Second Eid

The morning after the Eid celebration at the convention center, I had another to attend—this one with my new friend, Raj.

I was supposed to meet Raj and his family at their mosque. The first stop on this Dallas leg of my religious journey, their mosque was the one whose walls were a blank canvas for its security cameras; the second time around, it felt familiar and not at all daunting. I knew the ropes: what door to enter and which direction to face. When I arrived, many women were present but Raj’s wife didn’t appear to be among them. I took a seat and waited.

My thoughts kept going back to the Eid celebration at the convention center. How had I felt being a part of such a large gathering? For that hour or so, I was united, if only symbolically, not just with everyone in the room but with others engaged in the same activity across the world. When I first saw photos of Hajj, I remember being amazed that all those tiny dots around the Kaaba were people. From the vantage of the photographer’s lens, they looked like little bits of something bigger, maybe a single piece of cloth with just minor variations of color and texture. It got me thinking about the irony of unity: you can see it so much more clearly from the outside. At the convention center, I had stitched myself in to the fabric of Muslims, an extension of the cloth around the Kaaba, but it didn’t necessarily feel how it looked: like we were all the same, like we were one monolithic hunk of humanity. I had blended in and gone through the motions but I hadn’t spoken in depth with anyone. If I had, I doubt we would have agreed on all key issues or found that we see the world in the same way. Can we have differences—perhaps even some that are very big—and still be “one”?

Raj’s wife appeared and greeted me with a smile and a loving hug. She introduced me to her middle-aged daughter and her granddaughter, who was in her early twenties. They planted kisses on either of my cheeks. I wasn’t sure I deserved such warmth, but I was happy to receive it. We settled in for the sermon—Raj’s wife in her chair and the rest of us at her feet like she would be giving us a bedtime story. The flat screens showed the orange-bearded imam and the backs of the men’s heads in the main sanctuary.

The imam’s talk was dedicated to an aspect of this holiday I had yet to focus on: the slaughter of animals. It is customary on this day to acknowledge Allah’s willingness to allow Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of his son by killing an animal. The meat is to be shared with the needy. For Muslims who are unable to perform the slaughter personally, services located in the U.S. or other countries will do the deed on their behalf and ensure its distribution to the appropriate parties. This explained the flyers I had been seeing at various mosques over the last few weeks that said check a box—goat, sheep, or cow—and mail a check.

The imam did not spare us the grisly details. He spoke about the importance of seeing the knife slit the throat, not turning away, coming face-to-face with the reality of this sacrifice. It reminded me of the more gory details from Jesus’ story: the focus on the bloodshed, his wounds and the lashings. It also shares obvious similarities with the Jewish custom of sacrificing animals. I started to worry about what was in store once I went home with Raj’s family. Just a few nights earlier, over dinner with my grandmother and me, my great aunt told us about some old neighbors of hers, recent transplants from Greece, who kept a “pet” goat in their back yard. Every Easter, the goat would vanish, replaced by the smell of smoking meat.

After the service, I followed Raj’s van, filled with his family members, back to his daughter’s house. They seemed lovely, but I had no idea what to expect.

For all I knew, I would be the day’s ceremonial sacrifice…

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Convention center

Being alone and a little tentative about joining the public Eid celebration, I decided I would use the convention center’s official parking garage. I followed the signs to the rear of the building where I stopped at the little parking booth. A single cop stood nearby but he seemed unconcerned with the likes of me. At the very least, I had expected to confront a bomb sniffing dog. I was prepared for a snout to run the length of my car’s undercarriage, maybe be asked to pop open the trunk. I paid and they waved me in nonchalantly.

I snaked my way through the cavernous underground and found an available space near the elevators. It was still a little on the early side; only a smattering of cars were here. I turned off the engine and pulled the scarf from my bag. I had swapped my usual one, which was plain white, for a fancier leopard print. In place of the little safety pin I normally used as a fastener, I had a small rhinestone brooch. These tiny things made me feel all dressed up.

A sedan full of people arrived and parked nearby. I watched as members of a family got out, at least three generations worth, from little to grown to frail. The women wore saris with dots of sparkle. I wondered if the people at this event would favor a particular nationality. Technically, all were welcome—but in reality how would that play out? Every faith gave lip service to unity but then most of its members seemed to favor contact with people just like themselves. The women of the family I was watching adjusted the layers of their saris as the men stood patiently. Together they walked to the bank of elevators.

