This [Mahfouz points to a spot on the edge of his forehead] is my oldest memory of the Eid. I was five years old, maybe six. It was my family’s habit to buy a sheep some weeks before the Eid and look after it until it was slaughtered. In the interim, a relationship would develop between myself and the sheep: I would feed it and play with it and, one day, having decided I was a musketeer, the sheep my valiant steed, determined that I would ride it. Now was my chance to make real some of the scenes I had watched endlessly at the cinema. I straddled the sheep and held onto its horns with both hands. And the poor creature, naturally, tossed its head back. I was thrown onto the floor. It was a big wound, and I never forgot the bleeding.
And yet the incident had no effect on my friendship with the sheep. I decided to let it go, assuming that it was the sheep equivalent of joking that had gone too far, as it often does among childhood friends. When the sheep was slaughtered, that was the saddest moment for me, not least because it was a moment of irrevocable separation after weeks of growing familiarity and attachment. That grief became a yearly predicament, but then when the family assembled at the dining table—I sometimes refused to join them at first—the smell of grilled lamb took my mind off it.