An Eid Prayer for Peace in Baghdad

Festival of sacrifice makes Iraqi journalist yearn for better times.

An Eid Prayer for Peace in Baghdad

Festival of sacrifice makes Iraqi journalist yearn for better times.

As I approached the mosque, the murmur of prayer grew louder and clearer until it felt like a roll of thunder tearing through the calm Baghdad morning.

Inside, hundreds of worshippers recited over and over again a single sentence from the Koran, a traditional chant for Eid al-Adha, the Islamic festival of sacrifice.

The day before, I had seen a square near the mosque in eastern Zayouna district transformed into a temporary livestock market. Butchers stood beside men selling sheep and goats, waiting for the prayers to end and the bargaining to begin.

Muslims mark Eid with the ritual slaughter of animals, commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son for God.

A couple of years ago, another kind of slaughter had made celebrations of this kind impossible in many parts of Baghdad.

As hundreds of people died every month in the conflict with US forces and between Shia and Sunni militias, festivals like Eid were reduced to little more than a date in the calendar.

Baghdad is much calmer today, though the conflict has not gone away. The fear of bombers means cars are still banned from the crowded streets around the Zayouna mosque.

On the Thursday before Eid, there must have been more than 250 goats and sheep in the square, their coats coloured to help identify them. Seeing a dusty haze hanging over the maze of woollen bodies, I felt like a stranger in an alien neighbourhood.

To guide me through the labyrinth, I enlisted the help of Abu Mohammed, a distant relative regarded as the family expert on buying animals for Eid.

“The lamb has to be a male, and in good shape,” Abu Mohammed said. “It should be at least a year old, with distinct horns.”

A civil pilot by profession, Abu Mohammed had the previous day flown a plane load of excited passengers returning to the capital for Eid. As we made our way through the square, I witnessed the formidable haggling skills that had made him famous in our family.

He approached a dark-skinned, stocky man surrounded by his sheep and customers.

“How much would you slash the price of a lamb by in return for a brotherly kiss on your cheek on the day of mercy?” Abu Mohammed asked him.

“Ten thousand dinars, just for today,” replied the vendor, who gave his name as Abbas and said he was from Sadr City, an impoverished Shia suburb of Baghdad.

Kissing both the man’s cheeks in customary Arab greeting, Abu Mohammed said, “How about cutting another 10,000 dinars for a kiss on the other cheek?”

Abbas smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t compete with you Baghdadis,” he said.

Like Abbas, many of the men selling livestock for Eid are Shia Arabs. In Zayouna, a large number had come from the farming region to the south of Baghdad, near the city of Nasiriya.

Sunnis traditionally celebrate Eid a day before the Shia. This means Iraq’s Shia livestock vendors can do good business selling animals to the Sunnis, and still make it home in time to celebrate Eid with their families the following day.

A healthy lamb at Eid typically costs 270,000 Iraqi dinars, or about 250 US dollars. The expense means large families often share the cost between them and most do not make the sacrifice every year.

According to Islamic tradition, the meat from a slaughtered animal must be distributed in thirds. One third goes to the family, another third to the neighbours and the final third set aside to be given as charity to the poor.

Once the animals have been bought, a butcher must be hired. The square at Zayouna was full of men wearing aprons, with knives dangling from leather belts. Baghdadis scrambled to secure their services, with noon on the day before Eid - when preparations for the feast start in earnest - the time of highest demand.

We managed to book a butcher who arrived at the family home at the appointed hour. Awaiting him in the garden were the two lambs we had bought.

Four cats had also sneaked into the garden. Both groups of animals stood looking at each other. They seemed to know what was about to happen.

The lambs were slaughtered just inside the threshold. In accordance with tradition, their blood was poured out under the front gate into the street, indicating to the poor and to passersby that they could collect meat from the house.

The sun set, the temperature dropped, the blood thickened in pools. It looked precious under the crimson sky. For a second, the years of madness and violence flickered before me.

I wished the spilt blood, symbol of Ibrahim’s sacrifice, could end the bloodbath in my home city, Baghdad.

Mohammed Furat is an IWPR local editor based in Erbil.
Support our journalists