“I have asked about where the camel butcher is. We have to go to a place about 30 kilometres outside of the city. I will find a taxi and bargain the price to take us there.”
“A butcher 30 kilometres outside of the city?” I asked. “Don’t they have these kinds of places in Yazd?”
“No,” Vahid said to me looking surprised. “It is very messy to kill a camel. We have to go to a special place for that and its location is outside of the town.”
I was both horrified and morbidly intrigued. There had been a blip in translation.
He was talking about taking me to a slaughterhouse.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Will they let us go there?” A slaughterhouse. I still couldn’t believe it. I was both horrified and morbidly intrigued.
“Yes, of course they will let us go there,” he said. “Don’t you want to go there?”
I had to think about it for a minute. A camel slaughterhouse. I had never really seen many things die before. I’d seen my mom kill a few chickens when I was little, but that seemed fairly mild compared to a trip to an Iranian slaughterhouse.
I thought about my butcher in London and how proud he would be of me, slapping me on the shoulder and giving me a discount on short ribs. I thought about my friends and imagined the mortified expressions on their faces as we reached the ‘and this is the day I went to a camel slaughterhouse’ stage in my holiday photos. I thought about Vahid and wondered if he would be embarrassed or unsympathetic with me if I flaked out or started crying.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “for us it is normal. When I was 14 I helped my father kill a sheep in our back garden for the end of Ramazan.” I looked at him. Vahid hadn’t shaved that morning and the thick stubble on his face and deep creases in his forehead made him look older than his 25 years. “Ok, let’s go”.
Vahid hailed a taxi and from the gruffness of his voice I could tell that he was bargaining with the driver. He turned to me, said ‘I have agreed a good price for us,” and opened the door to the back for me.
I climbed in and Vahid made to get in the passenger’s seat next to the driver. He hesitated, and instead he opened the door and sat beside me. “I will sit next to you” he said, smiling but looking a little shy. The driver was taken aback and eyed us in his rearview mirror and I understood that his sitting next to me was a huge break in protocol.
As we drove off into the desert I took my first photograph of us, smiling together in the back of the taxi with the sun just beginning to rise.
The slaughterhouse was a nondescript, flat-roofed brick building with a parking lot full of Peugeots and pick-up trucks. From the outside it could have been a 7-Eleven or a cash and carry franchise. There was nothing to indicate that we were at a slaughterhouse save for the odd man standing outside in blood stained smock smoking a cigarette.
We walked to the entrance and I peered in the doorway. On the opposite side was a loading ramp where small trucks of goats and sheep were being driven up and then herded inside.
The killing was swift and methodical. The slaughtermen were mainly Afghani and Kurdish. They wore high rubber boots and woolen caps and had long, sharp knives. As each animal’s throat was cut it was laid on its side to bleed over a metal grate. It was like an assembly line with each person having his role in the process. One man removed the animal’s pelts. Another would remove its organs. A third would empty the grassy contents of its stomach into a wheelbarrow while a forth would remove the small intestines which were made into surgical stitches.
I felt surprisingly calm to watch them working. As someone who had just finished eating a breakfast of sheep entrails, it would seem misguided to pretend that I didn’t comprehend the messy business that happened behind the scenes. One of the slaughtermen gestured to me and asked Vahid “Isn’t she scared to be here? Women don’t come to this place. Where is she from?”
Vahid pulled on my sleeve – “Look!”. He pointed to the brick wall that surrounded the perimeter of the grounds and I could see the heads of two camels just over the top of the wall.
A Kurdish boy who looked to be about 15 led them through the entrance. He took them over to a corner of the parking lot and tethered them to the bumper of a Renault 5.
“Camels are very emotional creatures,” Vahid said. “They must be killed one at a time and separately and it takes two men. If they see the knife or they see the killing of the other camels they become very violent and it can get dangerous.”
I was hit by a surge of sadness as I watched them. I imagined their long, hard lives of service as packhorses and transporters – only to be rewarded by being sold to a slaughterhouse for meat.
An older man came out, untied the smaller camel and took it inside to a smaller room at the back of the slaughterhouse. ‘Come’ said Vahid reaching for my hand to lead me back inside. I stood for a moment feeling reluctant and then I followed him.
His hand was warm and a little sweaty and I looked around to see if anyone had noticed. I still didn’t really like Vahid or his gruff mannerisms and felt confused by this unexpected gesture. We reached the slaughterhouse but he still didn’t let go of my hand. And strangely I didn’t want him to. I found myself looking at his neckline and wanting to stand closer to him.
Two men approached the camel from opposite sides. As one pulled its yoke to turn its head sharply in one direction, the other slashed its throat. Again the killing was fast and Vahid pulled me back as a pool of crimson seeped across the floor towards us.
The second, larger camel was brought in and still Vahid was holding on to my hand. I felt a slight twitching of his fingers as they traced the edges of my fingertips. I stared straight ahead and tried to focus on what was happening.
The young Kurdish boy who had tied them up outside strutted past us with a knife. ‘What’s he doing?” I asked Vahid. “Doesn’t it need two men?” “I don’t know” he whispered. “Maybe he wants to kill by himself to show off in front of you.”
The boy went for the camel’s throat but it went horribly wrong. Instead of the long, sweeping cut that was necessary to peacefully disable the animal, he had made only a narrow, but deep incision. The camel bolted and ran out of the slaughterhouse and into the parking lot. A number of older men standing outside their offices yelled angrily as the camel raced around in circles, spraying them with blood. The boy tried in vain to grab the camel’s yoke, but it only made the camel more agitated.
My hand tightened on Vahid’s as we watched the camel struggle with its last few steps of life. At last the poor creature laid down on the pavement and its breathing slowed to a stop. “Mash’allah” said Vahid softly and then to me “I think its time to leave now.”
We walked back to our taxi and as we climbed in the back, our shoes splattered in blood and feeling emotionally unsettled, the driver said something to Vahid which he translated aloud. “He says that we smell like sheep.”