Every year, Muslims all over the world celebrate Eid al-Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice, which coincides with the season of pilgrimage to Mecca and which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son (the Qur’an does not name the son, but most Muslims believe it was Ishmael rather than Isaac). The day’s main event is the live slaughter, cleaning, and cooking of an animal – typically a sheep or goat – for a big family feast. Waste is not tolerated. Whatever meat isn’t eaten gets donated to the poor. All parts of the animal, even horns and hooves, are carefully saved for later meals or other uses.
In Morocco, one of those traditional uses is Boujloud, a folk holiday celebrated for three days starting after families have their sacrificial feast. Its roots are still obscure, but most Moroccans say the festival comes from indigenous Berber masquerades (western scholars also posit Roman origins). For three days, celebrants dress up in exotic costumes and hold parades, games, and live drum music. Children go around giving candy or money to the poor. But for some, the fun also involves practical jokes that sometimes turn violent. For this reason, Boujloud events are sponsored by NGOs and the local government to help control pranks.
This desire to maintain at least a semblance of order is understandable. Henk Driessen points out the carnivalesque nature of Boujloud as a space to express emotions and energy normally at odds with social decorum. Such a social “reversal” is apparent especially in the holiday’s core symbolism. Although nowadays people dress in modern, Halloween-esque costumes, traditionally it was the cleaned and prepared skin of the sacrificial lamb from Eid al-Adha that they would wear – hence the name Boujloud, “Wearer of Skins.” Participants literally inhabit the body of the slaughtered animal as part of the celebratory masquerade, an act that symbolizes their transformative reversal from human to beast and unleashes the animalistic behavior that social norms otherwise demand be kept in check.
In this sense, the masquerade of Boujloud shares its mythology with several rich cultural traditions that blur the line between humans and animals. One is the sparagmos of Dionysiac cults in ancient Greece, a rite that involved tearing a live animal (or sometimes a human) to pieces and consuming it raw, thereby absorbing not only its body but its spirit as well. Another is a series of European folktales in which a young female protagonist wears an animal skin to hide her human form and thus escape a bad situation – usually forced marriage to her father – only to have to prove her humanness to a handsome prince in order for him to marry her (these Electra complex-laden narratives are the basis for K.A. Laity’s novel Peltzmantel). Still another is the Navajo skinwalker, a kind of witch that can assume animal form. There may be still other traditions resonant of Boujloud, including Sardinian Boes, the Alpine krampus, and the Bulgarian kukeri. And of course there is the narrative of Eid al-Adha itself, in which God first asks for Ishmael as a sacrifice only to replace him with a lamb, thus conflating the two even as they are simultaneously differentiated.
These vivid, even frightening symbols lie at the heart of Boujloud, and so it is no surprise why many Moroccans are hesitant to discuss the festival without commenting that it is part of their cultural, not religious, heritage. At the same time, it is the very pluralism of that heritage – a pluralism embodied in the occurrence of Boujloud’s unbridled, Dionysiac release during Islam’s holiest rite of passage, the pilgrimage to Mecca – that captures the tension between animal and divine, profane and sacred, that rages in every individual person. To diminish that tension would also be to diminish the ongoing struggle to find balance between the two, which is why in many ways Boujloud speaks to the very core of what it means to be human.