Since I hadn’t had time to change my clothes that morning, I arrived at the Jordanian customs station in Aqaba with the bloodstains still on my pants. The blood had dried to the point where I didn’t look like a fresh mass murderer, but no doubt I appeared a bit odd walking through the ferry station with scallop-edged black droplets on my boots and crusty brown blotches soaked into the cuffs of my khakis.
The blood was from the streets of Cairo, which at the time had been in the midst of celebrations marking the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice, known locally as the Eid al-Adha.
As with everything in Cairo, the Eid al-Adha was an inadvertent exercise in chaos. For the entire week leading up to the holiday, the alleys and rooftops of the city began to fill up with noisy, nervous knots of livestock brought in for the feast. Cairenes paid little mind as cattle munched clover outside coffee shops, goats gnawed on empty Marlboro packs in alleyways and skittish sheep rained down poop from apartment building balconies. For Egyptians, this preponderance of urban livestock was part of the excitement of the feast — and it was certainly no stranger for them than putting a decorated tree inside one’s house in anticipation of the winter holidays.
In Islamic societies, the Eid al-Adha is a four-day feast that commemorates Abraham’s near murder of his son, Ishmael, to prove his obedience to God. Since tradition tells us that Allah intervened at the last minute and substituted a ram for Ishmael, Muslim families celebrate the Eid by slaughtering their own animal for the feast.
Consequently, on the first morning of the Eid, all of the thousands of sheep, cows and goats that have been accumulating in Cairo during the week are butchered within the span of a few bloody hours. In keeping with tradition, devout Islamic families are instructed to keep a third of the butchered meat for themselves, give a third to friends and family and distribute the final third to the poor. For Muslims, it is an honorable ritual.
For infidel visitors to Cairo, however, the Feast of the Sacrifice seems much more like a Monty Python vision of pagan mayhem. This has less to do with the intent of the holiday than with the fact that Cairo is a very crowded city where almost nothing goes as planned. Thus, on the first morning of this year’s Eid, the lobby of my hotel resonated with vivid secondhand reports of gore: the lamb that panicked on the balcony at the last minute and avoided the knife by tumbling five stories to the alley below, the cow that broke free from its restraints with its throat half-slit and lumbered through the streets spraying blood for 10 minutes before collapsing, the crowd of little girls who started puking as they watched the death spasms of their neighbor’s sheep.
I’ll admit that there is much more to the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice than public displays of carnage. Unfortunately, Cairo has a way of drawing one’s attention away from nuance and subtlety. By the end of the day, I was so accustomed to seeing blood that I didn’t even realize that my pants and boots had been stained until I boarded an overnight bus headed for the Gulf of Aqaba.
For most Westerners, Islam is a religion that doesn’t quite make sense. No doubt this is largely the result of the Western press, which tends to portray Islam only in terms of its most extreme and violent factions.
When I first traveled to the Islamic world earlier this year, I’d hoped that the Arabs’ legendary hospitality would break down such barriers to religious understanding in a direct and personal way.
After 10 weeks of traveling through Egypt, I’d found that Islamic hospitality more than lived up to its reputation: Most of the Muslims I’d talked to were amiable, kindhearted people who practiced their faith with natural sincerity. By the same token, however, none of the Muslims I’d met seemed to know why they were Muslims; they just instinctively knew that their faith allowed them to live with a special sense of peace. Whenever I tried to qualify this faith in objective terms, people became defensive and impatient with me.
Reading the Koran didn’t help. Perhaps when studied in its classical Arabic form, the Koran is a heart-pounding page turner. Its English translation, however, has all the narrative appeal of a real estate contract. Nearly every page is crammed with bewildering sentences that seem to have been worded at random. An example: “But when they proudly persisted in that which was forbidden, we said to them, ‘Become scouted apes’; and then thy Lord declared that until the day of the resurrection, he would send against them those who should evil entreat, and chastise them” (Sura 7:7).
After a while, my only reaction to such verses was to stare at the page while my mind wandered about aimlessly. In this way, I ultimately found that my reflections on Allah were being offset in equal portion by thoughts of breakfast, girls I should have kissed in high school but didn’t and the lyrics to “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” by the Beastie Boys. I gave up on the Koran less than a 10th of the way through.
