By Rahad Abir
I grew up in a lower-middle-class family in old Dhaka. No, we never went hungry or suffered serious economic hardship. But we never enjoyed any luxuries in life either. On my second day as a freshman at the Dhaka Government Muslim High School, I remember a lanky boy came after me with his long legs. ‘‘Hey, new kid,’’ he said to me. ‘‘Fancy a kick on your ass? Look at my new shoes.’’ Shocked and stunned, I looked at him, up and down. Yes, his shoes were new. Power Dynamic Brown trainers. Bata brand. Very trendy in those days. ‘‘Expensive, isn’t it?’’ he gushed. ‘‘Fancy an expensive kick, too?’’
I looked the other way, trying to hide my legs under the bench I was sitting on. For I was wearing a pair of low-priced navy blue canvas lace-up shoes. The lanky boy cackled in joy and left without kicking me.
I had to wait three years, three successive Eids, to have my father buy me those Dynamic Brown trainers.
Muslims have two festivals. One is Eid-al-Fitr, which is celebrated after a month of fasting, and another is Eid-ul-Adha, known as the festival of sacrifice. The latter was never that exciting for me.
With every festival of sacrifice or Qurbani closing in, all people think and talk about is cattle. Cows and cows and cows. Occasionally about goats. ‘What do you sacrifice? A cow or goat?’ This question is asked like greetings. When I had to face this ‘a cow-or-goat’ question, during my boyhood, generally I lied. A cow, I would tell them, and would often add that we did it in the village with our extended family.
Before every Eid-ul-Adha, numerous temporary cattle markets are set up across the Dhaka city. Then cargo trucks, loaded and crammed with cows, begin to pour in the capital from far-flung countryside. The Daily Star ran a report on this:
“Millions of cattle are transported from all corners of Bangladesh… The only mode of transportation to carry this huge number of cattle is cargo trucks. Originally designed for carrying goods, these trucks are not at all suitable for transporting livestock. In the open carriage of the truck, all the cattle are placed in such a congested manner that the poor creatures hardly find any space to breathe. When they try to move around, the transport workers whip them brutally to keep them in line and to keep the vehicle stable… Even after reaching cattle markets, these animals do not get any better treatment. The environment is dirty and unhygienic, and food and water are scarce.”
The air in Dhaka, in the last three days before the festival day, smells of cattle and cow dung. Day and night you’ll hear non-stop mooing and baaing from all around. And if you take a stroll in the streets, every so often you’ll hear a phrase buzzing from all directions: “Koto holo bhai? How much, brother?”
As people walk their purchased cows or goats home, on their way from the cattle market, other passersby inquire them about the price. In a three-mile walk, the purchasers at least have to tell the price three hundred times. They never get dismayed about it. I always wonder why they don’t just put a price tag on the animal, that should save them from repeating the jaded answer.
One of my cousins who never goes to the mosque to pray other than on two Eid days, has a thing for Qurbani. First few days he visits as many cattle markets as he can. Although he is always requested by the family to buy a small or average-sized cow so the meat of the sacrificed animal will be soft and free from fat, his eye invariably falls upon a burly and fleshy bull. And later, the night before the Qurbani, he buys a goat too. The family disapproves of it. Who’s going to eat all this meat, they grudge. Besides, the chest freezer is not big enough to accommodate all the meat.
Almost every year, I hear, when they clear up the freezer before Qurbani, they dig up a good amount of last year’s sacrificial meat in the bowels of the freezer. Interestingly, my cousin has a propensity to buy fresh meat whenever there is a party in the house.
Before the Modi government came to power in India, every year there had been talks about the cattle price. The simple theory is, cattle price drops dramatically when thousands of cattle are smuggled from India. Some people waited until the eve of Eid, hoping to buy cows at a fair price. Whether they could have a great bargain or not, the blame all the time fell upon India. Cattle at low prices meant Indian cows were in the market, and high prices meant unavailability of enough Indian cows.
Like my cousin, the bulk of Bangladeshis finds boundless pleasure and joy in sacrificing animals. Some consider it a measure of social status. Competition is conspicuous among the rich folks in the neighbourhoods, about buying the biggest and the most expensive cows.
I remember a criminal who lived two blocks away from our house. Everyone said he’d murdered somebody. His 16-year-old son was an occasional mugger. Each year this family, who were Biharis, also bought a cow to sacrifice.
As The Final Day Arrives
It’s quite an experience to behold when finally the Eid day, the Qurbani day, arrives. Following the morning Eid prayer, people start slaughtering their sacrificial animals. Dhaka, a densely populated metropolis of 18 million-plus residents, lacks open spaces. Therefore, many people wind up slaughtering the beasts out on the streets.
