Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: How to Buy, Slaughter and Spit-Roast a Sheep

When my friend Sam told me he'd be spending a year in Kabul, Afghanistan to make documentary films, I thought, boy's gone crayzay! But now that he's there, and seems to be not only surviving but thriving, the reality of his situation has become clear to me: it's blog gold. Thus, I present what I hope will become a regular or at least a once-in-awhile feature here, in which Sam (at left, not wearing hat) will talk about not only the Flossier side of life in a war zone, but some of the trials and triumphs he's experienced while there. We'd also love to give our readers a chance to ask Sam some questions, so if there's anything you want to know, or you'd like him to discuss, speak up! He's our man in Afghanistan.

For this installment, I wanted to keep it light and practical, so Sam cooked up this handy step-by-step guide on how to buy, slaughter and spit-roast a sheep (for your girlfriend's thirtieth birthday) in Afghanistan. Enjoy -- and bon appetit!

This is a tale of love, sheep, and the perfect birthday present.

I arrived only recently in Kabul, and shortly after I got here, my girlfriend had the pleasure of turning 30. The charity she works for has its offices in a large fort here in Kabul, and they had already planned a party for her in their spacious courtyard. But with her birthday rapidly approaching, and her 20s rapidly receding, I still hadn't gotten her a present. I didn't want to buy her another head scarf, and I seem to have atrocious taste in jewelry, so I had very few options, considering the absence of Nordstroms and Bergdorm Goodmans here in Kabul. So I hopped in a taxi and decided to roam the streets, my eyes peeled.

In addition to hosting thirty years of war, Kabul is also host to some of the world's worst traffic. Cars and trucks and hand drawn carts fight for position on the dusty streets, seemingly unaware of any traffic laws. [Ed. note: Kabul has only one set of working traffic lights for more than 600,000 cars; its roads were built 50 years ago to accommodate just 50,000 cars, and haven't been updated since. Here's a video of nightmare traffic in Kabul.]

The situation is complicated by herds of sheep, which wander at will through the city from one trash pile to the next. These herds supply Kabul with its main supply of meat, and you can wander down streets with rows of butcher shops with fresh carcasses in the windows. Just then, as I was mulling the situation, stuck in traffic, my cab driver furiously honking at one of these herds of sheep crossing the road, wondering if I was perhaps the worst birthday present buyer in history, it hit me. In a flash of insight, I astounded myself by coming up with the perfect gift (or at least it seemed that way at the time).

Here, then, are my 10 easy steps for slaughtering and spit-roasting a sheep for someone's 30th birthday.

1) Purchase sheep.

This is not that hard. Walk up to a sheep-herder (usually found near large piles of trash), and hand him $100. He will eagerly show you the best of his flock, although actually selecting one can be more challenging. I would avoid the one munching on discarded diapers.

2) Transport sheep to the fort.

Or wherever you plan to boil and spit-roast the sucker. This is not easy, and entails a fair amount of sheep wrangling skills (which I learned on the job; not recommended). And a truck.

3) Hang out with sheep

... while you wait for the butcher to arrive. (No, I didn't kill it myself). Try to avoid looking into its eyes as it follows you around, looking for more diapers to munch on.

4) Slaughter sheep.

sheep_pot.jpgHave you ever heard the expression, "like a sheep to the slaughter?" Well, I now know where it comes from. It is both comforting and horrifying to realize that your newly purchased sheep has no idea what awaits it as the butcher holds his cleaver over its throat. Thankfully, it's over soon. And after the butcher deftly skins and guts it, you are now the proud owner of a sheep carcass.

5) Boil sheep.

This step can probably be skipped in other countries, but here in Afghanistan the sheep are notoriously tough, which I assume comes from their exclusive trash diet. If this is the case, boiling the carcass before roasting it will soften it up. First, build a fire. Then, if you're like me, realize that the pot you have is nowhere near large enough to fit a whole sheep in. Frantically hunt for a larger pot. Rebuild fire. Fill pot with water. Stuff sheep in pot. Realize that you can't lift it. Empty pot. Put pot on fire. Fill with water. Stuff with sheep. Wait for it to boil. Stoke fire. Wait some more while relishing in your accomplishments thus far:

6) Marinate sheep.

After it has boiled for two hours or so, the sheep is ready for marinating. I recommend a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and dried herbs. Remember to keep the lemon halves to stuff in the cavity.

7) Spit sheep.

Assuming you had the foresight to actually purchase a spit (or the good sense to know somebody who owns one), this part is surprisingly easy. Just take a 3" diameter metal spit and maneuver it in through the neck and out the anus. (Gross, I know, but important nonetheless. You don't want the thing you spent all day wrangling and butchering to fall into the fire you're trying to cook it over.) Just remember to screw a bolt through the ribs so that it will turn with the spit.

8) Cook sheep.

I recommend opening a beer at this stage, and enlisting helpers. For some reason, people get really excited about turning a spitted sheep over a fire. Just remember to keep basting it with the marinade as it cooks, or it'll dry out.

9) Remove sheep from spit and carve.

Carving a sheep is nothing like carving a Thanksgiving turkey, and if you're doing it in Afghanistan you probably won't have the benefit of an electric carving knife. Find a clean surface and lay the sheep down. Get a buddy to help you, and remove the legs from the body with a sharp knife. This will make carving the body meat a lot easier. By this time, though, friends and gawkers nearby have usually had a few drinks and have been salivating over the roasting sheep for a few hours already, and because the previous eight steps took a little longer than they anticipated, it's hard to stop a ravenous, slightly tipsy crowd from carving the sheep while it's still on the spit. (If that's the case, I recommend giving up control at this point.)

10) Pass out.

After selecting, purchasing, slaughtering, spitting, and roasting the sheep, and having a few beers, I fell asleep somewhere during step 9 and never got to eat it. Apparently it was good -- at least according to my girlfriend, which was all that mattered.

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
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Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.


Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.


At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."


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Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."


While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."


In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."


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De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.


According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.


Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.


Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.


The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.


Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."


Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
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In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.


De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.


In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.


The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.


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