It’s a little after six on a Monday morning, and already the butcher shops of Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood are hives of frenzied activity.
Busy since dawn, when mosques roused the faithful from their beds, teams of sweating young men corral sheep from streetside pens and then dispatch them with a quick slit to the throat. Once drained of their entrails, the carcasses are hastily skinned, hosed down, and hung from jagged hooks to dry.
For the master butchers of Egypt, the days leading up to the celebration of Eid al-Adha are ones in which their entire yearly profit might rest. Preparations have been in full swing for several weeks now. With thousands of beasts to slaughter, old knives have been sharpened, and the drains uncapped in anticipation of the gushes of animal blood. Veteran tradesmen strap supports to their wobbly elbows and shout themselves hoarse by noon.
But on this ordinarily happy occasion, this year celebrated roughly from September 12 through 15, not all is well among the meat buyers and purveyors of Cairo. Soaring food prices and stagnating salaries have pushed the cost of livestock beyond many people’s grasp. To those accustomed to celebrating the day with the slaughter of a live sheep, a cow, or even a camel, a deteriorating economy threatens to turn a once festive vacation into a pale shadow of its former self.
“On Eid we eat meat, but now no one can afford meat,” says Gamal Mohammed Abu Mater, a sheep trader in Abdeen. He says his sales have fallen 20 to 30 percent since last year.
Eid al-Adha marks Abraham’s (Ibrahim) near-sacrifice of his son, a tale which is also told with slight variations in the Bible and Torah. It’s one of the holiest events in the Islamic calendar, and an occasion on which distant relatives often travel home from afar in order to feast and spend time together. The pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which all able-bodied Muslims are religiously mandated to perform at least once in their lives, is also completed during this period.
But as Egypt’s economy has taken a beating over the past few years, so, too, have the traditions underpinning sacred holidays. The country’s currency has fallen almost 100 percent against the dollar since 2010. All this as Egypt’s population climbs by up to two million a year and its demand for imported food grows.
In addition, an extra large dip in the Egyptian Pound’s value this year increased the cost of imported animal feed to devastating effect. Beef that went for around 80 LE ($9) a kilogram last Eid now sells for up to 110 LE ($12.50). In Cairo’s upmarket Zamalek Island district, lamb prices have risen over 25 percent in the past 12 months.
“The inputs are all dependent on the international prices, over which we obviously have no control,” says Ayman Abou Hadid, a professor at Cairo’s Ain Shams University who has twice served as Minister of Agriculture. “And even if we were able to increase production, the extra demand would still make the prices high.”
For Egypt’s affluent, these price hikes are, for the most part, no obstacle to celebrating the day, and their largesse has helped to soften the blow for others, too. Muslim tradition suggests that a third of all slaughtered meat be donated to the poor, a third set aside for friends, and the remainder kept for personal consumption. Government and army-operated slaughterhouses also dole out some discounted foodstuffs to mark the day.
Without beef, sheep, or camel meat, some families are substituting fava beans in stews, or chicken, if they can afford it.
None of this is any consolation, however, to the struggling residents of Cairo’s middle and working class districts. For them, buying and slaughtering an animal is as much an act of religious devotion and pride as it as an increasingly rare opportunity to eat meat. As far as some of them are concerned, a failure to sacrifice is an affront to God. High meat prices are preventing them from meeting their faith’s obligations.
“This is for religion, and he who denies this holiday is denying his religion,” says Mohammed Anwar, a barber and resident of the working class Zeinhom district. “But this year we just can’t afford it,” he added, clasping a plastic sheep toy that he bought his young son as a consolation.
This isn’t the first year in which high meat prices have caused a stir during Egypt’s Muslim holidays. The situation was also bleak in 2012, when an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease killed off tens of thousands of cows. And in April 2015, too, steep hikes convinced many consumers that butchers had conspired to fix prices, and social media commentators subsequently called for a meat boycott.
But Cairo residents say never in recent memory have circumstances conspired to rob them of their meat quite like this. If prices continue to rise like this, very soon only the President will be able to afford a joint of lamb, they say. “Sisi [Abdel Fattah el-Sisi] will have the butcheries all to himself,” laughs Om Fatima, a housewife in the Mounira neighborhood, as she stocks up on fruits for her daughter's arrival several days before Eid. “Because none of will be able to buy anything but vegetables and wheat.”
Peter Schwartzstein is a Cairo-based journalist. He focuses on food, water, energy and refugee issues, and his work regularly appears in National Geographic. You can find him on Twitter @pschwartzstein