Photo by Brad Miller

Photo by Brad Miller

 

Bovine apocalypse or block party? You decide.

 by Brad Miller


At World Next Door, we make jokes about how often we catch tropical diseases, and suggest putting things like “lion attacks” on the liability waiver. But for all that, I didn’t expect getting splashed by cow’s blood was something I was going to have to worry about on this trip.

Turns out I was in for a bit of a surprise.

In Dhaka, the Muslim holiday of Eid celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, as well as God’s provision of a different animal to sacrifice instead. To honor and remember this, every Muslim family that can afford it (and a few that can’t) purchases a cow.

And then, on the first day of Eid, they sacrifice all of them. All of them.

When I heard this, I pictured everyone gathering together at a Mosque, or perhaps in a big open field. I had images of a great mob of people saying prayers while the cows were led one by one to the slaughtering block.

Turns out, I was entirely wrong.

They do all gather together, dressed in their Sunday (Wednesday?) best, for prayers in the morning. But after that, each family returns to their home. Once there, they sacrifice the cows on the front porch.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Most people here don’t have porches. It’s more like in the street, or the open lot next door, or really anywhere there is a space. I noticed one dead cow outside a local fruit stand (I don’t think I’ll be in the mood for oranges for a while).

Bangladesh is 89% Muslim, so the effect of all this is astounding. Every twenty yards or so there is clump of cows, two, sometimes three, in the process of being tied, slaughtered, cleaned, and butchered by the side of the road.

This stretched for blocks and blocks; I never saw the end of it. I was vividly reminded of King David’s triumphant return to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6, where a bull and calf were killed every six steps.

Everyone reacts differently, but no one can resist watching. Photo by Brad Miller

Everyone reacts differently, but no one can resist watching. Photo by Brad Miller

The sacrifice itself is strangely mesmerizing. I found myself drawn to watching it, and quickly realized why the crowds gathered around each cow to see the process.

The effect is… visceral. Pardon the pun, but there really is no better word for it.

After watching the first of many cows get put down that day, I walked away suddenly realizing how tight my stomach had become. The effect of watching the slaughter is felt through the whole body. I didn’t just see it. I experienced it. Visceral really is the only word.

I thought the intensity of the main event would make for a sober day, and I imagined the air would be filled with the sounds of struggling and dying cows, but instead I found it filled with the good natured babble and warm cheer of a family holiday.

I saw a half-dozen carcasses being butchered in the space where boys had played cricket the day before. Photo by Brad Miller

I saw a half-dozen carcasses being butchered in the space where boys had played cricket the day before.
Photo by Brad Miller

Parents and children gathered around to watch the process while groups of young people strolled together showing off their finest new sharis and pujabis. With all the shops closed, people enjoyed the day off. Toymakers hawked their wares, and parents bought balloons and noisemakers to bring home to their children. The mood was relaxed, even festive.

When I finally made it back to my host’s neighborhood, I saw a half-dozen carcasses being butchered in the space where boys had played cricket the day before. But I also saw families strolling around together. Girls giggling, boys watching wide-eyed, and men pointing and discussing the finer points of removing the skin intact.

The entire event was a cross between a bizarre bovine apocalypse and a rather macabre neighborhood block party. Yet even as I stepped carefully around the spreading red pools on the street, I found myself smiling.

In focusing on the sacrifice, I almost missed that the heart of Eid is about community. Photo by Brad Miller

In focusing on the sacrifice, I almost missed that the heart of Eid is about community.
Photo by Brad Miller

This probably won’t win me any points with animal lovers, but I have to say there is something uniquely delightful about a whole community coming together on a bright sunny day to celebrate with a single purpose – even if that purpose can’t quite claim the “no animals were harmed in the making of this holiday” badge.

As I reflected on the number of barbeques, cookouts, and steak-grilling events I have attended throughout the years, I realized my own holiday rituals weren’t all that different. I just purchased my cow at a different stage in the process.

In the end, I walked away with a simple conclusion about Eid. It may not look a lot like the holidays I’m used to, but it’s still easier to stomach than Christmas fruitcake.