For the life of the flesh is in the blood. — Leviticus 17:11
I grew up in a village in southern Lebanon a few years after World War II, the “Big War,” as we called it. In that place nothing came between us and the world we lived in, and in that world there was always blood, lots of it. We slaughtered the animals we ate. Their throats were cut, and their red, sticky, sweet-smelling life oozed, flowed, or gushed out of them onto the ground. Every other Saturday Grandma Mariam killed a chicken, usually a rooster. Early in the morning she would reach into the chicken coop, grab a big, fat rooster, and hold back his wings with her left hand to keep them from flapping. Then she would pull the rooster’s head back and pinch the comb between his wings. This exposed the throat. With her free hand she would pick up a sharp kitchen knife and run it once along the neck of the angry bird. The deed done, she would release the rooster, tossing him some distance away so as not to let the blood spatter her dress.
The rooster would run and flap his wings and sometimes even try to crow in defiance, but he was dying. The blood would flow down his beautiful black and red breast feathers, soaking them. And slowly the rooster’s steps would falter, his powerful legs would buckle, and he would fall down on his side in the dirt. Sometimes a very strong rooster would manage to get up and take a few more steps before collapsing one last time, never to rise again. His legs would shudder, and the light would go out of his eyes. When the bird was completely lifeless, my mother would do her part: pick up its limp form and take it over by the stone wall at the far end of the yard to pluck with sure hands its wet, disheveled feathers. She hummed as she worked. This rooster would be served at our Sunday dinner table after church.
We did not always eat chicken on Sunday. Sometimes we ate lamb. Saad, the traveling butcher, would come to the village every other Friday or Saturday followed by a flock of sheep that got smaller and smaller as he trekked from place to place. He would kill one of his sheep early in the morning and hang it by its hind legs from a strong branch of the old carob tree in the village square. There it would stay on a hook until the last bit of its carcass was carved and sold.
Saad was good at killing sheep, and very quick. He performed his duties in strict accordance with Islamic law, so that the meat would be “halal” — permissible for Muslims to eat. (Christians like us saw halal meat as “clean,” and preferred it too.) Saad would tie a short rope around the horns of the lamb and lead it to a flat rock under the tree. There he would take the lamb by its horns and force it to lie flat on its side. Then, with speed and precision, he would loop a thick piece of twine around the front and back feet. The lamb, unable to resist or get up, would bleat and bleat, but Saad was not hampered by the sound. I don’t think he even heard it. He would take the lamb by one of its horns and pull its head back, then reach for the knife he kept hidden under a tattered piece of cloth by his side. Muttering, “In the name of Allah, who has made you halal for us to slaughter and eat,” he’d bring his knife down on the woolly throat — one pass, two passes, sometimes three or four. Red blood shot from the lamb’s throat in spurts that made my chest hurt. The stream got weaker and weaker until it finally became a slow trickle. The lamb tried to breathe, but all it could do was make a gurgling noise. Then its tongue became limp and lolled out of its mouth.
The sight sickened me, and I would feel lightheaded, as if I was going to pass out. I would lean against my mother, holding tightly to her hand, and look over at the rest of the flock, still grazing on the shoulder of the footpath. They did not stop eating or even slow down while one of their number bled to death on a cold, flat stone less than ten yards away.
I saw many smaller animals die, such as the birds, squirrels, and rabbits that my father killed for our table, but I was not moved by their deaths at all. They were small and did not have a lot of blood in them. And I gave barely a thought to the death of vermin like rats, mice, and moles. Killing insects did not even register on my consciousness. Swatting a fly or feeling the crunch of a scorpion under the hard sole of my shoe was, in fact, very satisfying. I did not think I was snuffing the life out of an amazing work of nature. These pests deserved to die. And there was no red blood to give me pause.
