Butchers and farmers who have raised and slaughtered sheep their entire lives — many wearing Jordanian army surplus clothing and traditional kuffiyahs wrapped around their heads — number among the pens filled with hundreds of sheep waiting to be bought by Muslims celebrating the holiday Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice.
The smell of raw meat fills the open-air market as men cut, drain, chop and smoke. A cacophony of sheep can be heard echoing through the small valley. During its busiest hours, sheep are chosen by customers and killed in threes and fours, being moved through the process like a halal fast-food drive-through. Blood spray covers the white and black rubber boots of butchers as they sacrifice the sheep on dark-red soaked dirt that has long since turned to mud.
The Khalda Market is one of 18 that are set up throughout the city by the Greater Amman Municipality to serve the communities of people observing the holy days — which last from Friday to Monday — and who want to partake in the tradition of sacrificing a sheep. This practice originates from the story of how the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was willing to sacrifice his first-born son in order to prove his devotion, before God interceded and provided a ram to be slaughtered instead.
Though the Greater Amman Municipality has only been organizing these 18 markets for four years, some of the butchers have been doing this their entire lives, like Ali, 41, from Madaba, a city located about 30 kilometers southwest of Amman. Ali has been raising and slaughtering sheep for 30 years, since he was 11 years old.
“I would go from school to my father’s butcher shop every day,” Ali said, standing in front of a metal pen packed with noisy sheep. He grew up with nine siblings, five of whom continue their father’s work in the meat business today. Ali is one of about 30 farmers who gathered at the Khalda market for the past five days to sell their livestock.
With such a high demand for sheep in a short period of time, there are concerns of animal welfare and cleanliness, particularly because many sheep are imported from countries such as Romania, Australia and Sudan. Veterinarian Odai Hijazeen, a 22-year-old fresh graduate from the University of Science and Technology in Irbid, insists that he and his two other colleagues working in the Khalda market do their best to make sure the people are receiving meat from only healthy animals.
“We take random samples. We check the liver and lungs for disease, and the carcasses. Those that are locally raised are usually good, but particularly from Romania, they can have diseases,” Hijazeen said, clad in the white lab coat that distinguishes the butchers from the doctors. It was the first Eid al-Adha market for all three of the veterinarians. Despite the tiring work and insufficient number of doctors, they all said they would be back next year.
The veterinarians checking the meat are only the last part in a practiced process though. Ali explained that in accordance with Islamic law, the sheep must be killed in the most merciful way, with one cut across the throat with a very sharp blade. But first, because halal methods are supposed to be used, the sheep’s head is aligned with Qibla, which is the direction toward the Kaaba in Mecca. The butcher says, “Allah Akhbar,” or “God is great,” then the throat is cut. After the blood drains, the sheep is hung on a meat hook, where the head and hide are both separated from the body.
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Nearly every part of the animal is used, though some prefer not to take the stomachs. The undesired organs are tossed in large, metal dumpsters. Outside of the main market, people can be seen taking the sheep abdomens from the trash. The needy are an important part of the celebration of this holiday as well, as it is tradition to split the meat into three parts: one for immediate family, another for relatives, and a third for the poor. Many women stand near the market entrance and ask for people’s generosity in sharing their freshly slaughtered sheep as the customers leave.
Unwanted organs are discarded, meat is distributed and the butchers move on to the next buyer and animal. But the hide from the sheep travels on. Stacked in the back of pickup trucks, each coat can fetch up to an average of three Jordanian dinars. There are many shop owners in Amman that buy and resell these after the hide is treated.
One shop, Farrah, in downtown Amman has been reselling these sheep hides for over 90 years. It’s a family business that has been passed on through four generations. Issa Farrah, 24, who inherited the shop from his father, is the fourth owner. Farrah was originally opened by Issa’s great-grandfather in Hebron, Palestine. Around 1972, Issa’s grandfather moved the shop to Jordan, where it still stands today.
Eid al-Adha is a busy time for the shop, when they can get up to 500 sheep during the holiday. The sheep coats are unloaded from trucks and out of plastic bags and treated with a special salt from the Dead Sea to keep the wool from peeling from the hide. After the salt, a special powder called shabeb is put on the skin to stop the blood. The wool is then shampooed and put through a tanning machine to clean the hide completely, before it is cut and shaped for a final time.
“This shop started with this work, with the skin. I like it to remember my family, like a memory. Many people think it’s an ugly smell (sheep hide), but believe me, I love this. I work, I clean it, I’m happy,” Issa said of the work he began when he was only nine years old.
Some may be sad to see the celebration come to a close. But for Ali, the end is the beginning of his holiday.
“Tomorrow,” Ali said on Sunday afternoon, “will be Eid for the butchers. We will finally have a rest.”
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