Bones for Meat—Makeshift
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Street-level slaughterhouses stabilize Egypt’s meat market, disrupted each year by Eid al-Adha

— Bones for Meat

The Cairene sun barely materializes over the roofs of the surrounding buildings as the festivities begin. Children laugh, running after one another, dodging the tributaries of blood that trickle into the streets. Morning prayers ring out above them. A small group of women and men, dressed in their finest clothes, observe the handiwork of one of the thousands of butchers gathered in anticipation of one of the most important Muslim holidays—Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.

Eid al-Adha is celebrated worldwide by Muslims on the 10th day of Dhu-al-Hijja, the 12th Month of the Islamic Hijri calendar. It commemorates prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his firstborn son Ismail in obedience to a command from God. After an early Eid prayer, an animal sacrifice serves as a symbolic nod to Ibrahim’s submission—a practice followed by approximately 75 million Egyptians.

The sudden demand of meat complicates logistics for the country. The government steps in by imposing strict controls on markets and prices—securing sufficient quantities of high-demand items and offering subsidies for lower-income residents (approximately 25 percent of Egypt’s population lives in poverty).

Work continues in a temporary abattoir

Work continues in a temporary abattoir

Despite state measures, meat prices generally rise by 10 percent during the Eid period, offering local businesses healthy margins. Charities allow ordinary Egyptians to donate money to help secure livestock for the poorest—an annual form of meat distribution. Large-scale imports stave off shortages: 28,000 live cows were imported from Australia, along with 24,000 tons of frozen meat.

This sudden influx of sheep, goats and cows turns the streets of Cairo into a saturated mélange of humans and livestock. Cows meandering in the streets disrupt traffic and pedestrian flow. Goats huddle in ad hoc pens or stare out from behind a solitary Lada car. All are oblivious to their fate.

This spells a boon for the city’s small butchers, who step up to meet demand. “A butcher must imagine how many animals he would normally slaughter in one month,” explains Mohamed Nada, a 49-year-old butcher in Downtown Cairo, of the pace of killing. “This is how much work he will have to do in the first day of Eid al-Adha.” So much meat is on hand that, he continued, “a butcher would not have to slaughter again for [up to] a month and a half after the Eid celebrations”.

Amateur butchers stash tools of the trade

Amateur butchers stash tools of the trade

But the butchers can’t handle the task alone. On Eid, entire neighborhoods transform into street-level butcheries. Thousands of men from all walks of life pick up knives and take up the trade for the day, either helping a local butcher or setting up their own temporary abattoir. Fathers and sons don armor that boasts more knives than your average kitchen. Assortments of specialized blades jut out of belts, boots and heavy duty pockets—immensely useful for the day’s tasks of slaughtering, skinning, and dividing up entire cows.

In one central Cairo neighborhood situated by the historic Bab Zuweila gate, those unable to fund their own meat wait patiently outside a mosque while their children loiter inside, peering curiously at the proceedings from the windows. Cows and goats, funded through donations, are led into the mosque’s gated perimeter. Here, a team of barefooted volunteers put their knives to work; no one misses out because of financial constraints.

Social class and political affiliation are put on hold during Eid al-Adha. On streets where Egyptian blood has been shed in political clashes, animal blood is now shed on tenets of sharing and charity. In a year when the transition to democracy has revealed its pitfalls, where massive rallies and bitter clashes have resulted in scores of deaths, Eid al-Adha offers respite.

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