Eid Al Adha in Morocco means playing “spot the sheep” on the motorway, trains packed with people emptying at Ben Guerir, and, most importantly, an atmosphere of warmth and joy surrounded by family.
Celebrating Eid Al Adha in Morocco for the first (and second) time brought up a lot of questions for me: How many sheep can you fit in a jeep? Why has everyone at the train station brought enough luggage for a six-month stay? What is that smell? And, how can sheep’s stomach taste so good? I could go on.
However, this year, there is a bigger question. How is it possible to miss something so much after only doing it twice? This year, because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, I will be celebrating Eid Al Adha in the UK with my 16-month-old son and missing Morocco’s Eid buzz, the stressful but exciting journey across the country to my parents-in-law’s house, the mouth-wateringly delicious food, and, of course, counting sheep in passing cars.
Thinking about the first Eid I spend in Morocco brings a smile to my face even as I type. I had no idea what it would be like, having only experienced Eid Al Adha in a refugee camp, but soon realized I had been missing out.
“What’s that funny smell?” I asked my husband one morning, about a week before Eid, as we walked through our Casablanca neighborhood. “Sheep, for Eid,” he replied, as though it were obvious. Gesturing to a slightly open garage door, he invited me to peer inside a grubby, seemingly derelict building. There they were. Behind the faded metal door stood five fat, fluffy sheep chewing contentedly on hay and giving off a very very sheepy odor.
Later that day, we took a cab to his aunt’s house. Daydreaming at the traffic lights, I was shocked back to reality to see four little eyes in white fluffy faces staring balefully at me from the Berlingo in front. Turning my head to the side, I realized we were surrounded.
They were everywhere, sheep peering into the red taxi from every vehicle, small or large. Sheep in enclosures outside the souks, sheep lurking in garages, on balconies, around every corner. Sheep filled the empty ground floor flat on our narrow road, the special, pungent sheepy smell seeping into every cafe, every shop, and every home.
Having never seen a sheep-trafficking operation on such an epic scale, I was in awe. Thrilled by the sight of sheep disembarking from vehicles across the city, I was fascinated by the amount of sheep Casablanca residents seem to be able to fit in one vehicle.
How many sheep can you fit in a jeep, a fiat panda, or a Dacia duster? I began to ask myself. The answer appeared to be limitless.
The mass train exodus at Ben Guerir
With the sheep, however, came the atmosphere of excitement, anticipation, and fun that defines celebrating Eid Al Adha in Morocco for me.
I remember beaming as I walked through streets that buzzed with chatter and laughter as families rushed around the souks, stocking up ahead of the holiday. Happy shoppers compared purchases while queuing at the patisseries, waiting to buy delicacies to take home for their families at Eid. There was constant movement and constant noise that vibrated through the city like a bell ringing to proclaim the beginning of a time for family and togetherness.
My husband and I, like millions of young Moroccan families across the country, were among those panic buying almond cakes for his mother before our journey home for Eid Al Adha. Before catching the train at Casablanca Oasis, we dropped in on my husband’s aunt to pick up presents for her sister and mother in Essaouira, leaving her villa heavily laden like a pair of packhorses during the harvest.
Arriving at the train station in the early morning, after excitedly pointing to some sheep hiding in the back of a grubby pick-up truck, I asked my husband if it was necessary to take so much luggage or to arrive so very early. It soon became clear that it very much was necessary. The train station seemed to be hosting the entire population of Casablanca, all of whom had brought with them enough luggage for a six-month cruise. Traveling light, it appeared, was not the done thing.
After waiting for hours, standing on the train platform, surrounded by tired, frustrated, but excited travelers, our train finally arrived and opened its doors. Already full, the train corridors and compartments were like so many sardine tins, lined with travelers, check laundry bags, and a feeling of camaraderie.
We found a place to put down the bags and stand, leaning on the train wall. A fight broke out further down the carriage, with men and women hurling insults in Tamazight (Berber language) and Darija (Moroccan dialect). Laughing travelers calmed the commotion and the train rattled on towards Marrakech.
By the time the train pulled slowly into the station at a remote town called Ben Guerir that I had never heard of, I had given up hope of getting a seat. I looked out of the fogged-up window at the tiny train station, seemingly in the middle of a desert. To my surprise, a cacophony of shouting and movement shook the train carriage.
An unending stream of travelers, old and young, carrying outsized check laundry bags, dragging epic suitcases, issued from the train, leaving it almost empty. What, I thought to myself, is bringing so many people to Ben Guerir?
How does sheep stomach taste so good?
The journey continued. We finally got off the train in Marrakech to be hit in the face with the warm winds of the ochre city and headed to the bus station where we joined the hundreds of people waiting for a ride to Essaouira.
Once seated in a stuffy, tin-can bus, I was mesmerized by the change in accents, the voices of the bus-riders were so different from those in the train. The chatter of anticipation and rising frustration as the bus remained resolutely still was higher in pitch and softer in tone than the voices of our fellow train travelers. It was, I suppose, more like my husband’s voice and his father.
When the bus rumbled its engine to start and began to wobble and creak through small villages and towns on the road to Essaouira, I counted sheep in cars of all sizes and looked on as travelers disembarking at each stop were met by smiling, laughing family members.
After hours of travelling, it was finally our turn to step out of the bus into a warm and welcoming hug from my mother-in-law.
Now ensconced in the family home, unpacking the piles of presents and treats we had brought from Casablanca, Eid Al Adha began. My husband’s little nieces flitted in and out of the kitchen, giggling about the sheep in the garden and giving a fashion show of Eid caftan choices. My grandmother-in-law told stories of Eid in the Bled (countryside home) while helping me to stuff dates with almond paste, while my husband and his brother set about preparing the front drive for the butcher the next morning.
The next morning I woke to happy, bossy shouting and a whirlwind of movement. My husband and all of his male relatives (several uncles, cousins, and distantly related “uncles” had arrived the night before) were outside, rushing around with buckets of water and hose pipes, tubs of sheep’s heads, and as yet unidentified entrails.
The entrails, it turned out, were my first Eid job. My husband’s grandmother (who only speaks Tamazight) pointed and ordered, showing me how to wash and cut the digestive systems of several sheep. We were making tkalia, a surprisingly delicious sheep stomach stew.
After finishing the tkalia preparations with the help of various grandmothers and aunts, I headed out onto the porch to sit and gossip with my mother-in-law while wrapping liver in fat for the grill as the children showed us their Eid outfits and tried to get too close to the barbeque. Tea was drunk, lots and lots of meat consumed, while laughter and movement and warmth filled the house and garden.
In the evening, we wandered around Essaouira medina, breathing in the sweet atmosphere of togetherness, stopping almost every other step to chat with an old school friend of my husband’s or exchange Eid greetings with acquaintances.
This year, I doubt very much that anyone in the English rural village where I am staying with my parents will even know that it is Eid Al Adha, but that will not stop me from bringing some of the magic of Eid Al Adha in Morocco to Dorset. But, sadly, a game of count the sheep in a jeep may not be possible!