Friday, 31 October 2014

Eid in Algeria – what’s there to celebrate? Part Three

What a glorious way to spend the second day of Eid

We have settled into a routine that suits us as a family now on Eid day. On the Eid after Ramadan we always go and have lunch at my mother-in-law’s home, and it's wonderful to see so many people, old and young, male and female out and about in their best clothes, visiting family.  This is the Eid where it is traditional to give the children money and I have learnt from my sister-in-law to collect change for a couple of weeks beforehand so we have enough to give to my husband's grandnephews and grandnieces (yes....we're THAT old now!) on Eid day.  A lot of the extended family gathers in my mother-in-law's apartment, and, although there are a lot of us crowded into a tiny apartment, everything runs like clockwork, and we all usually enjoy our meal and time with the family…..even me!  Then we return home in the early afternoon to avoid the worst of the traffic and we may lie down for a while, or watch some TV… or as has been the case in more recent years, go on the internet!  Then in the evening we will have something light to eat followed by a film with all the usual goodies. I have always baked the things that my children like for this Eid and have found over time that my in-laws love the variation when I’ve gifted them with boxes of them. The next day we have been to visit sisters, gone for picnics and this past Eid al Fitr we went to the beach with a picnic and it was glorious Alhamdulilah.
A picnic in the forest on the second day of Eid with friends

We have not always had a sheep on the second Eid, and when that was the case we have gone to my in-laws for lunch and it becomes similar to Eid Al Fitr.  However the boys often do the rounds of the neighbours and watched them, or as in most cases, helped out, while the girls and I have sat at home, boxed up some cakes as gifts and relaxed.  On these particular Eids we have always been gifted with meat to the point that we have more in our freezer than on the Eids when we slaughtered ourselves! 
When we have had a sheep it is a very busy day, even though it’s normally only my mother-in-law and sister-in-law who come to stay and help out.  I know some friends who love to get all ‘stuck in’ and do everything, but It has never appealed to me personally.  Leading up to the second Eid al Adha when we had a sheep, I worried about the stomach, intestines, head and feet none of which I knew what to do with and had absolutely no interest whatsoever in cooking as none of us like these dishes.  But I soon discovered that these are delicacies for a lot of Algerians who will quite happily take them and also the sheepskin off your hands, as they are, without being cleaned. I love the fact that in Algeria nothing goes to waste – absolutely every part of the animal is used, and the meat itself is very much appreciated as most Algerians cannot afford to eat it very often so having meat- based meals is a big novelty in itself.   I have found my own role on these days to be one who cleans up after the sheep and bag up all it’s bedding for the rubbish, then I cook a roast chicken and all the trimmings as well as preparing a salad and chips to go with the cooked liver, heart, kidney.  I feel as if my role on the Eid Al Adha is to enable everyone else to do their roles, and it all works out really well Alhamdulilah.  My sister-in-law gave me one of the highest compliments I could ask for on a couple of these Eids.  She and my mother-in-law get up to pray Fajir on Eid morning but then they go back to bed because they don’t attend the Eid prayer in the mosque.  On both occasions they slept until we came back and she said that she never sleeps like that at home……so that usually makes my day, knowing they feel so comfortable in my home Alhamdulilah. 

Gifts of meat given to us on Eid

The most difficult Eid al Adha since my first one here was the one several months after my lovely Mum passed away in 2011.  I know it sounds stupid now but, at the time, I didn’t realise that I was still in a state of grief and shock at her death.  I just knew that I couldn’t stop thinking of her and, couldn’t stop writing to her in my head as I always used to do before I actually sat down and wrote it all out for her, and realising that she just wasn’t there anymore.  It was especially difficult as it was such a happy occasion for my family and my in-laws and I really didn’t want to put a damper (yes I know….another pun!) on things by bawling my eyes out in front of them… I did it in the garage while cleaning out the sheep’s bedding (I have never been able to look at chocolate cereal balls in the same light since), and found that doing some physical work is very therapeutic for grief.  Once I’d finished and had a shower I was able to sit down with all the family and have a really nice lunch Alhamdulilah. 

