Shawki and Ashraf have come from Sohag in Upper Egypt and Menoufiya in the Delta to the heart of Masr Al-Qadima in Al-Bassateen, bringing their sheep, goats, and cows to sell to devout Muslims who observe the ritual of slaughtering a lamb or other farm animal and sharing three-quarters of its meat with family, friends, and those in need.
This is in commemoration of the Prophet Abraham (Sayedna Ibrahim), who according to the Quran was willing to sacrifice his own son (Sayedna Ismail) in an act of faith. However, God provided him with a lamb to sacrifice instead, sparing Ismail.
The cattle the two merchants bring to the city are usually two years old or slightly more. They are driven over to the capital in batches until it is 10 days before the Eid, when the slaughtering is allowed to start.
“We settle down and allow the cattle time to rest from the long journey and then we start selling them, usually a week ahead of the Eid,” Shawki said. “People come, they chose the animal they want to have, and we mark it. With their smart phones in hand, some people even take a picture of the animal,” he added.
When it is three days to the Eid, Ashraf said, usually two-thirds of the cattle would be gone. “But we stay on until the third day because some people prefer to avoid the first day of the Eid when all the butchers are busy with the rush of work. They perform their slaughtering on the third day instead when things are slower,” he added.
On average, Shawki and Ashraf, who have been in the business for over 30 years, said that they sell well over 200 to 250 animals each year. “But things have been changing,” Shawki said. Since 2010, he added, he would consider himself lucky if he managed to sell 200 animals during his two-week stay in Cairo.
During the past two years, “with the soaring prices of fodder and grass,” and with the tight budgets that so many people have, selling 150 animals would be quite an achievement.
According to merchants at the cattle market, a lamb that would have cost around LE2,000 up until 2015 would now cost close to LE5,000. This is usually one that would yield around 25 kg of meat. “Things are a lot more expensive. Meat especially is a lot more expensive, but people do not just buy meat. They have many other things they need to buy as well,” Shawki said.
“In the past, many people would buy cows, as they wanted to invest more to allow for more meat to give to charity. Things are different now, and people are more interested in lambs and even goats that are smaller in size. If someone is asking for a cow, it is often the case that he is sharing the cost with several others,” Ashraf said.
He added that this decline has discouraged other merchants who used to make the annual trip to Cairo.
Speaking five days away from the Eid, Ashraf noted that this key cattle market in the heart of the city used to be a lot busier than it is today. “There used to be more merchants and more animals,” he said.
CHANGING HABITS: The decline, he added, started prior to the economic crunch of the past few years.
Many clients have abandoned their purchasing of animals directly in favour of sokouk al-odhiya (slaughter vouchers) offered by many charities whereby individuals skip the hassle of managing the slaughtering process by simply depositing the price of a lamb or other animal and then receive their due share packed and home-delivered.
“They find it a lot more convenient, but this is not helping our business,” Ashraf said.
For Hossam, a banker in his late 50s, the sokouk al-odhiya are a lot more convenient. “The big charities, especially those working in association with or under the umbrella of Islamic institutions like Misr Al-Kheir, help in many ways because they spare us from haggling and bargaining with cattle merchants. They make sure that the parts of the animal are promptly delivered, in decent packaging and properly refrigerated, to families who need help. They spare me from having to pick up a lamb or a cow and make sure it is healthy and then make a deal with a butcher and have to worry about the work involved,” he said.
Given their plans to cut down on red meat consumption and to spend the Eid holidays at the beach, Hossam and his spouse have been asking the charity they deal with to give all the meat away to charity.
Safiya, who works for a small charity that operates across the Delta, said that more and more donors ask for the entire lamb or cow to be distributed to families eligible to access food donations.
“To be honest, this is really helping us a lot because with the increasing prices of lambs and other animals, fewer people have been able to observe the ritual. This would have meant less meat for us to distribute to more families who are calling on us for charity,” she said.
Last year, her charity lost around 20 per cent of the individuals who would otherwise have been able to sacrifice a lamb for the holy occasion. At the same time, she added, requests for food donations have increased by around 40 to 50 per cent.
