Blood dries quickly on the baking, scorched sand. The sun, not yet high in the sky, twinkles on the face of a blade wiped hurriedly dry. All around people stare, entranced by the slow dripping of red liquid. Some offer prayers to Allah as the slaughter continues. Thousands upon thousands of innocent throats are held up to meet the merciless reckoning of steel. Other men go to work on the corpses that now litter the streets, machetes cleaving through fat and muscle with ease, the dismembered body parts are efficiently organised into piles. Welcome to Tabaski, or Eid al-Adha in Arabic.
It will come as some relief to the reader to learn that the blood spilled was that of a ram, not a human. Indeed, granting leave to scripture, one learns that this experience of gratitude is not unique to them. Following the literary tradition common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it was once communicated to the Prophet Abraham that it would be necessary to demonstrate his faith in Allah by sacrificing his eldest son, Isaac. Abraham sought the task’s undertaking, placing a knife on his son’s throat, closing his eyes whilst slicing across the carotid artery, only to open them to find that a ram lay bleeding in Isaac’s place. Christianity, of course, has it’s own festival to celebrate human sacrifice and as such this story is remembered with rather more verve in the Muslim world, where to this day rams continue to be sacrificed to thank Allah for his mercy.
Young rams accumulate outside almost every house. The price of mutton goes through the roof, with prize animals costing up to one million francs (USD $1800) as a ram is supposed to be sacrificed for every male in the household. It’s a strange feeling to wake up to continual bleating for a week and then do so in the total silence that follows the carnage. Needless to say, little else is eaten over the following two weeks.
The morbidity of the affair does not seem to affect the residents of Dakar, Senegal. Tabaski, as Eid al-Adha is called here, sees the whole town don their best attire for the occasion – long, silky garments called Boubous, which come in a dizzying array of colours.
In the Muslim world, Eid al-Adha often spawns a shopping bonanza: huge sums are invested in both clothes for the occasion as well as gifts for family and friends. This gluttonous spending that marks the festival is one that Western brands have been slow to capitalise on.
Like Christmas in the West, Tabaski represents an opportunity to reunite families that are spread far across the country. The capital, Dakar, becomes oddly empty, slackening its gravitational pull as people return to their family homes in the countryside. Inward migration to the capital over the last two decades has moved at an incredible rate, the population swelling from little over 1 million in 1990 to 3.5 million in 2013. Roads and other infrastructure have, predictably, not kept pace with this growth and hot, sweaty traffic jams ensue as people attempt their escape to the interior.
Tabaski is a national festival that showcases the Senegal’s immensely tolerant culture, notable on a continent where Christian/Muslim conflict has defined politics from South Sudan to Nigeria, the Central African Republic to Kenya. Huge emphasis is placed on hospitality and nearly all of the country’s minority Catholic population are invited to the houses of their Muslim countrymen in order to enjoy the freshly slaughtered mutton. As Jericho’s host boasts at dinner, “for Tabaski we invite our Christian neighbours here and at Christmas they do the same for us. It’s better that way, no-one is left out and everyone gets twice the food!”