Art by Leila Ettachfini.

Eid al-Adha Made Me a Vegetarian, But I Learned to Love It Anyway

Growing up, the holiday, in which Muslims slaughter a lamb to commemorate Ibrahim's sacrifice, traumatized me. I've since come to appreciate Eid al-Adha for showing me the reality of where meat comes from and the value of togetherness.

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Aug 21 2018, 6:24pm

Art by Leila Ettachfini.

Children usually look forward to holidays, but as a kid, I dreaded Eid al-Adha.

Eid al-Adha, or the “festival of sacrifice” in Arabic, is a Muslim holiday celebrated during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah. The holiday commemorates the Qur’anic story of Prophet Ibrahim (ﷺ, also known as Abraham) in which his devotion to God is challenged. As the story goes, Ibrahim dreams that God asks him to kill his son. When he wakes, he believes that God has communicated with him through the dream and plans to complete His test. When Ibrahim is about to kill his son, God intervenes, seeing that Ibrahim has every intention to carry out His wishes. Since Ibrahim has demonstrated his devotion, God instead gives him a ram to kill as a reward for his loyalty. (This story may sound familiar to Christians and Jews as a similar version appears in the Old Testament).

To celebrate Ibrahim’s sacrifice on Eid al-Adha, Muslim families slaughter an animal—most commonly a lamb, though sometimes a goat or cow—in the halal way. The meat is then split up in three parts: One is donated to a poor family who cannot afford their own animal for Eid al-Adha festivities, one is given to friends and extended family, and the last is kept for the immediate family.

I’m a vegetarian now, but as a child, I loved chicken tenders dipped in ranch and a juicy Colorado steak, but there was one meat I refused to touch, lamb. (Well, two meats: lamb and pork. My family is Muslim, after all). Many thanks to Eid al-Adha, lamb has grossed me out since shortly after I became aware of the fact that Mary’s little lamb and the chops on the table were one and the same. To me, lamb tastes unmistakably like a living, breathing, gamey animal in a way that no other meat does. There are cows and then there is beef; lamb to me is just lamb.

Growing up in suburban America, you’re not really confronted with where your meat comes from. As far as I was concerned, beef and chicken “came from” Wal-Mart or Costco. On Eid al-Adha, I had to square off with the reality of what meat was, whether I wanted to or not. I can partially credit Eid al-Adha with my vegetarianism todayespecially the Eid when I came home from school and the garage door unveiled a skinned lamb instead of my mom’s silver van. I waited on our lawn until someone got home to let me in through the front door.

On the morning of Eid, many Muslim families go to the mosque to pray the special Eid al-Adha prayer. After, families go to a halal farm or slaughterhouse. Luckily for me, my mother and sister were also squeamish and never wanted to attend the slaughtering, so, at that point in the festivities, we headed home. According to my brother and cousins, going to the farm on Eid was actually pretty fun. I’ll admit I had a bit of FOMO on Eid morning, knowing that all my cousins were running around together and having a good time as my dad and uncles took care of the sheep—but not enough FOMO to risk seeing a slaughter I knew would make my stomach churn.

At home, I dreaded my family’s return from the farm and was extra weary of opening texts from my brother, who thought it was funny to send me pictures from the scene: a detached lamb’s head, a chicken running around with its head cut off—you know, casual things like that. Upon their arrival, my mom and aunts gathered around the smorgasbord of bloody guts on our kitchen island, taking on the extremely laborious duty of gutting, freezing, and preparing the lamb for dinner.

I hid in my room, away from the kitchen, knowing that soon the smell of cooked lamb liver, which I’d developed a strong aversion to, would rise, and the towels stuffed into the cracks of my door were no match for it. I’d run to the basement, only coming upstairs once my favorite cousins showed up, then try my damndest to convince them to take a walk or sit outside with me.

Once it was time for dinner, I couldn’t stay outside or hide in my room (I was dramatic, but not a disrespectful heathen), nor did I want to (that FOMO again). So I braved the aroma, which was actually less strong once the meat was out of the oven and greeted each of my relatives with two kisses on the cheek. About a hundred kisses later, we sat down for dinner. Apart from a few relatives who would attempt, to no avail, to encourage me to try the lamb, it was lovely.

My family is huge, and it is rare that we’re all under one roof. When we are—usually on the two Eids or Thanksgiving—we’re loud, obnoxious, and rowdy. No matter how old we get, there always seem to be a generation of young kids screaming in the background as my uncles recite al-Burda, a beautiful poem (listen here) that honors the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). Eid dinner always reminds me of one of my favorite aspects of our culture: the way we stay in touch with our extended family—even if I only get to catch up with my second cousins in between my brother chasing me around the house with a lamb skull, one of his favorite pastimes.

After he finally listened to my parents’ protests and threw the skull away, we would all sit down for mint tea and dessert together. By then, I’d been holding onto a bushel of mint from the backyard that my mom gave me to sniff as the lamb cooked all day. With the tea in our cups and lamb either in the freezer or everyone’s stomachs, I could take a deep breath and thoroughly enjoy the company of my family—until next year.

My dislike of Eid al-Adha was mainly innate, but I remember being embarrassed by the holiday, as well. I thought slaughtering a lamb for a holiday sounded barbaric, and tiptoed around the truth of it while explaining it to my friends: “We go to the farm, get a lamb, and eat it for dinner.” I tried to keep the word “slaughter” out of it. As I got older, and probably with the help of documentaries like Food, Inc. (which led me to become a vegetarian permanently in 2013), I realized that slaughtering a sheep that’s lived its life on an actual farm is actually far better than picking up beef at Wal-Mart from a cow who lived its whole life abused in a cage inside a factory. At least we knew where our lamb was coming from.

Eid al-Adha isn’t unique among holidays where much of the focus is on food. It feels in many ways like Thanksgiving—another day in which I avoid the main course. Though, of course, on Eid al-Adha, the whole day revolves around the main course. The first year I moved away for college, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat happy to be spending Eid away from home and away from the smell and gore of a freshly slaughtered animal. As the years went on, I began to miss our celebration and realized that, like all holidays, there was a lot more to Eid al-Adha than digging into a hard-earned plate of lamb.

I missed bumping into that sweet woman I call my aunt, though I’m not entirely sure if or how she’s related to me, at the mosque in the morning, chasing around my toddler cousins who were thrilled I was down to play with them in the backyard, and, yes, sitting around our dinner table for Eid al-Adha dinner—even if I was avoiding eye contact with a sheep’s cooked head the whole time.

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I have yet to connect with a group of Muslim friends, let alone vegetarian ones, to celebrate Eid with here in New York, though that does sound nice. For now, FaceTiming my family for hours in the midst of the chaos that is my home on both Eids has been a form of celebration for me—and it’s only a bonus that my aunts can’t ask me to try the lamb. I don’t consider being vegetarian a part of my identity at all, let alone the way that being Muslim is, but since adopting that diet and moving away from home, I have thought about how I’ll celebrate Eid al-Adha while being a vegetarian without compromising either. I know that some Muslim vegetarians donate the money they would spend on a lamb and enjoy Eid al-Adha dinner with all the aspects that make it special, minus the meat.

I don’t know what Eid al-Adha will look like in my home in the future, and though I’m pretty positive you won’t find me elbow-deep in a sheep’s stomach preparing a meal for 50 plus relatives (sorry, Mom), I know I’ll be celebrating, in my own way, the aspects of Eid that I love: working hard towards a beautiful meal to feed the people I love, spending time with friends and family, and donating to those less fortunate are all too good to give up just because I don’t like lamb.

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