During her over 10 years of work with this small charity, Safeya said that she would usually send no fewer than five plastic bags with one kg of meat in each to any given family. During the past two to three years, she added, she has had to cut down on the amount. “I would only send three plastic bags, with one kg in each bag,” she added.
Safeya knows that the decline is a disappointment to the many people who eagerly wait for an occasion like Eid Al-Adha or the holy Muslim month of Ramadan to have access to red meat. However, she added, “everyone is aware that things are different today.”
NEW TRENDS: “For sure things are different,” said Amal, a housewife who was buying two kg of meat from an Aman stall.
Aman (literally “security” in Arabic) is a service that the Ministry of Interior has been providing to offer groceries, meat, chicken, fish and other supermarket items at reduced prices. With a strained budget that has to provide for a family of four, Amal has reduced her red meat shopping significantly over the past three years and has also switched her shopping destination from the local butcher she had been frequenting for over 15 years to Aman and other such outlets that the government has been providing.
“There is a wide range of outlets, run by the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Interior, and others,” she said.
Amal might not be as happy with the quality of meat she gets from such outlets, but she is certainly happy with the prices, “which are significantly less than those of a butcher,” even if not in an upscale part of the city. For her two kg of meat, Amal paid around LE200. “If I were to go to any butcher, even the cheapest, I would pay no less than double that amount,” she said.
Luckily, Amal added that her children are not very keen on eating traditional red meat recipes, but are more interested in burgers and kofta which she makes with a mix of minced meat and bulgur wheat. “The traditional recipes are strictly minced meat, but I saw this mix on one of the cooking programmes on TV. So, I tried it and it worked alright,” she said.
With her two boys of 11 and 14 satisfied, Amal is happy. She and her husband would settle for anything so long as the children are happy. For the first day of the Eid, Amal cooks the traditional menu of fatta (rice and fried bread soaked in broth) with “small pieces of meat on top,” rokak stuffed with a mix of minced meat and crushed peppers “instead of the strict minced meat recipe,” and the half-meat and half-bulgur kofta.
For the second day, also in keeping with tradition, she serves her family a potato and meat stew with white rice and summer fruit. “And that is it really. We are lucky that we can still bring such meals to the table — and we are lucky that our children are satisfied with these new and more economic mixes,” she said.
The changing preferences for red meat in Egypt are not just a function of high prices and tight budgets, according to Tamer, the owner of a farm and a butcher’s store in one of Cairo’s upscale neighbourhoods.
“I have clients who can still afford to buy a cow and not just a lamb, but all they would wish to take home with them are a few kg of steak or some minced meat that they use to make burgers or kofta,” he said.
This, he added, is their year-long preference, and it is almost the same in Eid Al-Adha. “Clearly, for the Eid some people would wish to have a wider variety of cuts that fit the traditional recipes, but increasingly the trend is towards the easier to cook parts of the meat,” he said.
Mohamed Diab, the owner of a chain of restaurants and patisseries in Cairo, agreed. During his 20 years in business, Diab said that changing food preferences have been clear, particularly when it comes to meat and desserts. “What is in now is steak and cheese cake or fruit cake. This is the case with dining out at any time of the year, including the Eid Al-Adha holidays,” he said.
“It was not so much the case before that people would eat out on the first day of the Eid, for example. Now, we get lunch reservations because people do not think of the Eid as just an occasion to observe but also as a holiday when the family abandons its routine and opts for eating out,” he said.
According to Osama Ghazali, an anthropologist, the changing preferences for celebrating the Eid are not confined to the capital or larger cities. In smaller villages, including border villages, “things have been changing significantly as well, and a lot of recipes and practices are falling out of fashion,” he said.
“For instance, in the Red Sea area or in Sinai there are fewer nomadic Bedouins than before. This means that more and more people are living in modern houses where they have to cook meals in modern kitchens rather than think of having a whole lamb cooked on hot stones or in the heat of hot soil,” Ghazali said.