As I made my way to the main floor, I wondered if today’s crowd would be drawn mostly from the well-off suburban Muslims who belonged to congregations north of downtown. I attended Jummah at two mosques with congregants fitting this description. If Dallas was experiencing a mini-boom in mosque construction, here were excellent examples. Both were big, modern structures that had recently been built. For Friday services, their expansive parking lots were filled with nice cars. Inside, the service was shoulder-to-shoulder. The women’s areas were almost identical: a big room above the main sanctuary like a balcony but with a wall of clear glass to allow peeking below. From a vantage point on the floor, the view was of the sanctuary’s ceiling and, where there were windows to the outside, the tops of trees and power lines and sky. It felt like the Muslim equivalent of visiting a mega-church: big and anonymous, at least from the perspective of a newcomer. No one paid much attention to me. I had grown so accustomed to sticking out, that it was a nice change to blend in and go about my business as if I belonged. I worshipped and left, uttering no more than a few pleasantries to random strangers.

At the convention center, the elevator doors opened onto a concourse, a big area next to the exhibition space. Groups were happily chatting; giddy kids bounced around. It seemed as if everyone was holding a piece of candy of the “fun size” variety so prevalent around Halloween. Some adults carried bags of the stuff, passing it out to young and old alike.

I stopped at a table being manned by several women in hijab. They welcomed me, explained that the front half of the center was for men while the back half was for women, and handed me a plastic bag for my shoes. Beyond them, the doors were open to the room where the event was taking place. It was huge, large enough to accommodate four basketball courts perhaps, the kind of space that might normally have booths set up in aisles, with hundreds of visitors wandering up and down, collecting brochures of information. Today, it was utterly transformed. Big panels of Arabic lettering occupied one end, stretching from wall to wall. The concrete floor was checkered with enormous squares of pristine cardboard, each one cordoned off with tape to prevent shoe-clad trespassing. Slices of exposed concrete created aisles for walking. If the organizers of this event were expecting enough people to fill the cardboard, they were planning for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of worshippers. All around, people were seated in little groups like picnickers at a park. Compared to the available real estate, their numbers seemed paltry. I doubted the turnout would be as big as hoped.

The invitation

I was sitting on the flimsy mattress folded out from the loveseat in Grandma’s extra room when my cell phone rang. It was a local number I didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Corinna?” It was a man’s voice.

“Yes?” I replied.

“It’s Raj!”

It was the older gentleman to whom I had given my cell phone number at the first Texas mosque. I pictured his handlebar mustache.

His enthusiasm was contagious. “Raj!” I cried back.

He explained that he was calling on behalf of his family. They would like to invite me to their Eid festivities, which were approaching. They planned to attend the special service at the mosque Wednesday morning and afterwards gather at his daughter’s home for a meal. Would I like to meet them at the mosque and then caravan back to their place? I told him that sounded excellent.

I had also learned of another Eid celebration, this one arranged by the North Texas Islamic Association, which would be held at the Dallas Convention Center the day before I met Raj and his family. I hadn’t observed the Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan that honors the last day of fasting. Now I would celebrate double.

When I made my plans to travel to Dallas, I hadn’t realized the significance of the Eid Al-Adha. I had seen it on my calendar—it was obviously big enough to make it on my mass-produced At-A-Glance Monthly Planner—but I didn’t realize that it is arguably the most important date of the year for Muslims. That it coincided with my trip was either dumb luck or the hand of Allah.

Aside from the two Eids, Islam has only one other major holiday: Muhammad’s birthday—though if and when to observe it is not universally agreed upon. Some Muslims opt not to celebrate it, believing its recognition implies a level of devotion that threatens the basic monotheism of the faith. Among those who observe the holiday, there’s disagreement about which day to honor. Sunnis generally recognize one date while Shiites tend to prefer a time several days later. With the Eids, it’s different. Everyone gets on the same page—though festivities still might not coincide exactly, most are within a few hours depending on what country’s clock celebrants are observing.

Eid al-Adha is all about the unity of people—and not just of Muslims with one another. It commemorates an incident that appears in the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament: when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only in the Quran, the boy is Abrahams’ son Ishmael (whose mother is Hager) instead of Isaac (whose mother is Sarah). In both cases, God stops Abraham just before carrying out the act and lets him kill a ram instead. Muslims believe that their ancestry can be traced back to Abraham through Ishmael, binding them with Jews and Christians who both claim this patriarch. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, memorializes the common root of the three major monotheistic faiths. The holiday also coincides with the end of the Hajj, so that as the pilgrims gather en mass in Mecca, Muslims are gathering all over the world with them.

As I approached the convention center by car, I could see a few police officers stationed at various pedestrian entrances. I had been conditioned by my time in post-9/11 D.C. to expect heavy security at busy gatherings, especially those involving what might be considered a “hot-button” topic. I thought about the annual Pre-tribulation Conference held in a Dallas hotel not far from here and the damage that could be done by one crazed fundamentalist bent on hastening the onset of the rapture. But this show of force didn’t appear to be anything more than what you might expect to see for simple crowd control at a Bon Jovi concert. I wondered if decisions regarding safety measures were dependent on who might be the target of attacks.