It was late afternoon on Monday when the Great Falls family of five piled into their minivan and headed for the Virginia countryside and an experience that Mohamed Elsanousi and his wife, Hanane Elabbassi, hoped their children would carry with them forever.
They had gone to a huge Eid al-Adha prayer service at the Dulles Expo Center and then a lavish holiday brunch with friends, and now they were going to roll up their sleeves and reenact a centuries-old religious tradition – sacrificing a sheep in the way that Islam prescribes.
Past the horse farms, cornstalks and occasional Donald Trump sign they drove, and then, suddenly, there it was: the “Halal Farm” sign, with another one beside it that said “Eid Mubarak” – a blessed holiday – in hand-painted Arabic. Behind the farmhouse, near the gravelly road, there were dozens of cars, the smoke of a few barbecue picnics, a pen full of sheep and goats, and a wooden shed where one family at a time could lead their selected animal. With the help of the farmer and butchers, they would perform the rite that commemorates Ibrahim (also known as Abraham) following God’s command to sacrifice his own son, only to have God replace the boy with a ram at the last minute.
As the country’s Muslim population grows, so too do the opportunities for Muslims to establish new faith traditions, blending ancient rituals with the latest American ways. The observant now can opt to slaughter their sheep for the holiday on a growing roster of farms; they can purchase organic, grass-fed meat for their feast from a green halal grocer, send money to a charity that will hand out food to the poor in inner-city Baltimore or attend an LGBTQ holiday barbecue in New York.
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For immigrants, the trip to the country to slaughter the animal is a means of establishing authenticity to heritage as they assimilate into suburbs and cities, send their kids to public schools and soccer camps, and go through the daily rituals of being American.
Elsanousi and Elabbassi’s brood is the embodiment of that hybridization. They’re a multiracial, multilingual family with immigrant roots and a deep commitment to the melting pot.
Elsanousi grew up in Sudan; Elabbassi in Morocco. They met as students at the University of Indiana. He now runs a nonprofit in the District that promotes interfaith peace-building around the world; she’s been the den leader of their 11-year-old son’s Cub Scout troop. At home they speak a mix of English and Arabic with their three American-born children; the Arabic, too, is a hybrid of the distinctive Sudanese and Moroccan dialects.
Being part of a religious minority carries challenges; Eid is not a national holiday here, so parents and children often take just one day for a festival that can stretch to several in their homelands. But many say that status also inspires an appreciation of customs that can seem at risk of extinction after immigration.
“We took it for granted growing up,” Elabbassi said. Rituals here take special effort. “As Muslims in the West, I want them to build childhood memories that help them to identify as Muslim Americans.”
Finding the sheep
There have long been American farms willing to sell their sheep and space to Muslims to perform the sacrifice on Eid, ranging from large-scale slaughterhouse operations like the one Elsanousi’s family visited last year, to Amish farms in western Pennsylvania. Muslims and religious leaders say the number is growing to accommodate a growing Muslim population.
But finding one can still feel daunting. “You have to call a farm, and say you want to do this. It’s sort of like, ‘You want to do what? But you have to call the Jewish guy,’ “ said Oz Sultan, who lives in Harlem in New York. If the farm agrees, you still “have to go and catch the animal, subdue the animal,” he said.
Or, he joked, “you can hire a thousand artisanal hipsters to do it for you.”
Sensing a need, Mian Ajmal Shah, a Pakistani immigrant with no previous farming experience, opened his halal farm in Catlett, Va., six years ago, catering to a Muslim clientele that needs sheep and goats for holidays, births, weddings and other celebrations.
Day one of the holiday, Shah and his team helped customers slaughter sheep and goats. On days two and three, he’s offering cows as well. And customers are clamoring for more. “So many people want camel,” he said. “It’s very tender – but we don’t have camel.”
“Uninitiated, it’s not something that you would want to have done on your property and have neighbors see it,” said Edward Mills, an associate professor of meat science at Penn State University.
That’s how Elabbassi felt about her two youngest, Anas, 5, and Jude, 4, when it was finally the family’s turn to lead their sheep into the shed. “Come on,” she said, leading them away. Nabeel, 11, who his parents said had dissected a squid with his fifth-grade class last year, got to stay behind with his two older cousins to watch.
The parents believe in introducing their kids to the customs slowly, and with consideration of age. “Later, inshallah, she’s cherish these memories,” Elabbassi said as Jude stuck a hand through the pen’s fence to pet a goat. “I just want her to remember that this is a special day, not an ordinary day.”
Charitable giving is a crucial part of Eid observance, but not everyone’s practice is the same.
At the farm, where everyone seemed to be sharing, Elsanousi and Elabbassi’s family munched on barbecued kebabs and watermelon slices while they waited for Shah’s staff to carve up their sheep, and planned to give their own meat – which they later packed into a cooler full of ice for the ride home - to a couple of single mothers they know and to host a dinner party next weekend.
There are also a huge number of people, religious leaders say, who observe the holiday in different ways, and their options are growing too.
“There’s a mix for sure,” Rizwan Jaka, outreach director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, said of family Eid practice and celebrations. Some pay a charity overseas to slaughter an animal on their behalf and distribute the meat to the poor. Some purchase meat from a halal butcher, sometimes relying on their mosque to distribute the portion to the needy.
Syed Saboor and his wife in Westchester, N.Y., have removed animal sacrifice from their holiday tradition entirely, although the Saboors have gotten in the habit of throwing a massive annual potluck.
While Eid in Pakistan was always a family affair growing up, in New York, it has become a festival to share with friends – 120 on this year’s guest list. The children decorate the house and help prepare traditional Pakistani fare. “It’s kind of nice to know that others feel that our open house is a tradition for them, too,” Saboor said.
By nightfall on Monday, the first of Eid’s three days, Elsanousi and Elabbassi finally were ready to head home. They needed to stop first at another cousin’s barbecue in Gainesville, Va., where a relative declared “You’re late!” as they walked up to a cluster of picnic tables in the dark.
And then finally it was back onto I-66 and up their quiet driveway. It was a school night, after all, and time for bed.