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A big beautiful lamb
Memoires of a sacrifice

By Mehrnaz Mahallati
October 3, 2000
The Iranian

It was sometime in 1968, summertime I think. I was about six-years old. It very well could have been the first crack in my religious beliefs. This event has been carved in my mind so deeply that decades later I still shiver by the very thought of it.

It started early on a pleasantly warm day. The house was unusually busy and something was causing a huge commotion. Mom was running around frantically, and dad was quickly wiping the windows of his car while it was going through the usual five-minute warm-up treatment.

Though I did not understand the cause of all the hustle and bustle, I did not pay any attention to the chaos. I was running amuck myself. Mom was rushing to brush my hair, trying to make it look semi-civilized. I had a new outfit on. I was full of questions, as usual. "Mommy where are we going? Whose birthday is it? Is anyone getting married?"

My mother stopped me with a quick answer: "Grandpa has returned from Mecca." That's right! Grandpa had been gone for a while and everyone was saying how lucky he was. I remembered everyone calling him Haji now. "Wow, I bet he gets to ride on a flying carpet or something," I thought. "Where is Mecca mommy? Does grandpa have a flying carpet?"

"That's where the house of God is. Now stop asking questions!" Mom snapped.

Just then two of my cousins, Pari and Nasrin, walked in. It took Pari a whole two seconds to convince Nasrin and me to ride in her dad's car to grandpa's house. Amazingly enough, my mom did not object. God, how I loved big commotions! You got to ask for almost anything, and no one had the time or patience to interrogate you. They just agreed. "Isn't life grand," I thought. "Let the cars roll."

On the way to grandpa's house three of us, plus our pesky little three-year-old cousin, were in the back seat. Though we tried, it was hard to ignore him. We had all agreed before that instead of a brain he had gotten himself a second serving of tongue from god, since he used to announce anything and everything any one of us tried to hide from the adults.

"Did you guys know grandpa is returning from the house of GOD?" I asked my cousins. To my surprise they already knew. As a matter of fact everyone seemed to have heard the news but me! Was I the last one to know everything again? Boy, was I disappointed!

Pari asked: "Where is this house and what's the big deal about it?" We both looked at Nasrin, who was a year older, for an answer. With all her mighty wisdom she went on rambling all she knew about this wonderful and mysterious place. I had to cut her short to ask, "How many rooms does this place have." I honestly expected her to answer like a million or so. After all it had to be fit for a god! You could imagine my shocking disappointment when I heard her say: "Oh, just one."

"WHAT?!! ONE ROOM?," I shouted loudly. After we received a mean warning from my aunt in the front seat, I stared at my cousin with such a frown. She continued: "Yes, one room. And every year millions of people go to it and visit it and pray to it and they circulate around it seven times."

"Why?" I asked. "Well, because," she replied.

"Because why," I insisted.

"Because, because."

"What do you mean because, because?"

"Because God said so."

"Why?" we bantered. It was obvious the conversation was not going anywhere. "What is this, a joke?" I thought.

"How big is this room anyway, and what do those people do there? Can't they pray at home?"

Nasrin dug into her little bag of goodies and pulled out a post card. "Here, this is the picture of God's house," she said. Pari and I stared at it with our eyes wide-open and tried to make sense of it. It looked like a big black box with a whole bunch of bugs around it.

"What was she talking about? Is she saying that God's house has bugs?" I thought. Wait a minute. These were funny looking bugs. Nasrin pointed at the black box: "Here, this is the room" she explained "and these are not BUGS, they are PEOPLE! Can't you see?" All this was too complicated for my six-year-old mind, so I stayed quiet until we got to grandpa's house.

Something did not seem right. The whole house was bursting with people. I thought to myself: "All this fuss over a room? Look at all these people! There are so many you could hardly breath."

Grandpa's house was huge, yet it seemed like it was about to burst. The men were led into two rooms and the women basically took over the rest of the house. Some were squeezing themselves in and out of the kitchen. There were seven or eight hired hands, mostly women, in the kitchen going completely neurotic. Everyone was screaming at them and demanding something. "Get another 20 glasses of tea in the large hall! Hurry up." " You! Get the empty glasses and rinse them! Yallah, Yallah!"

