The Sheep’s Head


Today I offer the last of my Deleted Scenes.  But, to go out with a bang, this scene was deleted twice, a few years apart. Can you tell which came first? (ostensibly the weaker of the two) All those guessing will be put into a raffle (your name, not you yourself) and the winner will win an eBook of my Second Edition.



Though we missed the grand opening of the new mosque, I find myself once again amidst the rolling hills of the little village of Ulatau, thanks to Assem. With us this time are Tolganay and Gulzhahan, their husbands and children, and Gulzhan.


We come in a large van, Tolganay’s husband driving, and I sit directly behind him. This vantage point gives me a clear sight of not only the oncoming traffic–literally, as most drivers in this country don’t seem to stay in their own lane–but also of the bottles of beer he consumes as we barrel down the road. Darkhan is in the front passenger seat, with four-year-old Duman on his lap. There are no seat belts in Kazakhstan.

Tolganay’s husband isn’t a bad driver, just fast. And his beer doesn’t seem to have impaired his driving. He passes just as cavalierly, whether he can see the road ahead or not. The practice here is to pass whenever you want to, and if there’s a car coming, it’ll get out of the way. There’s room for all on these narrow pot-holed dust paths.


I’m getting very good at accepting what I cannot change.


This visit most of us stay at Assem’s mother’s house. It has two large rooms plus a good size kitchen. Gulzhan and I sleep in the large room with a sofa. It’s where the family sets up their dastarkhan when it’s time to eat. The pile of blankets on the floor will form my bed. The three other couples and their children will sleep in the other large room. The outhouse is behind the barn. I don’t know where the mother or the brother who lives here will sleep. I don’t need to know either.


Saturday night we go up into the hills for a Kazakh picnic. The men have brought the makings of shashlik and after building a fire, they grill chicken kabobs. The weather is pleasant, not too hot but warm enough to want to be outside. There are no birds here. I hadn’t notice that at my last visit in December; but now in spring, it’s striking.


The Gang


Another young couple join us, old friends of Assem’s and Burhlan’s, with their two children. Everything is so comfortably relaxed. Some take the children for a run through the nearby birch woods, others talk quietly, a few take naps. I sit on a blanket with my teachers and take pictures of them. I want to never forget this moment; it is so peaceful. I could do anything and not be judged at all. I could nap if I wanted; I could stay quiet; I could talk a blue streak. Whatever, I’d be accepted and wanted. This is the circle of friends I’ve been looking for.


Men bar-b-qing


It’s 6:30 when the shashlik is ready and we devour them, plus the myriad salads. There’s bottled water and different juices and beer.


I’m stuffed when we finally get back to the house and I lie on the sofa in the main living room and quickly fall asleep. It’s a solid nap, lasting a good hour or more. But I’m awakened by voices and movement. They are setting up their dastarkhan — the eating table — even though it’s close to 9:00.


I grab my camera and snap photos of the family setting the table, noticing mostly how full I still am from the chicken shashlik. I snap more pictures of the family bringing out the salads and realize I haven’t quite woken up from my nap on the sofa. I’m trying to get pictures of the little ones, most of them snuggling up to their parents, but I hear them calling me to sit down and realize they’ve set a place for me and there’s a plate of food already at my place.


I set down the camera and sit down. That’s when I see the eyes staring up at me from my plate; eyes staring at me from a small burnt pot roast.


“Oh my god; it’s the head!” I scream without thinking. I guess most people scream without thinking. If we were to think first, we’d be less apt to scream.


I know how important food is to the Kazakh way of life. What I’ve learned only recently is that it’s more than the food; it’s the act of eating, the process, the giving, that’s important, holy even. It’s all about the “how” rather than the “what.” Feeding guests takes on a spiritual fervor. They don’t just want to please you or make you happy; they certainly don’t want to show off. Feeding a guest is a point of honor. They pull out all the stops for their dastarkhan — literally the “laying of the table” — even if it may mean having only one meal a day for the rest of the week or month.


Their insistence to “eat, eat,” — Kushai, kushai, both Hadija and Dina would say to us often — I now understand. It’s their job to make certain we, the guests, never want for anything. If we don’t really want it, that’s not important. There’s no “clean plate club” here. We don’t have to eat it; they just have to give it.



I believe they are truly happy to have guests. That’s first. Their job, as they see it, is for their guests to be happy. How much food they fit on the table is a sign of their own prosperity, it’s true. That’s the origin of spreading the fried bread directly on the tablecloth: a symbol of their general wealth. The general goal seems to be to have no part of the tablecloth showing.


And of course, offering the sheep’s head is a sign of respect and honor to the guest. It is something I’ve waited for since before we even left Dulles Airport two years ago. Now it’s here. Now it’s mine and all I can utter is a horrified, “Oh my god, it’s the head.”


And I forget to take a picture.



“Oh my god; it’s the head!”

