In the Manner of Morocco


Celebrating Eid as a Quaker

I spent three and a half months in Morocco, a country in the Maghreb region of North Africa. My time there was exhausting and exhilarating, and despite the moments of suffocating discomfort and seemingly endless illness, I could not ask for a more complexly beautiful country to have lived in. The rat maze that is the Rabat medina, all alleys and jam-packed homes, can be dirty and noisy: children crying all hours of the night, men hooting at women incessantly, vendors shouting their prices into your ear. It is also a sleepy, ancient-looking space where shoes tap romantically on tiled pavement, smells of cooking meat and spice carts mix lazily in the air, and women in their cotton djellabas trade gossip, plastic hammam baskets in hand. My education and a yearning for the study abroad experience brought me to Morocco, but love kept me there.

Photos by Emma Hohenstein.
Photos by Emma Hohenstein.

Morocco is a Muslim country, having shed its forced French heritage decades ago. During orientation, my group was lectured endlessly on how to keep ourselves safe and how not to offend, antagonize, or provoke. We were taught the meaning, analysis, and social context of each form of religious dress, practice, and holiday. We left no stone unturned and no brutal question unasked.

I grew up under the care of Frankford Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and owe much of my moral and spiritual formation to my father and the hour of silence I was afforded each week. I grew up in a sphere of relentless tolerance, hunger for knowledge, and love for others. But I also grew up under the rubble of the Twin Towers, under the sole of the shoe thrown at George W. Bush, and under the burdens of patriotism versus terrorism.

I am part of an unlucky generation. We were in elementary school when the Twin Towers fell, children raised under the War on Terror. Our afternoon cartoons dealt with more than just making friends and learning to share: we learned to support our troops, where to send care packages for kids in New York City, and how to cope with tragedy. I was ten years old and inundated with the idea that terrorists looked like the bad guys in Aladdin or Indiana Jones; that to be Muslim meant to be an extremist; and that America was the top of the food chain, seeking out and taking down sneaky, Middle Eastern bad guys that we should be scared of.

emma2I never learned that there are over 25 different varieties of Arabic, each beautifully complicated in its own way. I didn’t learn that the hijab is a choice of fashion, femininity, and faith, not a symbol of an oppressive religion. When we learned about Egypt, we only talked about pharaohs, tombs, and scarab beetles. No one told us about Gaddafi or the difference between Sunni and Shia or the tribal histories of the Amazigh people of North Africa.

So when all of my family and friends told me to be safe in Morocco, I didn’t flinch. Everything I had absorbed through my childhood had screamed at me: Terrorists are Muslim! Muslims are dangerous! Even through high school and the Arab Spring, it was the terror and oppression of an authoritarian, Muslim government that the people were fighting, trying to break free of. It never occurred to me that people could desire freedom, democracy, and Islam. It never occurred to me that my militant stance on equality was being undermined by my unconscious stigmatization.

I arrived in Morocco in tears after a stressful 24 hours in transit on the last day of August 2014. I knew absolutely no Darija (Moroccan Arabic) or French; was a day early for my program; and was completely alone in a dark, seemingly empty hotel. A few whirlwind days later I was lugging my bag up a flight of tiled stairs into my new family’s home. I would spend all my time with them: eating, sleeping, watching television, gossiping, doing homework, and celebrating holidays.

emma3The holiday of Eid began long before we were told what it was. It began with bales of hay and mounds of charcoal sprinkling the medina streets. It began when one student posted on Facebook a picture of her new roommate—a fully grown, dirt-matted ram. It began with passing young men on the street shoving two sheep into the back of a beaten-up Yugo. The next day all of the students of my program were herded in front of a large projector while a professor flipped through slides of rams and illustrations of men in turbans and kaftans with scimitars.

Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, is a religious holiday celebrating Ibrahim’s sacrifice of his son, Ismail, to God. In the biblical story, God intervenes and stops Ibrahim from killing his son, giving him instead a sheep. Muslims celebrate this holiday by sacrificing a ram on the morning of the first of the three days. In Morocco this means that rams (often two or three) live on the roofs, patios, kitchens, and hallways of homes for sometimes weeks beforehand, being fattened and preened by the families before their death.