All the women were well dressed and most were made up. Each had a ton of gold and jewels on her. The giant rings glimmered with each movement and reflected light like a tiny sun. They were bracelets and bangles, that looked heavy and made a lot of noise: ching chang, ching chang. All that and they were wearing a chador to cover themselves from the men. This always confused me. After all, their men bought all that jewelry for them. Did they not? Besides if they really meant to cover themselves up, why did some of them wearing a lace chador? That I never understood.

Suddenly cousin Pari shouted my name excitedly from within the crowd inside: "Nazzy, Nazzy come! Hurry! Look at this." We all ran for the back yard. There it was. A big beautiful lamb was just standing there, with terrified eyes. Slowly we got closer. I recall the rope around its neck sank into the curls of his wool. He looked confused, but couldn't go anywhere. The end of the rope was tied to an old fig tree. His wool was dirty and reeked of barn smell. The poor lamb sensed us moving toward him and began running around the thick fig tree. As he ran around taking the rope with him, it wrapped around the tree trunk. After a couple of rounds he had to stop before he choke himself. This was the perfect opportunity to get close to the poor thing. He did not struggle much after that. Pari & I were hesitant, but Nasrin bravely put her hands on the lamb's head and started petting him. He gave in easily. It did not take long to make friends with him afterwards. We put our arms around his neck. Up close he looked a bit different. His teeth were large and yellow and his floppy ears drooped lazily on sides of his face. He had the most innocent eyes.

All afternoon we played with him. My mother constantly warned us not to get close to him. I did not know why. He was proven to be harmless. Okay! Maybe a bit dirty, but who cared about the dirt now? Besides, It was too late. The three of us smelled like sheep anyway. Gradually other family and neighbor kids gathered around. Some I did not even recognize. They all wanted to play with the lamb, but we claimed complete ownership. A ten-year-old kid wanted to come closer, but Nasrin bravely blocked him. After a few attempts, he got frustrated and shouted: "The darn thing is lucky the butcher is late. Let's see if you can stop HIM!" I did not get it, but Nasrin froze. "What does he mean by that?" I asked. She did not look at me, she just stared at the lamb and mumbled: "Nothing. He is probably jealous."

The day went by quicker than we realized. Later that afternoon, suddenly the clamor of the voices died down in a rather eerie manner. Our curiosity let us inside the house. We headed for the living room. A familiar face appeared in the doorway. I could not quite place it, but I had definitely seen him before. A couple of my uncles and my few other men led him through the house toward the back yard. He gave me a creepy feeling. He was tall, very tall. He stood almost taller than any man in that crowd. With his white complexion, and the rosy cheeks that emphasized the fair skin he looked as lifeless as a porcelain doll. He had lots of shiny black hair. It was combed up and a few strand hung down on his forehead. His thick black eyebrows greatly contrasted with his fair skin. He also had such big beautiful brown eyes with rows of thick eyelashes, which complemented his eyes. But the cold look in his eyes made him look distant. I did not like the gleam of his eyes. His features reminded me of the traditional painting hanging from my grandpa's study room and just as still and frozen in time, for he had a rather cold and still expression on his face. He was carrying a rather small bag. My instinct combined with the atmosphere in the house were sensing bad news, a tragedy.

The tall man walked firm and determined. I could see from everyone's reaction that he was not a guest. He saluted the men and with each salute he bowed a little. He congratulated my grandfather and bowed more for him. I did not know why. Maybe it was his age that demanded a longer bow. He also greeted some of the older ladies, but looked at the floor as he did. I was wondering how does he know whom he is saluting. My eyes followed the invisible path he was about to walk. I was staring at his foot steps as people gave him way like Moses parting the Red Sea. It led straight to the fig tree. In a fraction of a second the whole picture started forming before my eyes. Now I remember. He was the butcher in my grandpa's neighborhood. I had seen him before when I went to his shop with my grandma. "Oh, god. Please don't let it be," I thought. I looked back. Both my cousins had caught on to the event as well. My mouth was dry and I could not say a word. It felt like my heart is going to break out of my chest. It was beating so fast, I could hardly breath. Nasrin was looking down and Pari looked lifeless.