Thus, I considered my trip to Jordan on the second day of the Eid to be my most immediate and realistic chance of knowing the intimate ways of Islam. Just as a person can’t know Christmas by interrogating shopping-mall Santas, I figured my understanding of the Eid al-Adha lay outside the bloody distractions of Cairo. In Aqaba, I hoped, I stood a better chance of experiencing the Feast of the Sacrifice as an insider.
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Aqaba, Jordan, owes much of its fate to the rather arbitrary international borders drawn up in Versailles, France, and London in the wake of World War I. Though the city had been used as a trading post since the days of the Edomites and Nabateans, its port and beaches never found much permanent distinction. This all changed in 1921, when Winston Churchill (who was the British colonial secretary at the time) oversaw the creation of a Transjordanian state that featured a mere 11 miles of coast on the Gulf of Aqaba. Nearly 80 years later, Jordan’s only seaport has inevitably blossomed into a dusty, yet functional resort town. Jet skis and glass-bottomed boats ply its waters, weekend revelers from Amman, Jordan’s capital, crowd its beaches and drab concrete buildings dominate its shore.
Upon arriving in Aqaba, I hiked into the city center in search of a hotel where I could change out of my bloodstained clothes. Because most hotels in Aqaba were full of Jordanians spending their Eid holiday on the beach, my only option was to rent a foam pad and sleep on the roof of a six-floor budget complex called the Petra Hotel.
I shared the roof with four other travelers, from Denmark and Canada. When I told them about my plans to celebrate the Feast of the Sacrifice in Aqaba, I got two completely different reactions. The Danes, Anna and Kat, were horrified by the thought that I would intentionally seek out Arab companionship. Both of them had just spent a week on the Egyptian beach resorts in Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab, where the aggressive local Casanovas had worn them both to a frazzle. The two spoke in wistful terms of getting back to the peace and predictability of their kibbutz in Israel.
Amber and Judith, on the other hand, stopped just short of calling me a wuss. The two Canadians had just returned from spending a couple of weeks with Bedouins in the desert near Wadi Rum. Not only did they celebrate the Eid as part of their farewell party, but they personally helped butcher the goats. To experience the Feast of the Sacrifice any other way, they reasoned, would seem a tad artificial.
“And besides,” Amber told me as I changed into clean clothes and prepared to hit the streets, “Aqaba is a tourist town. The only people you’ll find here are college kids and paper pushers on vacation from Amman. You’d have better luck getting invited to the Eid in Toronto.”
Amber had a point, but she was wrong: I was invited to celebrate the Eid before I reached the ground floor of the Petra Hotel.
My would-be host was Mohammed, a bespectacled 16-year-old who stopped me in the second-floor stairwell. “Where are you going?” he asked as I walked by.
“Well, I’m hoping to go out and celebrate the Eid al-Adha,” I said.
“The Eid!” he exclaimed. “Please come and celebrate with us!”
It was that simple. Such is the gregariousness of the Arab world.
Unfortunately for my notions of authenticity, however, Mohammed’s “Eid” consisted of him and two other goofy-looking 16-year-olds drinking canned beer in a tiny room on the second floor of the Petra. Mohammed introduced his two friends as Sayeed and Ali. Neither of them looked very natural as they grinned up at me, clutching their cans of beer.
I noticed there were only two beds. “Are you all sleeping in here?” I asked.
“Just Sayeed and Ali,” he said. “I sleep at my uncle’s house in Aqaba. My family always comes here for the Eid al-Adha.”
Mohammed poured some of his beer into a glass for me and put an Arabic pop tape into his friends’ boombox. The four of us sat in the room chatting, drinking and listening to the music. After about 15 or so minutes of this, I began to wonder what any of this had to do with the Feast of the Sacrifice. “Aren’t we going to celebrate the Eid?” I asked finally.
“Of course,” Mohammed said. “This is the Eid.”
“Yes, this is the Eid,” I said, “but won’t you be doing something special at your uncle’s house?”
“It’s not interesting at my uncle’s house. That’s why I came here.”
