Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Children in a Cross-cultural Context

by Marilyn on October 11, 2013


Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice. 

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs. “Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

As parents we were in a predicament. Not only did we know that the “pet” sheep had been sacrificed, we knew that we would be offered tasty meat from our neighbor’s kitchen later in the day. What do you tell your kids?

You tell them the truth.

You tell them it was never their pet and that our family would be invited to share a feast with people who graciously invited us to witness and celebrate something that meant a great deal to them, and that included eating meat from the sheep. We needn’t have worried about communicating the truth; children make things far less complicated than adults – they accept, they learn early that the world is bigger than them, that people are more important than pets and dogma.

When you are raising children in a country where you are graciously received as guests, you learn valuable lessons of what is important. My own parents had modeled well respect and love for their adopted country of Pakistan so it was not difficult to remember what the bottom line was — and that is relationships and loving your neighbor as yourself. Growing up in Pakistan I don’t remember big religious debates, but I do remember a lot of tea being served, a lot of laughter, many holiday celebrations with neighbors and friends, and in all that some wonderful talks. It was this that was important as we celebrated Eid al Adha with our neighbors and friends.

As guests in the country of Egypt, we were treated kindly despite our frequent mistakes and gaffes in both language and culture. While we didn’t hold to the same truth claims, bridges were built and relationships strengthened as we shared in the celebrations of our Muslim friends and neighbors. And in doing so we prayed that some of the nails in the coffin of misunderstanding between east and west, between Muslim and Christian would be removed.

Sheep were going to come and go but our neighbors and friends? They would be staying. And so our children learned early and reminded us later (when we, their parents were prone to forget) that people and our relationships with people were key to living out a life of authentic faith in a cross-cultural context. 

What have you learned from your children about understanding and acceptance in the context of living an authentic life of faith overseas?

Marilyn blogs about communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture at Communicating Across Boundaries and can be found on Twitter@marilyngard

Image credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Love this line: “And in doing so we prayed that some of the nails in the coffin of misunderstanding between east and west, between Muslim and Christian would be removed.” Thanks Marilyn.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks Rachel – coming from you, who live your life this way every day, this is affirming.

  • Pingback: A Life Overseas – Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Kids Cross-Culturally | Communicating.Across.Boundaries()

  • What beautiful images you describe here, Marilyn. Yes, relationships are the priority. By the way and a bit off topic, there is a new Pakistani restaurant in town. I haven’t tried it yet. I don’t know that I have ever eaten Pakistani food. And I wonder how well Pakistani food is prepared in Bolivia. We shall see. And I will think of you as I try it out.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Angie – I can’t wait to hear if you try it! What fun! We had a true, non-Americanized Pakistani restaurant open just across the bridge from us. So.Good. Thanks for reading and for these words.

  • Sarah Rebbavarapu

    Sweet and thoughtful parents. How do you hold the line with regard to idolatry, though? Here at school my kids were often asked/required to worship idols, and we asked/required them to respectfully refuse. Wish we were better at bonding with local non-Christians, but I have always felt we needed to stay firmly on the other side of the line, and so I emphasized Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, etc. with my kids more than I emphasized a need to build bridges with neighbors. Intrigued–would like to discuss. Eating meat sacrificed to idols comes to mind, but where does receiving a vermillion smudge on Ganesh Chaturthi fit in?

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I think this is a great question, and I also thinking living & working in a Muslim country presents with many bridge-building moments. While the area we lived in Pakistan had a significant Hindu population, Cairo did not so I can’t speak to raising kids in that context. I’m going to get my friend Robynn, who raised kids in India to weigh in though. I think of the Apostle Paul and his “tomb to an unknown god” – -he didn’t avoid the issue or question, he didn’t separate himself but dove in and used it as an opportunity to speak of the truth of the Living God. I guess I would say there is definitely a balance but Paul and Daniel hardly stayed on the other side of the line – Paul dove right in and Daniel was in a high administrative position in the court, so clearly interacted regularly with those who didn’t believe the same and they saw a difference in the way he ate, the way he drank, his whole lifestyle. When it came down to bowing to another, that’s where he drew the line. Would love to discuss this further.

    • Robynn

      We lived in India for 13 years. Two of our three children were born there. All three of them went to school there, starting at age 3. I’ll never forget the day we sent Connor to school, age 4, on Sarasvati Puja. We too had talked through what might happen and different ways he might respond. We prayed like crazy to Jesus, Lord of Lords, that He would go with them and protect them. When I showed up later to attend the spring day festivities, Connor, came running straight toward me, beaming. He gave me a huge hug and exclaimed, “We didn’t do the puja! Jesus answered our prayers! We didn’t do the puja!” He was relieved and I was really relieved!

      The issue of receiving food offered to idols is a complex one. We always tried to engage the heart of the person giving it to us. If they were offering sweets to us out of friendship or celebration we’d say thank you and we’d take it. We taught our children to do the same. However, the place where we always drew the line, was meat that had been offered to idols…. and that happened every year at Divali. Our landlord’s family always raised a goat and offered it to Kali. Every year they offered us some goat curry, or goat biriyani…and every year we explained about Jesus the final sacrifice and every year we said, No Thank You.

      Our reason for being in India was relationship….we wanted to befriend our neighbours… joining in their joy and celebration was certainly part of that. We can talk more if you like….

  • Tammy Ogden

    So true!

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