My mother must have noticed the tension. She rapidly moved toward us and directed us to one of the rooms and said; "Come on kids. What are you doing here? Let's play in the other room." I could not move. Someone shouted: "Water! Get a bowl of water for the lamb." One of the hired hands obliged and ran for the kitchen. As soon as the butcher took out the large knife, Pari burst into tears. Three men grabbed the lamb. He was screaming in a strange way. He could sense danger, why else would he cry like that? They pushed us into the room. I could not stay still. My mom was holding me close. Ten minutes later I could not take it any more. I wiggled out of my mom's arms and ran to the back yard. It was the worse moment possible.

As soon as I got there, the butcher's knife slashed my lamb's throat. Blood sprang up and hit the fig leaves. It happened in less than a second, so why did it seem like an eternity? It was too late now! My sheep was struggling and trying to hang on the last breath of sweet life. His feet were tied together with the same rope that was around his neck. But now it was all stained with blood. Another hard slash of the knife and the head was now barely hanging. His tongue stuck out and his lips twitched. I spotted the large yellow teeth behind my tears. The butcher had no expression on his face. Very calmly he wiped the bloody knife on the lamb's wool, while the lamb was still moving. The cold bastard! I never knew I could shed so many tears. The blood was dripping from the fig leaves making them look like bloody hands. It made the tree look like she was crying for the death of a gentle creature. It felt like the tree had gotten used to the lamb's company and she will miss it too. The butcher had tied another piece of the rope to his hind legs and passed it over a branch like a hanging rope. As soon as the animal stopped moving he pulled the rope and hung him by his feet. They placed a large bucket under him so the rest of the blood would pour in. There was blood everywhere. That was truly gory.

I could not keep my eyes off the butcher. What was he doing now? He slit the lamb's ankles about three inches and started blowing hard into them. Could the lamb feel it now? What was he thinking? Was he mad that we did not help him? With each blow of his breath under his skin, the butcher would land a hard punch on the body to move the air up. Later I found out this was to remove the skin. Tears just would not stop rolling down. I felt my mother's hand on my shoulder. She gently tried to justify the whole event. I could feel she was searching for the right words, but they wouldn't come easily. She finally said: " Nazi joon, I did not want you to see that. That is why I did not want you to play with the lamb in the first place. I just did not have the heart to tell you what was going to happen. Your uncle was supposed to take you all out for an ice cream or something. I really did not want you to see that. I am so sorry you did."

An innocent lamb was horribly slaughtered, and all she could say was that she was sorry? No one else seemed sorry! I yelled: "Why didn't you stop them? Why did they have to kill it?" Very quietly she replied; "Honey it is a religious ritual. Lambs are sacrificed for many occasions." "Is this because grandpa came back from Mecca?" I asked. "Yes and other things," she said. I did not want to listen any more. Nothing could have justified what had happened. I felt sick to my stomach and angry with my mother. I was mad at my grandpa. I hated that butcher, and I did not want to hear the name Mecca. I looked for my father. Where had he gone?

At night I went home. My cousins were not in much better shape either. However, I think they got over it much faster. I was sick for about a week. For the next few nights I could not sleep well. That night as my father held me in his arms, I cried quietly. He kissed me on the head, but was not saying much. I asked him; "Does a lamb get sacrificed every time some one goes to Mecca?" He just kissed me and quietly whispered: "Go to sleep, Baba Joon, go to sleep. It is very late." That night I could not sleep well at all. I kept dreaming of a big black room with millions of people going around it. I dreamt of millions of lambs hanging by their legs with their heads cut off, bleeding into large buckets. I dreamt of hundreds of worker women carrying lamb guts in large trays, bending forward by the weight of the trays with their large breasts half-way in the tray touching the bloody liver and heart, making blood stains on their dresses.

I decided if going to Mecca means killing innocent lambs, I never wanted to go to Mecca. I hated anyone who did. I felt sick by the thought of the big black room, and since then I have hated figs.

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