the meat and allocating it to other family members and the poor. The men are then in charge of distributing the meat, which, to me, is always a troubling chore.

Once, when I was religious, I read that tradition says it is preferable for a person to carry out the slaughter himself. I went to the butcher and asked him if I could do so. He caught and held the sheep and gave me the knife, but I couldn’t do it, and for this reason I never considered going to medical school, and I couldn’t watch Tarantino movies for a while after this, but I love them now. 

The sheep I tried slaying visited me in a dream later. I dreamed of its eyes. All animals have eyes that stare at you when you are slaying them, and that is terrifying. I often dream of the eyes of rats and lizards I’ve killed, but maybe if these animals didn’t have eyes, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Translated by Waad Ahmed and Osman El Sharnoubi

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Amro Ali, Eman Abdel Reheem, Ahmed al-Fakharany, Dina Wahba and Amr Ezzat