I think there is another aspect to the difficulty a lot of us ex-pats have with Eid here, and that is the point that it reinforces the obvious fact that our husbands have their families and we don’t…..not in the same way.  Apart from the physical distance there is also the fact that they don’t share our beliefs and, as a result, can’t truly identify with us on these special occasions.  It can feel very lonely at times.  I have spent some Eids in the very early years wondering what kind of  ‘celebration’ this was for me, far away from my family and my English speaking friends, surrounded by Algerian derja for the most part of the day, and working so hard, and to be honest I have felt very tearful.  As the years have progressed I have slowly but surely stopped grieving for the Eids we had in England and come to enjoy the ones we have here in Algeria, and to understand why Algerians abroad always hanker after their Eids here.  To quote a very good friend of mine, Eid in Algeria is more about the ‘sacrifice’ than the 'slaughter', and, as a result it definitely is more of a ‘commemoration’ than a ‘festival’ and, therefore has a lot more depth and meaning….at least for me anyway.   I think, also, I have found my own niche within my husband’s family, one with which I am happy, and I am also happy to have a close bond with my own family across the Med, all of which makes me more contented Alhamdulilah.  In the end these occasions are primarily reminders to us of patience and devotion to our Creator, and also that this life is just a ‘passing through’ and not the end goal in itself.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Eid in Algeria - what's there to celebrate? Part Two

The one that got away!
I had to keep reminding myself why we had a sheep in our house in the first place, and no, it was not primarily for the wonderful roast meat dinners ahead.   I had heard the story over and over growing up, listening to it at mass on Sunday,  where God wanted to test His Prophet Abraham (May Allah’s peace be upon him)’s loyalty to and love for Him, and asked him to sacrifice his only son.  Islam gives far more details about the story than the Catholic Church did and, as with a lot of the stories the religions have in common there are fundamental differences.  Christians believe that he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, his wife’s Sarah’s son, while Islam says that it was his son Ismail with his wife Haajar as Sarah still didn’t have her son as yet at this time.  He told his son about the dream he had where he had been requested to do this act, and his son told him, more or less, that he had to do what Allah had ordered.  So, as they both made their way to the place where the sacrifice was to be performed, shaitaan (satan) came to Abraham, three times and tried his very level best to dissuade him from doing it, whereby Abraham picked up some stones and threw them at him.  This is remembered every year during the pilgrimage of Hajj when people stone the Jamaraat .  Just at the point that Abraham was about to slaughter his son Allah told him to slaughter a sheep instead, and this is why, if we can afford one, we slaughter a sheep on Eid day in memory and in awe of Abraham’s amazing obedience to his Creator, and as an inspiration to us to try to reach that level of deep faith and serenity.  So as I looked into the eyes of that first sheep in the days leading up to the day of Eid I thought of how Abraham must have felt having to sacrifice his SON, and I honestly felt a close affinity to this amazing man and, inspired by his faith, I could feel my own becoming stronger.  But that didn’t stop me from sitting on my bed at the actual time of the slaughter, sobbing along with one of my sons until the dreaded deed was done!

You can never get too much of a good thing
Leading up to that moment were weeks of dread – I dreaded having my in laws to stay over as that had never happened before, and I was anxious about how I was going to communicate with them  over such a long period of time.   I dreaded having to feed them all the day before Eid, Arafat, which is a day of fasting in case they didn’t like the food having not eaten all day.  I picked up on my husband’s nervousness about the actual slaughter itself and I was nervous for him!  I was worried about each of the children and how they would feel on the actual day of the slaughter.  I dreaded Eid day because I really didn’t know what to expect and I felt that, while everyone else would know exactly what to do, I would be totally useless.

My in-laws arrived on the day of Arafat….with their own food as they felt I had enough on my plate (pun my word!) without cooking, and we had a lovely evening together.  The slaughter, itself on Eid day, was quite quick and my husband was happy he had done it as humanely as possible.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, seemed to get in on the act of removing the skin and insides… in-laws and various neighbours all were on hand to give plenty of advice (Algerians LOVE giving advice!) and also practical help  and with our boys and men going back and forth also to the neighbours, we all felt it was very much a community event.

My sisters-in-law and my husband’s niece set to cleaning out the insides and burning the hair off the head and feet, and my children watched and helped whenever they could.  As for me I found I excelled in the role as ‘gofer’  - I spent a lot of time up and down, back and forth looking for basins, sharp knives, scissors etc. etc.  I had also decided to roast a chicken because there isn’t much from which to make a meal on the day of the actual slaughter – the liver, heart and kidneys wouldn’t make much of a meal for 11 people and it’s very hungry work.  I served the chicken with mashed potato, carrots, peas and, of course, gravy, and my husband’s nephew exclaimed, when he sat down, ‘what exactly did we just slaughter – a sheep or a chicken?’  In addition I also cooked the innards with onion and garlic and everyone was very happy with the meal….which made me happy and feeling useful Alhamduliah!

