Every year, around the time Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, the world’s Muslims celebrate Tabaski.
I’m not talking about the hot sauce of a similar name, though you’ll soon find out Tabaski can be equally tough on the senses of a novice.
The main feature of Tabaski is that each male head of a Muslim household is required to slaughter a ram, a nod to the Old Testament story of Abraham who demonstrated total faith in God by nearly plunging his knife into his own son.
“It is extremely important to find the means to get a sheep before Tabaski,” a local friend of mine named Sonko told me. “It is either a sheep or your first born male child,” he said half-jokingly.
In the days leading up to Tabaski, the Muslims of Dakar are in a bit of a frenzy. Lots of deals are taking place – people borrowing against future wages to buy a good ram, family members shipping in well-fed sheep in from grassier Mauritania and Mali , people taking their animals down to the beach for a good cleaning in the sea before the big day. I even saw a man in a Toyota Corolla chauffeuring a sheep, standing awkwardly in the back seat, down the highway.
On the morning of Tabaski, the first call to prayer wafts through the windows before sunrise. Muslims put on their finest clothes. Colourful dresses and headscarves for the women, and long shiny tunics for the men called booboos. At about 9am, everyone goes to the mosque for an hour of formal prayer, largely centered on lessons in compassion, laying the groundwork for the day and year ahead.
“Tabaski is about faith and generosity,” said another Muslim friend. “The compassion is not just for people – Muslims, Christians, black, white – but also for animals. It sounds strange on a day when we must slaughter sheep. But we believe, because it is killed on a sacred day, that it is going to paradise. We also ensure that we kill it quickly and humanely, which is something that we can not ensure when we go to the restaurant for a burger or a steak.”
After prayers, around 10am, is the slaughter. I don’t need to describe it in too much detail, but I can tell you that the next few hours of the day are intense. Things happen on the streets of Dakar that U.S. law would restrict to a federally licensed facility.
Allasane is host to my brother Rob and I for the late morning events. Walking around the corner to his family’s abode – a maze of alleyways and modest rooms in downtown Dakar -- I see young men and women hard at work chopping, cutting and cleaning. Fresh sheep hides are drying in the sun, a pail of intestines is being sorted for sausage skins. Bigger chunks of the animal are being brought inside for food preparation. The head rests on the sidewalk. Nothing is wasted.
I see Allasane and he offers me his forearm to shake instead of his gore-stained hand.
“It gives me and my family great pleasure that you have come,” he says with a genuine smile. “Please come eat, we have already started grilling one of the sheep.”
He brings us into his room, furnished with a few photos, a mattress and a single plastic chair. The three of us sit on the floor and chat a bit, the sounds of the kitchen just outside and the smoke from the earliest cuts to be grilled. A woman comes in with a large metal bowl with cooked meat, onions and potatoes and sets it between us. We wash our hands in a bowl of water and then dig in, no utensils, no napkins.
The mutton is tough, but tasty. And of course, fresh. There’s something indescribably good about food – veggies, meat, whatever – that hasn’t had its vitality sucked out of it through weeks in a deep freeze. Rob’s eyes are watering a bit from the smoke, but we’re both holding up quite well to this new experience. My only serious misstep is to accidentally grab a slice of an organ that looked at first to be lean meat. I slip it back into the bowl when no one is looking.
After not too long, we graciously say our thank yous to Allasane and his family. They keep asking us to stay, offering us more food, smiling and chatting. But the socializing and the big meal have filled us up. We drive off feeling pretty happy, impressed by their warmth, impressed by the food.
I realize then that Tabaski isn’t so different from Thanksgiving after all. I wonder, though. Do their sheep meet our turkeys when they make it to paradise?