Syrian slaying

Note: This post will make more sense if you read The kindness of Syrian strangers, and then Enter Ahmad.

Ahmad arranged it all, and before long we had pet the family sheep goodbye, said goodbye to Ahmad's wife and children, and gotten back in his tiny Russian truck. We were heading to the slaughterhouse.

As you may recall, Ahmad's father and brother work at a slaughterhouse, and Ahmad invited us to go tour it.  We had spent most of the afternoon and much of the evening hanging out at Ahmad's house, and we were leaving Syria the next day, but we actually still had plenty of time to see the slaughterhouse during business hours; the "slaying", as Ahmad called it, happens at night. So, as the sun set, we drove from Ahmad's tiny village to the industrial city on the outskirts of Aleppo.

We entered the city as the sun went down, and as I looked around in the dim light, I was amazed at what I saw. Huge trucks, discarded machinery, dirt, dust, burning garbage, chain-link fences, and lots and lots of men. I'm in the Soviet Union, I kept thinking. These images made me think of the Soviet Union, even though I'd never visited it (or even any ex-Soviet countries). ((This was probably because of some things that Ahmad said. When Linh asked him about the president of Syria, he said that he's a good man; that his main focus is on creating jobs, and that he often does that by creating new government-run companies. This sounded extremely Communist to me. Ahmad also said that the very slaughterhouse we were on our way to visit was run by the government. That, combined with my image of the Soviet Union as a dark, dirty, industrial wasteland (perhaps influenced by reading The Ends of the Earth) leads me to think of the Soviet Union whenever I recall that night.))

We entered the high-walled slaughterhouse complex and were immediately greeted by the smell of livestock. After we got out of the car and walked up to the building, we met three of Ahmad's siblings: an older brother, and two younger siblings. I don't know what was more shocking: to see an age difference of around 30 years between siblings, or to find such young children hanging out at a slaughterhouse.

After chatting with Ahmad's siblings for a few minutes, it was time to make our way into the building where the slaying was about to begin. We walked across a metal gangway into a large room with plain cement floors that was divided by metal barriers into many smaller areas. Ahmad the English teacher looked positively dorky next to all the men inside, who were wearing rubber aprons and boots, some holding blades, others smoking cigarettes. Ahmad told everybody who we were, and nobody seemed terribly displeased to see us, which was a relief, as I felt like something of an intruder (even more so than I normally do in foreign countries).

Linh and I stood around waiting, and it seemed like everybody else was doing the same, though at least they had cigarettes to smoke and people to talk to. Finally, I noticed some activity across the gangway that had led us to the massive room. I looked up to see sheep being shooed across it and towards us. Ahmad's brother motioned to Linh and me to move behind one of the metal barriers. We did, and watched the stream of sheep move past us into the building.

Soon after the sheep came the cows. These were much larger, and they seemed startled. They did not proceed into the building in a calm, orderly fashion, but staggered about, only proceeding forward at the forceful pushing of some very brave men behind them. Soon enough, the men got most of the cows into a  waiting area, separated from the rest of the room by the same metal barriers that separated us from the cows. One cow, however, had turned around completely and gone the other way. It bothered me to see the cows so scared, but I suppose it's a bit much to ask of them that they chin-up and die with dignity.

Once inside the building, the cows were removed from the queue and released into a larger area where the butchers were waiting. Once the cows were in the area, the slaying began. A man approached a cow slowly at first, standing upright. Once he got within a few meters, however, he bent his knees and leaned forward, and then quickly moved in, sliced at the underside of the cow's neck, and moved back.

"This part is very dangerous", Ahmad told me, and I could see why. The cows were so much larger than the men that they could easily trample them. What surprised me, though, was that the cows sort of seemed bewildered and stunned rather than aggressive or even terrified. Although a few of them tried to run a few steps (and quickly slipped on the increasingly bloody floor), most of them seemed to sort of just stand or walk around while the men dashed in and cut their throats, over and over again. Every time a man went in to stab or slash, another was standing by; this other man's only job was to say "Bismillah, Allahu Akbar".

One by one, the cows collapsed to the floor, wallowing in their own blood. The men cut the cows' throats so thoroughly I could see through to their spinal cords. They mooed and flayed for what seemed to me like a long, long time. As I watched the cows being killed, I started to feel uncomfortably hot. At first I thought it was my own squeamishness, and I tried to just keep watching. Eventually, I felt really uncomfortable, and let myself outside. I noticed that the air outside was actually much cooler than inside. After maybe a minute, I went back inside.

"Are you all right?", asked Ahmad.

"Yes, I'm fine. I just felt hot", I said.

"Yes, it gets very hot because of all the blood", he said.

We watched the slaying of the cows go on for a while, and then it was time to move on to see the fate that awaited the sheep. We were led away from the cows to stand behind a queue of sheep. They were being grabbed, one by one, and a ring was put around one of their hind hooves. This ring was attached to a chain that was attached to a conveyor system that constantly circulated several chains. The conveyor brought a chain low to the ground as it approached the sheep, and then it raised up, and the animal was dangling by one leg as it was conveyed onwards and upwards. It was a three-man workforce: One man attached the sheep to the conveyor, a second stood by and said "Bismillah, Allahu Akbar", while a third slit the animals' throats.

We then went on to see the rest of the lamb dis-assembly line. The sheep were gutted, and the various innards were separated and slid across tables towards metal receptacles. Ahmad took us to see one man whose job it was to inspect some part of the sheep's guts (kidney, maybe?). He took a knife, made an incision, and looked at the cross-section. He was looking for some black spots, we were told.

"If he sees any spots, then the animal is not safe to eat, and the animal is disposed of", explained Ahmad.

Always the skeptic, I had to ask, "But it seems like the rest of the animal is already over there, being cut-up by those other men. How do they keep track of which animals are safe to eat?"

Ahmad relayed my concerns to the man searching for spots, and then he interpreted his reply for me: "They keep track very carefully. They don't let the other parts of the animal get away".

Once the animals had stopped moving, they were skinned, gutted, and cut into smaller and smaller pieces. At this point it all started to seem more like what I've done in my own kitchen, and I no longer felt particularly hot or uncomfortable. Probably the heat of the cows' blood had dissipated, but I also was much less disturbed now that the animals were dead.

When it was time to go, we walked back through the labyrinth of metal barriers and onto the gangway that led into the butchering area. There was blood all over the narrow bridge.

"They could not get the last cow to go inside, so they slayed it right here", explained Ahmad.

We walked past the puddles of blood towards a little office at the other end of the complex. This was Ahmad's father's office. He was a fat old man, who like pretty much everyone we'd met that day (except Ahmad) didn't speak any English. His job was to do some sort of record-keeping for the slaughterhouse, though judging from the little bed he had set up in the corner, he did not work normal accountant's hours. Ahmad explained to us that his father had worked at the slaughterhouse for over fifteen years.

I sat silently contemplating the slaughter that I had just witnessed...