By the time we had sat down to dinner everything had been done that could be done with the carcass, and it was hanging up in our courtyard with all the floor washed and scrubbed and all the rubbish bagged, so much so that only for the hanging carcass you would never know we had a live sheep in our courtyard just that morning.  I really am in awe at how efficient Algerians can be at times like this mashaAllah.

Everyone lay down for a siesta after lunch and prayer, and then we had coffee and cakes, after which my in-laws left.  Then my children, husband and I settled down to watch a film and munch away on all sorts of goodies, drink gazous (a hyped-up version of Cola or Pepsi!) and juice, and we all went to bed feeling very happy and, as if we had had a really lovely day.  And I wondered why, and not for the first time, I always got myself worked up over things and ALWAYS came up with the worst possible scenarios.
Chocolate all the way!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Eid in Algeria – what’s there to celebrate? Part One

Home-made Eid cakes

I have had to revise all my previous conceptions of ‘celebration’ since I came to Algeria.  The word, ‘celebration’ itself can mean either ‘festivity’ and/or ‘commemoration’ and that really explains the huge differences between Eid in England and Eid in Algeria.  We have two days of celebration in the Islamic Calendar (there are others but they are more cultural and traditional than actually Islamic), and these are Eid al Fitr when Ramadan ends and Eid al Adha (known as Eid Kabeer or the Big Eid here in Algeria), which is about 2 months after the first one.  Obviously before becoming Muslim, I was brought up with all the Catholic days of celebration which, for my family always had a very spiritual emphasis.  Leaving these days behind were not as difficult for me as for others, probably because, being honest, they weren’t filled with the happy memories that a lot of my friends have of these occasions.

In England, as a Muslim, we usually celebrated these days by getting all dressed up in new clothes going to a mosque in London followed by a party either at a mosque or hall, where the emphasis was on the children enjoying their day with little games and presents laid on by the organisers, the mothers enjoying a well-earned break from cooking and housework by catching up with friends or making new ones and the husbands sat and chilled with their friends.  Invariably we all returned home from these occasions exhausted but very happy.

I cannot even remember our first Eid al Fitr here in Algeria it was so memorable…..not!  It would have only been about 6 weeks after we arrived and most likely we spent it visiting my husband’s mother and sister, along with the rest of the extended family, and also his brother and his wife.  It was quite boring and exhausting for both me and for the children and in sharp contrast to the Eids we had spent in England.  About two months later we celebrated our first Eid Al Adha and, although we didn’t have a sheep to slaughter ourselves, we didn’t really feel that we missed out on anything as all the neighbours and family slaughtered theirs outside the apartment building.  My eldest son was 11 at the time and he went around that day with a face as white as his camis – he had helped his friend to take care of his sheep leading up to Eid and found the whole slaughtering thing very hard to bear.  I found myself very emotional that day because, for some reason, I kept thinking of my Dad who had passed away 6 years previously and how much I would have loved to tell him about the day.  I think I felt that he would probably understand having been brought up on a farm.  The one thing that really stood out for me that day was the fact that both men and women equally worked very hard – after the sheep was slaughtered the men had to remove the skin, not an easy job, cut the breastbone, another difficult job, remove the innards some of which they cleaned themselves, and the women then had their jobs of cleaning out and then cooking the edible organs for the family.  Usually the carcass is left to drain until the next day and I remember, as we drove off to visit my mother-in-law, seeing all the carcasses hanging from the trees outside the apartment block,and thinking how I would love to have been able to take a picture and send it home to my family in Ireland with the caption ‘This is what grows on the trees in Algeria!’  Yes, there was a life before Facebook!

The second Eid Al Adha was our first one buying a sheep.  My husband had never slaughtered on his own before and was very nervous about it, not wanting the animal to suffer because of his inexperience, so he invited his nephew to come and help along with his two sisters and his niece.  I, for my part, was very nervous about absolutely everything and dreading the whole day for weeks beforehand.  I used to be vegetarian when I was in my teens and the farm next door was rented out to a butcher who reared cows for slaughter.  One night he herded them all into the barn next door to be transported the next day and they were so obviously in distress all night that I promised I would never eat his meat or any other.  So the idea of having an actual sheep in our courtyard intended for slaughter made me sick to my stomach, but the reality was, in some ways, even worse.  The agricultural smell is overpowering and hits you as soon as you wake up, but it was the inestimable sadness I felt every time I looked at it as it stared woefully back at me that was by far the worst thing about it.
Just a 'little' selection of home-made Eid cakes - there were more in the Freezer!