Amy Chan
Mint tea, dead sheep and Mick Jagger

‘Yes, come. Come. You will now see how we kill the sheep.’ Hamid beckoned them outside.

Marrakech, Summer 1989.
Their guide stopped in front of an archway and stubbed his cigarette out on the cobbles. He then turned to go inside. Oh no, the girls thought, not another carpet emporium. Still, they knew by now that it was an inevitable stop on any guide’s itinerary.
‘Well it gets us out of the heat. And possibly a glass of mint tea.’
‘So sayeth Amy the Stoic.’ Ann replied
‘Whatever. Come on.’

They followed Mustapha into the cool entrance hall which was shaded by a dense tangle of overhanging grapevines. Inside was the biggest carpet shop they’d yet encountered. It was run as a co-operative and was housed in one of the old mansions built towards the end of the last century. The head carpet seller came over to welcome them, inviting them to take a seat while he instructed his assistants to roll out carpet after carpet for their inspection. The pile soon reached a foot high. Despite being gloriously assailed by a riot of brilliant colours and patterns, the girls remained steadfast in their resolve. No really, they did not want to buy a carpet. They already had a kelim each from the last trip. And it was their fifth visit to Morocco. That seemed to clinch it and the attempted sale was graciously aborted.
‘At least have some tea. Please.’ said Hamid. He slipped out of his carpet seller persona and twinkled his blue eyes at them. He had a round face, like a wise old cherub with a mass of grey curls, although he was probably only in his forties. As cigarettes were passed around and hot fragrant tea was sipped, they made the usual chatter about the places they’d travelled to and the things they had seen. Mustapha who would not be securing any carpet commission that day, sat patiently, doing his best not to appear too bored.
Soon the statutory three glasses were drunk and it was time to leave. Hamid accompanied them to the doorway. Just as they were bidding their farewells, he asked them if they knew that the following day was Aid el Kbir. Had they ever seen a sheep being slaughtered? Would they like to come over to his house for lunch? If they were interested, he could meet them in the Café de France later to make arrangements. The girls thought it was an invitation worth considering.

Aid el Kbir is the festival marking the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God’s behest. It also coincides with the start of the new Islamic year and is a time-honoured family gathering. Every household who can afford it, purchases a sheep for slaughter.
Over the past couple of days, it had been like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. Sheep were being roped onto the backs of scooters and bicycles, or shoved unceremoniously into the boots of cars and taxis. Then whisked off at high speed.
An increasing number of the luckless creatures were seen tethered all over the place. The unseen ones made their presence felt vocally. Behind high courtyard walls, on flat rooftops, noisily bleating their bewilderment and protest at being thrust into hostile environments where slippery, unyielding tiles replaced the soft green grass under hoof.
Later on, the girls sauntered down to the cafe. They had just about made up their minds. Placing squeamish thoughts aside, it did sound too good an opportunity to miss. So why not?
‘Please,’ said Hamid ‘do come to my house tomorrow. I have been home to tell my wife. She will be very happy if you have lunch with us.’
He said he would come to fetch them from their hotel at 11 o’clock.

The following morning, the sun shone down on a medina that had shut up shop for the day. Even the Djemaa el Fna was completely deserted, except for a solitary orange juice seller and he wasn’t doing much business. It was just as well they had somewhere to go. They sat and waited in the courtyard of their hotel.
Ann was steadily growing more apprehensive about witnessing the slaying of the sacrificial ‘lamb’. She was in two minds whether she wanted Hamid to turn up or not.
He did. Immediately upon his arrival, she thrust the gift of a big be-ribboned box of confectionery into his hands, much to his amusement.
‘Actually Ann, I think you were supposed carry it. And give it to his wife when we got there.’ Amy often wondered why people appeared to lose all common sense when they were in foreign climes. Must be their nerves.