Prophet Muhammad said that the animal must be sacrificed in isolation, not in the presence of other animals. In the book Animal Welfare in Islam, Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri writes:
“The Holy Prophet said to a man who was sharpening his knife in the presence of the animal: ‘Do you intend inflicting death on the animal twice—once by sharpening the knife within its sight, and once by cutting its throat?’”
Masri also remarks:
“If animals have been subjected to cruelties in their breeding, transport, slaughter, or in their general welfare, meat from them is considered impure and unlawful to eat (Haram).”
But Dhakaites seem not to be bothered. They sacrifice their cattle while other beasts are within spitting distance, waiting to be slaughtered.
Before the sun hangs in the middle of the sky, the whole city turns into a river of blood. The drains get clogged. The poor sewerage system cannot cope with the sudden burden on it. In spite of the immense efforts of the municipal cleaners and workers, the city continues to stink of stagnant blood and rotting residue of sacrificial animals. This awful stench will engulf the town for about two or three weeks.
The definite scene on Eid or the day after is the swelling presence of indigent individuals on the streets, with carrier bags in hand, begging around for meat. They travel door to door. ‘Please give me some meat’, their voices purr.
Unquestionably, the door-to-door meat collectors manage to procure copious amounts of sacrificial meat. But what about storing? Imagine, a homeless family living on the pavement, what do they do with this huge amount of meat? Yes, they cash in their collection – sell the meat at a cheap price. And who are the buyers? Mostly those who cannot afford to sacrifice.
Why isn’t it possible, I wonder, to spend less money on Qurbani and do something to alleviate poverty? It is said that the regular prayer is the command of Allah, which is the first pillar of Islam. Those who passionately sacrifice animals to the name of Allah, what fraction of them actually prays five times?
However, the financial value of Qurbani cannot be understated. Cattle markets across Dhaka and other big cities are granted a lease to the ruling partymen and their associates. In less than a week or so these lease-takers make astronomical profits.
Tannery businessmen in the country await this occasion. Also, scores of seasonal dealers spring up in the local areas to make quick money. All they do is buy rawhides from households and resell them to the tanneries.
Despite the fact that India is against cow killing, they show insane interest in rawhides. Due to the low price of rawhides in Bangladesh, every year tons of rawhide get smuggled to India through the porous border. A syndicate of smugglers grab the opportunity; they love this lucrative fast money-making season.
An Unhealthy Competition In The Name Of Islam
Seemingly, the spirit of sacrifice has long faded away, what happens now is showing off money and wealth. In 2017, at a cattle market in city’s Kamlapur, a trader was asking TK 1.5 million (approximately $17,700) for his cow that he’d named ‘Kalu Mastan’. This year in 2018, the biggest sacrificial cow in the country was thought to be ‘Bahadur’. Sold at TK 2.8 million (approximately $33,500), it was imported from Texas, which weighed 1500 kg.
Up until the creation of Pakistan in 1947, sacrificing cows wasn’t easy. Since most of the Bengal Zamindars were Hindus, Muslims peasants feared taking the risk of slaughtering cows. If some were heard of doing such act, they were tortured and punished. Sacrificing goats was rather common. At the end of the nineteenth century, ample debates and arguments were going on about sacrificing cows. Mir Mosharraf Hossain, a renowned Bengali author well-known for his seminal work Bishadsindhu, was opposed to it. In his book Gojibon (life of cows) he writes:
“Hindus and Muslims are the two major religious communities in Bengal. They are so close that apart from religious belief their hearts and souls are one—in everyday life they are brothers to each other. In disaster and danger, in sickness and health, in happy times they are always one and the same. …Being in such an intimate relationship, it is ludicrous to hurt our brothers (Hindus). …No one sacrifices cows in Arab. The trajectory of religion is astonishing. Crossing mountains, deserts, rivers, Islam had reached India, and so had the practice of animal sacrifice. We don’t have Dumba sheep here but goats, no camels but cows. …Goats can be sacrificed instead of cows. And the practice won’t harm Islam at all.”
Bengali Muslims, however, got furious. Albeit the epic Bishadsindhu constituted a religious masterpiece and kept it alongside the Holy Quran, they branded him a Kafir and atheist.
Hossain must have thought deeply about the living environment of Bengal province. Bengal is a riverine, green region, whereas the Middle East is a desert. If ‘fish and rice make a Bengali’ then ‘meat and bread make an Arab’. Eating habits are adapted according to one’s living environment. In the Bengal region – where we get plenty of rain and flood – meat consumption is not as necessary as for the people in the desert areas where it is their main source of food.
In the past couple of decades, Bangladesh’s economy has seen a steady growth. People’s purchasing power is rapidly increasing. With their swelling income, more and more Bengali Muslims are forgetting the meaning of Qurbani, the essence of sacrifice – killing the inner beast in our mind. Qurbani has become more like a craze, a fashionable thing, rather than a religious ritual.
Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. He is currently working on a novel.