During preparations for the Muslim feast of sacrifice, Luke Freeman discovers that the sacrifice of a sheep is becoming an increasing financial burden for families in Tunisia.
Eid without a sheep is like Christmas without a turkey
It was not a good week to be a sheep in Tunisia.
As the great Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha (the feast of the sacrifice) approached, everybody seemed to be after one. Fortunately they were not in short supply.
In fact, you see them everywhere. On dusty verges they munch hay behind temporary pens of thorn, waiting to be sold to passing motorists.
In the arid south, you see them packed into the flat-beds of Japanese pickups, the odd leg sticking over the side as they bounce over stony tracks in stoical ovine discomfort.
On street corners, little sheep markets spring up, where men stand around smoking and haggling, measuring the beasts' fat by clutching the loose flesh around their spine.
Even on the six-lane highways of Tunis you see sheep riding on the back seats of saloon cars, gazing bemusedly out at the streaming traffic.
Tunisia has a population of roughly 6.5 million sheep in a country of only 10 million people.
If sheep cost dear in Tunisia, then so much more worthy and potent is the sacrifice.
But their numbers are reduced dramatically at Eid, for Eid without a sheep is like Christmas without a turkey, only more so because this gentle, humble beast plays a key role in the central religious ritual of the Islamic year.
In millions of homes across the country, families commemorate - in the slaughter of a ram - Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son as a gesture of obedience to God's command.
In these difficult economic times, the purchase of a sheep represents in itself a real financial sacrifice for a family.
On the eve of the festival, the livestock market at Douz, on the edge of the Sahara, is doing rapid business but prices are high and a yearling ram can cost a month's wages.
Breeders and dealers shrug their shoulders, blaming the credit crunch for the soaring cost of fodder. But that is only part of the story.
Over the past 30 years, the Tunisian Government has been exploiting subterranean water sources to encourage nomadic herders to settle, and so the wide and fertile pastures on which they once grazed their huge flocks have been parcelled up into arable plots to grow cereals, olives and almonds.
The result is severe overgrazing of the remaining rangelands, creating heavy reliance on imported feeds. The environment - and the consumer - carry the cost.
So Tunisian families find ways of cutting costs at the time of the sacrifice.
One is to buy a goat instead: half the price but less tasty, and less prestigious. Another is to purchase the sheep a month or so in advance and feed it up at home.
So as you stroll on the eve of Eid through the narrow alleys of a Tunisian medina, it is not uncommon to hear a plaintive bleat from behind a door, or to catch a glimpse in a tiled courtyard of a solitary sheep chewing on its last hay.
Fattened on household scraps and caressed by the children, these temporary pets become calm and tame.
On the day of the festival itself, I came across a fine ram tethered to a lamppost. It showed no fear of me as I approached and even let me stroke its soft white nose.
Twenty minutes later, passing by again, I noticed it had gone. And inside the house a child was wailing.
Sharing with strangers
Sheep and humans have been living together for over 10,000 years.
The archaeological evidence suggests that it was the wild Barbary sheep from this very region of North Africa that became the ancestor of domestic sheep throughout the world from Australia to Mongolia to Patagonia.
It is often assumed that it is we humans who domesticated sheep to serve our own purposes but that would be to miss the ways in which this subtle animal has made use of us: for protection from wolves and disease, for assured grazing and reproductive care.
In return the sheep offers itself up for wool and milk and now, at Eid, for meat and sacrifice.
By midday on the day of Eid al-Adha, the signs of sacrifice are ubiquitous.
There are wet patches of pavement where people have washed away blood. But its iron-like smell still stains the air and is only half disguised by the waft of incense and the smoke of barbecues behind courtyard walls.
My friends and I were invited into one of these courtyards by a family keen to fulfil their religious obligation to share their meat with strangers.
For sacrifice is essentially an act of giving, of giving up something of real value. If sheep cost dear in Tunisia, then so much more worthy and potent is the sacrifice.
Giving up what is dear is what sacrifice is all about, as the story of Abraham shows and as that child, crying for her pet sheep, has painfully discovered.
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