Turkey's Qurban Bayram traditions keep up with changing times

Published 30.08.2017 10:11
Updated 30.08.2017 17:30
emSabah Photo/em
Sabah Photo

While families in Turkey still pick an animal to be slaughtered and donate to the poor as part of traditions surrounding the holiest of Muslim holidays, modernization is changing the ways they go about it

"This is our best time of the year. We have the best sales numbers at the highest prices," says Bayram Kodaz, the manager of a livestock warehouse in Istanbul, while surrounded by hundreds of sheep, dozens of cows and one towering camel weighing 1 ton (2,204 pounds).

With the Qurban Bayram, (Feast of the Sacrifice), also known as Eid al-Adha set to start Friday, the animals have been trucked in from the countryside to be slaughtered.

The backstory to the feast - the holiest of Muslim holidays - is familiar to any followers of the Abrahamic faiths.

The tale - in the Quran and the Bible - says Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son, but at the last moment the child was rescued and in his place an animal was slaughtered.

This shared link is reflected in the customer base. While Turkey is mostly Muslim, even local Christians join in the spirit.

"I have customers from all walks of life. Secular, liberal, Islamic. I even have an Armenian customer who comes every year," says Kodaz.

As he speaks, a family of four is inspecting sheep, the youngest child gleefully approaching an animal before turning away in horror as the flock turns toward him. The mother laughs. Another man, with an Islamic beard without a moustache, is bargaining for a cow.

The farmhands explain what makes a good animal. They pry open the mouth to show the front teeth, a sign of health and age. Then, one must check the underbelly to see if the meat will be of good quality.

Males have tougher meat, but it's the preferred choice in terms of taste. The government has banned the sale of female animals this year anyway, to prevent future shortages in an increasingly tight market.

Livestock dealers say that they expect a small decline in the number of animals they sell this year. The cost of meat has gone up, but salaries have remained stagnant.

Not too long ago in Istanbul, a family would choose their animal and bring it home, alive, to be fattened up, painted in bright colors and then slaughtered in the neighborhood.

"We bring the animal out after the prayer in the morning," says Mehmet Yilmaz, 55, who sticks to the older customs and keeps his cow on the family land until it is sacrificed.

But he is a rarity. These days, Kodaz's company handles all the details. The animals are ritually slaughtered in a temporary marketplace adjacent to the pens and the meat is packaged on-site. Customers only have to show up at the agreed-upon time to pick it up.

"In the east of Turkey, people still keep the animal at home," says Kodaz, somewhat nostalgic for the rural life.

Kodaz treks out each year to farms in the remote parts of Turkey to vet the animals and pack them on trucks for the 30-hour journey west.

"The more our country develops, the more the old traditions fade away. Now everything is iPhones, Apples and apps," he laughs.

But there are also upsides, he notes more seriously.

"Turkey has become much safer in the last 20 years. Everything now is more hygienic," he says, showing off the automated systems used by 45 butchers on the actual day of the feast to process hundreds of animals in a short period of time.

Municipality officials held a four-day training session in August for the butchers and have assigned doctors to the plot in case of any accidents. Fines are stiff for anyone who violates the rules.

The holiday has a strong spirit of charity, much like Christmastime in the West. Across the city, posters and billboards have shot up asking people to donate to orphans, the poor and those in crisis zones.

"Eighty percent of my customers donate most of the meat they buy," says Kodaz. He himself collects the animal skins to give to a charity run by the Turkish military.

Modernization also makes it easier for people to make donations.

Islamic Relief, an aid group, offers an online form where people can choose the destination of their gift. "This year I will pick Africa," says Mahmut, a 34-year-old professional translator.

"More people there need help."

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