Айтыңар маарек болсун / Aytyngar maarek bolsun / Happy Kurman Ait! After fasting for 40 days for Ramadan and celebrating the end of Ramadan with Orozo Ait, Muslims around the world gathered for the Sacrifice Feast, one of the most important Islamic holidays.
The Sacrifice Feast is a huge deal for Muslims, and it’s celebrated worldwide each year. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the date of observance changes from year to year, although it’s always celebrated a set number of days after Orozo Ait. This year, September 12 marked the Sacrifice Feast, which Kyrgyz people call Kurman Ait, and which is also commonly referred to as Eid al-Adha.
The Sacrifice Feast honors the willingness of Ibrahim (AKA Abraham) to sacrifice his son. As Ibrahim slid a knife across his son’s throat, he looked up to see his son’s body replaced by a ram; the angel Jibra’il (AKA Gabriel) appeared to tell Ibrahim that God had already accepted his sacrifice. I love the overlap between Quranic/Biblical/Toraic stories – while the Torah/Bible tells the story as though Abraham’s son Isaac was up for sacrifice, in the Quran, it’s Ismail, Ibrahim’s son with Hajar.
The story leading up to the sacrifice goes something like this: Ibrahim had to leave his wife and baby son in Arabia to return to Canaan on God’s command; the provisions he left them didn’t last, pushing Hajar to run between the hills al-Safa and al-Marwah seven times in search of water. She prayed to God, and suddenly a spring of water appeared to save her and Ismail. (This spring became the lifesource for Mecca, which eventually became a trade hub, bustling desert city, and religious center for Muslims.) Years later, when Ismail was grown, God commanded Ibrahim and Ismail to build a place of worship; together, they built a simple stone structure, called the Kaaba. It was only after this that God called on Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail.
There are plenty of parallels between the sacrifice story and traditional Hajj (pilgrimage) rites. It’s one of the five pillars of Islam to complete the Hajj (though the logistics of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide trying to make the pilgrimage to Mecca mean it’s not always possible, and the commodification of religion and unthinkable wealth in Saudi Arabia mean the experience can be out of reach for average people). Muslim pilgrims follow the prophet Muhammed’s journey in 632, which involves visiting several holy sites and participating in several rituals. Al-Safa and al-Marwah, the two hills where Hajar ran for water, mark an important stop on the Hajj; pilgrims throw stones in commemoration of Ibrahim’s rejecting Satan; millions of animals (sheep, goats, cows, camels) are slaughtered and shared with the poor; and in the most iconic ritual, Muslims dressed in white walk around the Kaaba seven times. I’m totally fascinated by the Hajj, and you can learn more about it by following Diia Hadid, a correspondent for the New York Times, on her pilgrimage here and here.
I don’t know whether some rituals of Kurman Ait parallel the sacrifice story or Hajj rites or both, but let’s dig deeper into the slaughtering of animals. It’s expected that people will slaughter an animal of some sort (an estimated 100 million animals are killed during Ait every year) and divide the meat into 3 parts: 1 to keep, 1 to share with relatives and neighbors, and 1 to give to the poor. In Mecca, pilgrims can choose from several species for their sacrifice, which reflects the diversity of cultures where Islam is practiced. In Kyrgyzstan, the go-to animal is a sheep.
At my house, we slaughtered two sheep in the course of three days. The prayers said over the sheep were different than usual, more an expression of thanks for what my family had overcome and enjoyed than a statement of hope for the future: my host mom was treated successfully in the hospital, my host brother started university, the tourist season was lucrative this year, I joined the family, instead of “May you be successful, may you be healthy, may you be wealthy.”
Literally every bit of those sheep was consumed. The intestines were cleaned out 6 times, braided up, stuffed with rice; the eyeballs were pried out and fought over as a tasty delicacy; the brains ended up on the breakfast table the next day. This wasn’t my first кой сой koi soi sleep slaughter, but it was the first time I’ve participated every step of the way, from prayer to standing around awkwardly while male relatives pull off the skin, crouching over several basins of water to clean out the intestines, watching the meat cook over the kazan stove, gathering around the table to enjoy several hours of work.
While we didn’t give 1/3 of the sheep to the poor, we certainly did not keep the meat for ourselves. All morning on the 12th, I helped my host mom and several of her sisters, as well as their kids, set our дасторкон dastorkon table for guests. We had salads, figs, cookies, fruit, and nuts to feed an army, and that was before the meat got put out. Meat is served in order from oldest/most honored to youngest, and the oldest man (who also happened to be pretty tanked on vodka) traded pieces with me, landing me the biggest, fattest piece of sternum I’ve ever seen in my life. Fortunately, the whole point of guesting here is to take 75% of your plate with you in a plastic baggie, so it wasn’t considered rude of me to make only a dent in my slice. And in the tradition of packing everything up in cellophane baggies, the 1/3 of the sheep meant to go to friends and neighbors was dispersed to the other homes in my neighborhood.
For the rest of the day, and most of the next day, I walked around with the neighbor ladies and their young kids to for “ait-ing.” We spent an hour or so at every family’s home, and with every house, the amount I could eat shrunk and shrunk. I don’t know whether people coordinated on their Kurman Ait menus, but every house had a different display of salads and a unique main course – manty dumplings at Burulcha Eje’s house, lagman noodles at Venera Eje’s, roasted chicken at Mirgul Eje’s. Normally I’d be pumped to eat all these things, but after 6 three-course meals, it literally hurt just to look at the plate of food in front of me.
At a few of the guestings, someone’s husband would show up and recite a prayer in Arabic before we ate, but at most of the visits, the Kyrgyz tradition of praying and “oomin-ing” after the meal was the only show of religion. Oomin-ing involves holding your hands together while someone, normally the oldest woman or an honored guest, recites a бата bata blessing. We took turns giving the bata all day; I had my own chance to give a good one, and the ladies smiled knowingly that I finally know all the bases to cover (may you have a long life, may you be healthy, may your children study well, may we live in peace).
There are tons of ways to say “Happy Kurman Ait” in Kyrgyz, but one stood out to me in particular because it’s a unique call and response greeting. When you tell a person “Айтыңыз маарек болсун Aityngyz maarek bolsun May your Ait be blessed,” they should respond: “Бирге болсун Birge bolsun Let us be together.”