I looked skeptically at my three companions. “But isn’t there something traditional that you do when you celebrate the Eid?”
Mohammed thought for a moment. “We spend time with our family.”
“But you just said that you didn’t want to be with your family.”
“So you aren’t really celebrating the Eid, are you?”
“No. This is the Eid!”
“How?” I asked, gesturing around the tiny room. “How is this the Eid?”
“We’re drinking beer. Many people drink during the Eid.”
Ignorant as I was about Islam, I was positive that a true Muslim holiday would have very little to do with swilling beer. “I’m sorry guys,” I announced, “but I think I’m gonna have to go now.”
Mohammed looked hurt. “But you said you came here for the Eid!”
“Yes,” I said, “but I could drink beer and listen to music back home in America. I want to do something different.”
“Maybe you want to dance?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Where can we dance?”
Mohammed reached over to the boombox and turned up the music. The three Jordanian teens leapt up and started to shake their hips to the music. There was no room to move, so they stood in place and waved their arms around. The Arabic music was as stereotypical as it could get: a snake-charming, harem-inspiring swirl of strings and drums and flutes. Mohammed took me by the arm; I stood and tried to mimic his dance moves.
“Is this an Eid dance?” I yelled over the din of the music.
“Is this Eid music?”
Mohammed laughed. “Of course not!”
“Then why are we doing this?”
“Because it’s the Eid! It’s fun, yes?”
I told Mohammed that it was indeed fun, but that was a lie. As with freeze tag, heavy petting and bingo, many exercises in human joy are best appreciated at a very specific age. To truly understand the appeal of drinking beer and dancing with your buddies in a bland resort-town hotel room, I suspect you have to be 16 years old. I danced halfheartedly to the music, politely waiting for it to stop.
When I sat down after the first song, Mohammed happily yanked me to my feet. Twenty minutes later, the young Jordanians had moved on to the Side B songs without any sign of fatigue. I weakly shuffled in place, desperate for an excuse to leave. It occurred to me that, technically, I could just sprint out of the room and never have to talk to these guys again.
Then the inspiration hit. Leaning across the bed, I shut off the boombox and unplugged it from the wall. Mohammed and his friends looked at me in confusion.
“Let’s go,” I said to them. Carrying the boombox with an air of authority, I led the Jordanian boys up the stairwell to the roof of the Petra Hotel. There, I introduced them to Anna, Kat, Amber and Judith.
Serendipity is a rare thing, so it must be appreciated even in its humbler forms. As Mohammed, Sayeed and Ali exchanged formal handshakes with the Danes and the Canadians, I saw that their faces were frozen into expressions of rapturous terror; they had probably never been that intimate with Western women in their lives. Perhaps charmed by the boys’ awkwardness, the girls regarded the young Jordanians with sisterly affection.
I plugged in the boombox and announced that it was time to dance.
I’m not sure if that evening on the roof of the Petra Hotel meant much to any of the other parties involved, but I like to think that it was an all-around triumph: Anna and Kat were able to interact with Arabs in a charmed, unthreatening setting; Amber and Judith got to boss the boys around in colloquial Arabic and showcase their Bedouin dance steps; Mohammed, Sayeed and Ali — in their goofy, reverent, 16-year-old way — got to dance with angels on the heights of Aqaba.
For me, however, the night was a technical failure: I’d come to Jordan to experience the Islamic soul of the Eid al-Adha, and I’d ended up spearheading a secular sock hop on the roof of my hotel.
But, at a very basic level, even this was a bona fide extension of the Feast of the Sacrifice. After all, any holiday — when stripped of its identifying traditions and theologies — is simply an intentional break from the drab routines of life: a chance to eat or drink heartily with family and friends, an opportunity to give thanks to God or fate or randomly converging odds, a date to anticipate with optimism or recall with satisfaction.
With this in mind, I reckon that the ritual intricacies of feasts and festivals anywhere are mere decoration for a notion we’re usually too busy to address: that, at the heart of things, being alive is a pretty good thing.
Six stories above Aqaba, the eight of us talked and joked and danced to the Arabic tunes, improvising our moves when we weren’t sure what else to do.
Originally published by Salon.com, May 9, 2000