But the bigger the creature was and the more blood it shed, the harder its death hit me. A lamb was the largest animal I had ever seen butchered until the summer Antoun married Salma, the daughter of the vineyard keeper. I had just turned nine, and my playmates and I had heard about the slaughtering of camels every Saturday in a village called Ketermaya, three or four hills away from our village of Magdaluna. We talked about it every now and then and wondered how they did it. How did they kill such a big beast? Did the camel fight back? We had a lot of questions.
One day Kameel, the goatherd’s son, suggested that we all go see it for ourselves. None of us said a word. We had to think about this. Finally Habeeb, Kameel’s cousin, spoke: “I have never seen anything as big as a camel bleed to death,” he said. “I want to go.” The son of the stone mason, Habeeb was afraid of nothing and no one, not even God. He made fun of us believers in the group, Muslim and Christian alike, including his cousin Kameel, who was Catholic and wanted to be a priest when he grew up, because priests never missed a meal. Habeeb called religion a “fairy tale” designed to keep everybody in line, especially us kids. To prove his point, he had gone so far as to challenge Allah to strike him dead. And because God had not done so, Habeeb had become a legend among us village boys. So when he said he wanted to see a camel die, the others agreed to go too. Nobody wanted to be thought of as squeamish. I said I would come, but not because Habeeb was going. I was curious and wanted to see for myself.
It was settled: the following Saturday the six of us would go to see a camel slaughtered.
On the chosen morning we left the village when the Big Dipper was still high in the sky. We had to leave early because we had heard that camels were killed at sunrise in Ketermaya. We did not pack any water or food because we could drink from mountain springs and eat whatever was growing in the fields that time of year: tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, watermelon. The rule was that you could eat anything on the spot where it grew. (To take it home was considered theft, a great shame.) But we traveled fast and did not stop to eat on the way. There was talk of hunting and games and village rumors. When the group started to quiet down, Habeeb spiced things up with a story about having seen a woman lift her skirt and squat behind a rock to relieve herself in the field. I worried that he’d seen my mother or grandmother do this, but he said that it was not any of our womenfolk.
At the bottom of the last hill before we got to Ketermaya, as we were getting ready to ford a stream, we saw a man and a boy standing on a large rock in the middle of the water. The man was holding a sledgehammer with its heavy head resting by his bare foot. We yelled, “Sabahil kheir” (Morning of bounty), and they shouted back, “Sabahil noor” (Morning of light). They asked where we were going, and Kameel told them that we were headed for Ketermaya to see how the camels were killed. The man told us we’d better hurry, because they were going to do it before the day warmed up and the flies came out in droves.
Habeeb asked him what he was doing in the middle of a stream with a sledgehammer. The man said that he and his boy were fishing.
I elbowed Habeeb and said, “Ask him how he does it. How does he fish with a sledgehammer?”
Habeeb hollered at the man, “We’ve never seen anyone fish with a sledgehammer before. How does it work?”
The man laughed and said they threw stale bread in the water by the rock, and when the fish gathered to eat it, he’d hit the rock with the hammer as hard as his strength would allow. The fish around the rock would be stunned and float to the surface, where his son could grab them. We wished him and his boy luck and continued on, talking about the strange fisherman and his son the rest of the way to Ketermaya.
It was not difficult to locate where the killing was to take place. All we had to do was follow the noise of the crowd. When I walked into the square, I saw at least a hundred men and children talking animatedly and calling to others they knew. There were no women that I could see. It was the kind of festive atmosphere I would later find at soccer games after we moved to the big city on the coast. Men were passing cigarettes to one another, and the children, most of them barefoot, were running around, dodging and weaving among the grown-ups. In the center of this dusty bedlam I saw an enormous camel standing quietly. A man was holding a short rope looped around the camel’s neck. He was a big man with a thick, graying beard. He walked the camel around in a circle — to show him off to everybody, I guessed. This gave the kids a chance to approach the big animal and touch it. I did and was surprised that the hair on the camel’s haunch was very soft, almost like down.
