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December 9, 2008 Word of the Day: Ghrs (PG-13)

The verb ghrs has been translated both as slaughter and sacrifice. I’m not sure whether it refers only to animals that are slaughtered for religious purposes or any animal that is killed according to the Qur’anic proscriptions. (Though I didn’t know this before I first visited the Middle East, most Muslims follow dietary laws very similar to the kosher laws for Jews. Both include strict instructions for how animals must be killed if they are to be eaten.)

Towards the end of PST, an older PCV taught me the very useful line, Ad-ak ghrsgh am ulli, to use if a man was harassing me. It means I will slaughter you like a sheep, and is guaranteed to make any Moroccan’s eyes bug out. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s such a dire threat or because it sounds so ridiculous…either way, it has stuck in my head. :)

Warning: The rest of this blog entry is rated PG-13. Young children in Morocco watch the sacrifice of the sheep each year, but the description below might disturb some American children (and even American adults). Americans who live on a family farm or a reservation may be familiar with the sight of slaughter, but to the other 90-somepercent, this will be…unfamiliar.

As I understood it, in order to ghrs a sheep, one is supposed to slice its jugular with a single stroke of a sharp knife, out of sight of any other sheep.

I’d thought that Aba would ghrs the ram for our family, but I was mistaken. Not all men know how to do it right, my tutor had explained to me, so those who do help those who don’t. In our case, our ram was ghrs'd by our neighbor. Given that he’s a friendly man in our neighborhood, it’s tempting to dub him “Mr. Rogers”, but I can’t quite bring myself to describe Mr. Rogers slaughtering a sheep, so I’ll go with “Roger”.

As Roger led the ram from his sheep-pen, where he’d been holding it for us – my family doesn’t have a sheep pen – the animal … how to phrase this … released excrement. Quite a bit of it. I found myself wondering if this was an act of fear, reflecting some prescience on the ram’s part, or just … doing what sheep do.

Moments later, Aba, Roger, and my two brothers got the ram into position. They pushed him down onto his side. The boys held his legs, Aba pinned him by his horns, and Roger pushed the fleece of his neck away to set up a clean stroke. The ram was facing east, although I don’t know if this is required, simply customary, or a coincidence. I was about 15 feet away, so I don’t know if Roger said anything before he sawed through the ram’s neck with three rapid strokes. It’s possible that what looked like the first two strokes were just him limbering up his arm… Or maybe I misunderstood about the single-stroke requirement.

In a split second, after Roger had cut his throat, the ram began flailing desperately. Roger, Aba, and the boys all anticipated this, and leapt backwards the instant after Roger’s cut(s). I had not anticipated this; I’d imagined that the ram would quietly bleed out, like Wallace’s wife did in Braveheart after the soldiers slit her throat. The men and boys scrambled to between five and ten feet away, then watched as his back spasmed and he clawed the air with his legs. It looked like he was trying to stand up, but couldn’t remember how to get his legs under him, so he just strained against the air. He rolled around, pushed himself over a few times, then continued shuddering and convulsing for several long minutes. After his flailing had subsided, and he was shuddering out his final breaths, his blood still pumping into the ground, my brothers and one or two of their friends crept up next to him. The boldest reached out and poked him, prompting sharper shudders and a feeble kick, but no further motion. Then a younger boy prodded him, with the same result. I waited for one of the men to reprimand the boys for jabbing at the dying beast, but the men just watched. As I did.

When the animal had stilled, and was quietly pulling in its last slow breaths, Roger and Aba came back. Roger pulled the ram’s head further back and began sawing through its spine. When he finished, and the head was attached only by a flap of skin, the ram finally lay completely still.

Roger then addressed himself to one of the back legs. He cut shallowly into the skin. Then he lifted the leg up to his mouth and blew into the cut. He did this over and over again, occasionally prodding the ram’s belly to see how inflated it was becoming. Once enough air was swelling the skin out from the body, Roger alternated between blowing into the leg and pressing on the ram to force the air throughout the body. Once the sheep was inflated like a Macy’s Day balloon, he cut up the length of the leg and across animal’s rump. I noticed that the ram was sporadically … releasing more excrement. Though I had no way to know for certain, I was sure that he was dead by this point, and either way, with his spine severed, any further action was involuntary. I imagined that the air bubble must be pushing against the intestines even as it pushed up the skin. Once the ram’s rump had been skinned, he moved on to the other leg. He cut through the bone at the backwards-bending joint (the equivalent to the ankle or heel, I believe), then carefully drew out and separated the tendons. “Les tendons,” Aba said in French. “Yes, the tendons,” I answered in English. It was the first time I’d spoken since coming out of our neighbor’s house and noticing that Aba and Roger were leading the ram from its pen.

This had all taken place at the spot where the first cut had been made, and so I’d supposed that the rest of the butchering process would finish there. I was wrong.

Roger and Aba abruptly picked up the ram by his back legs and carried him to the alley between our house and another neighbor’s. As they walked, the ram’s head caught on the ground and twisted all the way around, such that its head was upright, its chin catching on loose rocks, as it was carried away from me. A loop, apparently of plastic cord, had been tied to a nail that protruded from the outer wall of our courtyard. The ram’s foot was maneuvered through the loop such that its full weight was supported by those two tendons.

I’d thought that the ram had bled out already, but now that it was suspended by its Achilles’ heel, more blood found its way down to drip out its neck.

Roger continued skinning the ram, working steadily, methodically. Using his fist, he knuckled through the fibers and fat connecting the muscles to the skin. When he hit a snag, he used a knife, but most of the skin came off with just his hand. The sound of the skin being torn off was familiar. It was reminiscent of tearing fabric, but heavier. I’m still not sure why I felt like I recognized the sound. I know I’ve never watched anything get skinned before.

The skin came off cleanly; Roger clearly knew what he was doing, and worked calmly and efficiently, with a minimum of emotion. The only areas where he slowed his steady progress were the testicles, where he had to use the knife repeatedly, but whose odd shape he managed to avoid nicking (once skinned, they looked like narrow cow udders), and then at the neck, where there was so little tension to pull against.

Once he had finished, and the sheepskin lay in a pile on the ground with the head on top, eyes staring limpidly towards the sky, he began disemboweling the ram. This he did with the same systematic efficiency as the skinning. The first gush of organs – kidneys, liver, stomach, etc – he caught and gave to one of my brothers, who carried it inside the house. [We ate it for lunch the next day, cut into half-inch cubes and wrapped with strips of fat, then shish-kebab’d and grilled.] The intestines he pulled out slowly. As they emerged from the ram’s gut, they were bigger around than a man’s thumb, looking for all the world like bratwurst, but he squeezed out … what was in them … into a basin, and looped the emptied lengths around his elbow like a sailor with a narrow line. Emptied, they were no wider than my pinky, and flat as a length of velvet ribbon.

At this point, maybe 45 minutes after the initial cut, Ama came by with my sisters, and we walked over to Oldest 3mmi’s house to visit with Oldest 3tti and her children.

When we returned, Roger had finished his work, and the cleaned carcass was hanging in the courtyard. I’d underestimated how much of the volume of a ram is due to the fleece and fat; stripped of its insulation and innards, the carcass had the spare, sleek lines of a greyhound.

I’d had my camera in my hand throughout this process – I had it at hand all day – but shot only the initial pose, when the men and boys were gathered around the still-standing ram, then the bloody knife where it had been dropped to the ground, and finally the sheepskin, with the ram’s head flopped on top like the afterthought it now was.

1 comment:

  1. Morocco is a peacful countrie so how are you helping the people in morocco? Is the main point of the peace corps to convert muslims?


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