A short walk, through the maze of alleys leading into the heart of the medina, brought them to a traditional style house with its open, tiled courtyard. The first thing they noticed was the ruminating ram tethered in the corner, oblivious that it was soon to be meeting its maker. The girls exchanged dubious glances. Warm greetings were exchanged with Hamid’s wife who ushered them into the living room where grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and offspring were all gathered. A small black and white television was on and the family was watching King Hassan presiding over the official ceremonies, live from Casa. There was a ripple of bottom shuffling until just enough space was made on the long divan to squeeze in two more.
After a few minutes of polite viewing, the girls’ attention started to roam around the room. The whitewashed walls were sparsely decorated but there was a large framed photograph that seemed to take pride of place. Hamid followed their eyes and said
‘Ah, you see the picture of me with my brother and my very good friend.’ Carefully, he took it down off the wall and passed it over to them, a knowing smile glinting in his eyes.
The photograph showed a much younger Hamid, flanked on one side by another Moroccan and on the other by…
‘My God…’and for a moment the two of them were speechless.
Then they both shrieked ‘It’s Mick Jagger!’ No less.

The friendship had probably developed through a mutual keen interest in kif. Hamid told them he used to be an exporter of hashish. Smuggled out in beautiful coffee table tops, with intricate inlay work, finely handcrafted by skilled artisans. Their glasses of mint tea and dishes of salted almonds were placed on such a table. Hamid assured them that there was nothing stashed inside that table. Oh, what a pity, they joked.

He claimed to still be a good friend of Mick’s. Even although it must have been quite a few years since they had last been in touch. He knew that if he ever wished to go to England, Mick would send him his flight ticket. Straightaway. The girls maybe didn’t fully share such certainty but it was still a good story to take back with them.
The courtyard door opened and Hamid’s son entered, followed by another Moroccan who was wielding a couple of large knives with rather lethal looking 8-inch blades.
‘I bet he’s been busy today.’ Amy said.
The butcher had finally arrived.
‘Yes, come. Come. You will now see how we kill the sheep.’ Hamid beckoned them outside.
Amy had to give Ann a push towards the doorway.
‘I’m not looking though.’ she hissed back.
Hamid’s youngest daughter, aged five, went over to the animal and patted him gently on the head. She was saying her bye-byes. The sheep raised his head to rub against her small hand. Well, thought Ann, at least he’s a happy sheep. There was none of the hysteria here that you would see in the slaughterhouses of the west, where the creatures can smell their approaching death in the air.

The dreaded act was carried out with surprising swiftness. Hamid’s son bent over the ram and grasped him firmly, one hand gripping a horn and the other a leg. A portentous metallic rasping could be heard as the butcher sharpened his knives, rhythmically marking out the fated animal’s last moments. Amy found herself clenching the insides of her trouser pockets to prevent her fingers from flying up to cover her eyes. Two blades were placed, crossing over the jugular and with a combined deft swipe, the creature’s throat was slit. Hamid was handed a knife to finish the job. A bit like being allowed to have the first cut of your own birthday cake.

One of Hamid’s older daughters crouched down, gingerly extending out a plastic container to catch some of the blood that was spilling out onto the blue and white tiles. The carcass was then strung up. From this point on, neither of the girls could tear their eyes away. This was far classier than any school biology lesson or nature documentary. This was in riveting 3-D.
The butcher made an incision in one leg and peeled back a small piece of skin. He then put his mouth to the opening and blew hard. The carcass slowly expanded into a huge balloon allowing the hide to be stripped off with ease, followed by the removal of the organs. In hardly any time at all, the whole animal had been skinned and gutted with professional expertise.
‘Wow…’ murmured Ann, ‘I wish my lungs looked like that’
‘Hm,’ sighed Amy ‘a lovely and unblemished shade of pink. Must remember to give up the fags.’
‘Yeah, fancy a piece of my Nicorette gum then?’

Hamid’s wife hurried off into the kitchen with the sheep’s liver while her husband lit the charcoal on the brazier. The girls sat down on the cool shaded tiles, and helped to tear up the sheep’s stomach lining into ribbons. It was a delicate business as the lining was as thin as lace. The ribbons were then carefully wrapped around cubes of chopped liver and threaded onto wooden skewers.
They ate the kebabs with newly baked unleavened bread. The tastes and textures of that exquisite meal would never ever be forgotten or surpassed.

Marrakech Summer 1989
© Amy Chan 2002

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