The man paraded the camel about for what seemed a long time. I wondered why they didn’t just get on with it. Later I understood that the killing of the camel was a spectacle for the village to enjoy, and like all spectacles it had to be prolonged, because once the camel died, the show would be over.
Finally a different man, so small he could have been a dwarf, casually walked up to the camel. The small man was wearing a black-and-white-striped camise long enough to cover his shoes, and on his head was a red fez with a black tassel. A cigarette dangled from his lower lip. There was nothing threatening about the way he approached the camel, and that’s why what he did next caught me by surprise. He called on the name of Allah, who had made it halal to slay animals and eat them, then pulled a long knife that he had hidden under a green apron around his waist and plunged it into the camel’s neck at the base. Quickly he drove it in and then pulled it back. The speed with which he moved was astonishing. Had I looked away for a moment, I would have missed it. The man then retreated so that the blood would not splash on his camise, and he wiped the blade on the camel’s haunch.
The blood did not spurt as I had seen it do when sheep were killed. Rather the camel’s blood fell to the ground as if it were being poured out of a bucket. I heard some men compliment the butcher on how well he’d performed. Children clapped their hands and jumped up and down. I heard laughter as the blood poured out and pooled on the dusty ground. The flow went on and on, as if time had slowed to a crawl, as it sometimes did in my nightmares.
When the camel began to act distressed, the big man holding the rope put his hand on the side of the camel’s face as if to calm it. Then the camel’s legs began to buckle, like those of the roosters my grandma killed. The camel made a great effort not to drop to its knees, but the loss of blood gradually weakened it, and it slowly went down. Two young men stepped out of the crowd, grabbed the camel by the hump, and rocked it back and forth a couple of times until it fell over like a boulder on a hill. Lying on its side, the camel moved its legs in a feeble running motion. I had seen my brother’s puppy move its legs like that in its sleep, as if it were chasing a rabbit or running from danger. Then the camel groaned — a long, drawn-out sound that was cut short by another knife-wielding man, this one with a huge mustache and a broad grin. He walked up to the dying camel and cut its neck through to the bone. It was an act of mercy, I suppose, but it was more than I could take. Without letting anybody see, I sneaked behind a building made of corrugated metal and got sick. Nothing came up but sour, foul-tasting acid because I had not eaten since the night before. Then I hurried back to where my friends were standing, my clothes wet with sweat and my heart beating loudly in my chest. But I said nothing. If my friends had found out I’d been ill, it would have been the end of my reputation.
On the way back we stopped in a field full of ripe corn and shucked and roasted a few ears over a fire. As we chewed on the sweet, slightly burnt kernels, Habeeb and Kameel and the others talked in great detail about what we had seen that morning. They wondered what roasted camel meat tasted like. Was it as good as lamb or better? They made jokes about how the camel had relieved itself copiously while dying. Its blood and urine had mixed and run out of the square in streams that the little children had stepped in to make red footprints in the dust. Every now and then I forced myself to chime in because I did not want my friends to know how heartsick I felt. If they had, they would have seen me as different, and I was neither strong nor brave enough to go against the crowd.
But I was different, and the closer we got to our village, the farther away I felt from my friends, who were still carrying on about the camel. By the time we got home, I no longer considered myself one of them.
Seeing that camel die like that had made me wonder about who and what we are, and why the world has to be this way. Why do living things have to kill other living things and eat them? The slaughter of that camel shook my faith. That was the day I stopped believing what I had been told about a kind and loving God. On that morning in Ketermaya, I and the God who had made it halal to kill and eat camels parted ways.
For many years after I’d witnessed that obscenity, I had a recurrent nightmare in which that camel would follow me around. If I ducked behind a wall or a house, it would stick its head around the corner. If I ran up a tall building to get away from it, it would stretch its neck up to the third or fourth floor. I was in absolute terror of the camel in my dreams, but it never hurt me. All it did was look at me with its large, watery eyes.