I had never read the story of Ibrahim (Abraham in English), and I had never seen an animal die before. As I sat in the fancily decorated living room that was my bedroom for the month, watching three children in the street below baaing and mewling like lambs as they pushed each other in a wheelbarrow full of hay and wool, a sickening dread came over me. I wrestled with my thoughts all night. What would I do when they slit its throat? Would I watch and accept the processes of other religions, or did my faith call on me to turn away from violence? Was this in fact violence—a senseless act of murder—or was it prayer and thanksgiving? What would it look like?

It was brutal, to be totally honest. I hovered impatiently on the top step of the roof patio, peering over the cement wall to where my host uncle, cousin, and mother had the larger of the two rams pinned down, gripped tightly against its bucking. They all wore pajamas, old and soiled, and sweat beaded on their necks and foreheads. The ram’s head smacked against the floor in a loud, whacking noise. The sun, my empty stomach, and fear made me dizzy, and I took a deep breath. The hot air smelled of pee, wool, and the thick smoke of celebratory street fires. Then, quite unceremoniously, my host father cut the throat in one quick motion. I felt my muscles tense and my finger clenching down my camera’s shutter. He continued to saw through esophagus, bone, and sinew until the head, sticky with blood, released into his hand. My family looked expectantly at me, and I pressed my camera more tightly to my face, hiding my grimace. It was not okay. I was not okay.

So there I was, shaking slightly as my 13-year-old host sister squeegeed congealed blood like bright acrylic paint into the drain and thinking to myself: How could they do this? How can they watch this violent death, yet be so unaffected? My host father beckoned me to the side of the decapitated sheep.

“Lift,” he said to me in a thick accent. I reeled back and laughed a little forcedly. He put the hoof in my hand.

“You must,” my host cousin said (his English much stronger than his uncle’s), “to respect the gift the sheep has given us and has given to Allah.” I fisted my hand around the bloody hoof and hauled the carcass to the other side of the roof. The adrenaline and fear slowly left my body, and I became exhausted, the hot sun singeing the back of my neck and tops of my knees. Methodically, my host uncle skinned and gutted the sheep. The men chatted amongst themselves in Darija, occasionally pointing a carving knife in my direction. My host sister and I gathered the organs as they were removed and neatly put them in bowls. We took them to my host grandmother who squatted on a tiny bath stool and cleaned undigested food from the stomach, feces from the bowels, and scraped mucus from the heart and lungs. The whole head was put over a fire and the brains pulled out.

“You do not have to watch the slaughter,” our assistant director had told my group of study abroad students. For a moment, we were all dumbstruck as we considered what paths our lives had taken that brought us to a moment of deciding whether or not to watch a sheep being slaughtered. The moment I made my decision was when I locked eyes with those two sheep, tied by their elegantly curling horns to the wall of the patio, and recognized their godliness, their equality. I did not have the right to pick and choose what moments I wanted to experience. Their death, the act of them giving their life so that others may benefit and continue living, was so human yet so divine. To turn my back to that sacrifice would be a refusal to acknowledge my equality with these sheep.

And that is what Eid represents to Muslims, the equity of all things—of sons and sheep—under God. The sacrifice of the sheep was a statement of personal sacrifice and thanksgiving to a larger, divine spirit.

In September 2014, religious scholar Reza Aslan appeared on the live news show CNN Tonight to address the question “Does Islam promote violence?” On the show, he explained the dangers of making general assumptions about Islam. Notably, while countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran do not promote a gender-equal state, that is not true in many other Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Turkey. In fact, he stated, “Muslims have elected seven women as their heads of state in those Muslim majority countries.” The show host, Don Lemon, then responded with more generalizations, “Be honest though, for the most part, it is not a free and open society for women in those states.” With this, Lemon implies that it is the hand of Islam that is suppressing women. And isn’t that exactly what we Westerners have been taught: inequality and violence are inherently Muslim? After all, what do we see on the news but young Muslim men throwing molotov cocktails; members of the Islamic state beheading Westerners; veiled women unable to drive, go to school, or leave the house.

Unfortunately, the stories from the Middle East and North Africa that are covered by the media focus mostly on the jihadists and Islamists, small but terrifying factions of religious terrorists. On January 15, Maajid Nawaz, an ex-Islamist and current British Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, spoke on NPR’s Fresh Air about his time in an Islamist group and their tactics for recruitment. “We mainly frequented mosques for the purpose of recruitment,” he said. “The other thing with Islamists to know is that they look upon the traditional, conservative religious Muslim community with disdain. They see them as having secularized their religion. They see them as being socially backward.” Nawaz explained that even the extreme religious groups have detached themselves from the Muslim community.

