Eight cows stand in the pen of Mok Dach mosque on Chroy Changvar’s Tonle Sap street, ropes looped through their nose and over their necks, and fixed tightly onto the wooden poles around them. They graze calmly on hay, unaware of the fate that would befall them just a few minutes later.
Eid-al-Adha, also commonly known as the Qurban festival in Southeast Asia, was celebrated on Friday in Cambodia at locations all over the country. Falling on the 10th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah on the Islamic calendar, it is a sacrifice festival to honour Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son as obedience to Allah. This is also the day that many Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, a duty that all Muslims are required to discharge at least once in their life, if they are physically and financially capable.
For many Muslims in Cambodia, Eid-al-Adha also means the annual slaughter of cows and goats, in which meat is distributed to the needy.
“I come here to pray as well as to get the beef,” says Masim Ali, 56, a Cham fisherman in Phnom Penh. “Beef is very expensive, and we [can] not eat it very often. People may see this as bad, but this is our tradition.”
In Mok Dach mosque, the time for slaughter is marked by the opening of the pen, as young men drag the cows out by their ropes. A number is written on each of their sides – the order in which they would be sacrificed.
The Qurban festival is often a time when rich Muslims come together to “give back to the community”, as one attendee put it. Many of them come from all over the country, but a large number come from around the region, especially Malaysia.
“The reason why we do it in Cambodia”, says Dato Sri Hasan Malek, the Malaysian ambassador to Cambodia, is “because more poor people we [find] in Cambodia. We also have [this festival] in Malaysia, but because we think that [there is] more effect or [it] can help more people . . . in Cambodia. That’s why we call it sacrifice: We help the poor.”
The donations by the Malaysians are no small thing. Malaysian nationals donated 5,000 cows to be slaughtered this year, and with each cow costing about $500, the total comes to $2.5 million.
“We sacrifice our money, we sacrifice our time, we sacrifice our energy, to help the poor,” said Malaysian Embassy employee Ruzaimi Mohamad.
The fruits of their sacrifice can be seen in each mosque, as the cows are wrestled out one by one, their legs tied down to a pole so that they can’t struggle. The onlookers crowd in, a mix of Cambodian and Malaysian Muslims, watching as a man holds up a piece of paper with the names of donors written on it. Most of the names are Malaysian.
When the photo-taking is done, the head of the cow is twisted back, and a large rusted knife – a little smaller than an arm – is held to the cow’s neck, its bellowing drowned out by the chanting that grows louder and louder.
Then, with a cut, bright red blood spurts out onto the tiled floors, and a metallic tang fills the air.
A religious tour
A prime economic opportunity lies in these Southeast Asian Muslims donating their money, time and energy to needy Cambodians. Muslim tour operators offer their planning services for people interested in attending. Although NGOs also organise visits to mosques, these tour operators are still able to carve out a niche.
“[The visitors] come here to do Qurban, and they also want [to] take the tour service to go around,” says Mao Hassan, the owner of Cambodian Muslim Tour, a tour operator catering to Muslim visitors.
“People always come mostly [one or two] day[s] before, and go back one or two days after.”
This is where he comes in, as special considerations have to be made for Muslim visitors, especially on a holy occasion such as the Qurban festival.
“We [have to] select the restaurant for the customer, [that] we can trust [whether] the food is halal,” Hassan said, referring to Islamic dietary restrictions.
Though the Qurban festival isn’t his only focus, it is one of the times of year when he gets more visitors than usual. This year, he has five groups – three from Malaysia and two from Singapore.
The biggest difficulty, he said, is in the organisation of movement. He and his staff have to plan the tours such that there will be no overcrowding at the mosques. Otherwise, he said, the Qurban tours are simply business as usual.
Dividing the meat
At Mok Dach, once the slaughter is over, the women gather on mats to divide up the meat. Each cow is butchered, with about 1 kilogram going to one family.
The women throw the chopped beef into the centre, as the men wash away the blood that stains the floor.
“The killing and blood can be very scary,” says Mat Angkea, 21, a Cham Muslim, “but this is a Muslim tradition. It shows that the rich do not ignore the poor.”
Once they have cleaned the bones of meat, the beef is packed into plastic bags, each weighed to ensure that every family has an equal amount. Then, the ambassador gathers everyone and, with a smile, distributes the food.
“This is an act of generosity,” Mat continued, “taught by [the Prophet] Muhammad.”
By this point, many of the onlookers have dispersed – the children to play, and the adults to other, more pressing pursuits. But as the smell of cooking beef stew wafts into the open-air communal dining hall, replacing the oppressive smell of raw meat, it won’t be long before they’re back.