ALGIERS: It was a typical holiday of Id-al-Adha, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year. Two men in paper overalls placed the struggling sheep in the direction of Mecca before taking a shiny blade to its throat and unleashing a fountain of warm blood that quickly filled the floor of the small cement courtyard.
Half a dozen small children watched, mesmerized, as the annual ritual took its surprisingly soundless course. Other things were perfectly ordinary, too: the fragrant smell of charred bone lingering in the deserted streets, the special prayers echoing off the city's bleached walls.
Yet in Algiers at least, politics seemed to infuse the event in new ways. "Since terrorists started slaughtering people, I can't watch the slaughter of the sheep anymore," said Soumaya Laggoune, a 43-year-old surgeon, who prepared vegetables and traditional sweets indoors with her sister while the men proceeded to skin and gut the lifeless animal outside. "These days, death and sacrifice have a different meaning."
There is much death to brood over. Freshest on people's minds were the two suicide attacks of last week that killed dozens of people in the capital. But this Id is also the first since the execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. On the first day of Id last year, people recalled with bitterness, the Iraqi dictator was executed, an event shown on television.
"That was an insult for the entire Muslim world," said Naima, a resident of Hydra, the neighborhood where one of the attacks occurred. "None of us like Saddam Hussein, that's not the point. But to execute him on our holy day of sacrifice was a slap in the face of all Muslims. And nobody here believes it was a coincidence."
"That sort of thing is feeding terrorism, feeding the sense in the Muslim world that the Islamists are the only ones defending us," her brother Soufian said. With the death of Saddam, many Algerians said they waited a day to slaughter the sheep.
Other grievances seem now to be attached to the joyous holiday, including memories of the brutal civil war that killed 200,000 people in the 1990s - the "black decade" people call it - the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The distress expressed here is not limited to Muslims in Muslim nations. In the United States, "many Muslims are wary of the increasing anti-Muslim bigotry in this country," said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American Islamic relations, by telephone from Chicago.
According to Islamic tradition, every Muslim who has the means must sacrifice a healthy animal to honor God and share the meat with the needy once a year. The holiday of Id commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to God as proof of his unconditional love and belief; it is a tale also honored by Jews and Christians, although in their teachings it was Abraham's youngest son Isaac who was concerned.
According to all three religions, when God was satisfied that Abraham had passed the test, he sent him a lamb to sacrifice instead. Every Muslim who has the means must sacrifice a healthy animal to honor God and share the meat with the needy once a year.
In Laggoune's courtyard, Soumaya's father sliced both main arteries and the trachea of the sheep in one clean cut to minimize the suffering of the animal. As the blood drained from its body and wild spasms moved its legs for one last minute, he said a prayer.
"Every drop of the blood of the sheep brings you 10 good actions for Allah," his son, Salah Eddine Laggoune, said.
Many families here save up for months to prepare for Id. An average sheep costs the equivalent of about €200 and presents for the children add to the bill. As a surgeon, Laggoune is considered middle-class, but her monthly income is less than €400.
The slaughter of sheep so common here and in other Muslim countries is not widely practiced by Muslims in the West.
In Europe countries it is illegal to slaughter animals at home, even though there have been cases of Muslim families doing so. In France, whose 5-million strong Muslim community is the biggest in the European Union, Muslims are allowed to slaughter in some designated places. In Germany, animals have to be killed in a slaughterhouse.
But a German rule that the animals have to be anathestized before being slaughtered has caused problems because some scholars say that contravenes Islamic tradition.
Many Muslim families prefer to send money to their countries of origin, asking family members to slaughter in their name and donate the meat to the poor.
Tradition across Mideast
Millions of Muslims across the Middle East on Wednesday marked the first day of Id al-Adha, with prayers, family reunions and traditional sweets, The Associated Press reported from Beirut.
In Lebanon, where a yearlong political crisis took away much of the holiday cheer, the usually festive mood was subdued. It was a bleak holiday in the Palestinian territories, too, particularly in Gaza City, where the holiday fell under the shadow of Hamas's violent takeover and the deepening international isolation that followed.
But in Iraq, some expressed a feeling of optimism after months of declining violence. "This Id differs from the previous ones, as we have received unexpected numbers of worshipers," Jamal al-Kubaisi, imam of Abu Hanifa, the biggest Sunni mosque in Baghdad, said.
More than 10,000 faithful showed up at Abu Hanifa in the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Azamiyah at sunrise to perform the first prayers for the holiday.
In Syria, many families spent the day outdoors and at amusement parks. "The Id is reflected in the eyes of the children," said Munzer Turjman, a 42-year-old Syrian merchant watching over his two daughters.
"But what about the children of Iraq and Palestine? Don't they have the right to be happy too?"