One cold December evening, my dad returned from work. He bounded into the house and quite deliberately pointed at me and said: “You! Come outside and give me a hand will you?”
“What? Me?” I answered, hoping he didn’t mean me and it was all a figment of my imagination.
Reluctantly, I rose from the comfortable recline and hesitantly moved towards the front door.
Once outside, I saw him standing by the boot of the car, waiting.
“C’mon, hurry up! I have a surprise for you.”
I could see on his face a knowing anticipation. Slowly, he opened the boot and I peered inside.
“Aargh! What the… ???” And he laughed because, inside the boot, to my utter disbelief and shock, was a black bird-type thing.
“It’s a turkey, for Christmas. I thought we’d fatten it up and have it for Christmas dinner!”
“A turkey? But Dad, you can buy them in the supermarket, you didn’t have to…” “Yes, but they’re not Halaal and this will be! Now, get hold of it and take it to the cellar”
“Me? Hold it? Oh no! I’m not touching it; it might bite or something!”
“They don’t bite, they peck” he said, correcting my sentence, but instilling no confidence.
“Peck, bite, claw, I don’t care, I’m not touching it.”
“Look, it’s easy; just grab it like this and hold it firmly, but don’t hurt it.”
He then showed me his flawless turkeyholding technique and, true to his word, the bird did nothing, except make a few clucking noises, but seemed quite comfortable with my father’s grasp.
Now, there was nothing unusual about my father bringing home live animals, although more often than not, not the edible variety. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for them to be slaughtered and butchered at home either. These were the days before the Health and Safety laws were made more restrictive, which inevitably led to this tradition becoming less practised as time went on. Which, I suppose, in a way accounts for the fact that most children today don’t know what the chicken/beef/lamb/pig looks like in its living form, and think of it like something that comes in McDonalds format.
So, going back to the story, I tentatively put my small hands over those of my father’s, still unsure that I wanted to do this. My father looked down at me and softly said: “Rizwan, don’t be afraid; why don’t you stroke it? See what it feels like?”
I moved my hand to the base of its neck and slowly stroked it along its long, thick luxurious feathers. Strangely, it felt nice; the feathers felt warm and had a texture of brocaded velvet, quite unlike any feathers I had felt before, which were quite wispy and almost prickly. These, however, felt regal and rich. Exuberant, I became enthralled with its beauty which, in turn, instilled confidence in me. All the while, my father watched and smiled.
My father then knelt down and placed the turkey gently on the floor. I knelt down beside my father.
“Now listen, Rizwan; you have to feed this turkey and always make sure it has enough water to drink; that’s very important. Do you understand? You must be kind to it and treat it with love and care. The kinder you are, the more Allah will be pleased with you for treating one of his animals with the respect and dignity that it deserves. And don’t worry… it won’t feel a thing when it’s made Halaal!”
Obviously, the last sentence didn’t instil any confidence in me at all – death was death. Totality.
Also in the car outside was a large cardboard box, complete with holes in it, from which I could hear all manner of squawks and squeaks. I slowly opened the flaps and peered inside and, to my absolute amazement, there wereabout two dozen little birds, slightly larger than a sparrow and with the same plumage. I had seen these before and knew them to be quails. Horrible little critters they were, fighting amongst themselves, pecking and bullying each other, as though they were attaining the rights to be made Halaal first! Perhaps trying to create a pecking order – no pun intended.
By now, I could see a pattern emerging; this was going to be a huge religious bloodbath! On the scale that the Crusaders would have shied from!
I picked up the box and carried it down to the dungeon of death. By now, the cellar sounded like a poultry farm, all the while the birds awaiting their fate.
Some days later, the dreaded time had arrived for these birds to meet with their maker… and finally the curry pot!
That day, my father returned home from work and I knew that today there would be a massacre in the cellar. As I heard the car pull up outside, I ran upstairs to the attic to hide, thinking that, if I wasn’t around, I wouldn’t be involved in this ritual of death!
“Rizwan!” I heard my father shout up the stairs, knowing that I was upstairs and due to the fact that my mother had already told him that I had shot upstairs as soon as I heard the car pull up outside.
I was filled with dread: dread for the turkey and the quails, and dread that he actually might ask me to perform the ritual itself!
I slowly came downstairs to my father, who was smiling and beckoning me to come join him in the cellar of death! I didn’t know what he was so happy about, especially having the knowledge that we were about to take lives for our culinary delights and enjoyment!
As I walked down to the cellar, my father was already there, sharpening his knives like a seasoned butcher for whom this was a regular occurrence.
First, he picked up the turkey and took it over to the Belfast sink, the turkey being totally unaware what fate had intended for it on this day. He then said the sacrificial prayer and deftly, in one stroke, he slit its throat. Immediately blood poured forth into the sink; the turkey seemed resigned to its fate and, if I wasn’t mistaken, it looked like it actually closed its eyes and went to sleep. Not even a murmur, no protest. No indignation. It just fell asleep, which it had done – eternally! Blood gushed into the sink for what seemed about eight seconds and all was quiet – final. Halaal.
My sisters were called from upstairs and immediately the plucking procedure began – I was aghast.
Now, the quails, that was quite another matter altogether. My father asked me to put my hands into the box and pull them out. I closed my eyes and tentatively put my hand into the box and grabbed the nearest one to me. Quickly, I half passed and half threw the quail at my father, who simply grabbed the quail by the back of its neck with his forefinger and thumb, and again slipped the knife across where its throat would have been. Done!
A half cup of blood sprung out and it was over as quick as it had begun. I mean, I was expecting some horror movie scene, but this was ever so civilised and dignified, no commotion at all – except me grabbing them out of the box!
As quick as it had all started, it was all over. Much to my relief.
Well, the turkey was roasted in the traditional manner and the quails were curried like chicken masala.
And for all the physiological trauma and mental scarring that I had endured, I must admit one thing. They tasted DIVINE!
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