“You’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people,” Aslan reminded the hosts on CNN before demonstrating a common misjudgement outsiders make of Muslim women:

Certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, “Well, in Saudi Arabia [women] can’t drive, and so therefore that’s somehow representative of Islam.” It’s representative of Saudi Arabia . . . It’s extremist when compared to the rights and responsibilities of Muslim women around the world . . . We’re not talking about women in the Muslim world: we’re using two or three examples to justify a generalization; that’s actually the definition of bigotry.

As a Quaker, I feel it is my obligation to lead my own life in the most peaceful and nonviolent way possible. I must also live with integrity to my personal beliefs and an understanding of others’ beliefs. For dinner on the evening of Eid, we had intestines that my host mother and I had braided earlier, with kidney and stomach in a tomato and squash tajine. We silently picked at the dish with our lumps of bread, watching the live stream of the Hajj on the television. On our roof hung slabs of meat and ribs, pearled beautiful in red, pink, and white.

In the quiet meditation of that dinner, I could physically feel walls within myself crumbling down. As smart and openhearted as I liked to imagine I was, I had still come into this holiday with a fear of violence and a disbelief in the beauty of Islam and other religions. Watching the sacrifice and being able to participate and immerse myself in something I understood so little opened my eyes. I was able to realize that there is no true definition of any religion: the Qur’an, the Bible, the Vedas, all are just words. It is the people and the communities that make a religion what it is.

“Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it,” said Aslan. It can be hard to reconcile personal bias or ingrained beliefs. For me, it was hard to accept that one can sacrifice an animal in love and equality. It was hard to understand some of the interpretations of the Qur’an about how women should dress or men should pray. However, all people have the choice to act in their own ways, and I will hold all people in the Light, regardless of whether or not I agree with their interpretations of their Scripture.

Nawaz said it quite finally, “No religion, whether it’s Islam, Christianity, or any idea based on Scripture or texts, is a religion of anything. Islam is a religion. It will be what Muslims make of it. And it is the sum total of the interpretation that Muslims give to it. So it’s not a religion of war. It’s not a religion of peace.”

As Eid came to a close and I shut myself in my room, shed all the jewelry and fancy clothes loaned from my host sister, and sat silently peering out the window at the fires still burning along the medina street and the piles of sheep skins, I finally relaxed into peace. I felt my eyes well up, and my breath hitched in my chest. I had been wrong. I had been wrong to disregard and stigmatize. Not only that, but I had been wrong in being so afraid. While there are any number of different religious groups and names, all people can be moved by the Spirit and by God, and I must face the movements of friends in fairness and love.

Author video chat:

Emma Hohenstein

Emma Hohenstein is a photographer and writer currently working on a book about young Quakers. Her work often focuses on minority culture or social groups with a leaning toward social justice. Emma lives between West Philadelphia, Pa., and Baltimore, Md., with her charming cat, Hamlet.

2 thoughts on “In the Manner of Morocco

  1. “The moment I made my decision was when I locked eyes with those two sheep, tied by their elegantly curling horns to the wall of the patio, and recognized their godliness, their equality. I did not have the right to pick and choose what moments I wanted to experience. Their death, the act of them giving their life so that others may benefit and continue living, was so human yet so divine.”

    “… the act of them giving their life so that others may benefit and continue living, was so human yet so divine.”

    But the sheep do not “give” their lives. Their lives are taken from them.

    And they do not need to die for others to live. Indeed, if people do not stop eating meat, we may all die as we destroy the climate.

    Frankly, had I been in your position, I would have gone along with it. I would have been a stranger, alone, and I do not think I would have wanted to be that different from my host family.

  2. Dear Emma

    Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences, emotions and faith in life and all its people.

    I am currently in Fez having accompanied my daughter in preparation for contnuing her Arabic studies here.

    I am an attendee at a Quaker Meeting in the uk and a vegan.

    Eid celebrations start tomorrow 12th September and we have been invited to our Airbnb family’s celebrations. Your article has been very helpful.

    Fes and it’s people have been truly wonderful towards us.

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