My sister-in-law insisted I view the five headless corpses on the rug in the back bedroom. Professionally butchered, they might even have looked beautiful if your taste ran to such things. Images from paintings by Francis Bacon came awkwardly to mind.
'Mskeeneen,' I said. 'Poor things.'
It wasn't exactly the response my sister-in-law was expecting. Perhaps 'Alhamdulillah' might have been more in keeping, but I felt ambivalent as always.
This was the third time in the decades I have known my husband's family that I've been in Morocco during the Eid el Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, also known as the Eid el Kebir, the Big Feast, that denotes the start of the new Muslim year, currently 1443. It commemorates the story we know from the Old Testament of Abraham and Isaac, and Abraham's sacrifice of the ram caught in the thicket instead of his son at the Almighty's pretty stark command.
It's a big deal. Every Muslim family is expected to purchase a sheep, lamb or goat in acknowledgement of this: no small demand at the end of a pandemic with lost jobs, rising prices and a major European war adding to the mix. A couple of weeks before the date, this year in mid-July – it moves forward about 10 days annually following the Muslim lunar calendar – two canopies were erected outside our nearest local supermarket, Marjane. One covered a pen of sheep, the other a pen of goats. Not your normal supermarket fare, but there they were. Fifty dirhams the kilo (about £4-5) was apparently the going rate.
A week earlier we set out for a small community, or douar, in the countryside, about an hour from the city. We drove past fields of silvery olive trees under a dusty sky to visit a distant relative of my husband's mother, fkih to a small village mosque. We entered a town tranquillised by heat and a prolonged siesta, zoomed high over a railway track, then under a motorway via a gigantic pipe that rounded out the landscape ahead like a view through a telescope. The fkih, a jolly, indefatigable talker, was waiting for us at the end of a country track, down which we bounced while he kept pace on foot beside us, breathlessly pointing out the way.
We were greeted by a household of women, his wife, daughters and daughters-in-law, babies on shoulder or hip, older children wide-eyed with curiosity.
'Marhababikum. Welcome, everyone,' they said as we underwent the traditional greeting rituals and were settled on the cushioned divans that lined the walls of their best room. Conversation ranged from long past childhood memories to present social and political concerns while the women prepared a substantial afternoon tea, rich in homely calories, much as my Highland grandmother would have set out scones, pancakes, home-made jam sponges and shortbread for rarely seen visiting relatives.
Then it was down to business. We entered a nearby yard, filled with sounds of lowing cattle and bleating sheep, amid piled up bales of hay, animal feed recently harvested. We were shown two sheep in a small pen who seemed to know instinctively why we were there, desperately scrabbling and scrambling into the furthest corner before being manhandled to order, their horns gripped and hindquarters examined for heft and value. Good sheep, but expensive and as it was still three weeks to the date the woman farmer conducting the negotiation indicated we would have to pay for their food till then and arrange delivery ourselves. So no deal.
Next stop was a field with a small flock of browsing sheep. But the farmer wasn't ready to sell. He wanted to fatten his beasts for the following year, he said.
Our last stop came at the end of a long bumpy track through a vast terrain of vines, lined up like Xian's Terracotta Army and owned, apparently, by the king's brother, Moulay Rachid. The prince never visited on foot, only by helicopter, we were told. Deep in the midst of this was a smallholding surrounded by fruit trees and more curious children watching us intently. The farmer greeted us wearing a grey and red 2012 London Paralympics T-shirt somewhat worn and rumpled.
Through a rough stone and mortar wall, a framework of sticks operating as a gate led us into a beaten earth yard where a flock of sheep browsed on a thin covering of grass. In a barn to one side, the sheep marked out for sale were being examined. Again, the tough business of manhandling up close and personal. This time the farmer undertook to care for the animals himself and would deliver them the night before the Eid. The price was agreed, the deal concluded and the jolly fkih pocketed his commission with a chuckle.
As a parting gesture of goodwill, the farmer encouraged us to pick some plums. They were a bit before their time and proved slightly acidic to eat, but the gesture was appreciated and everyone was happy.
The last time we were in Morocco for the Eid was August-September, 2018. At that time, one of my husband's sisters and her family were staying in the flat above ours. They had two sheep that year which they kept on a tiny balcony off their sitting-room. All night long you could hear the animals' hooves shifting about as they bleated aloud to their fellow beasts across the city. A deeply mournful sound. You were sure they knew their fate and it made you feel so guilty about the whole business of killing and eating them. There's a lot to be said for keeping slaughterhouses invisible until such time as we might be required to stop eating meat for good.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh