Monday, November 26, 2012

Kurban Bayram: Eating Fresh Meat and Meeting New People

October 25th to 28th was Kurban Bayram, the Feast of the Sacrifices, an Islamic holiday which honor's Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son to prove his faith. You can read more about the history and religious side of the holiday here*.
A classmate of mine wrote this handy guide to how it is celebrated in Kayseri, homework for my English class was to explain Kurban Bayram to me:


On the first day off of school, which was the day before the holiday started, we went to visit the cemetery where Babaannem (my host dad's mom) is buried. Even though it was raining, the cemetery was full of people making visits and paying respects. On the way there we bought a tub of little hard candies and gave them out and greeted people as we walked to her grave. Other people also brought sweets and we were wished a Happy Bayram and handed chocolates, candies and Turkish delight by strangers as we walked.

On the first day of the holiday we drove out of the city to buy our cow. We crawled along in some of the worst traffic I have ever seen, until arriving in a farm and village area where we pushed down a dirt road barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic but full of cars, trucks, tractors, cows, people walking, people leading cows, cows tied to the back of slow moving trucks, cows in the back of slow moving trucks, little kids, and stray cats and dogs. I’m really not sure how everyone emerged in one piece, with cars passing one another where there clearly wasn’t room, and vehicles stopped in inconvenient locations. I could tell we were getting close when the fields near the road were filled with women and children sitting on tarps picking apart and sorting piles of beef. We eventually parked and walked to a dirt area in between buildings where we sat on concrete steps leading to a second floor balcony and watched the sacrifice of about a half dozen cows.

I’ll spare going into detail, as it was a little challenging to watch at times, but here is a brief overview. First the cow was led into the clearing, usually with a bag on its head, and then laid down by five or six men (these cows were big). It was then tied by its back leg to a little tractor crane which lifted it off the ground, and the men gathered around, removed the bag, and recited an Arabic saying before cutting it at the throat. It was lowered back onto the ground before being swiftly cleaned and butchered until it was slabs of raw beef given to the families that had bought it, and the unwanted bits were in piles off to the side.

Our cow

The place was busy and crowded with people, we stuck around for a few hours waiting for the cow that we had purchased to be cut, but there were so many to do that ours specifically wasn’t going to be done until much later. We got to see the cow, but we picked up our thirty-some kilos of meat later that night (cows are so large that the meat from a single one is split by about six families, and our personal meat was given out to multiple friends).

Tray of Baklava we bought to give to our Bayram visitors

That afternoon we returned home and got dressed up to go visiting family and friends. We spent that afternoon and the next morning driving to different parts of the city visiting all different types of people. At the door we were greeted with kisses on the cheeks (a normal Turkish hello), and given slippers before being led into the living room (in an attempt to avoid being given the inevitably too small slippers, I wore thick wool socks, hoping people would realize my feet weren't going to be cold. About half the time it worked, half the time it backfired as I had an even harder time getting my feet into the little sandals; they can be really difficult to refuse). We would stay for about half an hour and chat while eating yaprak, börek and baklava with black tea or fruit juice, usually followed by chocolates or Turkish delight. By the end of the day we were gorged and a few times we had to insist on not being fed full meals, or given more and more food and tea. I struggled to make small talk with my baby two month old Turkish, and though I couldn't get all too far, everyone seemed to love that I was trying. I met probably around 40 new people and went to a dozen houses, not always understanding how the people were related, and rarely catching names- but it was so fun! I got to see and brand new apartment building and the family we visited hadn't even finished moving in, I met a boy who couldn't speak any English but could play the guitar and sing a song in English, I got to hold an 8 day old baby, I met a man who had been to the U.S. 35 times as an army pilot and knew of Seattle because of the Joint base Lewis-McChord not far from the city, and I met a Turkish woman who spoke English because she'd been living in Australia for the the past 20 years and was back visiting for the holiday.


Our meat
As we toured the city, I saw that it was full of meat. It seemed so funny to me that chunks of beef were casually carried simply in overflowing grocery bags, but that is apparently the way to do it. People were walking down the street or visiting relatives just as we were, bearing bags of meat. People were on their lawns or street corners cleaning it or dividing it up, or trucks would drive by with uncovered racks of ribs in the back. There were also sheep and cows being sold and herded in fields in the city, something else that is not common daily. On the news they showed cows that had gotten loose in other cities, with videos somewhat akin to what you might see on America’s Funniest Home Videos as they confusedly ran into coffeeshops or refused to get out of the road. Onur told me that this happens every year, and responded to my laughter at a video of two men riding a motorcycle through Istanbul holding a sheep with ‘Turkish people do this all the time.’



Kirrikale from the balcony
Usually during Bayram my host family goes to the city of Kirrikale, where Anneannem and Teyzem live (maternal grandmother and aunt), as well as where family from Ankara and Aksaray meet up. This year my family originally decided not to go, but made a spur of the moment decision that we would go and surprise everyone by showing up on the night of the 26th. Only my aunt knew we were coming, so we surprised my mom's mom and dad, her sister and son, her other sister's husband and two kids, and her brother; with the addition of us five, it was one full apartment!

We ate soup, mantı, cooked the fresh beef from our cow, and stayed up late into the night chatting, laughing and watching soccer and ridiculous game shows on TV. In the morning we went to my grandmother's house and had a huge breakfast before making spur of the moment decision #2, which was to drive another few hours to Ankara with everyone to see the Body Worlds exhibit.

The Body Worlds exhibit series originated from a German scientist who created a way of preserving human muscles and organs so that real human bodies can be displayed in science exhibits (you can visit their website here to read more). It was incredibly interesting, and only slightly unnerving to see preserved fetuses and cross sections of different organs, and it was certainly a thought provoking follow up to the Kurban Bayram. What different contexts of viewing mammal’s insides!

My cousin Mustafa outside of Body Worlds
(no photos were allowed inside the exhibit)
The exhibit was in Turkish and English, but it seemed as though they weren't expecting many tourists to visit the exhibit (it does travel around the world), because the English was often around the other side of the cases or on the back of the stand alone explanation boards. I tried to be quiet and discreet as I climbed around display items a slid along walls trying to get a better look at the sometimes well hidden descriptions, but I sometime just gave up and had to make my own stories for the muscular systems posed for yoga. While my Turkish is improving and I worked through some of the descriptions when they were side by side with English, scientific terms and obscure body part names and functions are a whole different boat from knowing daily conversation.

After the exhibit we went out for lunch, and then drove the four hours home to Kayseri, and spent the last day of Bayram resting, though we did get a few Bayram visitors ourselves. Our neighbors across the hall got quite a few at once.

*In elementary school they taught us to never use wikipedia as a source, and it still makes me a little uncomfortable to reference it. However I have always found it to be quite accurate and that comparably thorough and largely unbiased articles can be hard to come by.