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Eating Sheep and Sangza


On the last day of the four day celebration of the biggest Uyghur holiday of the year Qurban Heyt, or Eid al-Adha, it rained hard and cold. By the next morning a light dusting of snow covered the tops of the mountains overlooking the city. Like many holidays of sacrifice and harvest, it signals the end of the season of growth and the beginning of the long hard winter. In a week the heat will be turned on across the city. People are already beginning to sell long-underwear in the walkway at the intersection of Solidarity and Victory Roads next to the Grand Bazaar. Rumors began circulating that the city officials would turn on the central heating system in five days. Rather than waiting until October fifteenth, they would get the creaking radiators filled early.

But during the past week no one seemed to think about the onset of winter. Everyone was bustling. Men were buying sheep or keeping an eye out for knife sharpeners as they circulated from housing complex to housing complex. By the eve of the holiday every tenement seemed to have half a dozen sheep tied to trees in courtyards or in the basement of a building eating weeds from the hands of brave little boys.


Women too, were busy doing last minute shopping for the new outfits that every woman, boy and girl would need to wear on Sunday, October Fifth. In the Arman supermarket on Consulate Street, there were long lines of shoppers buying all of the Qurban necessities: nuts, fruit, cakes, sweets and, of course, the deep-fried rings of noodles called sangza. In Arman they made a five foot tall tower out of the stuff. They also offered discounts on all the things needed to fill out the tablecloth and illustrated just what exactly every housewife should buy in a full-color Qurban-special catalogue.


A distribution manager of imported Turkish candy and cakes said that his company made over 200,000 yuan in sales over the last two days before the festival began: a nearly thirty percent increase over normal sales.

Early Sunday morning the ritualized slaughter of sheep began. In Uyghur (and many other Muslim traditions) every family that can afford a sheep should buy one as a way of commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram instead of his son Ishmael. This year the cheapest sheep cost over 1000 yuan and a big ram cost twice again as much. As meat prices rise, in some ways Qurban is becoming a holiday that only the middle class can celebrate fully. Many farmers from the countryside need to save their money all year in order to buy a sheep. But as one friend told me, “If you can’t afford a sheep, a chicken will work just fine.” And since the holiday is organized around redistribution of meat, everyone gets a chance to eat more than they need.


After the animal is sacrificed, believers donate around one-third of the sheep’s meat to the poor by bringing it to their local mosque where it will be distributed to less fortunate Muslims in the area. They also donate the skin of the animal to the mosque as an offering. At one nearby mosque the imam said that over 700 skins had been donated. Since they will be able to get over 60 yuan per skin when they sell them to hat and coat makers, that mosque will be able to turn those skins into 42,000 yuan – a substantial source of funding for the annual maintenance of a mosque.

Over the four days of the festival close family members and friends visit each other’s homes to share the festival together. When they first sit down they will each eat a piece of the sacrificial meat and then slowly work their way through a huge meal of Uyghur dishes: dumplings stuffed with meat and perhaps pumpkin; a pilaf made of rice, carrots, meat and fat; they may drink soup. Children consume vast quantities of candy, adults drink lots of tea while nibbling on nuts and fruit.

In the end, many prayers of blessing for the household are offered and then people move on to the next house where more meat will be shared and the happenings of the past year will be discussed.

This is one of the happiest times of the year for Uyghurs. It seems as though very little can dampen the mood. In these moments, when rituals are taught to excited children and dinner tables become spaces of sharing and honoring those at the table, everyone shares a feeling that everything is right with the world.

People talk about how they used to look forward to Qurban for months – marking off each day as that new suit of clothing and those little gifts of candy and money got one day closer on the family calendar. As one young man told me, “Money and new clothes were the best part. I still remember how I just could not fall asleep on the night before Qurban because I was so excited to have some pocket money.” Everyone remembers those days of anticipation. And most of them seem to still get caught up in the spirit of the season.

Filed under: Food


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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