As the words fly thoughtlessly out of my mouth, Assem grabs my plate and hurries it back to the kitchen, out of sight. Only then, in the silence that follows, does the enormity of my faux pas hit me.


I’ve known of the ritual of the sheep’s head for almost two years — before we ever stepped foot in this country. To be asked to carve and distribute the head of the sheep is the highest honor a visitor can receive. But as special occasion followed special occasion with no sheep’s head offered, I began to think it was another myth: A good story and perhaps true at one time, but a custom no longer practiced as Kazakhstan moved into the 21st century.


I can’t say I had no warning. “Come back to see us in the spring,” Assem’s brother-in-law had said at my visit last December. “But bring your husband. We’ll kill a sheep for you.” But Woody hadn’t come with me this time either, and I put the idea of a sheep-killed-just-for-me out of my head.


It was smaller than I ‘d expected, no more than four inches across at the temple, the color, a composite of muted browns — not unlike a burnt beef roast. It was the eyes staring straight at me that did it. That’s when the words tumbled out, so unnecessary, so inappropriate.


Now, I’m mortified — for my hosts as well as for me. Not only have I insulted everyone here, I feel a deep disappointment of an experience now lost to me. I would have been great too; I know the routine: ears to someone, usually a child, who does not listen; tongue to someone who perhaps talks too much or not enough; eyes, cheeks, the entire head carved and distributed around the table by the honoree — the symbolism far outweighing any nutritional benefit I’m sure. Yes, I’ve really blown it.


An empty echo of silence surrounds me. What have I done! I’m adrift, dissociating enough to know I must remember to breath.


Soon enough, the cacophony of voices breaks through my daze. I look around the table for Gulzhahan and see her smile at me, tenderly I think; I hope; but she says nothing. Assem says something in Kazakh as she returns to the room and everyone laughs.


“I am sorry, Janet,” Assem begins. “It was too much.”


I want to protest. Sorry for what? I’m the one who’s committed the sin. I’m the one given the honor and I may as well have slapped her brother-in-law in the face. I’m the one who’s missed a chance to do something really different — exotic.


“No. I am sorry,” I plead. “Please bring it back. I want to do it. I can do it. Now I’m ready.”


“No. We didn’t prepare you. We frightened you. We are sorry.”


I’m ambivalent once again. I want to have had the experience; I don’t necessarily want to have it. And they know this somehow.


The sheep’s head comes back to the table and Assem’s brother-in-law carves it up. I get a cheek.


I want to know what the cheek represents. I can’t get the word “cheeky” out of my head.



Remember to vote on which is the earlier version.  All those who comment will be entered into a drawing for an eBook of my Second (new and improved) Edition.  And be sure to tell me why you chose. That’ll be interesting. 


24 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet! I’m not sure which one is the earlier version. I enjoyed the first version more, so I will say that is the second attempt. The opening with the sheep’s head is certainly striking in the version #2, but I enjoy the explanation and the build up in the first version, and the descriptive writing in the first example.
    But did you ever find out the significance of the cheek? 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril
      I like to think its for “cheeky” people, but I’ve never confirmed that. I do know it’s one of the more flavorful parts.

  2. ian Mathie
    | Reply

    I love these stories. They illustrate what good memoir writing is all about.
    Each offers something different, alternative views on the same sequence of events. Whilst one relates the events themselves, the other puts them in a cultural context which gives meaning to the whole. No need to choose between the two; blend them together and don’t, please don,t cut this episode from the next edition. It’s wonderful stuff.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ian. I’m so glad you liked them. That means a lot coming from you. You know, I tried merging them while I was prepping for this post. I just couldn’t do it. Each version I came up with just didn’t work. So I dumped it off on my readers. What are friends for, heh?

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        With your writing skills I’m totally surprised you couldn’t merge these two! I think you ought to try again, because both have important ingredients to the whole story.
        Try highlighting the important bits in each one, and then write a third version using the highlighted bits. That sometimes helps. I’m sure you can dot it, and the story is far too good to be left out completely.
        Anyway, it’s culturally important, so it needs to be there!

  3. Sara
    | Reply

    I think that the first version was written first, because in the second, you begin with an attention grabbing sentence. I suspect this was done after getting some feedback or further instruction on memoir writing.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Sara and welcome. I’m glad you found your way to my blog. I really liked that opening on the second one. But I’ll tell you I published them in reverse order. The exclamatory opening sentence was an early attempt to grab my reader. I had to learn that I needed to grab my reader much earlier in the book and by the time this story comes along I’m only one month away from going home. It has to do with the point I wanted to make, which was that no matter how eager I was to adjust to their ways, no matter how open I was to experiencing new things, there are times when our old programming just kicks in and reminds us where we come from. So I needed the kicker at the close, just as my book was coming to a close. But I think if this were a stand alone article or essay, that opening would be my choice too.

      Thanks for joining in the conversation. I hope you come back.

