I must continuously acknowledge my social privilege as a Turkish male; I can more or less insinuate myself into the realm of meat and religious ritual without causing any offense within an increasingly religious populace. This is an important affirmation when dealing with the cultural sensitivity and messiness of animal sacrifice (I sound like I’m writing up a concert rider for a GWAR show). Having said that, let’s go buy an animal!
Going to the Pazar
The İzmir Hayvan Pazarı (Animal Market) opens a month before Kurban Bayramı (The Feast of the Sacrifice), staying open every day until Bayram eve (Arife günü). The days right before Bayram, much like the shopping environment in a Walmart before Christmas, are an unholy mess of gas-guzzling trucks navigating around overweight, glassy-eyed grazers.
One of the best ways to understand what a kurban (sacrifice) could be is to discuss what it can’t be. The animal selected cannot be sickly, old, or too young. It can’t have any broken horns, cloudy eyes, or a limp. The ears must be large enough (this is a somewhat subjective metric). The bottom four teeth (mandibular medial and lateral incisors) have to be present and robust. The sacrifice must be just that, a sacrifice to your assets. The goal is to give your best animal to Allah, not some sick fleabag.
Zeynep, a family acquaintance, has been going to the pazar her entire life. She’s İzmir born-and-raised, but her entire family hails from Kars, deep in Anatolia on the Armenian border, meaning they’re legit country-folk accustomed to buying, killing, and cooking their own animals. Zeynep’s dad, Turgut Bey, was to be our pazar guide, negotiator, and victim to my pestering questions.
We went to Yeşildere, meaning “green stream,” in the shadow of a giant bust of Atatürk carved into a mountain. From where we’re staying in Mavişehir/Karşıyaka, it was a 30 minute drive, looping east and then south around the bay of İzmir, on the same road you take to get to the airport.
The pazar is in the city. Like IN THE MIDDLE of the 3rd largest city in Turkey. The Bay Area equivalent would be if the Laney College Flea Market in Oakland had only animals instead of stolen bikes.
The weather was bright, brisk, and windy; some real Anatolian steppe weather. As soon as we got out of the car we smelled what cheese enthusiasts refer to as “barnyard notes,” but what most other people refer to as “animal feces.” While waiting for Zeynep’s dad to arrive, we endured the kind of salesmanship and bargaining reminiscent of the Istanbul Grand Bazaar crossed with the last helicopter out of Saigon. I felt like a pretty lady at a bar; the vendors were really nice, offering to bring us tea and trying to get us to feel the back fat on their sheep. Their cigarette ashes were impressively long.
Zeynep called her dad back for the fourth time. Turns out he had taken the exit by the southernmost mosque. An understandable misunderstanding, as there’s been a real Starbucksification of mosque building in Erdoğan’s Turkey.
Zeynep’s dad brought a troop of relatives who giggled at our English and tried to decipher what I was writing in my notebook.
Turgut Bey is something of a local celebrity at the pazar; groups of people would stop him every few steps and ask what and where he planned on purchasing his animal. He would chuckle and offer a noncommittal answer. It takes a while to get used to the open staring (dik dik bakmak) in Turkey, and we definitely were an object of curiosity. My notebook scribbling, pointing, and questioning initially had some of the vendors suspicious that we were government inspectors. The shiksa goddess (Mary) taking lots of pictures had a few people asking if we were from a TV show.
Each enclosure had the vendor’s child watching over the animals. As far as I could tell, the kids were mainly in charge of pushing the sheep around, wrenching their horns, and grabbing any escapees. Occasionally they would break up ram-fights and the overly horny ovine, like little cockblocking prison guards.
Everything is negotiable, of course, but sheep started at about 400 TL and went up to about 700 TL. ($200 – $350 US). Cows are more variable. The calf that adorably tried to trample Zeynep was 1,500 TL, the cow that Turgut Bey bought for their family was 2,700 TL, and some of the larger steers (950 kilograms and above) were going for 5,500 TL. The Lira-Dollar conversion is super easy; just divide the Lira amount by two.
After we had seen the whole Pazar, Turgut Bey directed us to a reliable vendor for my sheep purchase. I had my eye on a handsome little number with a brown head and pleasant horn curvature. The vendor said it was 575 TL, but Turgut Bey turned to me in an aside and said “Sure, he says 575, but we won’t be paying that.” We felt the lower back (short loin) to gauge meatiness. We ignored the sheep I wanted for a while, and focused on the marginal animals. Then it was time for the haggle dance!
Turgut Bey told the vendor I was but a mere student, I didn’t have much money, and that the sheep were small and overpriced. This was countered with protestations of minimal profit made per animal and the paltry number of pairs of pants that the vendor could afford (The number of pants was three, which is more pairs than I have). Handshakes would be proffered, held onto tightly, and then wrenched away as the “final” price was changed before the final, deal-sealing handshake pump. In the end I paid 525 TL for a nice animal. Tag number 571266.
The goats we saw could not be used for a kurban, but they could be used for an adak offering. (More on adak later, it’s super interesting, I swears!).
When someone has bought an animal, it’s good form to say “Hayırlı olsun, Allah Kabul etsin!” (Good luck, I hope Allah accepts your sacrifice!) . My sheep would be transported to Turgut Bey’s house together with the cow he purchased for his family. (I was initially a little stressed that I would have to transport my sheep in a rental car, thus DEFINITELY having to pay the shitting-in-the-car-fee those greedy car rental places are always making me pay). The sacrifice was scheduled for Tuesday, the first day of Bayram.
Our purchase made and social rounds completed, we sat in a mosque courtyard and drank tea with a plate of chicken wings. As we walked out of the pazar a little after 4, the afternoon call to prayer began.