The Big One

Blood in the gutters and boys with plastic kalashnikovs. Just another Kurban festival in Xinjiang

By / October 2015

The Kurban, or Sacrifice Festival, is the most significant event in the Uyghur calendar. Each year, it arrives 70 days after Eid, which celebrates Ramadan’s 30 days of abstinence with three days of lavish feasting. Whereas in other parts of Central Asia the Eid celebrations outstrip those of Kurban, here on the eastern side of Turkestan, Kurban is the big one.

According to Uyghur tradition, the sacrifice of a sheep by the head of each family is the focal point of the Kurban festival. Theoretically, as the animal’s throat is cut, each member of the family appropriates the sacrifice and the spilling of the blood for their sins by placing a hand on its neck. Ideally each son in a family will be instilled with the notion as he grows up that he must learn to kill a sheep, because one day as the head of his own family, this will be required of him at Kurban. But until that day, most children, particularly little girls, cannot be persuaded to touch the struggling beast.

The festival has its roots in the story of how God provided a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice in lieu of his son. For several years, when Kurban fell in winter, the sacrificial blood fell poignantly on freshly fallen snow. But these days the red liquid is collected in large vats and the piles of innards lie randomly scattered across the little boys’ football pitch, gathering swarms of flies. It will be six weeks or so before winter arrives to blanket them in snow.

Sheep rule the day at Kurban, followed at a close second by packs of excited children who roam the streets in new clothes. As the big day approaches flocks of sheep appear mysteriously out of nowhere and congregate behind makeshift pens at every street corner in the Uyghur area of town awaiting the arrival of hawk-eyed buyers determined to drive a hard bargain. This quarter of our city, much to the dismay of local officials who have tried unsuccessfully over the years to curb the mêlée, is transformed over a period of mere days from a 21st century high-rise metropolis into a huge, unruly farmyard.

Photograph by Ruth Ingram

The mood of the bazaar heats up as Kurban dawns, by which time most people will have completed their purchase, but the luck of those animals fortunate enough to have escaped the early morning slaughter soon runs out as they are bundled into the trunks of cars or chased down the road by children to await their inevitable fate later in the day. Squeezed into every available kind of transport, they are strapped onto bicycle carriers, manhandled into wheelbarrows, tied onto roof racks or even ridden down the road by infants. Every now and again one escapes completely only to be rounded up as night falls when the flocks of unsold animals are herded across six lane highways in the dark as if they were country lanes.

Despite the inevitable slaughter of tens of thousands of animals across town, a festive atmosphere prevails. Brothers and sisters of the same family think nothing of being kitted out in identical outfits. Boys receive gifts of plastic kalashnikovs and bullets, a way to take pot shots at Chinese who stray into their Uyghur domain. Failing a Chinese presence, they are happy to take pot shots at each other instead. I do my best to stay out of the line of fire. This year, with many extended families sporting a car between them as the fashionable ‘must have’ accessory, small boys have abandoned plastic machine guns in favour of tearing around our housing compound chasing radio-controlled models of their dream machines.

The little girls, on the other hand, get dolled up in frills and bows and shiny patent leather plastic shoes. This year, true to form, our own courtyard was liberally strewn with animals in various states of demise. The girls scampered hand in hand from one gory corner of the compound to the other, clutching at each other, appalled to see the animals they have been lovingly feeding in the basement about to become lunch.

Wandering around the back streets on Kurban morning, I pass mounds of fresh sheepskins stacked up and awaiting transport to the mosque, where their sale will boost community coffers for the poor. The entrails and innards are gathered up by those eager to turn them into local delicacies, and those whose trade it is to prepare the heads and feet for soup are already hard at work burning off the wool. The smell of singed flesh and hair is lingering and unmistakeable. The narrow lanes are full of last-minute shoppers buying up twisted dough sticks and whirls of piled-high, deep fried spaghetti. Gangs of young men in shiny suits stride out proudly past young women in glistening dresses tottering on newly-acquired high heels.

Blood trickles towards the gutters and already gigantic cauldrons of boiled mutton are stewing. Mouths are watering and families are gathering. Interracial strife is forgotten momentarily. It is promising to be another one of the best Kurban’s ever.


Ruth Ingram lives and writes in Xinjiang. Her writing has also appeared in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.