  4. Claire Davis
    | Reply

    I’m with Ian – this is too good to leave out! The second version feels very immediate but the first gives much more detail. Tough to choose, really! I enjoyed reading both. Why can’t you include both in the third edition so readers can see the process of writing a memoir? Or perhaps use at a later date if you write a book about writing a memoir. I have no idea which came first: chicken, egg, or lamb’s head! Your reaction was an honest one, wow!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Claire and welcome. How very nice to find a FB friend moving into the neighborhood, as it were. I love your idea of including both. Maybe along with the explanation I gave Sara?

  5. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    I like them both, but I LOVE the first one. I’m a visual person and the detail lets me see what is happening. I think you might be able to take parts of #2 and add them to #1.

    Anyway, you’re a great writer and I LOVED your book!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Joan. I love parts of each of them. Trying to merge them for the poist, I was reminded how better my writing is when I just let it flow out (then go back and edit). I’m a pantser (as opposed to a plotter). Have you heard that distinction before? I got it from social media. Thanks for you kind words. I’m eager for your memoir to come out as well.

  6. Susan Joyce
    | Reply

    I love to hear the thoughts of characters, so #2 has more impact for me. My guess is #2 was the polished one.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan. Nope. Sorry. See my explanation above for Sara.

      It’s been interesting for me to read the reactions people have to each. Emphasizing once again the futility of the “absolute.”

  7. It’s so hard to know how to edit a juicy passage like this one. I could go with either version depending on the context and narrative arc.

    Was length the reason you did not include in your final manuscript?

    Your story reminded me of one of our students in the Ivory Coast (we led and international service-learning group in 1993) who wanted to be placed in a Muslim family. She opened the fridge one day to find a sheep’s head and had the same immediate reaction you did.

    • Ian Mathie
      | Reply

      Shirley – your comment reminds me of the day my friend Robert Sinclair, a Church of Scotland missionary in south eastern Nigeria back in the 70s, opened his fridge to find two black feet in there. The more curious fact was not that they were human feet, but that they were both left feet.
      The official line was that a crocodile had eaten him and this was all the villagers could rescue!
      Some strange things happen in Africa.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Shirley. No, not length. The book is just a tad over 60,000 words, so could have absorbed a few of these stories. It had to do with pace. I was telling a story in chronological time. In an early draft, I opened with this scene. Then the rest of the book went into flashback. My editor at the time felt I wasn’t skilled enough to carry that off effectively, so I reworked it. Then this scene was cut by my final editor who did it for pace. And I had to say, the Book read better with it out. All the cuts needed my final approval. She’d edit them out, using Track Changes, and have me read the finished version before I saw what had come out. It was effective. I felt the difference.

  8. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Ian, I go away for a few days with the grandkids and when I get back I find feet in the fridge and poor Shirley feeling faint. !!

    Thanks. That was fun. 🙂

    Reminded me of the era when my family freezer (in the basement) held, along with the side of beef and assorted casseroles, a dead osprey and ferret.

    The osprey was waiting travel to the Natural History museum in Cleveland (where for awhile my son Dave had his name on the display) and the ferret was awaiting the disposition of a legal case against the pet store owner who’d sold it to us, neutered so early in its short life that it was unable to produce bone marrow.

    Still, an odd site each time I went in there for a pound of hamburger.

    • Ian Mathie
      | Reply

      It’s not just in fridges and freezers where people keep strange delicacies. In 1976 I was sent to New Guinea to get one of our people out who was being prepared for a feast. They kept him in a bamboo cage, with someone on watch all the time, and had already dug the cooking pit they were going to roast him in by the time I arrived.
      The headman of the longhouse was quite reluctant to give him up, but was finally persuaded by a bit of white man’s magic involving a box of sulphur headed matches and a banjo picker’s plectrum. The detail of that, however, will have to wait for another book.

  9. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Ok, time to wrap up this little competition. I appreciate all the comments and have enjoyed as usual the brief digressions we go off on. That to me is the essence of a great conversation — the fun side trips.

    And, since I’m really not very competitive and since most of you have already read my book in edition 1, I’ve decided to send Edition 2 to any of you who wants it. Just email me which format you want: mobi (for Kindke) or ePub (for Nook and iBook). Ice also got Kobo. Use the Contact Me page here or the gmail address some of you already have.

    And again, thanks so much for your participation.

  10. gulzhan
    | Reply

    Hello Janet!I love your detailed describing.I live here I don’t pay attention to many things.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Gulzhan, Hello. How good to find you here. Thanks for commenting. I know what you mean about not noticing the things that are always around us. I grew up near New York City, you know, and only saw a number of landmarks there when we had guests. Do you remember when I got the Sheep’s Head?

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        Oh yes! It would be very interesting to hear Gulzahn’s account of that incident!

        Isn’t it wonderful when we can connect around the world like this, across cultures and sharing our different perspectives of the same event. Now that’s progress in the world. 🙂

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