The streets of Cairo hold many surprises and as the big Eid draws closer, the amount of livestock you will encounter in the streets increases. On my way to work, down a long street next to the Nile, I met a few cows piled in the back of a pickup truck, swaying gently with the start-and-stop motions of the crawling traffic. I blinked my eyes a few times to make sure I was not imagining things but there they were, staring mournfully and resignedly in my window.
Animals are much more visible here and I remember my astonishment and irritation at the chickens and rooster living on the roof of the building next door when I first moved to Egypt. Surprised at finding animals living on a roof, these guys had a friendly goat roaming around the satellite dishes as well, and being woken up at the crack of dawn by a screeching feathered foe was not my favourite way to start the day. I got used to it though and after a few nights my friend next door could serenade the sun as much as he wanted; I wouldn’t hear a thing.
The street I travel on my way home holds a wealth of contradictions; gleaming German cars with diplomatic plates vie for space with rickety wooden carts drawn by donkeys, modern buildings hosting banks rise shining next to grey bricked, one room apartment buildings and tuk tuks driven by teenagers zoom in and out of the side streets as the well to do make their way out of the city to their gated suburban communities. The closer you get to the edge of town, the fewer modern buildings you see and small coffee shops and hole in the wall stores that sell one item only start crowding the side of the road.
Several flocks of sheep and goats live in this street, and wooden troughs for food and water have taken up permanent residence in front of the small businesses. With these wooly wanderers comes a smell reminiscent of farms and the country, but that does not seem to stop the neighbourhood’s inhabitants from sipping their tea and enjoying a game of backgammon in the evenings as the sheep sleep all around them.
The sheep are never very active. No matter which time of day you pass these strangers to city life they doze quietly, haphazardly spread out around their feeding places, resigned to their fates that hold no surprises. Close to nearly every group of scruffy animals is a small butcher shop, where one or more of their own gets ritually treated to a one way ticket to someone’s stove every day. I wonder if they talk quietly at night, discussing who will be next as the dawn breaks and if they have tearful goodbyes. Or maybe the poisonous fumes of the endless parade of cars, motorbikes and minibuses have stunned them into a silent stupor.
It is an Egyptian thing, my friends tell me. Farmers bring their animals that are ready for slaughter to the cities and by having the supply close to the demand everyone is assured of fresh meat. It is also customary to slaughter a sheep as an offering for a new house, building, shop, car or child, and the meat is divided in thirds, with one third going to the family and friends, one to the celebrators themselves and the remaining third is distributed to those who have little and lack much. Lambs to slaughter, to give thanks for good fortune and ensure a blessing on the reason for the bloodletting.
Earlier this week I looked up from Twitter to watch the pick of the day being dragged to the waiting butcher who was still sharpening his knife. Messages about the march to Maspero filled my timeline as the rest of the sheep did not even twist a tail as their fellow flock-mate was dragged to its end.
Lambs to the slaughter I thought. I am told it is an Egyptian thing.